It's not the End of the World!
People have always told stories about the end of the world. At an online conference this week, we’ve heard a lot of them! On Tuesday, we heard an Assyriologist talk about ancient ‘apocalyptics’ -stories told by ancient rulers in 2000 BCE to legitimate and consolidate their own power and instil dependence in their subjects. In the same way, later religious groups have made predictions about the end of the world as we know it for a variety of reasons – not all of them benign. Some of their motivations – like the motivations for all fear-based religion - seem downright abusive.
Many interpretations of the book of Revelation and other parts of the Bible which have spawned a variety of scenarios for the end of the world have come from ‘crazies’- some crazier than others. Some of them have provided ideal material for the writers of horror movies, who like to visualise and talk about the end of the world and excite and frighten people at the same time. Many of them and those who consume their ghastly scenarios, seem to get a thrill out of contemplating the horrors described. The fear-based stories keep sensitive people awake at night.
These days, of course, the end-of-the-world scenarios come, not from religious people, but from environmentalists and others. My 11-year old granddaughter recently lent me the fantasy novel, Floodland, which she and her peers are reading at school. The story is a kind of contemporary version of Lord of the Flies, set in the eastern counties of England, submerged by rising sea-water where food and drinking water is scarce and gang culture emerges. A fantasy now but not such a remote possibility.
Predictions about the possibility of rising sea-levels flooding London and eastern parts of the UK all brings such ‘fantasies’ closer to home. And rising sea levels are far from being the only potential hazards we face. Only last month, Oxford University government advisor, Toby Ord, writing in the Guardian, described the major threats from weaponised global pandemics, from the possibility of nuclear annihilation, from the climate crisis and from AI (artificial intelligence) which has not been aligned with human values.
So talk about the end of the world these days isn’t necessarily religious mania or fantasy-based entertainment. The religious prophets have been superseded by secular ones like Toby Ord. In his 2020 book, The Precipice he says, ‘Safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time.’ He shows how, fuelled by technological progress, the human race has the capacity to destroy itself, ‘severing our entire future and everything we could become’. Orr suggests that our human growth in wisdom hasn’t kept pace with our growth in knowledge. ‘As the gap between our power and our wisdom grows, our future is exposed to an ever-increasing level of risk’.
The challenge to grow in wisdom, taking the long view as we look at the present and future of our precious planet is there in the best of religious and secular stories about the future. Whatever sort of God/god we believe in (or don’t!), we can all avoid following those who seek to motivate us with fear about the future rather than empowering us. We can learn to care about everyone in our community, decide and focus on what really matters, and keep things in proportion.
‘Come on, it’s not the end of the world,’ my mother used to say if she thought we were exaggerating some small catastrophe in our lives. It’s still good advice!