If we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse. –Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Millenarian ideas have been expressed in different ways in diverse settings for many centuries. They have been at the heart of distinctive religious movements emerging in both technologically unsophisticated societies and highly technologised democracies. Notable attempts to explain the emergence of millenarian communities have failed to adequately account for the pervasiveness of apocalyptic ideas in not only religion but other dimensions of life. For instance, millenarian themes can be heard in the speeches of the most powerful politicians on Earth and seen within extremely popular stories and films. It would seem that while at least some people perceive that life can be changed beyond recognition by forces beyond their comprehension, or that the survival of their world is in doubt, millenarian thinking flourishes and finds new forms of expression.
The term apocalypse means different things to different people. To some in might equate with complete destruction of the human world, whether by an act of God or natural disasters. Many link it to themes from dominant religions, where it is thought of as a time when God or his agents will appear on Earth to battle evil forces and lead some to salvation and banish sinners to hell. However, the word actually is rooted in more subtle concepts and means to ‘uncover’ or ‘reveal’. When associated with rigid mythologies, created at times of social unrest and tribalistic conflict, apocalypse tends to be clothed in distinctly dualistic ideologies. God and the devil, heaven and hell, believers and non-believers, us and ‘them’ and sin and salvation are some key polarities in such a dualistic interpretation of reality. Conversely, if apocalypse is taken to mean uncovering or revealing, things automatically open up and appear more interesting, less dogmatic and perceptions are less likely to lead to catastrophic conflicts.
Millenarianist visionaries have anticipated quite different things over time. Jesus anticipated that the kingdom of God would be established on Earth but what he believed this would entail is not clear as he tended to speak in vague parables. Cargo cult members hoped that their spiritual ancestors would return, colonialists would be banished and material goods would be given to the faithful. Marian Keech anticipated biblical scale floods and expected her group of devoted followers to be rescued by highly intelligent aliens who would take them to space. José Argüelles expected several things to happen before 2012. Some of his prophecies, including humanity adopting his pseudo-Mayan Dreamspell calendar, have already failed to happen. Apparently speaking for the Mayan Elders, Carlos Barrios anticipated that the massive volcano at Yellowstone National Park in the US would have erupted and brought chaos by now. Had he been vaguer and just predicted that a volcanic eruption would bring widespread chaos he might have gained credibility after Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010.
Any shaman, dreamer or meditator would acknowledge that visions are notoriously difficult to pin down and make sense of. A person in a visionary state may see thousands of scenes, people and entities over hours, while also having auditory hallucinations – often in a strange language. After intense visionary journeys most people find it impossible to articulate more than a vague sense of their experience.
It is the nature of the alluring and baffling world of visions that the experiences are ineffable. Readers who have not experienced waking visionary states will no doubt be able to recall times when they, in the space of a few minutes, had numerous intense dreams. In dreams individuals interact with many people and live entirely different lives, but soon after opening their eyes the memories of those worlds are lost. By the time most people get out of the shower their dreams have gone, faster than water down the plughole.
There are good reasons why most people dismiss their dreams or waking visions. One key reason is because most people intuitively realise that they are not to be taken literally. In our individualistic, post Freud age, many people would also assume that the visions relate to their own minds and relationships. Of those people who do dwell on their dreams and visions, most apply the insights to their inner worlds and move on. Most people would acknowledge that strange things do happen to us when we dream or when we consume a vision-inducing substance, but they are able to put such experiences to one side and get on with their lives.
The small minority of people who respond to their visions and dreams and establish or become greatly involved with millenarian movements deserve our attention. It is, of course, easy to equate their experiences to mental illness. Like those suffering from schizophrenia, millenarian prophets see and hear things of a strange nature and then attempt to reconstruct the world around their experiences. I would suggest that it is not the experience of visions and intense dreams that make such people unusual but the efforts they make to convince others of the significance of their experience and to reshape the world to fit their altered perceptions.
