Authentic humanity and a potent response to apocalyptic thinking
Unconditional: Authentic humanity and a potent response to apocalyptic thinking. Also providing a larger historical context for understanding unconditional reality.
Another qualifier: I argue repeatedly on this page that the worst error in all history (i.e. punitive forces behind life) spawned the most distorting and damaging set of ideas in all history- apocalyptic mythology. This set of ideas has darkened and enslaved human consciousness for millennia. It still dominates much public consciousness today (note public story-telling media such as movies, TV, and literature).
Various strains in contemporary ideology (notably alarmism in environmentalism) are little more than secularized mythology. It is always surprising to discover some of the most primitive mythology still present in modern secular viewpoints. To illustrate this I will trace in brief summary form the main apocalyptic themes as they descend from primitive thinking down into the present. The core themes of apocalyptic are not always held up front in daily consciousness or conversation but tend to reside more in the background where they are often not properly confronted, and replaced with more evidence-based and rational alternatives.
The line of descent of apocalyptic mythology is from primitive mythology to Zoroaster, then to Jewish religion, merged into Christianity, and then into 19th Century Declinism or Cultural Pessimism, and then to Environmentalism (we could also include Marxism and Nazism). The thing to note in this lineage is not exact correspondence of statements or expression but the core theme behind any given statement or expression.
Apocalyptic mythology is much more than just the apocalypse myth. Apocalypse by itself makes no sense. It is part of a full template of tightly related ideas or myths that includes:
1. The myth of original paradise (or a generally better past)
2. The ruin of paradise by corrupted humanity. Corrupt humanity now deserves some punishment.
3. The subsequent decline of life toward something worse (i.e. the world is getting worse, threat from over-population, fragile nature is ready to collapse).
4. A dualism between good and evil. Oppositional dualism affirms the need to exclude and punish some enemy.
5. A salvation scheme- this is atonement thinking, the felt need to make a sacrifice in order to save something (oneself, humanity, or the world) from the final punishment. Salvationism is about placating some angry, punitive force/spirit in order to avoid the end-time grand retaliation from an angry God or revenge of Gaia.
6. A final punishment of evil. This is the actual apocalypse- some great catastrophe and ending- where the good triumph over the evil (a final retaliation against one’s enemies).
7. The purging of the world (removing the old corrupt order of things- i.e. population reduction, and slowing or reversing industrial civilization), and the restoration of paradise or inauguration of the new kingdom/utopia.
Behind this template of apocalyptic is that core error of the ancients- that behind life there is some great threatening, punishing spirit or god. This explains the final punishment of all wrong, the purging of the old corrupt order (purging of all evil), and the restoration of the original good.
Note also below that it was Zoroaster who introduced a strong dualism into ancient apocalyptic mythology, a clear opposition between good and bad. This would affirm the exclusion of unbelievers or bad people. It would affirm the need to punish such people. That dualism would reinforce primitive tribalism and the right to retaliate against and destroy one’s enemies. It would affirm the impulse to exclude and ultimately destroy outsiders in a great apocalyptic punishment.
Primitive (Sumerian) mythology
In the earliest human writing (i.e. Sumerian cuneiform tablets) we already find the core themes of apocalyptic mythology. It is not yet assembled into a coherent theology but is more of a scattering of themes here and there. These themes may be noted in such material as the Sumerian or Gilgamesh Flood myth (roughly 2100 BCE though it refers to earlier events). The Sumerian tablets contain fragmentary accounts and a fuller version of the Gilgamesh epic appears somewhere between 1600-1300 BCE in Babylonian mythology.
The core themes: The city of Dilmun was presented as an original paradise. The god/man Enki committed an original error that resulted in his punishment with illness and the degrading of paradise (an early version of the Fall of man theme). Then there was the myth of a great Flood as punishment for human sin (too many people being too noisy). The god Enlil decided to punish the boisterous people with a great deluge. That was the earliest apocalypse scenario. For detail see sites such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sumerian_creation_myth
In these early myths we see the barebones outline of primitive apocalyptic thinking.
