Apocalypse Around Every Corner

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

I used to read my three kids their favourite story book series on Frog and Toad. Frog, more cheery than his friend Toad, who takes things a wee bit too literally and frets too much, says that “spring is just around the corner.” Thinking for a few seconds, Toad asks Frog if they could go out and find spring. So they do. They walk down the street and Toad is very excited, as he turns a corner, to find spring there to say a happy hello. But no matter how many corners they turn, spring doesn’t show up.

These days when we go looking for apocalypse to show up, we wander the streets, and when we do turn a corner, it does make its appearance. The idea of a mighty catastrophe such as a world-wide Pandemic sweeping millions to their death awakens the dark ideas contained in the Western Judeo-Christian myth-box. In our pretty thoroughly secularized world, most keep the “dark ideas” hidden in the box in a musty place in the attics of worn-out ideas (or ways of thinking). But, perhaps surprisingly so, the religious interpretations of pestilence and plagues visited upon humanity are still perceived through the Judeo-Christian lens—either taking myths literally or transposing mythic ideas into secular language and perception. The key idea here is that a disease is never just a disease; it is always something more, either a “heavenly curse” or a ravaged “mother nature” crying out to us.

The Old Testament myth of the Flood stands as paradigmatic for the way Western Jews and Christians see catastrophes. Yahweh created Adam and Eve and placed them in a paradisal garden. Enjoy it, but remember, one thing, don’t eat from that tree over there. OK? Well, they do take a rather consequential bite, and in time, the wickedness of humankind rises so high that it catches Yahweh’s attention. “Wow! They are so damn wicked that I am going to send a flood to destroy them and all animals. I will wipe them out. All save one upright man, Noah, and his family. I will save him (and a whole bunch of birds and animals) and start again.” In the myth of the Flood, Yahweh uses a natural catastrophe to punish the wickedness of humans and offers humans the possibility of renewal. In the Exodus myth, Yahweh enables Moses and his followers to approach the Promised Land by sending a series of ten plagues upon the Egyptians. He also intervenes by clearing a path through the sea for the Hebrews to cross safely, while killing thousands of the bad Egyptians. Perhaps you remember Cecil B. de Mille’s rather luridly unbearable “The Ten Commandments” scene of destruction?

In the plague of the “Black Death” in fourteenth century medieval Europe, most people believed that this horrific disease was punishment from God for their sins. The idea of “divine retribution” is firmly in place. But one might add, so it is in secular form in our time of the Covid-19 virus. Even left-wing commentators use transposed language such as “Mother nature,” asserting that she is “calling” us to change our evil ways for pushing nature around and beating it to a pulp. Like asserting that Yahweh is punishing us—that is, a personal being of some kind—speaking of “Mother nature” attributes personality and speech to a non-human entity. It is a figure of speech, to be sure, but an interesting one. Another commentator informs us that “The earth is telling us we must rethink our growth society.” Here, “the earth” is stand-in for “God.” This kind of assertion—a transposition from religious to not-quite-secular discourse—assumes that the earth is constituted in a manner that requires human care to maintain balance between all species in their complex interplay. When we kill off a top predator (such as a wolf), we throw the relationship between other species into disarray. We can’t quite settle in with straight-forward scientific and moral understandings of how a species must act. We want to ground our moral affirmations in metaphysical certainty. So we say that it is the “earth” telling us to act.

During the time of the Black Death some people of religious intent tried to act communally to thwart the spread of this disease that caused hideous swelling, tumorous growths and blackness of skin. One group called “flagellants” drew on a minority tradition within Catholicism that flagellated their bodies to do penance for their sins. Convinced that “natural disasters’ or “pestilences” drew God’s wrath upon them for their wickedness, the flagellants sought expiation through processions and self-flagellation, hoping to divert God’s punishment. A kind of mental flagellation is evident in reflections on Covid-19 when we see profound expressions of resentment toward human greed, cruel profit-making when so many are suffering and we all are engaged in profligate consumption of world resources. Some of us are moral flagellants.

A particularly nasty phenomenon occurred in the Black Death time when Christians began to persecute and murder Jews mainly as well as other foreign groups like lepers. Jews were scapegoats. They poisoned wells. They were the anti-Christ. The flagellants often led the way with murderous rage. Until Pope Clement VI condemned the flagellants in two bulls decreed in 1349. If a scapegoat—weak and easily identifiable—could be discovered as the source of evil, some of the haunted guilt and bottomless fear could be alleviated. In our time of Covid-19, China has been blamed for the virus; some even imagining that China has deliberately introduced the virus to achieve dominance on the global chessboard.

During this period of the Black Death, a deep pessimism pervaded the mental and spiritual landscape. The end was near; it was just around the corner. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, a vision of death permeated the art and literature. Paintings were macabre, so was the literature. Gruesome and morbid. People became obsessively preoccupied with death. When one surveys web-sites offering considered opinion on the meanings of Covid-19, one is struck immediately with the parallels of the medieval “culture of death” and that of our own, in the 21st century. A deep pessimism has descended upon us. Death surrounds us and holds us tight. Commentators believe that this Pandemic, already killing tens of thousands, has revealed how flawed our Neo-liberal global economy and geo-political structures are to protect us. But they can promise only a future full of mostly nightmares.

Everything is unravelling before our eyes. For left-wing economists, apocalyptic sentiments slip easily into their analyses. We are on the edge of the deepest and most wicked Deep Depressions seen in hundreds of years—they say. Or, we can look forward to a “devastating public health crisis” well into the future. Or, our savings and jobs will just vanish. The Left knows that Covid-19 Pandemic global crisis has revealed starkly that the Neo-liberal global order of warring and competing nation-states cannot continue. This ghastly system needs to be radically overthrown. But we not at all convinced of the religious millenarian promise of renewal beyond the present wreckage and chaos.

In classic apocalyptic writings, catastrophe and chaos (a “world on fire”) signaled that the redeemer is coming to bring in the new world order where lion will lie down with lamb and swords will be turned into ploughshares. But we moderns lack assurance of the better world beyond the horizon. We don’t know how to get there from here. We are more likely to imagine more climate devastation, more extinction of species, and a resurgent nationalism. In The idea of socialism (2015), Axel Honneth comments: “widespread outrage seems to lack any sense of direction, any historical sense of its ultimate aim” (p. 1). This is surely one form of the “end times” mythology. People are not sure what to do—it certainly seems that a stable, certain life has vanished from our grasp. And this outrage appears disconnected from a “vision of a better world” (ibid.).

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.