A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!"
"However," replied the universe, "that fact has not created in me a sense of obligation."
Stephen Crane's diminutive poem indicates how anthropocentric the Y2K hype and our calendrical calculations really are. All our segments of time from nanoseconds to light years are products of human inventiveness. The cosmos displays no interest in our cultural constructs.
This, to me, is the strangest thing of all about the millennial hoopla that we are the ones who determine that 1,000-year period happens to come when we say it will come, or rather when Brother Dennis said it will come.
Haven't you heard about the good brother? Dennis was rather modest monk of the sixth century, ordered by Pope St. John I to produce a new method of reckoning time. He decided to divide time on the basis of Jesus' birth in Year One. Of course he didn't get it right at all since Jesus was born in Year 4 B.C. ("before Christ?") or even earlier. He also started his count from one instead of zero a deficiency that wasn't his fault since the zero would not be devised for another two centuries by Hindu and Arab mathematicians. Brother Dennis bequeathed many problems for the next 800 years which were mostly resolved in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII endorsed the "Gregorian Calendar."
Actually, it was the Book of Revelation's enigmatic author who started the apocalypse syndrome when he or she decided that a span of 1,000 years should represent something ominous and long. So the word "millennium" is primarily associated with this biblical book which prophesies the 1,000-year reign of Christ.
Calendars not only accommodate our needs and perceptions; they also vary from culture to culture. In the Muslim calendar the year 2000 is 1378; in the Jewish calendar it's 5760; and in the Chinese calendar it's 4637. Calendars are arithmetical reckonings, but we "theologize" about our own arithmetic, which I always did by praying before every math test. Are we still at the center of the universe despite Copernicus?
Y2K experiences simply indicate the human need to give cultural conventions a cosmic flair. Every calculation in a sacred calendar is human-made. The time patterns we impose on our lives give us a way of investing them with transcendent meaning.
Cultural time patterns are based on three levels: (1) the earth's rotation in the solar system, which we earthlings interpret as equinoxes and solstices, associating them with sacred moments in the year; (2) our personal pilgrimage from birth to death; and (3) the life of the community as it travels through the ages of history. "History" itself is a human invention: chronological punctuations and patterns that we perceive in the seamless flow of time.
One pattern which characterizes the Judeo-Christian tradition is "redemptive history." It is an interpretation of time created by the biblical prophets, who viewed history as a process leading purposefully toward a culmination when all that is now imperfect will become perfect, the idea that our human time, known as history, is permeated with a divine thrust moving toward a goal.
The second pattern, "apocalyptic history," is the one we are primarily thinking about now with the advent of Y2K. "Apocalypse" means "to uncover," i.e., uncovering some kind of cataclysm.
This view is antithetical to the Judeo-Christian tradition in which we must always take responsibility for what becomes of our world. The prophets, including Jesus, felt as we do that the world is full of terror, greed and cruelty, oppressive tyranny and ruthless power. But they were also unshaken in their conviction that the world can be better, not by supernatural intrusion, but by the unremitting work of human beings. It's not the task, however, of one individual or generation to usher in the Kingdom of God. The prophets executed a radical shift of consciousness from primacy of insular self-interest to the vision of responsible community. The first step toward the ultimate realization of God's kingdom on earth is to take responsibility for what becomes of our world regardless of how wretched it may be.
The apocalyptic approach evokes a paralysis that inflicts us with abdication, feeling doomed to defeat, consumed with despair while cursing the darkness. The redemptive approach says: Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle. It calls for social passion, a constant renewal of resolve to heal pain, create community, and repair the world. The apocalyptic way asks: What is my fate? The redemptive way asks: What is my duty?
If the year 2000 is going to be a cultural marker of humane consequence, let it point to this: A time when we eliminate the pandemic of passivity, when we renew our commitment to build the kingdom of God and respond to the call of life itself the call that says: Loose the fetters of evil, clothe the naked, deal bread to the hungry, bring the poor out of the darkness, let the oppressed go free ... and then the light will break through as the morning, and our righteousness will go before us.
Let's hope that Y2K will bring a major shift in emphasis so that we will spend more time calculating how to feed everyone on the only planet we have, how to make our global greenhouse safe for all creatures and how to bring the bracing air of freedom to smothered peoples in all the stifling autocracies and closed minds that still persist in our little planet.
Dr. Jack Spiro is director of Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Ahabah.
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