[A version of this essay was presented at the “Is the Future of Agriculture Perennial?” conference, Lund University, Sweden, May 8, 2019.]
The royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic traditions in the Hebrew and Christian bibles provide a compelling framework for understanding progressive intellectual and political work today, as we face the task not only of struggling to create a just and sustainable world but also imagining a saving remnant that will negotiate a radically different future in which both new and old skills, stories, and spaces will be necessary.
First, so as not to scare off the secular folk: My use of religious terms in this presentation is not to advance a theology. I am poaching from scripture, not proselytizing for supernatural claims. I am probably best described as a cultural or secular Christian, a Christian agnostic or atheist—any of those labels is fine with me. I was born into a tradition, as a young person struggled to escape, and eventually decided to claim the right to interpret the stories of the tradition. Most of my adult life I have been un-churched, though for a stretch I belonged to a progressive Presbyterian congregation. A faction within the denomination did try to excommunicate me, a curious move in a Protestant tradition that includes neither the concept of excommunication nor an organizational structure to administer such punishment. That’s a long story, mostly funny, that I have told in detail elsewhere.
So, one more time to avoid confusion: For purposes of this discussion, I am borrowing religious language that I find effective in framing questions and making an argument. There are no faith-based truth claims lurking behind this presentation.
I will start by suggesting that those of us engaged in intellectual and political work—and even if you aren’t politically active, intellectual work always has a connection to political and moral questions—should make clear our analysis of systems of power and offer our best assessment of how to move forward based on that analysis. We should be up front about our commitments and strategies.
When I use the term “intellectual,” I’m not suggesting we are special by virtue of academic degrees or positions. I simply mean that most of us have been subsidized (in my case, primarily by a large, well-funded state university for 26 years) to engage in a systematic effort to (1) collect relevant information and (2) analyze that information to discern patterns that help us deepen our understanding of how the world works, (3) in order to help us make judgments about how we want to shape the world. I’m going to speak specifically in the context of the United States, appropriately my main focus and concern given my citizenship and the country’s wealth and power, but much of what I have to say applies widely.
Now, moving on to my terms—royal, prophetic, and apocalyptic. My primary guide in understanding these concepts is the U.S. theologian Walter Brueggemann, supplemented by the insights of thinkers from other faiths and secular traditions.
Royal (as much truth as one can bear)
In this context, “royal” is not limited to kings and queens but describes any system that concentrates authority and marginalizes the needs of ordinary people. The royal tradition, in this context, describes ancient Israel, the Roman empire, European monarchs, or the contemporary United States—societies in which those holding concentrated wealth and power can ignore the needs of the bulk of the population without immediate consequence.
Brueggemann identifies this royal consciousness in ancient Israel after it sank into disarray. Solomon overturned Moses, while affluence, oppressive social policy, and static religion replaced a God of liberation with one used to serve an empire. This corrosive royal consciousness develops not only in top leaders but throughout the privileged sectors, often filtering down to a wider public that accepts, or even embraces, royal power. Brueggemann labels this a false consciousness: “The royal consciousness leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death.” Brueggemann describes such a culture as one that is “competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing.”
Much of contemporary intellectual work is, in this sense, royal. It is scholarship without the imagination needed to move outside the framework created by existing systems of power. Some of it is produced by people directly employed by corporations and governments, but much of it comes from universities, think tanks, and related projects. Marking these institutions as royalist does not mean that no admirable scholarship ever emerges from them, or that they employ no scholars capable of challenging the royal arrangements. Instead, the term recognizes that these institutions lack the imagination necessary to step outside of the royal consciousness on a regular basis. Over time, they add to the numbness rather than jolt people out of it.
The royal consciousness of our day is defined by a high-energy/high-technology industrial worldview, within a predatory capitalist economy, run by an imperial nation-state. These technological, economic, and national fundamentalisms produce a certain kind of story about ourselves, a dominant narrative that Brueggemann describes as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism.” The dominant culture encourages the belief that we can have anything we want without obligations to anyone within a system that fosters “competitive productivity, motivated by pervasive anxiety about having enough, or being enough, or being in control.” All of this bolsters notions of “US exceptionalism that gives warrant to the usurpatious pursuit of commodities in the name of freedom, at the expense of the neighbor.”
