One thing that always amazes and sometimes even amuses me is the way in which we tend to give mystical significance to our own inventions. I suspect that certain astronomers, mathematicians and physicists do this a lot. There is no doubting the fact that mathematics is a human invention to enable us to calculate, measure and weigh observed phenomena. It began, of course, simply with counting, then adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and then the ancient Greeks carried it to a new abstract level. That leap from calculation to higher math amazes me in itself, but also must have amazed and awed its own creators. Pythagoras made a religion out of it.
I will admit that I find certain mathematical concepts a road into speculative theology. Reflecting upon a straight line extended into infinity, the never-experienced, but always intuited, ideal of the perfect sphere,
One of the most charming non-fiction books I ever read was Pi in the Sky by John D. Barrow, an English astronomer. It was an overview of the development of mathematics with the hope of proving that math has a necessary relationship to the real world. His last chapter was a disappointment as he admitted that he was unable to prove it, but he nevertheless believed it. I try to keep an open mind about it myself. Although there is no question that the primary reason I stopped majoring in math at college was that I reached a point at which looking at an equation stretching across two blackboards and ending with . . . n reduced my mind to a blank, there was also the reality that I began to have doubts. Did much of this really pertain to the real world? Was the fact that you could solve an equation with multiple unknowns and large exponents an objective indication that dimensions or universes that we cannot experience in any way really exist? I was unconvinced. I’m not saying they can’t, mind you, I just need a bit of objective evidence.
There was a positive consequence to my having to get up at 3:00 in the morning when leaving Las Vegas last weekend to make an evening meeting here, and that was that the NPR station was airing an interview with a couple of astronomers, one of whom I think was John Barrow (that was the name I half heard as I was bathing, dressing and packing) a mathematician or two and a physicist on the subject of multiple universes, infinite dimensions and the vagaries of time. One of the most interesting speculations was that since a single cause can have a range of possible effects, a dimension or universe must exist in which each separate effect becomes the reality. Well, with an infinite number of universes I suppose that would be possible, but I, at least, ask myself why it should necessarily be true. Or not true. Or why, really, it matters. So far as I can discover we live in a three dimensional spatial world with time as a fourth dimension that we also experience, and anything more can be only speculation — and higher math, of course. The constructs of our own mind achieve the status of spiritual truth.
We seem to do that most blatantly with the calendar. Although no matter how we count it, it takes 365 and a quarter rotations for the earth to revolve around the sun, give or take a second or two, it is our own counting that has divided that year into seasons and months, weeks and hours. The calendar was a monumental achievement of the human spirit, but wholly human.
Except, perhaps, the Mayan calendar. Extended for thousands of years, it stops abruptly in the year 2012. Don’t worry, we have a few months left to go, Its endpoint is the winter solstice. One of my colleagues said, “Can’t you just see the guys working on the calendar, and one of them says to the other, ‘I bet that’ll cause consternation in 2012.’” I assume they decided that that was enough calendar to be going on with, but whatever their reason for stopping, consternation certainly seems to have been created among some groups of people. Because a brilliant creation of the human mind ends in what we have labeled the year 2012, therefore the world must end, too. That’s a pretty amazing conclusion to draw, but I’m beginning to suspect that there is little the human mind cannot believe if it wants to badly enough.
One of the things we seem to want to believe is that the world will end in some way that somehow gives meaning and justification to our lives. Most western ideas of the end times are based on the Zoroastrian religion. Many of the ideas and images that are common among us come from that pre-Christian religion that most of us have never even heard of although it still has some few adherents in
I was having a conversation with a colleague once who asserted that what held a particular religion together was a shared vision of the end times. How would you imagine the world would be after Armageddon. Then he said that whatever the details, for Unitarian Universalists the end times would have to be diverse. I disagreed with him on both terms of his argument. It seemed to me that you could have entirely different views of the end times, that the world would end in fire or ice or that each would sit under his own vine and fig tree and none would make him afraid, and still share a common faith with that variation, but I disagreed with him even more about whether a Unitarian Universalist millennium would have to be a vision of diversity. For me it could only be that perfect time of peace and plenty if everyone were able to choose freely his or her own style of perfection. Being different in our ideals and temperaments diversity would naturally be inevitable, but it is the freedom of choice that seems important to me, or how could it be the perfect time? If everyone freely chose, without outside authority or even peer pressure, exactly the same kind of vine and fig tree, it would be ok with me.
Armageddon and millennial thinking is always with us, though there seem to be occasional upsurges when times become particularly difficult. Isaiah was writing at the time of the sweeping away of the might of
One problem with that, of course, is no one is quite sure what to expect on the day the world ends according to the calendar. Does everything just stop, disappear, end? Others suggest other possibilities, and from what I can read they are now talking (those who are actually persuaded by the notion) not so much of an ending as a shift, a shift in consciousness, sort of like the beginning of the Age of Aquarius we heard about in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which didn’t seem to have much effect. This shift will be to the ancient Mayan values, values that believers have invented for them, of peacefulness and ecological awareness. In fact, the archeologists find little of either. Their complex religious rituals included occasional human sacrifice and the collapse of their civilization is blamed sometimes on the incessant warfare among their city-states and more often on their unsustainable population growth which their agricultural techniques could not support. I think maybe we’ve been there. Well, not the human sacrifice, perhaps.
The whole thing is really amazingly silly. The believers in the 2012 Armageddon (or, perhaps, millennium) have based their belief on a fallible work of human hands and mind, giving it some divine power to end or fundamentally change not only human societies but the whole planet on which we live. In itself it is not worth a moment’s attention, except, perhaps, to provide a somewhat bemused recognition of the peculiarities of humankind. However, there are more serious prophets of the end times that we must consider with more respect and decide how we are going to confront their prophecies and what it may mean to us in our living. These are the many scientists who have told us that we have passed the point of no return, that only doom and suffering await us, that nothing we can do can reverse or ameliorate the damage we have already done. And they are promising no millennium after Armageddon.
Perhaps they are right, though it has been said before and has not been right. But even if they are right this time, we cannot — must not live in that belief. For me the real horror of Poe’s story, “The Masque of the Red Death” was not that the plague invaded the prince’s stronghold despite all his caution but because his guests were reveling in the midst of nothing but suffering and death, not, it seemed, because they were denying that it could touch them, but because they, in despair, could think of nothing better to do.
The world will end some day, in fire or ice, and long before that time I suspect that human beings may well have become extinct. It is the reality of evolution that creatures do not last forever. With the exception, perhaps, of cockroaches. It is the reality of the universe that stars and planets also are finite in time and space. Whether another generation will find solutions to the problems that we find so intractable is something we cannot know. However, in a sense the Zoroastrians were right. Although in this world good and evil are not pure — the Taoists are right about that when they put their little circle of black in the white half of their symbol that the dot of white in the black half — nevertheless we are called to be on the side of the good. There will be no bridge separating the virtuous from the fallen, no personifications of good and evil to recognize and take sides for or against, no final heaven where are will live in comfort and the night is safe with open doors.