Zoroastrian apocalyptic mythology
Zoroaster appears to be the first to introduce into his apocalyptic theology the idea of a great dualism between good and evil, between good people (believers of the true religion, followers of the light) and bad people (followers of wrong, people of the darkness). It is a dualism between a good Spirit (Creator) and a wrong principle (destructive force). Zoroaster then posits a great struggle between the good and the wrong. Zoroaster’s dualism affirms the need for opposition and exclusion. There is to be a clear demarcation between the good and the bad and the requirement to punish and annihilate the bad.
He also states that life is degenerating toward a worsening situation, toward a culmination of the great struggle between good and evil. Time will end and the good power will prevail over the evil, there will be a final judgment, evil will be overthrown, and earth will be purified by a fiery material (he changes the apocalypse from flood to fire). There will be a final renovation of all things. The kingdom of the good God will come on earth, and the original paradise or past Golden Age will be restored. With these ideas Zoroaster offers a more complete and coherent presentation of apocalyptic mythology.
Jewish apocalyptic theology
Apocalyptic mythology is developed in Jewish culture in the post-exile period (the Jews were exiled in 605 BCE and returned in 536 BCE). There is first the development of proto-apocalyptic theology in the writing of Isaiah (chapters 33-35, circa 163 BCE; chapters 24-27, circa 128 BCE), Jeremiah (chapter 33), Ezekiel (chapters 38-39), Joel chapter 3, and Zechariah chapters 12-14 (160 BCE). This is transitional thinking on apocalyptic mythology. Then there is the development of a full-blown apocalyptic theology in Daniel (chapters 7-12) during the Maccabean period (160-60 BCE).
Jewish apocalyptic exhibits the themes of a strong dualism (two kingdoms), the conquering and elimination of evil, a final judgment and divine victory over evil, and the complete reformation of all things (a renewed Golden Age). The good God will triumph over evil and chaos.
See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalyptic_literature
Christian apocalyptic teaching
The Christian apocalyptic template inherits the Jewish perspective but is more fleshed out and contains the following main themes: an original paradise (Eden), a Fall into corruption due to human failure, the subsequent decline of life toward something worse, toward a catastrophic ending, and the great Apocalypse often referred to in terms such as “the Day of the Lord”. This will be a fiery purging of the world and the ending of the current corrupt world order. It will be a great divine judgment and punishment. After this there will be the restoration of all things in a renewed world (a new Eden), or a kingdom of God. This set of themes is also referred to as Christian salvation theology.
One can find these themes throughout the Christian Bible, but notably summarized in the writing of Paul and John (Revelation). See for instance, Paul’s writing in the letters to the Thessalonians, also in Romans and Hebrews (authorship uncertain).
Apocalyptic in 19th Century Declinism or Cultural Pessimism
In the development of 19th century Declinism theory we find a great shift occurring in the historical descent of apocalyptic mythology. Apocalyptic is now secularized, or given a more secular expression. Myth is stated as ideology. Hence, my repeated statement that much contemporary ideology is just secularized mythology. Declinism is primitive apocalyptic myth re-emerging in modern thought and expression.
I am indebted to historians like Arthur Herman for the material in this section, notably his excellent study titled “The Idea of Decline In Western History”. Herman illustrates a pivotal point in the history of human thought or perception- how primitive mythology is secularized for the new thinking of the scientific era.
Herman notes the influence of a variety of Christian themes on the thinking of the Decline theorists (see also Richard Landes’ Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience for more historical detail on the influence of Christian apocalyptic on modern political ideologies like Marxism and Nazism).
Herman writes that Declinism assumes the common belief in an original golden age in the past, and that there has been a subsequent decline of life from that better past. The Declinists of the 19th Century refused to accept that modern industrial society was progress. Instead, in that very progress they saw the forces of decline and decadence. Human industrial civilization was making things worse. They saw in industrialization an emerging hell.
