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Jonathan Franzen’s lesson for the end of the world

The ancient city of Megiddo, Israel. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

September 10, 2019 - 5:32pm

I have a friend who works on a chicken farm kibbutz at Megiddo in the Galilee. The Greek word for Megiddo is Armageddon. According to the book of Revelation, this is where the end of the world will begin, the final battle. My friend is used to excitable people making their grizzly pilgrimage up the hill hoping to witness the beginning of the end. She watches it all with a wry humour, just getting about the more prosaic business of clearing up chicken shit.  

The ‘end of the world’ used to be an esoteric footnote within Judaeo-Christian theology. But no longer. Its new name is climate catastrophe. And, increasingly, mainstream voices are speaking of this not as something to be averted, but as something that is a done deal;  we have already passed the point of no return and the end times are unavoidable. The latest of these is Jonathan Franzen writing in the New Yorker.

You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.
- Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker

This line has hitherto been confined to small groups such as The Dark Mountain Project, recently celebrating its tenth birthday.

But what does it mean to have hope in the end times?  

Martin Luther is often quoted as saying “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Hope is carrying on, still doing the right thing. 

But what, in secular terms, would count as doing the right thing in the end times? For Franzen, the answer is a wholly non-consequentialist view of doing the right thing. 

During the Protestant Reformation, when ‘end times’ was merely an idea, not the horribly concrete thing it is today, a key doctrinal question was whether you should perform good works because it will get you into Heaven, or whether you should perform them simply because they’re good.
- Jonathan Franzen, New Yorker

This latter position is from the goodness-is-its-own reward school of ethics. There is a nobility to such a position, a sense of pride in our own moral fortitude and stubbornness. This is what ethics looks like when detached from any calculation of interest or utility. Hope as defiance. A refusal to give in, even in the face of disaster. In other words, even as the sky falls in and climate Armageddon approaches, we are called to even greater expressions of human solidarity. 

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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