It might seem odd to start an article about beginnings by talking about the end, but that’s the whole point. Our assumption is that time is linear. The beginnings are behind us, and, inexorably, we will arrive at “the end”.
And culturally, much of our story telling encourages us to have the sneaking fear that our collective end will be horrible. The dystopian stories of our future – the amplified dysfunctions of our time are the common fare of movies such as Gattaca, and Elysium. Our accounts of the past also forebode bleak “end times” story as is the case in Agora. The list is endless, but includes movies such as the Planet of the Apes, the Book of Eli, 12 Monkeys, Mad Max, the Postman, the Hunger Games, the Road, Water World, Oblivion, Terminator and Interstellar, to mention just a few.
Generally these stories of “ending” are bleak. Our world ends or staggers on in a post-apocalypse dark age following catastrophes such as nuclear holocaust, climate collapse, global pandemic or asteroid impact. Such stories even have their own genre: “apocalyptic films”. This form of story telling, is more than a flash in the pan, with dozens of movies appearing in the genre each decade. Very few movies about the future aren’t based on the bleak assumption that in one way or another humanity will stumble into a massive failure largely destroying civilisation.
These stories play on deep human fears but they also have ancient cultural roots. The Apocalypse of the New Testament or the ‘Hereafter’ of the Qur’an are examples. The culture built around such sources generate our preparedness to assume “linearity” and the inevitably approaching “end”.
Nonetheless, in other places and times, our assumptions would seem odd. In Ancient Egypt the cycles of the rise and fall of the Nile were so intimately tied with life as to be embodied in myths of death and rebirth. In Hinduism, cycles rather than lines of time predominate. Our own experience of time is full cycles – from the cycles of heart beats and inward and outward breath to the cycles of sunrise and sunset and winter and summer. Life itself, is a cycle of generation after generation. These cycles are embedded within a vast galactic cycle of time: the 250 million years it takes the sun to orbit the galaxy. At the largest scale it is not known if the universe will forever expand, or whether we are just living in part of a cycle of expansion and collapse that continues forever. There are plenty of reasons to understand time as cyclical.
So perhaps, we do not live at the end. Perhaps we live at the beginning. Perhaps they are the same.
If we look for them, we can just as easily find beginning stories in our cultural sources.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth … and … it was good.
The repeated refrain “it was good” – tells us one thing about this story – it is a celebration of creation and life. Light, dark, sun, moon, stars, sea, land, plants, animals and human life. Their creator looks on them and sees that they are “good”. Here we find an ancient tale celebrating the beauty and wonder of creation and echoes of an ancient past when our ancestors wandered free in an endless paradise. Within this tale is embedded the cycle of day and night in the first seven days of creation.
Many many generations later, the New Testament brings us a new beginning story.
“In the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God. … The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It was the light of men.”
How different this beginning story. It speaks to a different time, when humanity’s condition had profoundly changed. It is as beautiful as the first story. It connects a place and a time with the placeless and the eternal. A time of darkness encounters a new “dawn”. From those thoughts, written in an ancient text, flowed out a new and unimagined world.
The Qur’an also brings us stories of beginnings. It re-tells in new ways these more ancient beginning tales.
” O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct….
In this particular creation story attention is drawn to the implications of that creation for the nature of human relationships.
Our notions of time are culturally important. The continuously re-told “end-times story” engenders hopelessness. It saps visions of the possibility of a better future. In their most toxic forms, “apocalyptic” speculations contribute to and are used to justify religious extremism and violence.
If we choose, we can understand time in a creative way.
We live not at the end of history. We live at the beginning.
And if we were to write the “story” of our beginning how would it read?
Perhaps the beginning story of our time might read something like this:
In the beginning, God gathered all humanity together. And made us one people.