Declinists also held a belief in the Fall of man or the corruption of an originally pure humanity. Declinists believed that primitive people were a superior people. But modern civilization had corrupted the pure native soul and society, and they had subsequently lost their original vitality, their purity and strength. Technological and scientific society had degraded the human spirit. Racial degeneration had occurred. Civilization made people soft and corrupt.
So now life was declining toward something worse than before. This Herman refers to as “Degeneration theory” which claims that there has been a deviation from an original pure and strong type. Modern technological and industrial society has produced this decline in humanity and in life generally. It was all heading for a grand collapse and ending (the apocalypse).
Salvation is to be found in purging this corrupt human civilization and restoring the primitive order or society. There must be a grand purifying, and it should be a violent overthrow, a violent and fiery purging of the old order so that a new order of life, or a new society, may be installed. This new world is to be a return to primitive vitality, and the assumed innocence of the original pure beginning. Herman also notes the Christian belief that salvation required the violent and catastrophic destruction of the old order so that the new order or kingdom could be inaugurated (see Revelation for graphic detail on the brutal violence of the Christian apocalyptic vision).
One can see the core Christian apocalyptic themes all through Declinism. This is the secularization of primitive mythology for the modern age.
Apocalyptic in Environmentalism
Herman in his chapter 12 then shows how Declinism thinking emerged in modern environmentalism. Contemporary environmentalism proclaims that the original Golden Age was found in pure and undisturbed nature, in pristine wilderness. But modern technological society has led to the corrupting of nature, it has degraded the natural paradise. Industrial society has threatened vital nature. Modern technological progress is destroying life, exhausting resources.
And all is now in decline toward some catastrophic collapse and ending. Salvation is to be found in returning to some post-industrial order. Declinists argue that we need to purge this corrupting order and bring in a new world order, or a new civilization, in order to save the planet. And this new order is actually viewed as a return back to nature, back to the original Golden Age. This will mean the renunciation of Western capitalist society for a return to a pure natural existence, to a primitive, pre-capitalist society. This is the new kingdom- a return to primitive society. It is a return to the original vitality (pristine natural paradise) before the fall into modern civilization.
For the environmental declinist, or alarmist, the looming collapse of civilization is then something to look forward to. The catastrophic destruction of technological civilization is an opportunity to bring in the new order. Western civilization is a corrupting evil, and modern civilized humanity is an evil. But Gaia will retaliate and punish this human cancer and remove it, so that the old primitive natural order can be restored.
In all these historical phases of apocalyptic mythology we find the same core themes, no matter the differences of expression over time. The basic template re-emerges endlessly over history from primitive mythology to equally primitive theology to contemporary ideology- original paradise or better past; paradise ruined by corrupting humanity, a Fall into worsening corruption, the decline of humanity and life toward something worse, the looming catastrophic ending (apocalypse), the need to purge the old corrupt order and install a new order (or re-install the original primitive paradise).
From Sumerian myth to contemporary environmentalism, apocalyptic mythology has continued to darken consciousness and alarm humanity. Apocalyptic thinking has always held the dismal view of humanity as corrupt and destructive. It has therefore consistently opposed human development and progress. It has endlessly proposed anti-human salvation schemes that harm people and hinder progress toward a better future (and cause unnecessary damage to nature). It even urges ridding the planet of most of humanity. It is a profoundly anti-human mythology.
Apocalyptic always presents the potential to not only stir alarm but also violence with its oppositional dualism and sense of threat from some enemy.
Some additional points on the secularization of primitive mythology:
It is important to respond to alarmism with good scientific evidence. Rational science is the anti-dote to hysterical primitivism. And I have argued repeatedly that overwhelming evidence on all the major trends/elements of life affirms a narrative of hope, not alarm. We are not heading toward some catastrophic end of nature, life, or civilization.
But there is this interesting thing going on regarding evidence. You will get two equally bright scientists looking at the same data/evidence and coming to very contrary conclusions. You then realize that there might be ideology at play and influencing the conclusions about the evidence. One way of understanding this has been called “confirmation bias”, where people will accept only the evidence that affirms their views on something, and downplay or dismiss outright the contrary evidence that does not affirm their views. When this occurs then you recognize that it is important to look into ideological issues in order to better understand alarmism. And surprise, surprise because looking even deeper you will often find primitive mythology behind the ideology. Too much contemporary ideology is little more than secularized mythology.
