The “End of the World” Has Happened Before

The “End of the World” Has Happened Before

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper – T.S. Eliot

On November 30th the Chicago Tribune published an article about the rise of the “Prepper” movement. No, it’s not the return of the Preppy Handbook, more like the return of Y2K. “Preppers,” formerly known as survivalists, are preparing for a time when perhaps we won’t be able to rely quite as much on technology, a time when civilization might not be as civilized. Environmental change, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the recent presidential election were all given as reasons for the rise of the movement.

If this time in history is in fact the end of the world, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Scientists talk about five mass extinctions and suggest that we could be living through the sixth mass extinction now. The Permian extinction, 251 million years ago, wiped out between 80% and 96% of the species on Earth. Yet the fact that the world has essentially ended before does not seem to calm most of us. On the other hand, the fact that the world may be ending also doesn’t seem to activate us very much. We’ve been hearing warnings of human-caused global warning since the 1880s; we’ve lost several animal species to extinction in the past 40 years, and yet very little has been done to stop either process.

How can we make sense of these contradictory impulses to both obsess over and ignore the end? Part of the reason behind both impulses has to do with the unknown. We don’t know what will happen when/if the world ends, and we don’t’ know what happens when our own lives end. Judaism and science are both fairly quiet on next steps after either personal death or mass extinction. For most people, when something is completely unknowable the logical reaction may be to ignore it or push it to the back of your mind, but the emotional reaction is to obsess over it.

Scientists are actually fairly quiet about what the nature of the universe is; let alone what might happen if the universe ends. Only 5% of the universe is matter we can see, meaning we don’t know what 95% of the universe is. On top of that, the nature of the universe is changing. The expanding nature of the universe means that one day billions of years from now we may no longer be able to see any evidence of the Big Bang. Of course, that also means that it’s possible that there never was a Big Bang and it’s just that we’ve lost evidence of whatever did start the universe.

It’s as though we are all trapped in an endless loop of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.

If Judaism and science each offer perspectives for viewing and understanding our worlds, and yet neither has a perspective for viewing the end of our world, where does that leave us? Are we in fact living in apocalyptic times? Does it matter if we are?

According to Lurianic Kabbalah we live in the world of Asiyah, or action, and the concept of tikkun olam requires us to try and repair the world we live in, even if we don’t completely understand it. Science, on the other hand, requires us to continue asking questions until we understand our world. Perhaps by combining both traditions we will find a way to save a world that we understand.

This post is part of Sinai and Synapses’ project Scientists in Synagogues, a grass-roots program to offer Jews opportunities to explore the most interesting and pressing questions surrounding Judaism and science. This post is from Oak Park Temple’s three-part symposium, Eternity and the Eternal: Jewish and Scientific Understandings of Time. The program was designed and presented by Rabbi Max Weiss and scientists Professor Roy Plotnick, UIC, Dr. Sam Bader, Argonne National Labs, and Dr. Adam Lyon, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.


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