Religious Studies 361, taught by professor Jenny Knust in spring 2020, felt a little on-the-nose from the moment it was offered. Then came COVID-19, closing campus and upending life all over the world. In a situation that many considered the end of the world, Knust and the class addressed the situation head on, writing a manifesto sharing their opinion. The manifesto is available online (https://sites.duke.edu/religion361_01_s2020/). Here you can hear the story of how the manifesto came about and hear some of the students read portions of it.
One morning, it was the apocalypse.
MUSIC START then UNDER, throughout: Beethoven Symphony Number 9, fourth movement.
Ok maybe not so much, but it certainly felt like it.
Some combination of climate change and threats to our democracy um, undermining of our commitment to one another, undermining of our joint effort to continuity just made me mad [laughter] and i wanted to think about it and study it with a bunch of really smart students.
Fortunately, Jenny Knust is a professor of religious studies at Duke. So welcome, in spring semester 2020, to Religious Studies 361, The End of the World.
Then the Corona Virus shutdown combined with class discussions of end-time scenarios and apocalyptic events like the Jonestown massacre.
ACTUALITY, KNUST 3:10
“I woke up at 4 in the morning and I thought we have to do something. We can’t stop with this. We have to say something because we’re living through this now.
So I thought let’s write a manifesto. Let’s make a public statement that we believe in continuity.
Knust took the idea to her class.
Then we talked about the manifesto. Do you want to do this? They were like hands up hands up hands up yes.
Zoom conferences, emails, document sharing, the works. And, ultimately, a manifesto stating that the people studying the end of the world do not accept this as the end of the world.
Though that’s not new.
MUSIC UP BRIEFLY: First notes of “Ode to Joy”
My name is Bliss Gordon, when I first signed up for a class that was called the end of the world, i had no idea I would actually end up living through an end. At the beginning of the year we participated in a debate. One side of the classroom said we were living through the end of the world. The other side said we were not. I was on the side that said we were at the end of the world. Now facing COVID-19 closer to the end of the schoolyear and after a semester of experiences readings and presentations and conversations I do not believe this is the end of the world. I do believe we are at an end, and we are suffering pain and loss. But this is still an end, I do believe we can continue after this.
When it was time for a manifesto, not just Bliss but everyone worked, and everyone signed.
So we all just decided to sign it alphabetically by name. And then I posted it on the website.
The class chose not to fear but to face their moment. If you’re impressed you’re not alone.
It takes a kind of courage to decide to be on the side of continuity. By courage I mean not courage not because we’re not scared out of our minds, we’re scared out of our minds. But we’re determined to continue. … And that’s what i’ve learned from these students.
MUSIC building to choral crescendo, under
The students even added their own definition of “Manifesto,” calling it “a statement of convictions and a call to actions that will, we hope create a better world in the future.”
So, in these terrible days, here, in the voices of Knust and some of the students of Religious Studies 361, is hope.
MUSIC: quiet, then slow statement of secondary “Ode to Joy” theme
VARIOUS STUDENT VOICES
A claim that this is “the end of the world” is a rhetorical performance not a description of a given fact.
As a rhetorical performance, such a claim can invite an abdication of responsibility for participation in practices resulting in the continuity of life.
An end is not equivalent to the end. Human beings die. Social, biological, and technological systems shut down. But the claim that certain ends are proofs of some final end is patently false. Life continues, even when certain human projects and lives do not.
Continuities, not beginnings, are the counterpoints to “the end.” What dies provides the provocation and the nourishment for what must and will continue to live. There are no beginnings that begin from nothing.
The claim “this is the end” anticipates the end that is not wanted and, in the process, may well bring about that very end.
Fatalism is an enemy of continuity. Caution is continuity’s friend.
The claim “life continues after ends” invites a different response to an end. “This is the end” may encourage selfish actions like hoarding, group-think, and attempts to identify who is deserving and who is not.
Conversely, “life continues after ends” invites creative solutions, diagnoses of the circumstances that have led to this specific end, and (ideally) compassion for those suffering from ends.
Since there are always ends (deaths, destructions, shut downs, changes) and also continuities, living on involves both a shared recognition that everything will end, including us, and a shared desire to live on in a world that is bigger than any one person, group or nation.
Collective action motivated by a shared commitment to continuity keeps final ends at bay.
Confronting an end-in-process with courage and hope rather than mere acceptance is part of our shared work.
Therefore, COVID-19 is not the end but it is an end out of which will be built continuities that we will create together.
“ on behalf of the religious studies class 361, I, Jessica Bullock, approve this message.”
MUSIC final flourish.