TEOTWAWKI. “The End of the World as we know it” is an old meme. You can read countless sci-fi novels (I have!) that use a moment of cataclysmic change to frame the narrative arc of the hero’s journey (a la Joseph Campbell). Watch Star Wars, watch the Avenger’s Movie series, etc and you’ll see what I mean.
So does this present season of pandemic presage a turning of the age in human history? Maybe? Likely not. At least not in the sense that we’re going to reset the board, reconstruct our economy on new ideas, and give up all the destructive behaviors (whatever you happen to think those are) that have gone before. There have been pandemics before. There have been two or three in the last few decades (SARS, Ebola, AIDS). Most of those have happened in places or to people who were marginalized in the zeitgeist of the West and so we didn’t imagine that they presaged a TEOTWAWKI moment.
The last couple of pandemics in the United States, Polio and the “Spanish” Flu changed things in this country, but didn’t reset the board or wipe the slate clean. It’s worth taking a look at the impact the 1918 epidemic had. Yascha Mounk does that in The Atlantic framing the conversation in terms of the idea of “chronocentrism”.
When confronted with disaster, believing that everything will change is all too easy. How is it possible to write poems after Auschwitz, to enjoy a Sunday stroll in Lower Manhattan following 9/11, or, indeed, to dine in restaurants after a pandemic kills hundreds of thousands of people in the span of a few cruel months?
In 1974, the sociologist Jib Fowles coined the term chronocentrism, “the belief that one’s own times are paramount, that other periods pale in comparison.” The past few weeks have, understandably, confronted us with an especially loud chorus of chronocentric voices claiming that we are on the cusp of unprecedented change. Academics, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs have made sweeping pronouncements about the transformations that the pandemic will spur.
Do read the article.
And then keep a question in front of you. Clearly things have been changing. Given the rise of the cyber network and the virtualization of work and experience, as well as the pressure of Climate Change, we are heading into a future that will be different. But will the different happen in an eye blink over a few generations? Will we, like the Romans living at the end of their Empire (as denoted by historians looking back) notice that things have come to an end and a new thing begun – or is that only possible with hindsight?
For the Church, I guess I’m cautious about imaging now is the time for bold, paradigm shattering responses. I know that things need to change, but I’ve been around long enough to know that people have been telling me that everything will be different next year for years. Things will change, but over decades not months. The good news is that we will have time to adapt. The bad news is that unjust structures will continue to exist longer than we had hoped and prayed.
One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in 13th chapter of Matthew: the wise person, fit for the new reign of God is the one who uses old wisdom and new insights to inhabit what is breaking in upon us all. (My paraphrase). This seems particularly apt for a moment like this.