Either we’re devout Christians or we won’t let anything, especially a minor thing like the end of the world, get in the way of our Christmas preparations. The resolute foraging into tiangge in search of the perfect, and cheap, gift is in full swing, with no one particularly minding the possible intrusion of the end of the world before the gift-giving on Noche Buena or Christmas Eve. The Mayan calendar presumably predicts that to happen on Dec. 21.
Elsewhere in the world, well, in parts of Latin America, apparently, some tourist groups are making a killing promoting doomsday-theme getaways, scorning the idea that money won’t mean anything after Dec. 21. Guatemala is expected to draw as much as 90,000 in an end-of-the-world party.
All this has driven Pope Benedict XVI to tell Christians to shun the dire warnings. At an Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square, he told the crowd that though the Bible spoke of “the sun and moon going out, and the stars falling from the sky,” it never said when this was going to happen. Certainly, he said, when Jesus Christ used apocalyptic images, he wasn’t being prophetic, he was being poetic. Or he merely wanted to give his followers “the key to … the right road to walk today and tomorrow to enter into the eternal life.”
This is of course not the first time would-be prophets have warned of the end of the world, based on their interpretations of the Bible or various ancient texts. Only last year, we had this Oakland religious minister, Harold Camping, who predicted the Rapture would happen in May of that year, prompting several of his more passionate followers to dispose of their properties on this earth in preparation for entering one of the many mansions in heaven. Camping himself padlocked his radio warehouse—he never explained why that was necessary in the coming cataclysm—with signs all over the place that said, “I hope God will save me—Harold Camping.”
God did save him from instant death but not from long-term embarrassment. He has since disappeared from the face of the earth, or from the face of the air, or radio. What can one say? Some people mistake the end of their world for that of others.
There were end-of-the-world camp-outs as well when the new millennium burst in, apparently based on warnings from the Bible. The same phenomenon happened at the end of the first millennium A.D., if Umberto Eco is to be believed, which at least produced the end of days for whole populations then. The Church went on an Inquisitorial orgy to stamp out heresy, wreaking genocide on whole “cults,” in preparation for the Second Coming. That the world did not end then was subsequently explained as an error in calculation: The Bible had in fact predicted the sun and moon blackening and the stars falling down in the dawning, or nondawning, of the second millennium, not the first. Hence, the 2000 doomsday tea parties.
Well, the world is still around. Bedraggled and full of strife, but still around.
But I don’t know that we can really feel smug that it will be around forever, or even for a long time. Well may we scoff at the predictions, religious or otherwise, of an impending doom. But it may be more real than we think, thanks not to the alignment of the stars but to the disalignment of our priorities, thanks not to the will of heaven but to the whims of earth, thanks not to the vengefulness of God but to the carelessness of man. I myself am terrified by the brittle thing we have made, and continue to make, of this planet.
I’ve been getting plentiful reminders of that of late in the freakish weather we’ve been having. As a friend told me recently: “It’s almost December and it’s hotter than hell! It’s like we’re in the dead of summer.” True, as I know only too well. I had asthma as a child, and my particular allergy has to do with abrupt changes in weather. Though I outgrew the asthma, I continue to experience shortness of breath when it gets hot and cold suddenly. I’m experiencing it now.
While that’s happening here, America is bracing for another hurricane. That’s after Frankenstorm Sandy just pounded the East Coast, leaving all sorts of gallows-type jokes hereabouts about what would happen to the series “Jersey Shore” and “Boardwalk Empire.” And leaving residents in shock. The storm did rearrange the face of the East the way goons rearrange the faces of their victims. It made the city that never sleeps look sleepless, or not unlike a Third World country with its flooded subway, relief camps, homeless people dreading the onslaught of winter, lack of power, lack of gasoline, and lack of confidence in the future.
Of course the storm got to pound as well the reality of an imperiled planet into the tail end of the US elections, even jaded conservatives like Michael Bloomberg sounding urgent calls for increased American attention to global warming. But all that huffing and puffing disappeared almost as fast as it came. There hasn’t been much talk about it since.
Which reminds me of what Elizabeth Kolbert said a couple of weeks ago: “It is, at this point, impossible to say what it will take for American politics to catch up to the reality of North American climate change. More superstorms, more heat waves, more multibillion-dollar ‘weather-related loss events’? The one thing that can be said is that, whether or not our elected officials choose to acknowledge the obvious, we can expect, ‘with a high degree of confidence,’ that all of these are coming.”
I may not believe in the predictability of the Mayan calendar and the Bible, but I do believe in the unpredictability of human nature. Good question to ask: What does it take for all of us to catch up with the reality of a threatened world?
The end of the world?