If one believes royal arrangements are just and sustainable, then royal scholarship could be defended. If the royal tradition requires deep critique—as I believe it obviously does—then something different is necessary.
Prophetic (as much truth as one can bear, and then a bit more)
Given the failure of existing systems and the multiple crises those systems have generated, the ideals of intellectual life and basic moral principles call for a prophetic scholarship. The first step in defending that claim is to remember what real prophets are not: They are not people who predict the future or demand that others follow them in lockstep.
In the Hebrew Bible and Christian tradition, prophets are the figures who remind the people of the best of the tradition and point out how the people have strayed. In those traditions, using our prophetic imagination and speaking in a prophetic voice requires no special status in society, and no sense of being special. For example, when the king’s priest confronted Amos for naming the injustice of his day, Amazi’ah called Amos a “seer” and commanded him to pack his bags and head to Judah and “never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Amos rejected the label:
Then Amos answered Amazi’ah,
“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” [Amos 7:12-15]
Claiming the prophetic tradition requires only honesty and courage. The prophetic tradition’s calling out of injustice requires not only the willingness to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly—both how our world is structured by systems that create unjust and unsustainable conditions, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in those systems. To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover or from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves. This prophetic stance is captured in a letter that a young Karl Marx wrote to a friend in 1843:
If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.
The Hebrew Bible offers us many models. Amos and Hosea, Jeremiah and Isaiah—all rejected the pursuit of wealth or power and argued for the centrality of kindness and justice. The prophets condemned corrupt leaders but also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption.
Following Brueggemann’s critique of royal consciousness, the task of those speaking prophetically is to “penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” and “penetrate despair so that new futures can be believed in and embraced by us.”
Brueggemann encourages preachers to think of themselves as “handler[s] of the prophetic tradition,” a job description that also applies to other intellectual professions. Brueggemann argues that this isn’t about intellectuals imposing their views and values on others, but about being willing to “connect the dots”:
Prophetic preaching does not put people in crisis. Rather it names and makes palpable the crisis already pulsing among us. When the dots are connected, it will require naming the defining sins among us of environmental abuse, neighborly disregard, long-term racism, self-indulgent consumerism, all the staples from those ancient truthtellers translated into our time and place.
Apocalyptic (as much truth as one can bear, and then a bit more, and then all the truth, whether one can bear it or not)
Invoking the prophetic in the face of royal consciousness does not promise quick change and a carefree future, but it implies that a disastrous course can be corrected. But what if the justification for such hope evaporates? When prophetic warnings have not been heeded—or, worse, when royal societies learn to contain and co-opt the prophetic—what comes next? This is the time when the prophetic imagination requires an apocalyptic sensibility.
Speaking apocalyptically need not leave us stuck in a corner with people predicting lakes of fire, rivers of blood, or bodies lifted up to the heavens. Many people assume apocalypticism leads to claims that the world is about to end, usually accompanied by a belief in the ability of the chosen to transcend that fate completely or at least successfully weather a transition to a new world. Indeed, many apocalyptic visions—both religious and secular—imagine the replacement of a corrupt society by one structured on principles that will redeem humanity, or at least redeem those who sign onto the principles. But this need not be our only understanding of the term.
Most discussions of revelation and apocalypse focus on the Book of Revelation, also known as The Apocalypse of John, the final book of the Christian New Testament. The two terms are synonymous in their original meaning; “revelation” from Latin and “apocalypse” from Greek both mean a lifting of the veil, a disclosure of something hidden from most people, a coming to clarity.
Some scholars read the Book of Revelation not as a set of predictions about the future but as a critique of the oppression of the Roman Empire, but I am not concerned about interpretation of specific scripture. Instead I want to argue for an apocalyptic sensibility that doesn’t turn away from difficult conclusions, that isn’t afraid to lift the veil, in this context about the evidence concerning the health of the ecosphere and the capacity of existing social, political, and economic systems to take seriously that evidence.
