Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances
by Catherine Keller
As the fires, floods, and droughts of climate change spiral around a planetary pandemic and intensify political precarity, the ancient symbol of apocalypse keeps finding new life. It pulses — quite apart from continuous fundamentalist deployments — across secular news sources (the “Insect Apocalypse,” “the CA Climate Apocalypse,” “Apocalypse Right Now”…). Because no other word quite delivers its warning of imminent collective catastrophe, religious scholarship must work to fine-tune its public use. But scholarly attempts to confine the apocalypse to the original context of the Book of Revelation and thus discourage present applications are doomed to fail. Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances therefore works with the ancient text in its disturbing resonances with present history. It offers to a non-specialist public, not presumed Christian or even theistic, a spiritually charged meditation on the meaning of shared life in the face of current systemic danger. Late in the last millennium, I had written Apocalypse Now & Then: A Feminist Approach to the End of the World. I was then only begrudgingly attentive to the prophetic anti-imperialism of Revelation, to its ancient denunciation of Rome’s global economics as well as its colonialism. It was the broad public acquiescence in global warming that returned me to its fiery forcefield.
An overview by the author
Call it archetype or stereotype, but the apocalypse as a foregone conclusion, as a predetermined outcome, as The Inevitable End, haunts Western civilization. The history of a right-wing fundamentalist doomsday narrative that basks in signs of the Endtimes runs through American cultural veins. It feeds climate change denial — not only in terms of conservative faith in neoliberal economics but in the imminent return of the Lord, which makes environmental problems irrelevant. But the apocalypse habit also takes subliminal, fully secular forms, which infect the liberal-progressive public with a sense of futility and paralysis — just when action is most needed. This last danger has never been more manifest than in the present tipping-point of our planetary climate: it is becoming all too easy to hear “too late.” So the conservative denialism is supplemented by a liberal nihilism.
It may in fact be too late to return to the Holocene period of Earth, where eco-systemic stability allowed for agriculture and cities — that is, civilization. But whatever collapse the Anthropocene epoch portends, it does not entail “the End of the World.” Multiple possible futures remain in play even for the anthropos. Some possible futures twist from all the extinctions our kind has caused to the extinction of humankind. But new beginnings for humans, some more ecosocially promising than others, remain possible. And possibility matters, however close it comes to the impossible. Possibility is what we material creatures materialize.
So if at this tipping point the ghost of the ancient apokalypsis shadows us, perhaps word must get out — that the word actually means “unveiling.” Used in ancient Greek for the unveiling of the bride on the wedding night, apocalyptic disclosure certainly does not mean mere closure. If we cannot exorcise the ghost of the apocalypse, we might as well disclose its own — disclosiveness. Facing Apocalypse pivots around the pronouncement made as the “seventh seal” is opened: “one third of the trees of the earth burnt;” then “one third of the life of the seas died.” Hard to miss the contemporary resonance. The letter goes on to narrate yet more gruesome scales of nonhuman as well as human death. Nonetheless: “The End of the World” never takes place, neither in the Jewish nor the Christian Bible. As the latter’s last word, John’s Apocalypse ends rather with a realization of the Hebrew prophetic hope of a “New Jerusalem” — indeed with the celebration of the wedding of the messianic lamb with that city coming “down to earth.”
Crucially, however: we do not read the ancient scroll as predicting present facts but rather as dreamily illuminating disturbingly deep civilizational patterns. In doing so, my book offers a space of contemplation, irony and creative response. It unfolds with the sequence of Revelation: from an opening collage of a cloud pierced by a “double-edged” sword-tongue, through an amplifying spiral of imperial violence. When the seventh seal cracks, Revelation spirals on through burning trees and poisoned seas, lamented by a mourning eagle. The vision pauses with the sun-clothed woman suffering severe birth pains, indeed earth pangs, horrifically worsened by the dragon of malign power. It passes through the text’s satire of the drunken beastly sovereign of Roman imperialism answered by the “grapes of wrath.” It reflects (avoiding a tempting feminist dismissal) on the image of the voracious imperial global economy as “Babylon the Great,” porn queen of the apocalypse. The “divine violence” (Walter Benjamin) that exploded in answer to the empire, political and economic, did tragically wield such a double- edged sword that it justified centuries of Christian colonial aggression.
As to the four horsemen of the apocalypse: my book had emphasized the third and fourth, the black horse bearing the scale of global economic injustice; the green one bearing COVID19, oops excuse me, the plague and wild nature attacks. But I did little with the white horse of conquest and the red horse of war. And now they have burst upon the scene.
As the world begins to emerge from the COVID plague, it suddenly faces conquest and war unprecedented in Europe since World War II — with nuclear power in perilous play. So the rhythm of the ancient hoofbeats has deep reverberation. But such echoes do not mean that Revelation predicted Putin’s 2022 invasion of the Ukraine — no more than it specifically foresaw any of the hundreds of wars since John wrote his letter. Ironically, the Ukrainian foreign minister had very reasonably urged his people to ignore “apocalyptic predictions” during the preceding weeks. A 2019 article reported that Putin has spoken more about nuclear apocalypse over the past 15 years than any other national leader, and so caused speculation all along about his intentions.
But honestly I had left the nuclear apocalypse behind with Ronald Reagan in my earlier book. And while my current book worries about the trumping of democracy, it does not discuss the long time object of Trump’s admiration, Putin. Still — the gallop of the white and red horses does not portend any predetermined final outcome. It may however reveal an imperial pattern that is currently threatening to worsen global catastrophe.
No New Jerusalem appears on the present horizon. This crisis pushes the slower crisis of climate change further into the background, as the current beast-power depends upon a fossil fuel economy. So the US oil industry is already profiting from the opportunity. In the book of Revelation the beast of power turns upon the porn queen of the economy. The contradiction endangers the world. At the same time there is disclosure — some opening. Not — one must make clear — a divinely directed providence. But perhaps a real possibility. The European Union may be motivated by this apocalypse —as a warning, not The End — to seriously consider a significant shift toward renewable energy. Whether the US would follow, or whether that possibility would be trumped by our 2024 election, remains an open question. An opening worth pressing, perhaps.
I should note that I am reading any possibility through the lens of process and ecofeminist theology — for which there is no classically omnipotent, all controlling deity, directing history toward His eschaton. The creation reads not as an absolute beginning moving toward The End, but as a creative process of interactions in an open universe. Indeterminacy opens every moment of the world. And with it come lures — possibilities — depending upon us to actualize them. Real and relevant openings.
The old text does not give devastating violence to humanity and Earth the last word. Instead the festive wedding takes place, as the topos of utopia, at once “the good place” and “no place.” The “leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations”: not for the end of the world but for its radical renewal. The new green city centered around its medicine trees and water of life “free for all who are thirsty,” signifies no apolitical afterlife, no supernatural heaven. In it divinity dwells everywhere within. Facing Apocalypse works to read the old prophecy as critically and carefully as the context allows — and so to meditatively address our planetary situation. The ghostly old text, with its endless charge of contradictory influences, may then recycle itself as a resource for the present tense. A present tensing up with last chances, but chances nonetheless, for planetary healing. ♦
Catherine Keller is the George T. Cobb Professor of Constructive Theology in The Graduate Division of Religion of Drew University. Her recent books include Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming; Cloud of the Impossible: Negative Theology and Planetary Entanglement; Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public; and Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances. More information can be found on her website.
Keller, Catherine. “Facing Apocalypse: Climate, Democracy and Other Last Chances.” Canopy Forum, April 29, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/04/29/facing-apocalypse-climate-democracy-and-other-last-chances/.