November 23-28 — The End of the World?

By Christopher Renstrom

Christopher, I have been dying to ask you what you think about the Mayan theory of 2012 and the ending of the world? —Troy

What can I say? Doomsday sells. Where would The Learning Channel be without their late night marathons of the Nostradamus Prophecies? They rank right up there with Shark Week.

We began the 21st century with the Y2k millennium bug, moved on to the Rapture, and now it’s 2012 that’s all the rage. I’m sure the Mayans had good reason for constructing their calendar in the way that they did, but if Astrology teaches us anything, it’s that cultures don’t keep time in the same way. We may all begin and end our days with the rising and setting of the sun; but our seasons are different– like our hemispheres are different—which means different calendars and different astrologies. For instance Chinese astrology is based on a lunar calendar, while Western astrology is based on a solar calendar. Just because we can reconstruct the way that Mayans told time centuries ago doesn’t mean that that’s the way our time is told.

Something always gets lost in translation when you begin searching another culture for sacred signs and symbols. You may think you’re uncovering hidden truths, but oftentimes you’re simply projecting your own hopes and fears—albeit recast in the exotica of that particular culture. Sometimes it’s a benevolent worldview—like a call to reconnect to nature and simplify your life; sometimes it’s a dark prophecy—like our current fascination with the Mayan calendar.

The real question here is: why do we want the world to end? The Apocalypse has its roots in the revenge fantasies of slaves. First conceived by early Christians who were understandably tired of being feed and fodder to lions and gladiators, the Apocalypse held out the promise that someday the meek would inherit the earth and that the evildoers in power would get their comeuppance. Yet being oppressed doesn’t necessarily make you a nicer person than your oppressors. If anything history has taught us that the oppressed can be equally nasty. Longing for the day when humanity will meet its end beneath crashing tidal waves, spiraling firestorms, and falling stars is no different than sitting ringside at one of Rome’s bloody bread and circuses calling out for the kill. Instead of exemplifying the highest in Christianity—which is invoking the Kingdom of God through the daily practice of love and forgiveness– the Apocalypse typifies the lowest. The Apocalypse is, in my opinion, a cop out. It underscores the hopelessness and pessimism of people who can’t conceive of a future generation doing a better job of making the world a decent place to live in.

I don’t know if this is what the Mayans foresaw, but it’s certainly what’s being attributed to them now. And I’m sure that by the time New Year’s Eve of 2013 rolls around we will be on to the next Doomsday du jour. It puts me in mind of what the Polish author Stanislaw Lec once warned: “Do not expect too much from the end of the world.”

This article was originally published on November 22, 2009.