December 19, 2012
Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style
Our society is very familiar with apocalyptic thinking—especially when it comes clothed in religious garb. Indeed, it seems that every few years another date for the rapture or end of the world or the return of Christ is set, anticipation reaches a fever pitch, and then the day goes by with no noticeable change in our global social order. Then speculation dies down for some time before another date is set by yet another religious leader filled with messianic conviction. But religions are not the only place we find such convictions.
In a recent blog post, former EnlightenNext magazine Executive Editor Carter Phipps (author of Evolutionaries) argues that messianic thinking has become quite attractive in progressive circles as well, where so many people believe that we are reaching some sort of culmination of history and that we need some sort of era-defining event to pave the way to a new future. He calls our attention to the dangers of this way of thinking and suggests that the hype around 2012 as the final year on the Mayan calendar is just the latest example.
The final ‘Guru and Pandit’ dialogue of 2012, between Andrew and integral philosopher Ken Wilber about the apocalyptic thinking, is happening LIVE, this Friday, December 21st at 7pm ET (USA). Register here.
“Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style”
by Carter Phipps
May 21st. Apocalypse now. The rapture has come and gone. At least that’s the story as told by the latest Christian end-times believers who think that the world is coming to an end—oh, a few days ago. People quit jobs, spent their savings, said goodbye to friends and family—all with the firm belief that last exit to heaven was actually here. One couple in Florida spent their life savings, because why would they need it after May 21st? Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, this seems to happen about once every five years. Yes, it’s hard to believe in a modern age that this kind of thinking can still flourish to such a degree.
In academia they call this sort of thing eschatological thinking or golden age millennialism (the reference is from the Bible where Christ will eventually reign in paradise for 1000 years). Truth be told, this kind of thing has always been a fundamental part of religious traditions. While it may have been weaned out of some over the last few hundred years, it’s hardly a side issue. Just about every major religion, even Buddhism, has some kind of central messianic eschatological tradition. If it’s not the second coming of the Christ, it’s the return of the Mahdi, or the coming of the Maitreya, or the appearance of the Kalki, the end of the Iron Age, the coming of a new Jerusalem, the return of Quezacotl, the…well, you get the idea. And even today, most religious traditions still have a rich and active eschatological strain.
I wrote a great deal about this in an article almost a decade ago (which you can find here). It’s a fascinating subject. And even after failure upon failure, people are shockingly undeterred. End times thinking is one of those mind viruses that simply won’t bow to the reality of failure.
For the rest of us who hail from the more progressive, less traditional layers of culture, it does make for a sort of fish in the barrel intellectual sport. Plenty of good apocalypse jokes to go around these days. My Twitter account has been practically a laugh track the last week.
The only problem with all of this hilarity at the expense of true believers is that they aren’t the only people who feel tempted to believe in some kind of messianic event outside of history that will somehow save the world. I’ve found it fascinating to realize that even some “spiritual but not religious” people have their own messianic tastes. Indeed, on the progressive edges of culture where smart, well-intentioned spiritual-oriented individuals work hard to improve themselves and make the world a better place, this sort of thinking, while certainly not as dramatic , still thrives.
Just look at the hype surrounding 2012. The 2012 contingent believes that the Mayan calendar and various other prophetic pronouncements tell us that major changes are coming to Earth sometime around Dec, 24, 2012. That’s the coming date of grand culmination and depending on who you talk to it might be a fantastic evolutionary breakthrough event leading to a resurgence of love and light or a dramatic earth change disaster scenario of epic proportions. Remember that the movie 2012, which was based on this idea, depicted a disastrous world destroying magnetic pole shift.
2012 is the progressive version of traditional eschatological thinking. It’s the idea that an event is going to occur that is dramatically outside the normal processes of history and change everything, lifting the majority of humanity to a higher level of consciousness and creating a more enlightened future. There are darker versions as well, where a sort of mini-apocalypse has to occur before we get to the better side of the future, but generally 2012 represents a positive version of eschatological thinking. It’s a more benign strain, we might say, but it’s still the same basic song just a prettier arrangement.
Now it’s not hard to understand the appeal of this kind of thinking. For those of us who care deeply about the fate of this beautiful blue planet and its remarkable self-aware inhabitants, not to mention a whole host of cute and furry creatures large and small (and yes, the not so cute and furry ones as well), the stakes of our lives seemed to be raised in the last decades. We have become powerful beyond any precedent in history with the technological powers that rival anything mythological Gods ever conceived of.
