It’s Not the End of the World: “Talking About Apocalypse in Apocalyptic Times”

Dropped into an amazing conversation on zoom yesterday, part of BU School of Theology’s Summer Seminar Series: “Talking About Apocalypse in Apocalyptic Times.” Gotta say: there is nothing quite so inspiring as progressive theologians talking about apocalypse. 

“Apocalypse” is one of those words that has traveled a long way from its origins — Apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” In a way it’s not surprising that we have let our imaginations run wild with it, or that it has taken on a “Late, Great Planet Earth” blockbuster cast. In a world with weapons of mass destruction, apocalypse has taken on a more singularly frightening meaning; it’s become more or less synonymous with annihilation. 

And there is that sense to the word, but not exactly as we have come to internalize and understand it.

Members of the panel, made up of New Testament scholars Rev. Dr. Shively Smith and Dr. Luis Menéndez-Antuña, and Nikki Young, a PhD student in Practical Theology, were all keen to emphasize the transformative over the world-endingness of apocalypse; the sense of beginning — of ways of conceiving and living into relationships as yet unimaginable — that often gets lost in our sense of an ending. For Dr. Smith, apocalypse is a space for new imagination, but also a “reconstituting place” — Where we “reclaim in order to re-imagine” — where what is unveiled is something we’ve forgotten, something we’ve erased, and now that it can again be remembered and seen, there is a reckoning, but also a re-imagining underway. 

But while this truth may set us free, freedom is only the beginning of the work. I liken it to the kairos moment or the I-Thou: unpacking a moment of revelation, of unveiling, a moment of pure truth, is the work of a lifetime; it is the work of our lives. It is the beginning of our journey, regardless of how long on the road we have been.

Which brings up how studying apocalyptic literature and even engaging in apocalyptic thinking can be useful to us now, in what many seem to think are “apocalyptic times.” If what is meant by this is “end times” in the sense of human annihilation, this may help motivate some on the margins, either in the direction of annihilation (with the thought that something better awaits) or away from it, but thinking of the present “Apocalypse” as an unveiling may be more empowering and transformative. 

Is there hope, then, in apocalypse? Not, according to Dr. Smith, hope of the “fairy tale kind.” Apocalyptic hope is about deep coming to terms with what has been revealed. This version of hope is disruptive, it emerges out of the chaos of the moment that pushes us toward radically new ways of living in the world together. Dr. Menéndez-Antuña reminded us that apocalyptic literature was coming from the margins, from vulnerability, woundedness, damage and persecution. When the veil is pulled back, it exposes the wound. What hope there is in this moment is coupled with having to acknowledge the wound, and of imagining ways of healing. 

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