Instead of predicting the rapture to come, apocalyptic vision can help us understand social and ecological ruptures in the here and now. Responsible apocalyptic thinking does not assume a script already written by a divine hand nor offer pseudo-scientific predictions, but rather reminds us of the importance of dealing honestly with reality even when it is frightening, and holding onto our humanity, which is even more important when we’re frightened. Given the severity of the human assault on the ecosphere, compounded by the suffering and strife within the human family, honest apocalyptic thinking that is firmly grounded in a systematic evaluation of the state of the world is not only sensible but an obligation.
Because people typically associate “apocalypse” with predictions about the end of the existing world and a perfect new world beyond, let me repeat: Rather than thinking of revelation as divine delivery of a clear message about some fantastic future above, we can engage in an ongoing process of revelation that results from an honest struggle to understand, a process that requires a lot of effort. Things are bad, systems are failing, and the status quo is past its expiration date. We are not facing the end of the world, whatever that would mean, but the end of this phase of human history governed by the existing systems—the end of profligate use of dense energy, hoarding of surpluses, and rule of entrenched hierarchies.
More succinctly, from Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible:
The harvest is past,
the summer has ended,
and we are not saved.
Thinking apocalyptically in this fashion demands of us considerable courage and commitment. This process will not produce definitive answers but rather help us identify new directions. So, while the prophetic imagination helps us analyze and strategize about the historical moment we’re in, it is based on a faith that the systems in which we live can be reshaped to stop the worst consequences of the royal consciousness, to shake off that numbness of death in time. What if that is no longer possible? Because no one can predict the future, these two approaches are not mutually exclusive; people should not be afraid to think prophetically and apocalyptically at the same time. We can simultaneously explore immediate changes in the existing systems and think about new systems needed in a dramatically different world. The term “saving remnant” captures what might be on the other side
One theologian defines “remnant” as, “What is left of a community after it undergoes a catastrophe.” Although the term is used in the Hebrew Bible in various ways, at the core is the faith that even in the face of an overwhelming catastrophe, a saving remnant will survive and become the basis for renewed community life. In some places in scripture, a remnant survives even though everyone deserved destruction, while in other places the survivors were the righteous and faithful. For our purposes, we can use the term without speculating on divine judgment and without indulging in the condemnation of others less righteous than we, remembering Heschel’s wisdom: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
In addition to ancient scripture, the concept can be found in the modern world. One historian pointed out that doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto adopted the motto “Non omnis moriar [I shall not wholly die, or Not all of me will die].” Those doctors had faith that “some Jews will survive somewhere, and some fragment of civilization will survive which those Jews must help to refresh. Though all friends, all relatives, all reasonable hope may perish, the Saving Remnant will not die.”
It’s easy for people who believe themselves to be among the chosen to declare themselves the rightful keepers of the covenant, the ones who deserve to be part of the saving remnant. But for me, the idea of a remnant isn’t about who deserves to make it but how to do what we can to give those who do make it a fighting chance. I focus on how I can be a part of helping to create the possibility of a better future after I am dead, not how I will be around for that better future myself. What will be required of people in that uncertain future—that life on the other side of the high-energy/high-technology world? We cannot predict the terrain—social or ecological—on which people will be building a different world, but we can contribute by fashioning the skills, stories, and spaces that likely will be necessary.
What skills will we need to live in a low-energy world? People are already asking and answering this question, as more people learn to garden, hunt, preserve food, and live with less. And as the Industrial World runs down, we will need lots of people to patch together infrastructure during a transition. If you have to choose between spending time with a university professor and a farmer, the choice should be clear. Same for plumbers, carpenters, and other craftspeople.
What stories can we tell about what it means to be human that will help us on the other side? Some old stories may be useful, but they were created in another time for another world and will need modification or more wholesale change. We especially will need a story about why we humans were so short-sighted and cruel, and how we can overcome those limitations.
