I just finished grading my last final exam. Another semester officially in the books. And now it is time to turn my attention to other, more festive thoughts. Like the end of the world.
I hate to be the Christmas Shoes to your Wonderful Christmastime, but it’s true. It might be zombies, or slaughterbots, or zombie slaughterbots. It might be a killer asteroid that the power of love and Aerosmith can’t save us from. Perhaps Alexa will become aware and kill us all (at least Armageddon will come with free shipping for Prime members.) Or maybe we are all just flitting images in a dream Beyonce is having. Who can say? The point is, that we are all gonna die and there’s nothing you or me or Bruce Willis can do about it.
What would your last message to the world be if it were all coming to an end? This was the question asked of several prominent “thinkers” by the New York Times. You can read the article here.
I’ll say a few things at the outset. First, I’m glad they didn’t ask any politicians or Kardashians to comment. One of the many things that these groups have in common would be our absolute lack of interest in anything that they had to say about the imminent end of the world. (Take note, Al Gore.) We would more likely respond to them “don’t you think you’ve done quite enough?” Second, it is noteworthy to me how there was not a single person of faith or even philosophy who was asked to offer words of consolation. I’m not expecting that they would ask Franklin Graham to comment, but I’m a little surprised they didn’t get a media darling like Reza Aslan to punish us with some of his vintage postmodern religious gibberish. There were also a couple of the responses that I kind of liked. Daniel Humm, a Swiss chef that everyone obviously knows and adores, said something nice about the human spirit and our ability to connect on a “soulful level.” (Don’t tell Dawkins.) Novelist Kyung-sook Shin offered a nice tribute to her mother along with some melancholy personal regret – the natural kind of thoughts that a great many people have when facing the end. Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani novelist, sounded almost Pascalian when he observed that “our individual existence is characterized by impermanence. We live, and then we die. Our greatest achievement is that we are not entirely overwhelmed by our awareness of this predicament.” His answer is still depressingly empty, but at least it’s thoughtful – like Ecclesiastes.
But there’s really not much good to be said about the other responses.
James Dyson, the vacuum cleaner guy, chooses the messianic denial of the engineer. “I therefore find it implausible that the world is coming to an end. Engineers will find a way to avoid this catastrophe!” Yes, there’s really nothing that we can’t fix. Never mind the fact that the engineers may be the ones who got us into this mess. They’re sure to figure it out. Just give the alien spaceship a virus and Cousin Eddy will take care of the rest. An engineer, unlike an artist, sees impermanence as a puzzle to be solved not a reality to indwell. Ultimately, Dyson and all like him are false prophets. They are health-wealth preachers filling people’s heads with false hopes and temporary fixes that might actually make them worse than when they were realistically confronting the realities of life and death.
Oscar Murillo said something about politics and stealing land from the moon. I don’t know. Imagine the zombies are attacking and the last thing that you hear before you are transformed into one of the brain-hungry undead is some dude saying “this is just like Cortez, y’all!”
And Jane Goodall. What can you say about Jane Goodall? I’ve never been high, but I imagine that if I were I might write something like this and think it was brilliant. “But suddenly I realize that though the Earth may seem destroyed, it is alive in my mind.” I kid. I kid. I’m sure that Ms. Goodall is a wonderful person who has done very many wonderful things. I just don’t have any idea what she’s talking about.
And finally we arrive at Mr. Richard Dawkins. You know what is more annoying than the end of the world? Hearing a Richard Dawkins lecture on evolution as the world is coming to an end. Nobody cares. So we evolved. And now we’re dying. So what? It’s a castle of sand built on a beach at low tide.
Reading this article made me think of James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. Near the beginning of the book he says: “Because I think we are primarily desiring animals rather than merely thinking things, I also think that what constitutes our ultimate identities–what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are–is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate–what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world.”
To be human is to worship at the altar of some god. We cannot resist the urge to be meaning-makers. We cannot help but organize our lives around a central principle, idea, Being, or thing. There were no preachers invited to participate in this exercise, but make no mistake, each person who participated in this piece is a preacher and each of their words constitutes a sermon – a sermon situated around the gospel of whatever has been most meaningful to their lives.
And as gospels, they utterly fail. It isn’t a matter of “if” the world is ending, but “since.” Impermanence and death is a reality of life. And as I lay dying I doubt I’ll give politics or Dyson vacuum cleaners much of a thought. I’ll take little comfort in the notion that Jane Goodall has captured the Earth in her mind. I’ve preached plenty of funerals and not once have I been asked by the family for a lecture on evolution. There is something sadly pathetic and nihilist about these efforts at meaning-making. You could accuse me of missing the point. The point of an article like this is just to offer insight to the living on how to live better lives. Fine. But does that really change the assessment? If a worldview is empty in the end, it’s likely empty in the middle as well.
Give me a gospel of life, death, and hope. Give me a gospel of mourning turned to joy and resurrection where I’m no longer a slave to the fear of death. Give me a gospel where as I lay dying I know my savior lives.