The Late Vortex

So there was this polar vortex recently, here in the States, that led to a meteorological frenzy.  It was worse than the apocalypse itself since it was so bone-chillingly cold outside.  I had contacts from around the world asking if we were okay.  It used to be called “winter.”  Now, I’m not big on human suffering.  I hate to see anyone cold, hungry, or lonely.  These are things for which theodicy itself will some day have to stand trial.  But it does seem that we’ve caved in to media hype about the weather.  Yes, the cold is not to be trifled with.  It can kill.  Winter, however, comes around every year in the temperate zones, and using our evolved brains can help us survive things like winter’s chill.  Heck, our species has survived ice ages before.  They just had no internet to tell them that.

One morning at Nashotah House we were scheduled to attend a lenten mediation in Milwaukee.  A real winter storm was upon us—whether it was a polar vortex or not I do not know—and the temperature plummeted.  The Dean at the time was undeterred.  He’d hired a van to take us to Milwaukee.  I awoke to the news that the air temperature, not the wind chill, was 42 below zero.  For those of you who read centigrade, it crosses paths with Fahrenheit at 40 below.  The weather forecasters warned that mere minutes outside could be fatal.  Our Dean was no respecter of weather.  We piled into a rented van whose windows frosted over as soon as they were cleared and we made our way to experience lent.

My point is, winter can get cold.  A polar vortex by any other name would be so chilly.  What makes the difference between a cold day and an apocalypse?  The media.  Now that we’re constantly online we know when the chill settles in.  The hype makes it more marketable.  Advertisers pay, but they want hits.  By the end of the winter we’ve survived many apocalypses.  I always did find it ironic when some celibate priest would snort, hitch his pants, and say he was a real man (it actually happens!), but living through winter is something we ought to be used to by now.  On the way home from Milwaukee, we said evening prayer in the van so that we wouldn’t have to go outside to trudge to chapel in the midst of what may have been a polar vortex.  Even real men feel the cold, I guess.

Infinite but Expanding

What could be more humbling than living in an infinite but expanding universe? Since the days of Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton we’ve known that the apparent reality of both our own lives and that portrayed in Holy Writ is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t hold still, and the sun doesn’t rise or set. The universe isn’t a layer-cake with Heaven above and Hell beneath. Instead it’s mind-numbingly massive. The only appropriate response, it would seem, would be silent awe. Marcelo Gleiser, whose work I’ve mentioned before, is a rare scientist. Rather than continually slapping the rationalist card on the table and declaring science the trump suit, he brings an element of humility to his writing. So much so that he’s willing, almost eager, to engage religion. Not in debate, but in conversation.

The Prophet and the Astronomer is a wide-ranging book that is tied together around the theme of the end of the world. A few weeks back we had yet another brush with a biblical literalist declaring the end of all things. Gleiser, although his book was published over a decade ago, was called in to comment in various places. This book opens by discussing ancient ideas of the end of the world. These are necessarily religious ideas. We don’t fully understand ancient concepts, but enough remains for us to see that apocalypses have their origins in Zoroastrian thought. Judaism encountered such thinking and the book of Daniel ran with it. Early Christians also had the world’s end on their minds, and the book of Revelation developed into a full-blown apocalypse. The world, or at least the western hemisphere, has never been the same since. Centuries of living under the threat of a cataclysm that could come at any second surely takes its toll.

Gleiser then shifts to the real harbingers of potential apocalypses. Comets and asteroids still exist and could theoretically deliver what the Bible implies might happen—a fiery end to the planet. This is sobering stuff. But the book doesn’t stop there. Bidding adieu to the dinosaurs, The Prophet and the Astronomer sweeps us into this great, expanding universe and how it may end, scientifically. Black holes and the heat death of the universe can be truly terrify. What is remarkable about the book, however, is that Gleiser openly acknowledges that science can’t give the comfort and meaning that religion can. Instead of saying, “be tough, face facts” he suggests that scientists might consider a narrative that adds value to a cold, dark universe. That’s not to say some of the story isn’t technical and some of the concepts aren’t difficult to grasp, but it is to suggest that science and religion should sit down and talk sometime. Hopefully before the end of the world.

Doomsday, Again?

It’s hard to keep a good apocalypse down. Ever since Jesus of Nazareth did his best Arnold Schwarzenegger impression of “I’ll be back” some of his followers have obsessed when just when that will be. Sorry for the late notice, but the current prediction is for tomorrow. If you’ve got any weekend plans, you might want to rethink them. I know traffic in Jersey is already bad enough without white horses breaking through the clouds. An article my wife promptly sent me from NPR, “Is The Apocalypse Coming? No, It Isn’t!” by Marcelo Gleiser, addresses the documentary The Sign. No doubt about it, there’s some impressive astronomical gyrations here, but planets moving through constellations do not an apocalypse make. As Gleiser points out, the real question is why people believe such predictions so passionately.

Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” captures the mood nicely. Growing up in a tradition that believed, as only literalists can, that this world is the center of the cosmos, Norman’s song haunted my teenage years. These were the heady days of Hal Lindsey and a very hot Cold War. I had to register for the draft. There was unrest in the Middle East. Sonny and Cher had split up. The signs were aligned, it seemed. As they had been nearly every year since about 30 CE. Paul of Tarsus was waiting. And John of Patmos. And Timothy LaHaye. True believers all. Conviction begets conviction. Seeing another fully convinced is a powerful incentive.

Even now, if I’m honest, I shudder a little when I hear such predictions. What if, by some odd chance, they are right? Raised in that tradition, it’s nearly impossible to jettison that private fear. Rationally I know that clever people can make all kinds of connections that have nothing to do with the Bible. I know that John’s Revelation isn’t about the end of the world. I know that the views of Paul were bound by the developments of his age. I know the Rapture was invented in the nineteenth century (CE). Still, the chill slithers through me when I consider how it felt as an uncertain teen on the brink of Armageddon. I could envision it clearly. Some who were utterly sure swayed me. Specific dates and times weren’t biblical, but the wait for any moment now was even more terrifying. Tomorrow will begin and end just as any other day on planet earth. And another apocalypse will enter the planning stages, coming soon to a universe near you.

Biblical Hurricanes

Say what you will about western Pennsylvania, but it was a location fairly safe from natural disasters. My hometown was too far inland for hurricanes to cause much damage. A little too far east for Midwest tornadoes to touch down (mostly). Adequate-to-too-much rain, so wildfires didn’t occur. Not on any fault-lines that invited earthquakes, and volcanoes only thousands of miles away. We did get floods along the rivers during spring, but if you lived up the hill they weren’t much of a personal threat. It felt safe from the big news items of today. Leaving home for the sake of finding work moved me into Tornado Alley for many years, and currently, in New Jersey, in the range of hurricanes now and again. Still reeling from Hurricane Harvey and lack of effective national leadership, Irma is devastating lives, and Jose is in her wake. Then a massive earthquake rocks Mexico. It feels like the apocalypse.

Image credit: NASA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ironically, many people read the Bible as a linear story from the creation of the world in Genesis to the end of the world in Revelation. They make an obvious set of bookends. Unlike western Pennsylvania, Israel lies on a fault-line that means earthquakes are not uncommon. Droughts occur. And being right on the path between major empires, it was frequently subject to human disasters such as invasions. It was not the most secure place to write a book that would change worldviews for millennia thereafter. What is so fascinating about this is that the message (or more properly, messages) of the Bible gets lost in the conceit that this is somehow a story of the history of the world with lots and lots of pages of preachy stuff between the exciting bits at the beginning and the end.

In times of natural disasters, people turn to the Bible for comfort. There are verses, often pulled from context, that do a fine job of that. Nevertheless, the Bible is an enormously complex text. Of its many books, Genesis and Revelation have had disproportionate influence on society. Any natural disaster big enough can be called “biblical.” Since the time of William Miller and John Nelson Darby, such disasters have been interpreted as heralding the end of the world. It is scary to see the devastation a single hurricane can cause. When it is followed closely by a second, one can’t help feeling a bit like Job. The apocalypse, however, is a misreading of Revelation. The book ends with Heaven on Earth. And if you can find a quiet place to read, you’ll find plenty of unexpected stuff tucked away in the middle. Just don’t take it too literally since that too leads to disasters.

Eclipse 2017

It’s the day after the eclipse. Perhaps it’s because of the internet, but the excitement about this somewhat common event reached a fever pitch. Maybe it was because we all wanted something other than Donald Trump to talk about. Maybe it was because we hoped that the eclipse might have brought about some profound change. In the days before science was a thing, eclipses were divine events. The sky doesn’t darken at noon. It is an uncanny, an eerie thing. The last eclipse—alas, only partial—that I experienced was at Nashotah House. My wife was still a student in Illinois at the time, and without her to remind me, I went about my classes as usual. When I stepped outside the eclipse was already in progress. Nashotah’s quite rural, but the birds and insects were silent. The light was weird. The shadows of the leaves were scooped crescents on the ground. I could understand why pre-scientific people trembled.

These days we know there’s nothing more to life than scientific formulas and a bit of sloppy chemistry. So why do we bother getting bothered about eclipses? The fact is they remain religious in our minds. This is nature acting in a way not normal. Apocalypses generally include the sky growing dark. One of the plagues of Egypt was darkness. In the ancient mind the sun did not so much cause light (the moon could give light too) but it lived in the realm of light. If something blocked the sun that was one thing. If something invaded the realm of light, that was another. An eclipse was such an invasion. Even as monotheism began to take hold, people thought of the sun as a deity. It, after all, directs our lives.

