Day By Day

Friday, January 01, 2010

Living In the End Times

Dennis Dutton writes:
Religions from Zoroastrianism to Judaism to Christianity to U.F.O. cults have been built around notions of sin and the world’s end. The Y2K threat resonated with those ideas. Human beings have constructed an enormous, wasteful, unnatural civilization, filled with sin — or, worse in some minds, pollution and environmental waste. Suppose it turned out that a couple of zeros inadvertently left off old computer codes brought crashing down the very civilization computers helped to create. Cosmic justice!

The theme of our fancy inventions ultimately destroying us has been a favorite in fiction at least since Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” We can place alongside this a continuous succession of spectacular films built on visions of the end of the world. Such end-time fantasies must have a profound, persistent appeal in order to keep drawing wide-eyed crowds into movie theaters, as historically they have drawn crowds into churches, year after year.

Apocalyptic scenarios are a diversion from real problems — poverty, terrorism, broken financial systems — needing intelligent attention. Even something as down-to-earth as the swine-flu scare has seemed at moments to be less about testing our health care system and its emergency readiness than about the fate of a diseased civilization drowning in its own fluids. We wallow in the idea that one day everything might change in, as St. Paul put it, the “twinkling of an eye” — that a calamity might prove to be the longed-for transformation. But turning practical problems into cosmic cataclysms takes us further away from actual solutions.

Read it here.

This applies to secular ideologies as well as to religion. Marxism, to cite one obvious instance, was based upon a vision of inevitable apocalyptic revolution. And even as fear of climate disasters begins to wane we start to hear about the potential for an asteroid impact that would obliterate our species. We have always lived (and it seems we always will live) in the end times beyond which lies either oblivion or heaven, or perhaps both. We should learn not to take them too seriously, but apparently we are hard-wired to do otherwise. Otherwise, why should so many of us fall for variations on the same scenario over, and over, and over again?

What fools we mortals be!