By Lee Van Ham
Apocalypse! The word fills imaginations with end-of-the-world scenarios—scary, horrific. Monsters violently destroy and use chaos to shove out order, truth, and caring as they destroy everything green and everything that was built to serve civilization. Some current books and movies dramatically tell how civilization ends in apocalypse.
But apocalypse is more than that and I am coming to see great value in apocalyptic writing and thinking for our time. It’s integral to spirituality that can engage the current collapse. Too many spiritualities find the chaos and threats of breakdowns too dark and chaotic to get into. That leaves many people to face climate anxiety without the mighty powers of Spirit. An article in The Guardian (9-23-23) with the long title “‘The climate is visiting a mental unravelling on all of us’: Charlie Hertzog Young on the dangers of activism – and staying sane on a dying planet” says:
“Climate change is throwing so much pain, trauma, stress, angst and cultural toxicity at us. It can breed distrust, apathy and nihilism and it can also breed deep fear. Even for people who are experiencing the climate crisis at a distance, through the lens of the media, there’s a medically recognised causal pathway to depression, anxiety and PTSD.”
And that’s where the apocalyptic genre with a healthy, robust spirituality really helps.
Change about apocalypse came for me when I saw that it goes beyond the end of things. The word means “unveiling” or “revelation.” Apocalypse, then, unveils the truth of what and why civilization is collapsing AND the truth of what underlies all that civilization has been built on. From that truth under the consciousness of the builders and destroyers of civilization lives a reality eager to show what life in its fullness is. Once I saw that “apocalypse” reveals what’s beyond collapse, I felt better able to face into the collapse of so many systems underway on our planet today.
Looking back on my life, I grew up with apocalypse meaning the end of things—but not to worry if I was a believer. God would rescue believers from its horrors and then establish divine rule over the earth. Revelation and Daniel were two books in the sacred texts read as future and coming. They were the sources of biblical prophecy. It’s a terrible misunderstanding and misuse of the apocalyptic genre and the Bible that has terrible consequences. This dystopian followed by a utopian view of the breakdown underway leads people to dismiss climate change and environmental collapse because God will save believers from such. Some cults are shaped around apocalyptic expectations of how the world ends. Also, conspiracies of how liberals (bad) are ending Western civilization (good) through replacement of white people link to this kind of religious thinking.
Gradually the apocalypticism I learned in my boyhood home and churches became an offense to me. As a result, I had no idea what to do with apocalyptic writing that was quite prevalent over several centuries in the late Hellenistic culture on into the 2nd century. I ignored the apocalyptic sections of the Bible. But gradually my consciousness shifted to where I understood journalist Robert Jensen, University of Texas, in his book, We Are All Apocalyptic Now.
Though apocalyptic writing often uses the language of symbols more than narratives of history, Jensen appeals to reason and science to speak of the apocalyptic moment we are in now. In an Op-Ed in Truthout (2-8-2013), Jensen wrote:
This “revelation” is simple: We’ve built a world based on the assumption that we will have endless energy to subsidize endless economic expansion, which was supposed to magically produce justice. That world is over, both in reality and in dreams. Either we begin to build a different world, or there will be no world capable of sustaining a large-scale human presence….
…If we look honestly at the state of the world, it is difficult not to conclude that we are in end times of sorts – not the end of the physical world, but the end of the First-World way of living and the end of the systems on which that life is based….
…To think apocalyptically is not to give up on ourselves, but only to give up on the arrogant stories – religious and secular – that we modern humans have been telling about ourselves. Our hope for a decent future – indeed, any hope for even the idea of a future – depends on our ability to tell stories not of how humans have ruled the world, but how we can live in the world.
We are all apocalyptic now, whether we like it or not.
Thousands upon thousands of people are doing what Jensen says about hope. People are living and telling their life-stories of living consciously and intentionally within the ecosphere’s boundaries. This, too, is apocalypse—the revealing of truth deeper than life lived in an unsustainable ego-driven civilization that cannot see or acknowledge truth of a greater way to live. Instead of depending hopefully on the powers of civilization to change their beliefs and systems, thousands of people are reconfiguring their lives to live interdependently with Creation and its powers. Creation knows how to do what civilization does not. Our aspirations and actions in OneEarth Jubilee are to be immersed in Creation. For me and for us, this immersion is certainly scientific and rational, yet it is primarily religious. Earth is a sacred space. Creation has generated sacred systems of life through 4+ billion years of research and development. Being intimately interconnected with Creation and Creator is the spirituality that can engage this apocalyptic time.