Every night billions of people dream and every week many millions of people seek out conscious visions by taking drugs, meditating, praying, fasting or drumming. If more than a tiny minority of these people interpreted their visions in a literal manner and were bold and dogmatic enough to encourage others to follow them, millenarian groups would be springing up every minute of every day. Similarly, if everybody took their dreams and visions literally and acted on them, the world would become a huge open air asylum or battleground. Therefore, it is apparent that what defines a prophet is not their visions, which are easy to obtain, but their arrogant assumption that their visions are of unique significance and that they should be followed by others. This may reflect the intensity of certain individuals’ visions but it may also be connected with the pushy character of those who claim to be prophets.
As the case of José Argüelles demonstrates, the dogmatism of a prophet can actually have the effect of clouding the perceptions of those who take an interest in their visions, whether serious followers or not. By appropriating aspects of Mayan calendrics in order to create Dreamspell, Dr Argüelles has, in my view, peddled misinformation. Furthermore, by pushing his bizarre prophecies he has no doubt put many intelligent people off exploring the Mayan calendar or 2012 millenarianism. This is unfortunate, particularly for the Maya themselves, but it does at least illuminate a wider issue related to millenarianism. As we are now able to see that Arguelles’ Planetary Art Network (PAN) hogged centre-stage and distracted people from understanding Mayan calendrics and culture, we should consider the possibility that something similar has happened throughout history. Millenarian prophets may gain all the attention, with their attractive visions and colourful nature, but this should not distract us from exploring, in a more subtle and intelligent way, realistic possibilities of apocalypse.
Millenarian prophets are alluring but also ultimately ludicrous figures, particularly after their prophecies fail. As the nature of what they do is claim that certain dramatic things will happen by certain dates, there is always the likelihood that they will be proved wrong and written off as charlatans or mentally ill. Because we now have access to information about a vast number of religions existing historically and globally, it is easy to write off any contemporary millenarian prophet as a deluded fool at best and a self-serving, deceitful manipulator in some cases.
However, I believe that there is a danger of throwing the baby away with the bathwater if we do not examine why particular groups came into being. At the very least, this can help us reflect more sharply on the characteristics of a society in which a group emerged. There is also the possibility that we can understand how elements of leaders’ visions of the future may turn out to be true, on some level, when considered carefully.
Cultural evolution is a subtle thing and just because a prophetic vision appears to fail does not mean that it should be dismissed completely. I believe that a series of apocalypses have happened and continue to happen to the human world. They may not have involved the Earth having its poles reversed, burned by a nuclear war, destroyed by a massive volcano or a God returning to Earth to pass judgement on our actions. However, the undeniable fact is that the world in which we live has transformed and continues to transform before our eyes.
The specifics of millenarian prophecies invariably fail but the dynamism of the world which inspires fear, hope and incredible visions, is a constant reality. The dynamism in the world is partly to do with physical changes, for example natural disasters and technological developments – such as the invention of the printing press, aircraft or the internet. However, the dynamism of the world is also generated and maintained by changes within our own minds. In this respect, I believe the movement towards apocalypse has always been driven by and continues to be driven by the evolution of human consciousness.
If we take apocalypse to mean uncovering or revealing, I would speculate that 2012 will be remembered as a significant date. Changes in the external world are happening faster and faster, information about local events can be shared with the world within moments and human beings are more aware of themselves and others than they have ever been. I can be sure that apocalypse will take place in 2012 and beyond as I am aware that it is happening already – and not merely in the imaginations of fanciful millenarianists. It is happening in the minds of people all around the world as they become more conscious of realities and able to share these internationally.
The process of awakening has been happening forever and there have been untold numbers of epiphanies and mini apocalypses in the minds of individuals. Some of these have been woven into myths and religions and had massive impacts on the external world and the lives of billions of people – even if only by the conscious process of rejecting or fighting against a religion or ideology.
If we believe biblical scriptures, it appears as though Jesus anticipated something amazing to happen during or soon after his lifetime. A utopian world overseen by a fair, parental God figure did not manifest while Jesus was alive or immediately after he died. Nevertheless, his execution and stories about his life generated something of a global apocalypse or uncovering. This ultimately led to a strong and widespread perception that the planet is being observed by a divine paternal creator figure. Tragically, however, such is the tendency for humans to look at things in black and white terms that, coupled with the spiritual uncovering catalysed by Christ’s death, there was also a narrowing of awareness. Consequently, the dogmatism and attacks on ‘non-believers’, encouraged by a narrow and perverted understanding of Jesus’ message of unity and forgiveness, promoted the opposite of spiritual revelation.
