November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
November 4, 2019
What time is it? My tick-tick-ticking wristwatch says half past eight. But the Doomsday Clock reads two minutes until midnight, two minutes until the end of the world. That time, which is set annually by the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in consultation with policy makers and Nobel Prize–winning scholars, is intended to signify how close we humans are nudging to the midnight of global catastrophe. In January 2019, the board decided to keep the clock at two minutes until midnight, where it was first set in January 2018. In doing so, they cautioned that this is not an optimistic sign of stability. Rather, they heralded a “new abnormal” in which a host of geopolitical dynamics conspire to threaten “the future of civilization.”1
The 2019 statement enumerates a laundry list of threats, each with the potential to end human life as we know it. The failure of international agreements on nuclear weapons and climate change, the expansion of disinformation campaigns, the proliferation of new military technologies, and the rise of the planet’s temperatures all signal the specter of apocalypse. The statement’s authors write with urgency not simply to terrify readers but to motivate them to action, calling on citizens and governmental leaders to #RewindTheDoomsdayClock.
Since its advent in 1947, the Doomsday Clock has become a cultural icon signaling the level of humanity’s risk of self-annihilation. The artist Martyl Langsdorf, a specialist in abstract landscapes and the wife of a physicist on the Manhattan Project, was commissioned to design a cover for the June 1947 issue of the organization’s journal. She opted to use the icon of the clock in order to suggest that humanity was running out of time. Her creation caught fire—the clock made an appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and, more recently, Zach Snyder’s film adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. The Clash, the Who, and Iron Maiden have all recorded songs featuring the clock’s midnight approach. In wider culture, the icon has become a stand-in for a host of threats to human existence, and it is increasingly accompanied with an ironic disposition. As Michael Stipe of R.E.M. famously sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”2
The Science and Security Board, however, does not feel fine. Langsdorf first set the clock to 11:53 p.m., reportedly “because it looked good,” but the scientists at the Bulletin have since justified their movement of the minute hand of the clock based on recent geopolitical events.3 In 1991, following the end of the Cold War and the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the clock was set at 17 minutes until midnight, its farthest point from doomsday. And although environmental threats were treated as a cause for global concern as early as 1980, the boardnamed climate change as a threat on par with nuclear weapons in 2007. The scientists concluded then that “the dangers posed by climate change are nearly as dire as those posed by nuclear weapons. The effects may be less dramatic in the short term than the destruction that could be wrought by nuclear explosions, but over the next three to four decades climate change could cause drastic harm to the habitats upon which human societies depend for survival.”4 Currently the clock is set as close to doomsday as it ever has been—a precedent reached only one other time, in 1953 after both the United States and USSR had tested thermonuclear weapons.
The Doomsday Clock disrupts the scientific conception of flat, evolutionary time. In our “secular age,” we tend to think of time as flat and progressive. The German theologian and critical theorist Johann Baptist Metz argues that “these are the times of timelessness.” Metz finds that we don’t have time, and we can’t take time; our hectic lives make us too busy. The basis of this timelessness is a “logic of evolution” that imagines time as a progressive march: the present stepping off from the past and into the future. Under the spell of this evolutionary logic, time is “an empty, surprise-free continuum in which everything and everyone is grace-lessly encompassed.”5 In the critical, polemical account that Metz develops, timeless time develops evolutionarily; it develops without history, without agency, without surprise. We have arrived, this account of time would suggest, at the end of history.
But the Doomsday Clock interrupts our technocratic, evolutionary complacency and breaks the spell of timelessness. Rather than counting up into an infinite future, with the Doomsday Clock we are counting down like a ticking time bomb to midnight. Midnight, in this case, represents utter catastrophe—the end of the day for humanity. Midnight represents nuclear and climatological apocalypse.
Midnight and apocalypse have a long history of association in the Christian imagination. The Gospel of John interplays dark and light, night and day. Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost juxtaposes noon and midnight.6 The African American spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep” declares that “one of these days ’bout twelve o’clock / This old world’s gonna reel & rock.”7 In each case, midnight is the time of judgment, the end of one day and the beginning of a new heaven and new earth. The Doomsday Clock looms just on the edge of this precipitous moment. As such, the apocalyptic icon interrupts complacency by calling for emergency action.
In one sense, the apocalypticism of the Doomsday Clock merely reveals the ways in which such disruptive temporality is already widespread in our social imaginary. The apocalyptic is not merely the domain of the wild-eyed street preacher; it is replete within our cultural narratives. As Megan Garber recently declared in the Atlantic, “Apocalypse is now a chronic condition.”8 From the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, and Jeff VanderMeer to climate summits, from the fashions of New York and Paris runways to the reporting on the aftermath of climate change–amplified wildfires: apocalyptic awareness is part of our common affective terrain.9
That’s not to say that we’ve come to terms with this impending phenomenon. Raising the threat of imminent apocalypse produces contradictory psychological results. On the one hand, the threat of apocalypse serves as a cudgel for action. We face novel dangers that require unprecedented responses. The hope of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is that awareness of such dangers increases the sense of responsibility. But on the other hand, narratives of the apocalypse can also serve as a psychological comfort. Their symbolic excess helps us to make sense of irreducibly complex phenomena. The neuroscientist Shmuel Lissek suggests that “apocalyptic beliefs make existential threats—the fear of our mortality—predictable.”10 In this way, rather than increasing a sense of responsibility, placing planetary threats in an apocalyptic narrative seems to de-escalate responsibility because it is no longer just up to us.
