Meet Canada’s man of doom: Lorenzo DiTommaso. The associate professor and chair of Concordia’s department of religion is a leading expert on apocalyptic, or doomsday, scenarios.
Dr. DiTommaso’s first foray into the apocalypse was his PhD dissertation on a Dead Sea scroll which described a New Jerusalem descending from heaven. He extended his scholarship from the ancient to medieval times, “and from there it was only natural that I started thinking about apocalypticism in its historical and global sense.” He has published widely on the subject; his forthcoming book, The Architecture of Apocalypticism (University of Oxford Press), is the first volume of a planned trilogy.
Apocalypticism, says Dr. DiTommaso, is cyclical. “When we look back on world history, we notice that there are certain times and places in which a greater percentage of people understand the world through this lens – and we’re in an upswing now” in the past 40 or 50 years, he says.
Nearly all apocalyptic scenarios are biblically based. There are references to the apocalypse in other religions, “but almost exclusively they are the result of contact with Western influences,” he says, adding that the lack of apocalypticism in Eastern religions is not a surprise. “You can’t have a definite end of the world if your view of time is cyclical.”
An apocalyptic prophecy, to be meaningful and relevant to believers, requires three key elements, he says. First, the world must be structured by a pervasive dualism – good and evil, traditionally. Second, there needs to be a “transcendental reality beyond this existence,” normally viewed as heaven. Third, this current existence is so bad that it cannot be restored.
The media like to mock apocalyptic prophecies, such as the pronouncement last year by American radio pastor Harold Camping that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011. And, although it has been misinterpreted as a doomsday prophecy, much the same will likely happen with the “Mayan Apocalypse” scheduled for Dec. 21 of this year.
But, warns Dr. DiTommaso, buffoons like pastor Camping aside, apocalyptic beliefs are not harmless. “We still have people who fly planes into buildings. We still have populations that understand other populations apocalyptically and act accordingly. We still have political parties, even in First-World countries, that to a limited extend understand the world apocalyptically.”
Most importantly – “and this is the key impulse to much of my research,” he says – the apocalyptic world view is an adolescent world view. “It’s a simplistic response to complex problems … and it places responsibility for solving problems elsewhere, not on ourselves. In this particular day and age, that is potentially catastrophic.”