The notion that stories about the life and death of a man could cause both an apocalypse and a narrowing of human awareness at the same time may seem strange to some. However, the extreme dualism – the infantile black and white thinking of dogmatic ‘followers’ who lacked the prophets spiritual insight – ensured that this would be the case in respect to Christianity. Furthermore, the dogmatism that became part and parcel of Christianity had a devastating effect on Christendom’s engagement with the ‘primitive’ world. At the time when Christian colonialists were making their encroachments on Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, the church embodied such an extreme dualistic dogmatism that it is not surprising that those ‘heathens’ colonised were treated as atrociously as they were.
The emergence of other religious movements has been influenced by millenarianism but each can also be viewed as a mini apocalypse as they have resulted in an uncovering or revealing of a larger reality. The impact of each at the time and in subsequent years was primarily limited to those adopting the faiths or those most vociferously opposed to them. However, over time, information about even the smallest and most transitory religion has been circulated and reappraised.
Anthropological fieldworkers, colonialists, missionaries, traders and migrants have historically been the people most responsible for collecting and disseminating information about all sorts of religions and native philosophies. The writing of armchair theorists like James Frazer and mythologists, most notably Joseph Campbell, have helped illustrate the variety of religions and spiritualities. The work of Campbell has articulated how all religions and myths tell a story of essentially the same thing, but through the prism of different cultures. Given that different societies have long been in competition with one another, it is not surprising that religion has been used to demonise neighbours and feared outsiders. More recently, the internet has shared with the world the huge variety of religious ideas humanity has expressed over the millennia.
A cynical and dogmatic atheist would perhaps wish to interject at this stage and say something like “Yes, we can see that humans have created religions for thousands of years and many of these are millenarian in nature. But what have these religions achieved? Where is the apocalypse these people have been longing for?” This, in my view, is a bit like asking “Where has science got us?” or “Where has our conscience and ethics got us?” It is true that utopian societies are the stuff of disturbing films more than lived experience. However, if we are going to trace millenarianism back to Zoroaster and through Judaism, classical Mayan society, Jesus, Islam, Aztec culture, the Hopis and the New Age, we must also reflect on how the world and human consciousness has transformed.
If we understand that apocalypse means to uncover or reveal there have been a huge number of apocalypses since Zoroaster. Developments in science, technology, information exchange, philosophy and travel have come at a greater and greater speed over the millennia. It should not be surprising that quantum leaps in knowledge, experience and philosophy come ever more rapidly – because every new insight leads to others, in a rapid chain reaction. Furthermore, we now have almost seven billion people on the planet – seven times more human lives than 200 years ago. Not only do we have massively more people around but as a species we are better educated than we have ever been and we have an ability to share information that was jealously guarded before. Consequently, our capacity to solve problems and generate new ideas is colossal.
In relation to philosophy, one does not have to have taken a degree in the subject to have incorporated the insights offered by great thinkers. The ideas of philosophers filter out across the world is a way that would have astonished people like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates, who had to debate in the marketplace in order to have any chance of influencing society. A sense of ethics is such a fundamental aspect of contemporary life that notable deviations from morality into bloodbaths and acts of cruelty have become exoticised by the media. Rather than frighten us, the sense of unfathomable otherness we see in psychopathic killers should reassure us that such people are a strange and tiny minority.
We have got to the stage in most countries where each individual has become so precious that a missing child makes the front page of newspapers for years. We have also, thankfully, got to the stage where the deaths of soldiers serving overseas are often the lead story on television news bulletins. It is worth reflecting on the fact that we have made this philosophical shift towards a greater respect for people (and a particular reverence of children) in the context of a population growing rapidly. Our insight into philosophy, aided by religion, has certainly enabled us to move a considerable distance from people being flailed alive or sacrificed to Aztec gods, and from innocent women being tortured, drowned and torched in the name of a charismatic Palestinian carpenter.
