“The end is near!” The image of a bearded old man holding a placard announcing some unspecified impending doom is a well-known cultural icon. But, what sort of “end” is being prophesied by whom, and when? Surely we are living in perilous times, but then, humans have always experienced the world as fraught with danger. Thinking about the ends of things is demonstrably a universal element of the human condition. In Western theology and philosophy this appears as the study of Eschatology. We may recall the Y2K threat and the anticipation and arrival of the third millennium in the year 2000 (actually at the end of A.D. 2000 according to the Gregorian calendar) when some “millenarians” predicted the advent Armageddon and of the Biblical Apocalypse. In fact, the word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek for “a revelation” or “an unveiling” in the context of the unknown future of the world.

“Apocalypticism” is now a recognized field of scholarship. One essential purpose of this Honors Seminar will be to explore, with interdisciplinary research methodologies, some quite ancient eschatological and apocalyptic traditions that continue as powerful forces in present times. According to current polls, more than half of the adult population in the United States believes that they may live to see the end of days as envisioned in biblical prophecy. Equally serious concerns about the future are abundantly present in living non-Western traditions. For example, December 21st, A.D. 2012, our Winter Solstice, really does mark the completion of the great 5,125-year Maya “Long Count” cycle; evidence is recorded in their surviving books, on painted vessels, and carved stone monuments. Current exponential growth in 2012-related manifestations of Western popular culture, with world-wide distribution and influence, evidence an anticipation of a so-called “Maya Apocalypse.” New Age and “Mayanism” movements, some of them emerging from the contemporary psychedelic drug sub-culture, drawing on both the Western Judeo-Christian and Esoteric traditions, are spawning new cults and counter-culture world-views with as many visions of wonderful, transcendental, enlightened futures as there are dire prophecies of catastrophic annihilation.

The teacher is a Senior Lecturer in the Honors College with thirty years of experience. An extra-galactic radio astronomer by training Dr. Carlson is also an archaeologist with expertise in Mesoamerican cultures and a specialization in Native American Astronomy and Calendars. Among his current research interests is this Maya calendar “2012 Phenomenon” in all of its aspects, and special attention will be given to understanding the history and meaning of this impending socio-cultural event. Therefore, while exploring specific topics in the humanities, arts, and social sciences for the cultural sources of contemporary eschatologies, another essential goal of the seminar will be to investigate and evaluate the biological, geological, astronomical, and cosmological factors that contribute to multi-cultural traditions of eschatology as well as to our own personal views of possible “end times.” The Earth is a dynamic, tectonic, evolving planet in a Solar System exposed to cosmic threats, such as solar flares, comets, and asteroids, including a neighboring galaxy (M31, in Andromeda) on a collision course with our Milky Way, which, in turn, is but one speck in an, as yet, unpredictably changing Big Bang Universe. In this seminar, we will be exploring issues such as these together to assess their impact on our lives and those of our ancestors as well as our descendents. But as Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says right on the cover, “DON’T PANIC.” Come along for the intellectual adventure because, as you will see, the study of the ends justifies the means.

Upon completion of this course, students will be able to

• Take an interdisciplinary studies approach to world apocalyptic traditions with one specific focus on the rapidly expanding global “2012” cultural phenomenon that is manifesting itself in the arts, music, and other aspects of worldwide popular culture, as well as in academic Maya studies.

• Think about and evaluate questions about the ends of things that draw from diverse cultural sources in the arts, humanities, and the physical and social sciences.

• Recognize the essential differences between unsubstantiated claims and speculations, often disguised as scientific research and scholarship, from genuine scholarship.

• Work with multidisciplinary primary source material from academic fields as diverse as comparative religion to modern physical cosmology.

• Think critically in evaluating the views and arguments of scientific and scholarly researchers in contrast with those of “fringe” and pseudo-scientific writers and “journalists” in the tabloid press and web-based media such as blogs. Gaining a familiarity with the use of web-based resources for this process will be key.

• Recognize the essential processes of “syncretism”: the blending, accommodating, and integration of old with new religious and cultural traditions to make them one’s own creation. Specifically, “new age,” non-“Western,” and esoteric eschatologies and apocalyptic views are coming together to generate new cults with their own unique expressions in the arts, music, literature, architecture, and societies.

• Investigate and appreciate at least one living non-Western apocalyptic or prophetic tradition and compare it with his or her own, or with one that is more familiar to the student. The seminar will have a strong focus on the cultures of Native America {e.g., Maya, Central Mexican (Aztec) and Southwestern Pueblo (e.g., Hopi, Navajo)} and the Indian Subcontinent {Hindu/Veddic, Buddhist, and Tibetan (Bon)}, but the student may choose an example from any contemporary world indigenous tradition.

Assignments include:

• Each student will be required to write a substantial research paper covering one topic in depth or several relevant topics in comparison. A wide range of choices will be offered depending on the student’s background and personal interests. Choices might range from studies of actual historical and contemporary events and threats (the medieval Black Death; “cold war” and terrorist nuclear threats; droughts, famines, and impending ecological and environmental threats); to literary accounts of the ends of things (the biblical Genesis Flood; the Book of Revelation); and to science fiction novels and films that have dealt with the possibility of alien invasion, such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds), to name a few.

• Not all Apocalyptic traditions predict dire events, so equal time will be given to the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius” or the advent of “The New Jerusalem” and other utopian scenarios. Stephen Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” are examples of more benign revelations. Shorter written and oral assignments reviewing and assessing such historical works in world art (including music, cinema, and the fine arts) and literature in the context of people’s belief systems will be given.

• Class participation with presentations, discussions, and debates will be an essential part of this seminar experience.

• Short exams and quizzes will play a lesser role in assessing student performance.

• Field Trip to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Inner Harbor, is likely. See:http://www.avam.org/

Readings include:

Cohn, Norman: Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (2nd edition). Yale University Press, 2001, Soft cover. ISBN-13: 978-0300090888

Van Stone, Mark: 2012 – Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Tlacaelel Press, 2010, Soft cover.

Weber, Eugen: Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and the Millennial Beliefs through the Ages.Harvard University Press, 2000, Soft cover. ISBN-13 978-0674003958

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN Sept. 2010: Special Issue: “The End. Or is it?”

Manley, Roger, et al.: The End is Near! Visions of Apocalypse, Millennium, and Utopia. [Works from the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore.] Dilettante Press, NY. 1998

BIBLE (selections): The Book of Revelation (at least two editions, with commentary).

Assignments linked to WEB-based sources.

Viewings include:

Movies and Videos: (with an extensive list, hundreds, to choose from)

Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal” (1957)

“Apocalypse!: The Story of the Book of Revelation” (2 hrs.) Frontline – PBS

H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” [Several versions (1953; 2005)]

“Incidents of Travel in Chichen Itza” (1997) Jeffrey Himpepe & Quetzil Castaneda

“Armageddon” (1998)

Several documentaries and pseudo-documentaries, e.g.:

“Decoding the Past: Doomsday 2012: The End of Days” History Channel.

“2012: Science or Superstition”