Just for example. I was in a grad program at the University of BC back in the early 90s (School of Community and Regional Planning). Bill Rees was the director of the school and a lecturer (I took most of his courses). He is widely known as the originator or father of the Ecological Footprint model which argues that too many people are consuming too many resources and all is heading for some catastrophic collapse. We need another Earth or two to support our levels of consumption. Our footprint on nature is too large. We are in “overshoot”. Bill was developing this EF during the years I was in his school.
Now to illustrate this thing of mythology at the root of much contemporary ideology- Bill travelled a lot and when absent would invite others to lecture for him. He once had one of his PhD students lecture us on Mother Earth or the earth goddess. And he offered to us in lectures the perspective of Gaia. In a personal conversation, he once affirmed to me that apocalyptic was true. After all, according to Bill, it had happened in the past.
Other leaders of the environmental movement have also appealed to mythology to make their case for alarm over the state of nature. Notable in this regard is Rachel Carson and her appeal to an apocalyptic narrative in the first chapter of her book Silent Spring. Al Gore sometimes refers to his Christian beliefs to back his case for alarm. These are some of the thought leaders of alarmist environmentalism and it is evident that mythology plays some role in their approach. This is why this page focuses so much on understanding the deeper mythical roots behind alarmism.
It is not that any given alarmist will make a clear statement of mythology, tying her/his approach to traditional apocalyptic themes. It is more that they will employ a theme that is indistinguishable from the core themes of ancient mythology.
And thus primitive mythology, now often secularized, still clouds and damages modern outlook and society. It continues to darken public consciousness and enslave the human spirit and human society (notably the alarmist response of anti-development activism, the endeavor to oppose and halt human economic development and overall progress).
Fortunately, the human impulse for authentic liberation will persistently confront the residual influence of this primitive apocalyptic perspective and seek to replace these dark themes with a new narrative of hope based on the increasing evidence of human creative influence on life.
To further note the historical lines of descent and linkages see sites such as http://op-ed.the-environmentalist.org/2007/04/zoroastrianisms-influence-on-judaism.html, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/15283-zoroastrianism, or http://www.westminster.edu/staff/brennie/RennieC55R36.1.pdf (Iranian roots of Christianity)
Another ‘additional’ point in relation to apocalyptic mythology: There is a dense complexity in human thought over history. However, throughout history some strains in human thought have played a more dominant role, influencing people and their lives more powerfully than other ideas. And some of these ideas/beliefs have caused immense damage to people and their societies. Hence, my more limited focus at times on a certain themes.
To get right to my point- nothing has caused more grief and damage to humanity than the core human myth of some threatening, retaliatory, or punitive reality. This idea/belief then spawned apocalyptic mythology and its twin- Salvationism theology (i.e. how to escape the punishment of the apocalypse).
My interest in these ideas has to do with getting to the foundational beliefs/ideas in human worldviews and noting their impact on human consciousness and existence. To this end I have repeatedly referred, for instance, to the example of people like Rachel Carson and her use of apocalyptic imagery and the consequence of her alarmism for millions of people, mainly children (i.e. her alarmism over chemicals played a significant role in the ban of DDT which then resulted in tens of millions of unnecessary deaths in the following decades).
Now I am sure that she was a good person and never intended such an outcome from her apocalyptic alarmism. But such outcomes litter the brutal history of apocalyptic thinking. Its potential to alarm excessively has led repeatedly to such damaging outcomes in human societies. Note, for instance, that Hitler bought into Spengler’s apocalyptic/millennial alarmism and then remember the outcome in German society and the larger world.
Note also how environmental alarmism today inspires opposition to human economic development and progress which is vital to protecting the environment. Many have detailed the destructive consequences of this alarmism on humanity and nature (e.g. bio-fuels fiasco, general opposition to fossil fuels).