We are becoming masters of the planet, and along with that power comes a justifiable fear that we might accidentally or unwittingly be the creators of our own end times scenario, our own apocalyptic orgy of destruction if we don’t quickly mature as a species. And since that particular kind of maturity seems to be taking a little bit longer than would makes us feel comfortable, there is the understandable tendency to want to push it along with a dramatic event or two to send us all into a higher level of consciousness and a greater level of responsibility for the future. And believe me, if such a thing were possible, I’d be the first one to sign up.
So even those of us on the progressive sides of culture have to be wary about slipping into messianic thinking. And at the same time, we must not fall into the other trap—allowing our idealism to collapse into a realism that is nothing more than cynicism. Unexpected amazing and positive things do happen. Dramatic leaps forward can occur that surprise us all. Indeed, just because one thousand years of love and light are not going to dawn on us all in the next few days doesn’t mean that we can’t deeply believe in the positive possibilities of the future. It doesn’t mean we don’t have real powers at our disposal to bump and nudge and prod the forces of cultural development forward just a little further.
So how do we think responsibly and optimistically about the evolution of human culture without falling into fatalism or cynicism on one hand but without any over-optimistic messianic thinking on the other? What is that sweet spot between these two easy traps of the human mind. In the next installment of this post, I’ll talk about that question, about what it means to embrace the most positive vision of human evolution possible without losing our minds to the messianic meme.
No More Messiahs
A few years ago, I was doing research on an article on messianic thinking, and I came across a fascinating historical tidbit from the nineteenth century about Anne Besant, who had been a women’s rights activist in London before joining the Theosophical Society and eventually becoming its president. Besant was an interesting character for many reasons, but she is perhaps best known for her efforts to find the young boy who was supposed to grow up to be the World Teacher of the Theosophical Society. That boy was Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great twentieth-century teacher who rejected his association with Theosophy along with any sort of messianic titles and became a powerful independent philosopher/teacher in his own right.
It’s a fascinating story in many respects, but what struck me at the time was the reason for Besant’s messianic turn. It seems that she was incredibly passionate about progressive causes at the time, and amidst difficult conditions of the poor, and the squalor and poverty of an industrializing London, she began to lose faith in the modernizing forces at work in the economics of the day. After a flirtation with Marxism she met Helen Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, and became interested in those esoteric teachings.
I’m sure there were many reasons for Besant’s interest in Theosophy, not the least being her own longtime spiritual interests, but one reason struck me as important: she was losing faith in the capacity of progressive causes to make a difference in the rapidly industrializing homeland. She had lost faith in politics and progressive movements to change the circumstances of the disadvantaged and so turned to inner dimensions, to spirituality, and, in particular, to a new faith in a coming “world teacher.” Her messianic turn, in other words, was driven by a desire to jump-start, or at least speed up, the processes of cultural evolution. Indeed, it was her waning faith in the possibilities of progressive change that led her to turn away from her activism and look for a heroic, history-changing event.
Indeed, I have noticed that it is often when we don’t have real conviction in the possibility of evolutionary change that we start reaching for revolutionary messianic movements. It may be the global promise of 2012, or the Harmonic Convergence, or some sort of “Earth Change” or massive one-time universal “shift” that will pave the way to the future, but it will definitely be something. In that respect, I see many Besants in our own time, individuals who have a deep desire for change, and a passion to see things truly improve on this delicate third rock from the sun. These are often the same people who have worked hard for noble causes that are slow to take root in our culture. They look out at a world of climate change, terrorism, corruption, overpopulation, and financial disaster, and where billion people live in poverty, and conclude that things are not getting better at all. Or if they are, they aren’t improving fast enough.
And then they pray, hope, meditate—for some event; some change of consciousness; some immanent convergence, emergence, or resurgence of love, light, peace, and compassion to deliver us from the evil and ignorance that has a hold on our collective soul. In other words, they look for a messiah, or a messianic event, to change everything. Sure, they may not use that term, but semantics aside, that is what it is. And often they invoke the term “evolution” to describe this change in consciousness.
Ironically, such thinking has nothing to do with evolution of consciousness and culture in the way that I understand it. In fact, I want to suggest something that may be controversial: It is not a faith in evolution that leads one to embrace the messianic meme but a lack of faith. It is this insufficient appreciation of the power of evolution at a cultural level and a failure to understand how cultural evolution works that leads us to start reaching for super-historical forces to emerge and save the day.