In New York City I wasn’t sure what to expect. I went to street level with a couple of colleagues about 10 minutes before maximum coverage (about 71%) began. Knots of people stood on the corners on the eastern side of Madison Avenue—those who build skyscrapers don’t think of eclipse viewing on the streets below. What struck me most, however, was a kind of peace and awe. Strangers sharing various viewing devices with each other and looking up expectantly. Clouds had begun to move in, and I found myself talking to complete strangers, sharing out the eclipse-viewing glasses my wife had given me. We were participating in a moment of transcendence. Such moments are rare today. No, an eclipse is more than simply the moon moving in front of the sun. It is a human event as well. And one which, in the absence of the sun, brings out the best in us.

Survival Instructions

When the apocalypse comes—present political antics assure it more than any biblical prophecy—I fear for the survivors. This post is for them. I presume you’ll get the internet back up and running quickly; it is, after all, humanity’s most important achievement. I know you’re hungry, but first a bit of history. (Sorry, I used to be a professor; it’s how my mind works.) The trendy drinking glasses that some restaurants used to use were called Mason Jars. They were originally for home canning. You see, in summer when the earth was generous, we’d have too much food. Judging from the state of my refrigerator, it’s impossible to keep it fresh for more than a few days. So people invented canning. You’ve probably found a stash of cans, which is why you’re reading this post. These glass cans came with a pretty obvious screw-on lid, under which was a sealed lid that you could pop off with a thumbnail if you were desperate enough. Food awaits.

Then a metal canning process was invented. To open a metal can you need a special tool called a “can opener.” Since I’m sure all electric can openers were destroyed in the apocalypse, you’ll need to know how to open a can with the items at hand. Do not panic. If any Swiss Army knives have survived (and I’m sure they have, if anything has) you can use one of those. Unfortunately, describing how is more a job of poetry than prose. Besides, I don’t have a webcam to record myself, or my disembodied hands, doing it for you. You might find a commercial can opener a better option. Be careful, they break easily. If you find some in the ruins of a store take them all—you’ll need them. Got one? Okay, now here comes the tricky part.

You need to use this device to open the can to get at the goodies inside. I’m writing this during a rather paranoid and poorly educated period of human history, so please bear with me. It is your salvation. Even the simple can opener has to be sold with wordless instructions in my era. I am here posting those instructions. Follow these two simple steps, numbered conveniently “1.” and “2.” You will have food for your starving bellies soon enough. And while you’re slurping down whatever sweet or savory goodness is inside that metal container, maybe you’ll pay heed to a bit of friendly advice from someone who didn’t survive the dread end of the world: when enough of you find each other to need to elect a ruler, please be sure that whoever it is knows what she’s doing. One thing you might look for is someone who at least knows how to use a can opener.

Apocalyptic Dreams

Words. They can be slippery sometimes. Take for example the word “revelation.” It can be secular or sacred, and if the latter, general or specific. Many recognize it as the title of the final book of the Bible, and some can’t even get enough of it and make it plural—Revelations. “Revelation” is actually a translation of the Greek word apokalypsis, the “original” title of the book. It has been a source of contention as well as fascination just about since John—whoever he was—put quill to parchment. Elaine Pagels, whose work is always rewarding to read, plays on the singular/plural convention that raises the ire of many a biblical scholar. Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation is a refreshing change from what I read in college and seminary. No book exists without a history and that of the Apocalypse is colorful indeed. And it revolves around what has been traditionally taught about “revelation.”

The current final book of the New Testament presents itself as a revelation. It isn’t, however, the only book from this time period to do so. Many revelations existed, as did many gospels, in the first couple centuries of the Common Era. Some early leaders of the Christian movement who became inordinately influential decided that John’s revelation would be okay to keep but the rest should be destroyed. And they very nearly were. Some were recovered by the fortuitous discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in Egypt. These texts have preserved some of the other gospels and revelations that rivaled those of the current canon. It is in her close observations about their continuities and the motivations behind the politics of early Christians that Pagels sheds fascinating light on how Revelation became a tool of manipulation in a power struggle, primarily for centralized religious control of Egypt. Looking at headlines even now we know that it never really worked.

Revelation very nearly didn’t make the canonical cut. Many church leaders of the fourth century believed it spurious and not entirely helpful. It has, however, arguably become the most influential book of the Bible. Evangelicalism is hard to imagine without some kind of end times dispensational viewpoint that owes its existence to John of Patmos. Reformers, while not caring for the book, saw Revelation’s usefulness as a cudgel to strike at Rome. The papacy likewise saw it as a vivid threat against reformers. Those who took sola scriptura a little too literally used Revelation as the focal point of their hope and practice. Today we’re left with Left Behind and the Rapture and the Antichrist, whether they occur in Revelation or not. (They don’t, but who’s counting?) Pagels will give anyone plenty to think about here, and she’ll do it in surprisingly few words.