Friday, 11 January 2013

Event Report - Prophecy and the Experience of Time

We were excited to welcome Jason Dittmer of UCL Geography, who gave a fascinating and entertaining talk on perceptions of time and prophecies of the end of the world. He began by summarising historical theories on the nature of time. Nietzsche thought of time as cyclical 'the eternal return of the same'. This attitude could be attributed to the closeness of people at the time to the changing of the seasons and how plants come and go with time. In contrast, Einstein described time as a quantitative entity, which could be measured with a number and conformed to our travel through space. Bergson took a more personal approach, emphasising that time goes in one direction only, and memories are the conjuring of the past into the present in a kind of virtual reality. He referenced the subjective nature of time: time seems to travel faster as we grow older, and can seem to go by incredibly slowly if we are experiencing something unpleasant.

Dittmer then moved onto the subject of prophecy. The problem solving technique of 'mythos' can explain how prophecy watchers come to their conclusions. If a person fits the information they receive into a narrative that they are comfortable with, this is mythos. The mythos of a prophecy watching Christian is based on the narrative of the 7 dispensations, taken from the bible. This is a constant pattern of humans making mistakes, being punished and then god's forgiveness. Dittmer postulated that since the bible is a fixed entity that cannot be updated, it becomes increasingly hard to address modern problems with its teachings. This means that confabulations happen, making the narrative more resilient.

Some Christians believe that we are currently living in the 6th dispensation. This period began with the appearance of Christ, and will end with the appearance of an Antichrist. As he rises to political power the earth will suffer natural disasters and he will eventually rule for three and a half years. After this, faithful Christians will defeat the Antichrist and there will be a thousand years of peace and happiness.

This mythos has led to many people watching out for signs of the Antichrist's rise to power, in anticipation of the end times. The internet has enabled them to share their ideas and gain comfort and encouragement (this can be compared to conspiracy theorists). This is especially common in America, as it could be said that its citizens can see the country as having a privileged role in the world, meaning that any important cosmic events will take place there.

Online prophecy watchers collected relevant information and found numerical patterns to justify the theory that Barack Obama was the Antichrist, during his campaign in 2008. Obama's race encouraged these assertions, as well as the belief that he was a Muslim. His seeming appearance from nowhere, his 'otherness' and his charismatic character made him a target.

Dittmer invited us to consider how we would experience time if we believed that the world was soon coming to an end. Would time seem slower as the date approached? He emphasised the bodily impact of this belief by the fact that Harold Camping died of a stroke three days after the 'rapture' he predicted did not happen. Also, people often die after Christmas, as if their bodies felt the significance of this special time.

Dittmer concluded his talk by suggesting that instead of people being divided into 'believers' and 'non-believers', they should be considered as either looking to the future with hope, or looking into the past.

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