Similarly, scholars who seek to motivate action around climate change debate whether such predictions of imminent catastrophe are politically productive. The atmospheric scientist Michael Mann and communications expert Susan Joy Hassol argue that climate doomism is “as pernicious as outright climate change denial, for it leads us down the same path of inaction.”11 They worry that the overexaggeration of the threat can cause despair and hopelessness rather than action. The real threat is bad enough, and we don’t need doomsday preachers (or scientists) crying in the wilderness. Rather, as they suggest, “There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.” Time thus seems to inevitably broach questions of agency. This makes sense, for as Mustafa Emirbayer and Ann Mische stipulate, agency is a “temporally embedded process” that is at once informed by the past, oriented to the future, and rooted in present capacities.12 When we think about time, then, we are simultaneously thinking about agency. The theological question, of course, is whether the future is largely in our hands.
Here at the end of all things, at the apotheosis of our human capacity to change the world, we are forced to encounter our limits. In the Anthropocene—that name for our geological age proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer—we simultaneously name humanity’s determinative role in shaping planetary dynamics of the composition of soil, water, air, and biodiversity while we recognize our incapacity to engineer a ready solution.13 Even as we reach the height of human agency, we also experience our helplessness. It is all up to us, and we cannot seem to do anything about it.
It is in this whiplash of agency within an immanent frame that a Christian account of apocalypse is most helpful. If we are the only agent, if only humans determine the conditions of our planet, we are left with a burden of responsibility that at once deifies our responsibility and dooms us to failure. Returning to Metz, we must conversely recognize that “God is not time’s other but rather the end of time, time’s delimitation and cessation—and precisely in this way time’s possibility.”14
The apocalyptic is first and foremost a literary genre in which a revelation unveils an eschatological salvation. However, the biblical apocalyptic is more than a genre—the apocalyptic presumes an eschatology that, rooted in the conviction of divine faithfulness, hopes with cosmic expectation for the imminent historical setting right of a world disordered by sin.15
A biblical apocalyptic, forged in the fires of exile and empire, critiques the violence of exploitative industry and human arrogance. It undermines human claims to autopoiesis and places our agency in a wider horizon in which our creative agency is first grounded in the agency of God, who is the creator of all things and who will bring all things to their ultimate end. The biblical apocalyptic is thus, first and foremost, a genre of judgment.
As the old saw of the left ironically proclaims, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”16 A biblical apocalyptic enables us to imagine a judgment on this world, especially this world of extractive turbo-capitalism.17 A biblical apocalyptic envisions a world in which the poor, who are ground up by what Rob Nixon has aptly called the “slow violence” of attritional environmental catastrophe, emerge as liberators.18 And this vision is only possible in light of a God who acts.
Of course, it matters what kind of action this God takes. Do we imagine God wishes us to #RewindTheDoomsdayClock and ensure the stable continuation of what we quaintly call civilization? Or do we join the Y2K proclaimers of doom in an effort to hasten the destruction and bring God’s coming age? Both of these responses fixate on the end of time and fail to imagine God’s future coming to us. Instead, this apocalyptic invites us to consider not merely the end but, as Giorgio Agamben suggests, to attend to “the time that contracts itself and begins to end . . . or if you prefer, the time that remains between time and its end.”19 It is in this time of the end, the time between now and midnight, that we find ourselves. What will we do in the time that remains?
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is by no means a theological organ. It is a scientific and policy organization that aims to shape the public perception of planetary threats. Yet the Doomsday Clock curiously draws upon the apocalyptic in ways that resonate with Christian conceptualizations of time and rejects purely immanent scientistic, evolutionary imaginaries. In the wake of nuclear weapons and climate change, even scientists have started thinking apocalyptic thoughts. This is not a vestige in the story of scientific secularization; rather, it is an unassimilable surd.
Still, the apocalypticism of the Bulletin will fail if left in an immanent frame. We live in the time of the end. Placing human agency in such a temporal scope reminds us that although we may enjoy godlike powers of creation and destruction, we do not bring the end. The end is coming. The day of judgment is nigh. So how shall we greet the end that we are now living through?
Kyle B. T. Lambelet
Kyle B. T. Lambelet is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. He teaches courses on religion and the ethics of nonviolence, organizing, and social change. He recently completed his PhD at the University of Notre Dame in the joint program of the Department of Theology and Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.