We have further to go before we harness the resources, technology and philosophical wisdom uncovered in our mini apocalypses, to ensure that all people are fed, housed, educated, given medical care and treated with dignity. However, if we take a step back we can see that this is the direction humanity has long been moving in. With the benefit of distance, we have to accept that the myriad of different religions from around the world have helped drive this unstoppable movement towards democracy, ethical standards and freedom. It is also important to recognise that no religion or philosophy has done this singlehandedly or even, in many cases, voluntarily. What has actually happened is that tensions between different explanations of reality and philosophies have pushed forward the consciousness of humanity.
Rather than being catastrophic, these flashpoints of ideological conflict are comparable to the combustion required to propel a car or bus. There may be lots of audible explosions, but ultimately humanity is driven forward and new things are revealed and uncovered at every moment. This is the nature of our ongoing global apocalypse, made up of smaller personal and localised apocalypses.
As we get close to the end of the Mayan cycle there are dozens of ideas floating around peoples’ minds and the internet about catastrophic or amazing things that may happen. The return of Gods, visitations by aliens, natural disasters, nuclear attacks, the complete collapse of the global economy and the reversal of the polarity of the Earth are among the most commonly expressed fantasies. A rather less concrete but important suggestion by some people is that there will be a shift in human consciousness. This could ultimately mean anything from a movement towards environmentalism, a freeing up of the media in despotic societies, a shift away from racism and sexism or a general improvement in democratic systems. Given that, as has been outlined, human consciousness has always been shifting and appears to be developing faster than ever, this would seem a safe bet.
Those subtle millenarianists who suggest that 2012 is about a shift in human consciousness lack the ludicrous vividness and outrageous creativity of Argüelles. However, at least they will not be shown to be flakes if 2012 is not remembered for utopian communities interacting with Galactic masters. To predict that there will be developments in human consciousness is as safe a bet as predicting that the sun will rise in the morning or that a group of school children will learn and grow. The questions are therefore, how much of a shift will there be and what will change?
It might be nice for those with lots of leisure time to while away the days and months speculating about dramatic things that could happen by the end of 2012. Battles between Gods and devils, alien invasions, gigantic flying Mexican serpents, nuclear exchanges and super volcanoes would be astonishing but also possibly catastrophic for mankind. They may, however, at least satisfy those who are adamant that 2012 heralds the end of the world.
My own vision, of a marked shift in human consciousness, taking us beyond dogma, may not be apparent to everyone by the end of 2012. However, I believe it is inevitable and when it does happen the world will be experienced quite differently. My humble prediction is that, faced with extensive knowledge of different cultures and religions, while forced to live ever closer, human cultures will shed the simplistic dualistic notions that have caused fear and conflict for millennia. Whether by rejecting historically dualistic religions or by re-evaluating each faith and challenging those aspects which tell followers to judge and despise those who hold different views, it seems critical that this shift happens.
Rather than that an idealised parental God coming to defeat an unfathomably evil Satan, perhaps the best we can hope for, in the immediate future, is that revelations of subtle truths shed light on the darkest of cruelties and most twisted of lies. This would lead to the painfully obvious but often ignored fact that people are much more likely to do good acts if treated with respect and dignity. If not trained from a young age to fear and hate those given the erroneous status of ‘others’, humanity’s ability to use resources to feed, house, clothe, educate, heal and entertain itself can only be enhanced. From the most common acts of oppression, such as sexism, racism and domestic abuse, to international relations, the undermining of dualism will always lead to greater harmony and improved communication.
Religious tales hint to us that apocalypse is almost within reach. However, an inordinate obsession with one story prevents us from seeing the bigger picture and truly engaging with the divine. A further irony is that if one dares to take religions less seriously and to recognise that all are merely stories, then personal apocalypse is more likely as our reality dramatically expands. When we accept that all religious narratives, despite their enduring power, are but fairy tales, every story we ever heard suddenly comes to life. Apocalypse does not happen because one particular religious myth comes true, but because we notice the dazzling truth all around us and realise that God, spirit and the unbounded imagination are one and the same.
Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video.