It’s the End of the World as We Know It – Or is It?

If you’re around my age, or have an appreciation for music from the late 1980s, you have an R.E.M. song stuck in your head after reading the title to this post. I don’t know about you, but all I ever managed to learn was the chorus. So when I was thinking about this post, I figured I should look up the full lyrics.

Lo and behold, R.E.M. were prophets. “Team by team reporters baffled, trump, tethered crop.” Apparently they forgot to capitalize the president’s last name. And as someone who both works with horses and sometimes does research in leather communities, I’m still sorting out the tethered crop. It sounds much more fun than Trump and the baffled reporters, to be quite honest. But are those less-than-enjoyable events the end of the world as we know it? Because I’m fairly certain the crop isn’t.

Key to this question, of course, is who “we” are. Then there’s also what, precisely, are the signs of the end times we seek. But my real question here is about how we think of time itself. For this point in time to be the end of the world as we know it, we have to think of the world as something that can end. I’ll get back to that, and to R.E.M., in a minute. But first: Charlottesville.

I’ve illustrated this post with an image from the Charlottesville white supremacist rally because so many people have spoken or written about the events that day as a turning point, the end of something, maybe even the end of the world as they knew it. But for others, what happened in Charlottesville was no turning point at all. It was instead a particular intensification of what’s been there all along, fundamental and foundational to the nation itself. From this angle, if Charlottesville was the end of the world as we know it, “we” might not have been paying attention. Maybe that world needed to end, so that we could live in a more realistic world and work to change it toward justice. But the very fact that we’re talking about ending worlds rests on a specific understanding of how worlds – and more to the point, time – work. Might we go about working for justice differently if we thought about time differently?

Many people are aware that terms like “the end of the world” refer to apocalypticism, a perspective on worlds and time that exists in a number of religions but that’s been particularly finely honed in Christianity. The concept of time that underlies most Christian perspectives on the world is linear, and it travels overall on an upward trajectory. There’s a creation at the beginning and there’s a final destruction (apocalypse) or re-creation or perfection of creation at the end, culminating in a blessed, timeless, and perfected realm for those who’ve lived righteously. But this linear model isn’t the only way to think of time. Some perspectives conceive of time as cyclical or as spiral. Some people who have more esoteric inclinations draw from contemporary physics to understand time as multiple – linear still, perhaps, but with more than one possible line. And even linear models of time don’t necessarily end.

If time is cyclical, there can’t be an “end of time,” though there might be an end to a specific phase of the cycle. If time is linear but unending – well, exactly. No “end of the world” there, even if the world as we know it might give way now and again to another kind of world. If time is on an upward trajectory – an ascending spiral, for instance, or an upward line – then any positive change in the world can be interpreted as proof that things are going in the expected direction and any negative change is backsliding. And regardless of our specific beliefs or upbringing, the cultures we live in also shape our models of time. Many Christian-based cultures, the U.S. among them, rely on linear and finite models of time in which (perhaps a bit paradoxically) things are constantly improving yet may also be heading toward an end point, whether that’s an apocalypse directed by God or one caused by Gaia. “It gets better” might not be just a statement of belief, but also a statement about time.

Do our models of time influence our activism? Historically, even different understandings of the Christian end times have led to drastically different approaches to social concerns within Christianity. If Jesus will return when humans have improved to the point that they’re ready to establish the heavenly eternal realm, then it’s a good idea to work on those improvements. On the other hand, if Jesus will return when Satan becomes strong again, to defeat the devil in the final battle, then it makes more sense to work as Jesus’ advance force, fighting demonic forces rather than building God’s realm prematurely. Even if you’re not Christian, if you’re working with an understanding of time as finite, linear, and positively directed you might see Charlottesville as an ugly slide back into an era that’s “behind” us. If your timeline goes downhill toward increasing degeneration before a final apocalypse, you might see Charlottesville as simply a sign of the times. And if race mixing is your idea of “degeneration,” then you might see the Charlottesville white supremacist rally as a protest against such backsliding, a move toward Progress.

How might our activism change if our models of time changed? What if we understood white supremacy not as a past that the U.S. has left behind but as a founding principle of the country, ever-present like a chronic condition that flares up more intensely from time to time? That’s a cyclical model. What if nothing – Charlottesville, Standing Rock, Orlando, Ferguson, Birmingham – is the end of the world as we know it? What if these are beginnings? What if they’re neither? How would we think, feel, act, imagine differently if we thought about how our ideas of time were shaping our interpretations and responses? Is the world easier to change if it never ends, or if it’s finite? If time is linear or cyclical or spiral or multiple or something else? If things are always getting better in the long run, or going to hell in a handbasket, or just steadily rippling like the ocean, sometimes with 5-foot swells and sometimes with great big 50-footers?

Does it matter? It might. It’s worth a thought.

Oh, and by the way – I’m not so sure I feel fine. Not at this time, anyway.

Author: Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa M. Wilcox is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author or editor of several books and journal issues, and numerous articles, on gender, sexuality, and religion. Her books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; and Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives. Her newest work, Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody, will be published in Spring 2018 in the Sexual Cultures Series at New York University Press, and she is at work on two textbook projects in the areas of queer studies and sexuality studies in religion.

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