One of the great things about English is its fluidity. Usage changes over time. New words come and go. In “The Princess Bride,” self-proclaimed genius Vizzini repeatedly describes ongoing events as “inconceivable.” Finally Spaniard Inigo Montoya dryly observes: “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
Another word often tossed around recklessly is “apocalypse.” Being a word nerd, I did a little internet search and learned how the meaning has changed dramatically from its Greek and Latin origins.
Modern wars, famines, droughts, plagues, pandemics, climate change and myriad other events are called “apocalyptical” and are associated with the end of the world. This association comes from the New Testament Book of Revelation, where the meaning hides in plain sight.
“Apocalypse” comes from Greek, the original language of the Book of Revelation. It means “uncover, disclose, reveal.” In late 14th century Church Latin, it became “revelation.” In Middle English, its general sense was “insight” or “vision.” Its usage as “a cataclysmic event” is modern. By 1858 it had come to mean “belief in an imminent end of the present world.”
This coincides with the “Second Great Awakening,” religious stirrings in 19th century America. Religious denominations arose: Unitarianism, Latter Day Saints, Unity Church, Adventist/Millerites, Seventh-Day Adventists, Spiritualism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and many others. Spiritual but nontheological movements included American Transcendentalism, the major exponents of which were Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.
In the East, similar movements unfolded in Persia, now Iran. A young merchant of Shiraz, the Bab, announced that he had come with a new revelation, fulfilling Islamic prophecies. The Bab foretold the coming of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith. (Disclosure: I’m a Baha’i.)
All these movements were apocalyptical in the original sense. They were revelatory. Within Christianity, they reflected different ways the Bible spoke to individuals. But the Bible they used had been written mostly from word-of-mouth recollections and translated into different languages. Many passages might be considered inexact renderings of only partially understood statements.
Yet these movements reflected a genuine resurgence, an effort to apply God’s immutable word within a contemporary context. Recently I heard a Jew reduce the Ten Commandments to two simple statements: Love God and apply the Golden Rule. Brilliant! Because the Golden Rule threads through most, if not all, religions.
So, as we face current challenges, we can practice that rule: Protect others and yourself by self-isolating. To reverse climate change, recycle, renew, protect the environment. It comes down to each of us: how we process information, how we decide, how we behave on a day-to-day basis.
So where do we look for guidance? How about seeking an apocalypse, a new revelation embracing, encompassing and expanding older revelations?
Let’s start at the top. Most of us believe in some sort of an unknowable essence commonly called God. A story about a holy man who had just finished a talk on God and religion describes the following encounter.
An audience member approached the speaker and proclaimed, “I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in religion.”
“Neither do I,” responded the lecturer.
Astounded, the man said, “But you just talked about both! What do you mean you don’t believe in them?”
“I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in, and I don’t believe in the religion you don’t believe in,” said the lecturer.
Individuals understand God differently, but we can strive to unify our understandings. Contemporary interpretations of the Golden Rule must go far beyond the Ten Commandments. Modern global civilization moves and communicates in ways unimaginable to desert nomads of earlier times.
Imagine the following apocalypse (in its original meaning): If there’s only one God, there’s only one religion. Religious teaching changes through time and circumstance to accommodate changes as humankind comprehends more deeply. There’s only one humankind, one human genome, with infinite varieties of individuals.
One apocalyptic Texample: women have always been second class citizens – until now. The new revelation says women and men are equal in the sight of God. Science has corroborated that equality. Where women are educated, both men and women thrive and contribute outstandingly to society.
The apocalypse isn’t coming. It’s here. It’s just the beginning.
Pete’s eclectic interests and several careers drew him across the U.S. and into China with Jolie, his wife and sometime draconian editor. They retired south of Colfax. He’ll happily supply supporting documentation for any statements if you ask him at firstname.lastname@example.org.