By Jack Delahanty
Members of the Program in Religious Studies sponsored our fourth annual workshop for regional faculty and graduate students in religious studies on August 18, 2011, on the topic of the Apocalyptic.The workshop was attended by 35 scholars and co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology. Jack Delahanty is a first-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology whose work focuses on the intersections between religion and sociology in the modern world.
Apocalypse, increasingly present in popular film and literature, has long been among the most important concepts in religious belief and ritual. Early civilizations, according to Mircea Eliade, lacked the historical worldview needed to conceptualize Armageddon, but fear of the future has been chief among the defining characteristics of ritual for as long as religion has existed. John R. Hall, sociologist of religion from the University of California-Davis, explores how the concept of apocalypse, or the end of the world as we know it, can inform our study of social behavior in both religious and secular realms.
Hall's thesis posits that by examining the apocalyptic, we can trace "configurational trends toward modernity" from medieval times to the present. The first apocalyptic social movements arose in the early Middle Ages, were developed and refined in the Protestant Reformation, and with Robespierre's Terror, began to shed their exclusively religious character following the French Revolution. With the Reformation, Calvinists brought religious zeal to nationalism in Europe. In the 17th and 18th centuries, state-regulated Calvinism embraced individual-divine connections, relegating the theological apocalyptic to a more obscure cultural standing. With the Terror's inception just before the beginning of the 19th century, violent moral regulation in secular politics expanded apocalyptic imagery that had previously been confined to the realm of religion. Thus, in phenomenological terms, the apocalyptic has hastened the merger of the religious and secular spheres.
After Hall's presentation, scholars of English and history gave short talks on eschatological interpretations of the apocalyptic. Discussing how Mormon tradition has developed since the expected end of the world did not materialize in 1844, participants suggested that responses to a failed apocalypse pose useful questions about the character of religions. In the words of Professor John Watkins, "the Mormons went to Utah expecting the end, but instead they found a civilization." How was apocalyptic language transformed into a religious work ethic? Heavenly kingdoms will persist, life will continue on earth, and Mormons must act accordingly. Would their faith be as strong as it is today if it had not expected an apocalypse then? In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is charged with preparing for the arrival of the savior, and with it, an apocalypse. Yet political challenges wait at every turn; while clerical leadership, whose power would be diminished with the Mahdi's arrival, advocate waiting in pious patience for the savior, Ahmadinejad, whose power would be preserved by the savior's coming, constantly seeks ways to hasten it. Empowered by apocalyptic theology, he extends apocalyptic language further and further into Iranian culture, and as a result, thousands of people eagerly await the event each Tuesday night in the Jakdaram mosque. But do most Iranian Shi'ites believe in that same theology, or do recent uprisings against Ahmadinejad belie the perceived common desire for the savior, and the apocalypse, to come?
The workshop concluded with papers on the apocalypse in modern popular culture. Western movies and comic books use redemption through deliverance to tell stories with moral undertones, and this trend both shapes and reflects us. Can a secular theory, peak oil, for example, take on quasi-religious dimensions through apocalyptic language? Or, as some participants suggested, is it only by imagining the end of the world as we know it that we can effect transformative change in secular culture?