What spaces can we create to foster the human interaction needed to sustain a new human community? To imagine spaces that will exist when there is no widely accessible internet, we are going to have to spend more time in face-to-face engagement. If that doesn’t happen through routine interactions, how do we create new routines?
Part of the reason I was drawn to The Land Institute and Ecosphere Studies is that the work is both relevant to the present (raising awareness of limits of industrial agriculture as part of the larger agroecology and food movements) and the future (creating crops that could be essential to a new world). There’s work going on at The Land at all the various levels that are needed—from abstract ideas to very practical skills.
More than We Can Bear
Facing all this is not easy. Being human has always been hard, and it will be harder as we come to terms with our collective failures. The American writer James Baldwin captured the courage needed for an apocalyptic sensibility when he wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Because it is crucial, I will repeat myself: I am not advocating that we separate the world into the good people and the bad people, so that we may reward the righteous (us) and punish the wicked (them). My focus in not on individuals but on systems, which no one of us created or maintain on our own. But whatever our role up to now, we all face a choice to either act on what we know or to embrace a willed ignorance. Invoking “hope” to avoid terrible truths—as in, “things are bad but we must have hope”—is a sign of intellectual and moral weakness. We have no right to feign innocence. I turn again to Baldwin, who asked white Americans to face history and face the destruction of human life in which we are implicated. “[I]t is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” We all should ask ourselves” “To what degree am I an author of the devastation?”
If this seems too much to ask, it is. Baldwin, writing with a focus on failed relationships between humans, suggested that a great writer attempts “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.” If we think of that as a prophetic call, an apocalyptic friendly amendment would be “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more, and then all the rest of the truth, whether one can bear it or not.” And none of us can bear it, especially not alone.
It’s hard to craft an upbeat ending from there, but I’ll offer these lines from Eliza Gilkyson’s song “Midnight Oil.”
It never will be paradise
It never will be bliss
But love will make it worth the price
Even in times like this.
So save your sorrow for another morn’
Though your heart lies on the ground
Come tomorrow maybe a new world’s born
When we ride the old one down.
I lied. I had no intention of offering an ending upbeat. We have no right to be upbeat. So I’ll give Baldwin the last word, on an apocalyptic note:
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time.”
OK, maybe that is a bit too heavy a note on which to end, I’ll take another shot at upbeat, going back to the struggle to reclaim the stories of the tradition into which I was born. I’ll conclude—honestly, this is it—with a translation of the Apostles’ Creed by a progressive minister, the Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX, a reminder of how we can face that which is more than we can bear:
I trust in the Spirit of Life, the universality of faith, the essential unity of all who are of good will.
I believe that no mistake is final, that love does not die with the body, and that life itself is eternal.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 41.
 Ibid, p. 40.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), p. 4.
 Karl Marx, Letter to Arnold Ruge, September 1843. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm
 Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins, 1962/2001), p. 19.
 Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, p. 117.
 Brueggemann, The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, p. 69.
 For varying readings, see David L. Barr, Tales of the End: A Narrative Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1998); Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out My People!”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010); and Elaine Pagels, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation (New York: Viking, 2012).
 Lester V. Meyer, “Remnant,” in David Noel Freedman, ed., Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), Vol. 5, p. 669.
 Herbert Agar, The Saving Remnant: An Account of Jewish Survival (New York: Viking, 1960), p. 6.
 Lewis Dartnell, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm (New York: Penguin, 2014).
 James Baldwin, “As Much Truth As One Can Bear,” in Randall Kenan, ed., The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (New York: Pantheon, 2010), p. 34.
 James Baldwin, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 292.
 Baldwin, “As Much Truth,” p. 29.
 Eliza Gilkyson, “Midnight Oil,” from the CD “Nocturne Diaries,” Red House Records, 2014.
 James Baldwin, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” in Collected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1998), p. 347.
 Robert Jensen, Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (Counterpoint/Soft Skull, 2015), p. 214.