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Apocalypse After All?
This article was originally published in
Political Theology, 13 January 2023
REPUBLISHED WITH PERMISSION
Amidst climate catastrophe and accompanying disasters, references to “apocalypse” on the right and the left won’t desist. So its ancient meaning– not “the end of the world” but “unveiling” — can help resist the denialisms and the nihilisms that close, rather than disclose, possibilities of world transformation.
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As the fires, floods, and droughts of climate change spiral around a planetary pandemic and intensify political precarity, the ancient symbol of apocalypse keeps finding new life. It pulses––quite apart from continuous fundamentalist deployments––across fully secular news sources (the “Insect Apocalypse” [NYTimes] “A Climate Apocalypse Now” [LATimes] “Ecological Armageddon” [Guardian]). Because no other word quite delivers its warning of imminent collective catastrophe, religious scholarship must work to fine-tune its public use. Attempting to keep it in the original context of the Book of Revelation and to discourage present applications will only fail. My most recent book Facing Apocalypse therefore works with the ancient text in its disturbing resonances with present history. It offers to a non-specialist public, not presumed Christian or even theistic, a spiritually charged meditation on the meaning of shared life in the face of systemic danger. Late in the last millennium, I had written Apocalypse Now & Then: a Feminist Approach to the End of the World. I was then only begrudgingly attentive to the prophetic anti-imperialism of Revelation, to its ancient denunciation of Rome’s global economics as well as its colonialism. The broad public acquiescence in global warming returned me to its fiery forcefield.
Call it archetype or stereotype, but the apocalypse as foregone conclusion, as a predetermined outcome, indeed as the inevitable End, haunts Western civilization. Most obviously, the history of a right-wing fundamentalist doomsday narrative that basks in signs of the Endtimes runs through American cultural veins. It feeds climate change denial––not only in terms of conservative faith in neoliberal economics but in the soon return of the Lord, which makes environmental problems irrelevant. But the apocalypse habit also takes subliminal, fully secular forms, which infect the liberal-progressive public with a sense of futility and paralysis—just when action is most needed. This last danger has never been more manifest than in the present tipping-point of our planetary climate: it is becoming all too easy to hear “too late.” So the conservative denialism is supplemented by a liberal nihilism.
It may in fact be too late to return to the Earth of the Holocene period of eco-systemic stability that allowed for agriculture and cities—that is, civilization. But whatever collapse the Anthropocene epoch portends, it does not entail “the End of the World.” Multiple possible futures remain in play even for the anthropos. Some possible futures twist from all the extinctions our kind has caused to the extinction of humankind. But human restarts, some more ecosocially promising than others, remain possible. And possibility matters, however close to the impossible. Possibility is what we materialize.
So if in this tipping point the ghost of the ancient apokalypsis shadows us, perhaps word must get out––that the word actually means “unveiling,” used for the unveiling of the bride on the wedding night; that disclosure does not mean mere closure. If we cannot exorcize the ghost of the apocalypse, we might as well disclose its own–– disclosiveness. Facing Apocalypse pivots around the pronouncement made as the “seventh seal” is opened: “one third of the trees of the earth burnt;” then “one third of the life of the seas died.” Hard to miss the contemporary resonance. The letter goes on to narrate yet more gruesome scales of nonhuman as well as human death. Nonetheless: “The End of the World” never takes place. Neither in the Jewish nor the Christian Bible. As the latter’s last word, John’s Apocalypse ends rather with a realization of the Hebrew prophetic hope of a “New Jerusalem”––indeed with the celebration of the wedding of the messianic lamb with that city come “down to earth.”
Reading the old scroll not as predicting present facts but as ‘dreamreading’ a disturbingly deep civilizational pattern, this book offers a space of contemplation, irony and creative response. It unfolds with the sequence of Revelation: from an opening collage of cloud pierced by a “double-edged” sword-tongue, through an amplifying spiral of imperial violence. (As I write the first two seals of the Apocalypse, releasing the horses bearing colonial conquest and the violence of war, break open afresh. I had focused in my book more on the two horses of economic injustice and plague.) When the seventh seal cracks, Revelation spirals on through burning trees and poisoned seas lamented by a mourning eagle. The vision pauses with the sun-clothed woman suffering severe birth pains, indeed earth pangs, horrifically worsened by the dragon of malign power. It passes through the text’s satire of the drunken beastly sovereign of Roman imperialism answered by the “grapes of wrath.” It reflects (avoiding a tempting feminist dismissal) on the image of the voracious imperial global economy as the “Babylon the Great,” porn queen of the apocalypse. The “divine violence” (Walter Benjamin) that explodes in answer to the empire political and economic did tragically wield such a double edged sword that it justified centuries of Christian colonial aggression.
Yet the text does not give the devastating violence to humanity and the earth the last word. Instead the festive wedding takes place, as the topos of utopia, at once “the good place” and “no place.” The “leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations”: not for the end of the world but for its radical renewal. The new green city centered around its medicine trees and water of life “free for all who are thirsty.” signifies no apolitical afterlife, no supernatural heaven. In it divinity dwells everywhere within. Facing Apocalypse works to read the old prophecy as critically and carefully as the context allows––and so to meditatively dreamread our planetary situation. The ghostly old text, with its endless charge of contradictory influences, may then recycles itself as resource for the present tense. A present tensing up with fragile chances, last chances, but chances nonetheless, for planetary healing.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Catherine Keller is Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In her teaching, lecturing and writing, she develops the relational potential of a theology of becoming. Her books reconfigure ancient symbols of divinity for the sake of a planetary conviviality—a life together, across vast webs of difference. She is the author most recently of Political Theology of the Earth (Columbia, 2019) and Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances (Orbis Press, 2021).