Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Roots of Millennialism

Millennialism and apocalyptic worldviews consistently appear in religion. It is important to say that not all apocalyptic groups actively engage in violence. However, there is a strong inclination for the acceptance of violence in various forms. Violence, we must understand, in the apocalyptic imagination, is not necessarily evil. The real evil is loyalty to a society and culture that are ungodly; that maintain beliefs and institutions that stand in the way of the apocalyptic transformation (Selengut, 99).

Charles Selengut, in his book Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence, outlines five essential components of all Millennialist groups:

1.     The world is viewed as inherently evil;
2.     the rules, laws, and values of society are immoral and do not need to be obeyed;
3.     adherents must follow only the rules and directives of their divinely inspired leaders and prophets;
4.     the current social and political world must and will be destroyed, and
5.     both destruction and catastrophe are necessary. They will ultimately lead to an emergence of a new, redeemed world order, which will be superior in every way to current reality (101).

The dissolution of law and order is a forewarning of the approaching end time. This is a desirable transition, as the apocalyptic transformation ushers in an age of moral as well as material perfection (Weber, 43). For example in medieval times, the plague was seen as a divine punishment for the transgressions of a sinful world (Cohn, 130). In modern times, there are those who still see catastrophe, even natural catastrophes through this medieval lens, such as Pat Robertson and the like who blamed Hurricane Katrina on the tolerance of homosexuality.

The world is inherently evil. This is a more common worldview than you might imagine. Let’s take my favorite example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of which there are 7.65 million. Satan rebelled against god and somehow managed to gain control over the world through his manipulation of its organizations; economic, political and religious. This raises some interesting question about the nature of God and of good and evil such as: “How could Satan have possible beaten God to gain control over this world?” “How could God let this happen?” “Is he not all powerful?” Or maybe, to borrow from Mormon dogma, it is part of the plan to have Satan rule this world. God allowed this to happen as a test, a test for our immortal souls. In any case, these questions are not my focus. The point is that there is no motivation to patch up a dying world (Katz & Popkin, 158). Likewise, Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote, frown upon higher education and retreat into their community, apart, distinct and opposed to the worldly dominion of Satan. There is a sense that conventional norms and laws are meaningless in the light of a liberated and enlightened new reality that will come to pass (Selengut, 97).

In many Christian traditions, this can also called Rapture theology, made up of evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians. In this tradition, God will raise the faithful up to heaven before the terrible events set in motion by the apocalypse. They will return shortly afterward, not having to undergo the suffering that the rest of humanity will have to endure (Selengut, 106). 

In domestic politics, a war between good and evil is taking place. Millennialists, Evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians all believe they are battling against the antichrist. They are obligated to defend Christian virtues and culture. The literature on this particular subject is vast. Suffice to say, these groups, having a deep sense of being oppressed for their faith usually take one of two options: a defensive stance or an overly offensive stance.

But of course these are the minority of Christians! Right? Many of the previous authors I have discussed would say so. They are a fringe element of their tradition, not representative and a aberration to true Christian values. However much this may or may not be true, these groups, in their unconventionality, manifest latent elements in their religious and cultural tradition that has been repressed for generations by the mainstream. Perhaps the mainstream has had to adapt to these realities of the modern world as defined by pluralism and science? Perhaps that is why these groups in particular rail against said liberal and modern ideals? I would say so. Regardless, the potency of these groups should tell us something. That these are dire problems. That we face these latent issues, repressed as a society and a culture. They refuse to compromise their traditions, they refuse to adapt and reinterpret their dogma and scripture and teachings so that they fit with secular and scientific understanding. In this way, they are dangerous. As Selengut said, “not all are militant or public, but active Christian apocalypticism gives voice to views and desires of Christians throughout the world” (Selengut, 135).

Religious criticism and evolution must come from both within and without. In addition to atheists and agnostics and nontheists, we need reform to come from insider these traditions themselves. Many such as John Greenleaf Whittier, a quaker, opposed these groups not on theological grounds but on their social impacts. He said, “The effect of this belief in the speedy destruction of the world and the personal coming of the messiah, acting upon a class of uncultivated, and in some cases, gross minds, is not always in keeping with the enlightened Christian’s ideals of the better day.” He thought that those who thought the world was coming to an end, let alone those who are actively trying to bring this about, are not likely to improve this world, let alone adapt to it (Katz & Popkin, 155). In my opinion, a vision and worldview of the end to the world is a good way of escaping its perils. It is a solution for insoluble problems and thus not a rational or effective way to navigate our thoughts and feelings on life, happiness and community.

1.     Weber, Eugen. (1999). Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults, and Millennial Beliefs through the Ages. Harvard University Press.
2.     Cohn, Norman. (1970). The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. Oxford University Press.
3.     Katz, David S. & Popkin, Richard H. (2000). Messianic Revolution” Radical Religious Politics to the End of the 2nd Millennium. Hill and Wang.
4.     Selengut, Charles. (2004). Sacred Fury: Understanding Religious Violence. Altamira Press.

1 comment:

  1. The biggie with Jehovah's Witnesses is that their entire doctrinal superstructure rest squarely on the 'invisible' second coming of Jesus October 1914.There is no way they can evade this patently false dogma.
    Jesus specifically forewarned about false prophets who would say,"look he is here in the wilderness,or see he is here in the Temple".Jesus further warned to "not go after them".
    (Matthew 7:15)
    Danny Haszard