Dec 30, 2012

How the world didn't end this time

Did you really expect the world to end on 21 December, 2012? Again?

Numerous times before has the end of the world been anticipated in various cultures. It's a fascinating concept, because it (quite often) allows for something else, something to follow after the world - as we know it - has ended. Something like a new beginning - which is, normally, just like the world before it, only better. Thus, the imagination of world's end is characteristically entangled with utopian ideas of new start, usually for a select few (since the bad of the old days must have been caused by something of somebody, and this source of evil must be uprooted before there can be something new).

Such concepts are quite familiar to the student of religion.

However, the alleged ending of the world this time also fascinated the larger populace. Yet, was anybody able to elaborate upon why they were expecting the end of the world? Apparently, the Mayan calender's cessation gained most of the headlines, combined with astronomical observations of a peculiar alignment of the planets of our solar system. (An alignment that would lead others to contend that it would change something in humankind's consciousness, but would not lead to an "end" of the world in a literal sense.) In the end, the pre-21 December media craze was born out of crypto- or pseudo-scientific claims that borrowed a lot from religious ideas. Moreover, the "sources" it was based on were more rumor than that, than sources to rely on.

The end of the world, now and again

Frankly, the idea of "history" as a timeline with a fixated starting and ending point is a strange one. It does not correspond well with what our (natural) environment would suggest. Nature would rather point to a cyclical order of things, which led most cultures close to nature to develop cyclical understandings of time. The idea of a "goal of history", a teleology, is not self-evident. But where does it come from? - This idea is probably nowhere so pronounced as in the notion of progress. And while other cultures may have had some understanding of the progression of time, the influential modern idea of progress that has become a totalistic paradigm was developed in what we often term "the West", meaning related Western European cultures originating in a Judeo-Christian tradition (among other influences).

While the Bible is not the only source and example for a teleological sense of time, it is likely the most influential one, especially with the addition of the Christian New Testament. However, whereas the inherent concept of "progress" toward the Messias' second coming made itself independent of its biblical context and came to dominate all aspects of human existence in Western modernity (economy, culture, science, psychology, biology etc.), it is originally coupled with a vision of an end to the world. There is no everlasting progress but an "end of history" - which, interestingly, was mirrored symbolically in Fukuyama's work in the 1990s on the "final" victory of democracy (and capitalism, which thus became identified with the "good side" or Christianity in this race toward armageddon) over communism. In the Christian context, the world will be destroyed, and a new world will arise where all survivors are to exist side by side with the Triune God.

This knowledge serves as the background in popular expectations of the apocalypse. Of course, in other cultures we find other but often similar visions of the end of the world. In Indian cosmologies, for instance, time is divided into different ages (kalpa) that each end with the annihilation of the world. In Buddhism, each kalpa is presided over by a different Buddha, and the end of each age is initialized by a period of decline in which salvation from the woeful realm of constant reincarnation (samsara) is hardly possible anymore. In these times, the birth of a Buddha - who will found the next age - can be expected. Historically, this has time and again led to huge salvationist movements in preparation for the coming of the Buddha Maitreya in China.

Do numbers matter?

Certain numerologically significant years have often served to anchor such salvationist expectations. In China, it was estimated that the period of decline of the Dharma (the truth betold by the Buddha) would last 500 years after a certain amount of years of prosperity. The coming of the alleged date in the 5th century caused widespread anxiety and upheaval. However, one might say it did pass without bringing about the feared (or hoped-for) results. Handily, the date could be estimated differently according to various variables and sources (does that ring a bell?). The evaluation of the occurance (or not) of the predicted changes differed also, of course. In any event, this is to say two things: First, that the sociological and political implications of salvationist ideas (and movements) were very real - just a common example: The fall of the Mongol Yuan dynasty was initiated by a Maitreya-inspired peasant uprising. Second, the date of the apocalypse is subject to interpretation and change. We might say it is a cultural (an anthropological?) constant in the history of humankind.

Clearly, the time relating to an event of such existential significance can not be arbitrary. Some kind of meaning has to be connected with the end of the world (arbitrarity would render the event pointless, even senseless, which would cause serious cosmological trouble). Thus, usually it is numerologically auspicious dates that get picked for the apocalypse. As the term 'millenniarist expectation' would suggest already, in the Christian context turns of the millennium are especially prone to mark the world's end. (Remember the fuss about the year 2000? For me, there is no reason to believe the millennarian turn before would have been any less anticipated. In my opinion, the Jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood put this quite aptly in the title of their live album recorded just before the turn of the millennium: "End of the World Party (Just in Case)":)

So why would the world end a week ago in 2012, when it had not numerous times (on more auspicious occasions) before? There was no legitimate claim, not even religiously, just some crypto-scientific ideas about the end of the Maya calendar that lacked solid foundation. (This link to a NASA report does not mean that I do believe in what science claims to know about the world. I put it here simply to show how easily rumors about Maya prophecies of the apocalypse can be discarded. This renders the issue a dispute between scientists and believers-in-the-apocalypse - if there was ever anyone who really believed in it this time.) What I want to express here is neither that belief in the end of the world at a certain date is unfounded, nor that it is stupid or dangerous. But it is a constant companion of human cultures, and in this sense quite normal. It has occurred several times before, and it will occur again. Since most cultural phenomena that have existed for that long do have some function (and thus make sense), perhaps there is also some logic to the belief in world's end. We only have to focus on the most prevalent visionof mondane destruction there is at the moment: Even scientists support the idea that there might be an end to the world of humanity if global warming were to continue (or any other scenario of human destruction of the world). Ironically, the reason for this apocalyptic vision is to be found in the idea of progress, which itself in its original religious context was meant to be leading to a desired armageddon and the end of the sinful world as we know it. This may sound like a self-fulfilling prophecy, only that we humans now possess the means to bring about cosmological apocalypse that was meant to be a divine plan...

Oh gosh, we have become so self-conscious... Personally, I don't believe in religious arguments for the end of the world as long as there is no scientific proof rendering it probable or at least possible. Scientific proof here refers to empirical visibility, testability, and falsibility. For me, the reasons for an apocalypse ought to be exoteric, not revealed to a select few. The latter would make them a matter of personal belief. As long as any science does not claim what it cannot prove empirically, it should be safe to believe in its validity. Why should only some people have access to the truth? How could the truth only be revealed to a select few at a particular point in time? Why not try to make it objective and accessible for everyone to test? I have to admit, believing in any kind of apocalypse is not typically a rational process of decision-making. But if there ever was a beginning (as even science contends), it is quite reasonable to assume that there will be an end. Yet, I'll happily tread middle ground and busy myself with what is going on in-between, the here and now. And this tells me that it rather is the idea of progress we need to focus on. Because this very idea may well lead us straight to armageddon either way.

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