In 1988, a radio evangelist named Harold Camping predicted that the world would end on September 6, 1994. He had spent years, he said, making a careful study of biblical numerology, and on this day Jesus would come again. Because he wasn’t completely sure about the date – after all, his three previous predictions hadn’t come to pass – he titled his book 1994? with a question mark after the year.
Needless to say, not much happened on the appointed day, and outside his regular radio broadcast, little was heard from Camping until last year, when, once again, he predicted the end of the world. This time he was certain – the apocalypse would come on May 21, 2011. There would be cataclysmic disasters, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Jesus would judge the people, and two hundred million of the faithful would be swept up in the rapture. Camping’s followers paid for billboards and radio advertisements to announce the prediction, some giving their life savings to the cause. Soon major media picked up the story, and more money poured into Camping’s ministries – until May 22, which turned out to be pretty much like May 21st, which had been pretty much like May 20. The ninety year old evangelist said that he was “flabbergasted” nothing had happened, but later admitted to an error in his arithmetic, and the real date would be October 21st. By that time nobody was listening, and the regular attendance at Camping’s church had dwindled to about two dozen. Today Camping repudiates the entire practice of making such predictions as “sinful,” and spends his time in quiet Bible study.
Harold Camping is hardly the only one to make such predictions. Many of the first Christians believed fervently that the apocalypse would come in their lifetimes, and a great deal of early Christian theology was, in essence, an attempt to make sense of the fact that this didn’t happen. Some predicted that the event would take place one thousand years after Christ’s first appearance, giving us the world “millennial” for movements predicting the world’s end. A Turkish rabbi claimed that the Messiah would come to save the Jews in 1648, and then he predicted it again for 1666. And that’s not to mention Nostradamus.
Unitarian Universalists are not immune from such practices. Michael Servetus, the Unitarian martyr burned at the stake for writing a book On the Errors of the Trinity, once claimed that the Devil’s reign, begun when the Council of Nicea adopted the doctrine of the trinity, would end, and take the world with it, in 1585.
I am reminded of the actor Peter Cook’s prediction of the apocalypse, made on stage with the British comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe in 1961. “How will it be, this end of which you have spoken?” they asked him. “Well, it will be, as it were, a mighty rending in the sky,” he said. The great actor answered question after question from his disciples, naming the exact moment of the conflagration. At last the group, counting the seconds to the appointed time, chanted together, “Now is the end! Pale is the world!” And there was silence. After awhile one of them said, “It was GMT, right?” And then, “Never mind, lads. Same time tomorrow? We must get a winner one day.”
But of all the many predictions of the end of the world, few dates have captured the public’s imagination as much as December 21st, 2012. For the K’iche’and other Maya, that date – 13 Baktun in the Mayan calendar – marks the end of the long count, the 5,125 year cycle that began when the world was created.
That simple fact of an ancient calendar has led to books, articles, and even a feature film made by the director of Independence Day, who, as far as I can tell, just likes to blow things up. The predictions have become so rife that NASA recently published a statement assuring the public that a giant solar flare would not, in fact, be consuming the Earth this month, nor would the Earth collide with a hitherto undiscovered planet called “Nibiru,” or indeed any asteroid or comet, nor would the Earth reverse itself on its axis and begin spinning in the other direction, nor would there be a worldwide blackout due to some sort of “alignment of the universe.” The Department of Homeland security did, in fact, issue detailed preparedness guidelines for a Zombie Apocalypse, but most scholars believe this to have been a joke.
It is good to have a sense of humor about such things, but it’s also important to realize that media attention given to predictions of doom have real impacts and sometimes hurt real people. It was bad enough that last year’s doomsday predictions led some to give up their savings, but it was far worse when it started affecting the children. In May of 2011 more than one parent told me that they had had to reassure their children, who had seen all the billboards and heard all the news stories, and who felt real fear that the world was going to end and that they would die.
I know what that fear is like, although I never had a date certain to hang it on. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC during the Cold War, and for us the end of the world did not seem a remote and fantastic possibility. We lived with its reality every day. We knew that there were hundreds if not thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at us personally, and that whatever might be the case in Iowa or in Mississippi, or in California, Washington DC would definitely be completely obliterated. Our only comfort was knowing that it would happen so fast we would not have time to feel pain. We were eight, maybe nine years old.
There is something wrong with the world when children live with such nightmares. It is bad enough when the terror springs from the horrors of war and geopolitics; it is inexcusable it comes from grandiose publicity seekers who claim to know the mind of God, and from the media which gives them the attention they do not deserve. The world is full of charlatans, but that doesn’t mean we have to listen to them.
Of the many groups decrying the irresponsibility of doomsday predictions for December 21st, perhaps the most significant is the Maya themselves, some six million of them, who speak of a deeply spiritual time, a time of promise and peril, but not of an apocalypse.
The Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Maya, tells of a succession of creations, each one but the first building on what had come before. For the Maya, the ending of 13 Baktun signals a transformation in Mayan consciousness and perhaps in the greater world. Victor Montejo of the Jakaltek Maya writes of “a pan-Maya movement for cultural revival.” “The Maya,” he says, “want to receive the new Maya millennium by saying ‘Five thousand years after the counting in our calendar began, our culture is still here and flourishing once more.”
The anthropologist and K’iche’ Maya shaman Duncan Earle takes a more global perspective. “The end of a baktun,” he says, “is a time for reflection on the last 5,125 years of our creation. What have we accomplished in this time? For us, the answer is the building of civilizations as we know them. How well have we done in civilization?” Citing the “slow disaster” of global climate change and environmental devastation as the defining issue of the moment, he claims that “the end of a cycle is the end of one creation, but the beginning of the next creation.” Hope lies in the decisions we make as we move into the new cycle.
Not every ending is annihilation. An ending is nothing more than a moment in time.
I believe that the world will, in fact, end this December 21st. The world will also end on December 22d. The world ended yesterday. And the world is ending right now. It is always ending.
This world – this reality as it exists in this moment is over by the time I finish my sentence. Every instant in time is an ending, because no instant will ever be repeated exactly. The world as it is will never exist again. Change is the only constant. This is the reality of the universe. Buddhists call it “impermanence;” many theologians call it “process;” some have called it “God.” I call it the truth. The world as it is right now is ending; has already ended.
But that only tells half of the story, and by far it’s the less interesting half. The world is ending – over and over again, but we’re still here, because the world is also beginning. And like the many creations of the Popol Vuh, each moment adds something new and unique, so that the world is not created each time from whole cloth, but is built upon what has come before and transformed by the choices we make in this moment, this world recreated, this breath of life.
The poet Joy Harjo, whose work is rooted in the traditions of the Muscogee Nation, talks of the “changing of the world.” “Each day,” she writes, “is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff. This is the first world, and the last.”
Hindus speak of the world as constantly created, destroyed and recreated, picturing the god Shiva in a dance of life, surrounded by flames of destruction, but constantly in motion, the old world giving way for the new. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught that “change alone is unchanging… you cannot step in the same river twice.” And for the Snohomish people of the Puget Sound the name of the creator God, Dohkwibuhch, literally means “changer.”
Each moment is a breath of life. Each moment is the ending of the world as it has been, the beginning of the world as it is, and a seed of the world that is to come. Each moment is new creation, and the choices that all of us make right now will play a part in that creation .
Duncan Earle cites the end of the Mayan long count as an opportunity for humanity, “a point of decision making to put an end to our current creation” and “to start a new creation that is friendlier to nature.” In smaller ways, I see such opportunity in every moment – because what we do now really does make a difference. The decisions each of us make have real impacts in the world, for good or for ill. Most of the time that impact will be very small, but a lifetime of small choices can shape a good deal of reality. The choices of all of us put together will shape yet more, as we take part in the creation of the world that is to be.
We know this. On some level, we have always known that our living makes a difference, and that the choices we make affect the future. That’s why we care so much about the way we raise our children, and why try to raise them with values that will make a better world not only for them, but for everyone whose lives they will touch. That’s why we care for the suffering, comfort the grieving, reach out to the lonely, and help the poor. That’s why we work for justice and for peace. That’s why we build community. That’s why we speak out for what we believe in, even when we don’t think the world is listening.
What we do is important, and while very few amongst us can live every second with perfect awareness and intention, we can remind ourselves what our values are, and we can try to live those values to the best of our ability. We can remind ourselves to treat the people around us, whoever they are, with the respect and dignity that human beings deserve. Sometimes that’s as simple as choosing to be polite to a stranger, or even to somebody we don’t like very much, or who has hurt us in the past. Sometimes it means holding our ground and standing up for principle. Sometimes it means giving an unexpected gift to somebody who needs it, and never taking credit. Sometimes it means challenging our prejudices. Sometimes it means remembering to respect our own worth as well as the worth of others. Sometimes living our values means caring for the environment, taking public transportation more often, turning lights out when we don’t need them, honoring the Earth. Sometimes living our values means forgiving ourselves and forgiving others. And sometimes the best we can do is to make the world more beautiful, lifting voices to song, or pen to paper, or brush to canvass, or bodies to the dance, or hearts to love.
The world is ending. The world has always ended. Let it go. Pay attention to the moment. There is a new world born before our eyes and beneath our feet and above our heads, every moment of every day and night. Within each new creation, each moment of time, is hope and possibility and choice. Give yourself to the world. Transform it and be transformed. Love creation, and welcome the dawn.
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