Guest columnist: Another year, another would-be apocalypse
The ongoing fascination with the Maya apocalypse, and related speculations about the “last days on Earth,” is a flashback for me.
In the summer of 1988, having just graduated from high school, I was caught in a similar moment of apocalyptic anxiety thanks to a booklet circulating throughout the small evangelical Christian denomination to which I belonged. Written by former NASA engineer Edgar Whisenant, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988” predicted the return of Jesus to take faithful Christians to heaven that September.
My doubts notwithstanding, I was concerned about experiencing such a monumental event away from home and, honestly, I was somewhat incredulous that I might not have the opportunity to go to college.
Jesus did not return that fall, adding one more year to a lengthy roster of failed doomsday predictions. Today, that list includes Harold Camping’s well-publicized prediction of Jesus’ return in 2011, which was preceded by predictions from William Miller in 1844, Jan Matthys in 1534 and Joachim of Fiore in 1260. While many people, myself now included, approach predictions as cultural oddities, current speculation about the Maya raises the question of why we as a nation shaped by Jewish and Christian traditions are drawn to apocalyptic thinking in the first place.
The New Testament certainly has fueled many scares. Specifically, the Book of Revelation, written in the first century by a man named John in the Roman province of Asia Minor, has long been read as a blueprint for the events of the end.
Revelation describes itself as an “unveiling,” the literal meaning of the word “apocalypse,” of the present. Among the things revealed is God’s place on the heavenly throne in opposition to imperial political powers that present themselves as being god-like but aim to rule the world through brute force and economic control.
Apocalypses use images of end times as a way of shaping present action. John, for instance, wanted his audience to reject claims of political “beasts” that promise wealth, status and luxury, and to imagine the possibility of becoming a community, a “New Jerusalem,” marked by divine compassion and the healing of nations.
When presented with end-time calculations and predictions of doom, what type of world can this latest “apocalypse” help us envision? What type of world are we being called to create?
With the Maya prophecy, one thing that springs to mind is the way colonializing religions can contribute to the demise of indigenous cultures. In their book “2012 and the End of the World,” historians Matthew Restall and Amara Solari put forward the idea that the Maya prophecy is itself a result of European colonialism.
While ancient Maya traditions explored cosmic cycles and world renewals, the doomsday predictions associated with 2012 were likely introduced to the New World by way of European exploration and Christian missionizing beginning in the 16th century. Missionaries were fueled by a hope of bringing about the Second Coming of Christ, the Rapture, but that would mean the erasure of existing cultures and beliefs.
Ironic, isn’t it? The Maya never saw their calendar as a countdown to the end of the world. Most likely it was Christianity that gave rise to the myth.
As I think about the impending date of Dec. 21, 2012, somewhat older and hopefully a little wiser than in 1988, I consider the ways apocalyptic expectation continues to fuel colonizing tendencies – the impulse to “take over” other countries, peoples and ideas, and make them our own.
Instead of fixating on the end of the world, whatever that looks like to you, join me in thinking of ways to create a world that honors human differences, a planet with people who act out of humility rather than hubris.
Lynn R. Huber is an associate professor and interim director of the Elon University Center for the Study of Religion, Culture, and Society. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.