I don’t have time in this post to argue why cultural evolution is real and a completely legitimate kind of evolution. I’ll leave that for another day. But the point I want to make is that when we begin to appreciate the true dimensions of the vast evolutionary process that we are a part of, we begin to see the present and future differently. While cultural evolution is frustratingly obstinate, yes, and perhaps unresponsive to human timelines, things do change and develop. Huge shifts suddenly happen before our eyes. And even then, there are reactions and counter-reactions, pullbacks and lateral movements, and new problems arise even as old ones are solved.
But evolution is real; it is happening, and the deeper our perception and understanding of that, the more powerful will be our response to the evolutionary challenges of our time—even if our best efforts fail to immediately bear the kind of fruit that matches our idealism. We should never underestimate the human spirit, even as it negotiates its way through the considerable horrors of human history. We can influence history, change history, impact history, but we can’t force-fit it to our version of utopia. Things move forward, and the efforts of individuals can have an impact, small and insignificant as they may seem in the moment. In our globalizing information age, I’d argue that the efforts of individuals can have more impact today than they ever could before. That is also part of evolution.
Remember that evolution in the way I’m speaking about it is not just about biology and DNA. Nor is it just about the development of socio-economic structures and political systems. It is also about the evolution of our interior consciousness, things like values and morals, perspectives and worldviews. Evolution at that level is slow but also powerful and consequential. Even a little bit of genuine movement can have a huge impact on culture. We should never underestimate the powerful leverage of evolution at the level of interior consciousness can have on the future of our society. But there are no inevitabilities or guarantees, and we can’t just snap our fingers and immediately change the momentum of thousands of years.
And while things can seem to be changing slowly, sometimes we don’t actually appreciate just how much is moving and shifting under the surface. For example, it seems like the problem of race in America is frustratingly slow to improve, and there is no shortage of voices telling you “nothing has changed”—right up until the day we elect a black president.
I’m sure it seemed like London’s poverty was impossible to impact in the late nineteenth century, and yet look at it today—not perfect by any means, but a heck of a lot different than a hundred years ago. That’s a massive movement forward.
When I was a boy I would watch the great tennis players of my era, Borg and McEnroe, vie for the Grand Slams of the tennis world. And I would imagine in my own mind what it might be like to play like that and compete at such a high level. That vision I held in my mind was important to my development as a player. But ultimately, what was more inspiring and more invigorating than even a great idealistic vision was to experience myself develop actual new skills, to see the possibility of self-development, to build confidence in the fact that I could transform myself into a great player through my own efforts.
Such an experience breaks, at least temporarily, what I call the spell of solidity, a deep intrinsic conviction in the idea that we live in a fundamentally static universe and that human nature is more or less unchanging and that the way things are today is more or less the way they will be tomorrow. When we break that conviction, even in a relationship to relatively unimportant areas of our lives, it’s like breaking a dam in our consciousness. We start to see the world around us in new ways, we start to experience new and liberating possibilities, and we see more directly the underlying evolution and movement that is part of the process of human nature and human culture. We start to see how we can actually develop individually and collectively—whether it’s on the tennis court or in the much more important areas of human society.
Just as no larger vision of myself as a great tennis player could compete with the sheer exuberance of seeing real development in real time, no grand vision of cultural transformation is going to be enough if we don’t break the spell of solidity, that deep conviction in ourselves that human nature and human culture is essentially immovable and therefore needs a great transformative event to go from one static condition to another.
There is nothing wrong with great visions of possibility. We need them, as long as they’re not crazy and unrealistic. We need them in order to inspire us and give us direction and focus. But what truly inspires and invigorates is to participate in actual development, and in doing so to appreciate how that development is connected to the larger historical flow of evolution over the last five thousand years of human culture.
When our eyes open up to the reality of evolution in human nature and culture and we can look back and see not five thousand years of stasis but centuries and centuries of difficult and hard-won evolution in the interior of human lives and in the exterior of human society, we will stop hoping for messiahs. We will embrace a different vision of the future, one that requires the challenging but ultimately much more rewarding work of contributing to a process that transcends our own lives and that, miraculously, we can impact with our own actions.
Andrew’s final Guru & Pandit dialogue of 2012 with Ken Wilber is coming up this Friday, December 21st. Register here.
Image: Phil Plait/Flickr.com