One of the conceits of the Western tradition of historiography is that we do not move in cycles. Humanity is not doomed, as in ‘dharmic’ conceptions of history, to unending cycles of boom and bust, of drive and decadence, of creativity and collapse. Even the most cosmopolitan members of Western or Middle Eastern or North African cultures will affirm in their mode of living as well as in their thinking, that human history has a beginning and that it is progressing toward some definite end. All of the myths and especially all of the secular theories we have generally propped up about the end of history – the ‘eschaton’ – have been haunted by the Christian vision of ‘the End’ as articulated in the Apocalypse of S. John of Patmos.
The Apocalypse is a highly tricky text, and with regard to it, secular ideology and religious heterodoxy have some strange and sometimes counter-intuitive ways of overlapping. For example, the two theories approaching the end of history in Western Protestantism which have gained the most currency over the several centuries of its existence have been pre-millennialism and post-millennialism.
Pre-millennialism posits that we are living in the transitional age, one marked by apostasy and iniquity, before the Second Coming of Christ; that we are currently awaiting that Second Coming as a predictable event subject to historical analysis, in which Christ will come to earth and raise his elect up to heaven; and that this will inaugurate a violent time of tribulation prefiguring the Millennium, in which Christ will reign in an age of perfection for a thousand years prior to the Final Judgement. Pre-millennialism is, in modern America, most closely associated with the theorising of the Irish Anglican churchman John Nelson Darby, American Presbyterian minister Cyrus Scofield and their intellectual heirs. It is propagated most intensely by the Protestant fundamentalists of the American ‘religious right’, such as Hal Lindsey, Jerry Falwell, and of course the infamous authors of the Left Behind series, Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. As such, it is most closely associated with laissez-faire economic policymaking, social policy based upon the policing of domestic enemies, and an instrumentalist foreign policy whose primary aims are to inaugurate the Second Coming through (for example) support of the modern secular state of Israel.
The delicious irony of this heretical eschatology, so popular on the American right, is that these ideas – our living in a transitional age marked by iniquity; the eschaton as a foreseeable historical event; the eschaton as preceded by a violent tribulation for humankind – were being propagated at the same time as Darby by a secular ideology which is supposedly its polar opposite. Karl Marx was a pre-millennialist. The development of capitalism represents a transitional age marked by exploitation. In this age, we are awaiting the predictable event, amenable to historical analysis (hence, ‘scientific socialism’!) of the salvific awakening of revolutionary consciousness amongst the urban proletariat. This will ignite a violent world revolution prefiguring the utopian age of a classless and stateless society. The basic forms of Marxist and of fundamentalist Protestant belief are eerily similar, but even more eerie are the similarities in their praxis! Lenin was the first to openly advocate ‘heightening’ or ‘accelerating the contradictions’: an instrumentalist approach which would seek to ignite the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat by ‘striv[ing] to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path [of capitalism]’. One also hardly need mention that Marxism-Leninism built its social policy upon the policing of domestic enemies, nor that it sought to use its foreign policy to inaugurate the coming world revolution.
On the other hand, the eschatology historically most welcomed by liberal Christians is post-millennialism. This eschatology posits that the forces of the Church loosed by Christ’s Great Commission will gradually and eventually save the world’s culture through the spread of the Gospel and inaugurate an era of piety and prosperity in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Believing in the righteousness of advances in Christian civilisation, the post-millennialists began to apply their eschatology to worthy social movements. To a significant extent, the post-millennialist eschatology inspired the religious vector of the labour-rights, suffrage, abolition and temperance movements of the 19th century, and the civil-rights movement in the 20th. It has generally found a very comfortable alliance with liberal and social-democratic reform movements, parliamentarian and technocratic governance.
The involvement of this eschatology in such manifestly worthy causes as organised labour, women’s suffrage, abolition and the like would prima facie appear to indicate its orthodoxy. But problems begin to appear on close examination: no longer does it look to the outside. Participation in the mystery of Holy Eucharist and in the Symbol of Faith are abandoned for their secular equivalents (does the Holy Spirit speak with the voice of 50% of voters, plus one?). The faith in the culture-transforming power of the Church dovetails a bit too neatly with a naïve faith in civilisational Progress.
It is worth remembering that the American progressives and liberals who supported many of these movements – suffrage, abolition, temperance – also supported the nationalistic struggle over the civilisational burden which had its most horrific consequences in the world wars of the 20th century (the centenary of the beginning of the first of which we are bafflingly starting to celebrate). Worse still, the too-close identification of Church with the culture led to its co-optation by so-called ‘positive Christianity’ in Nazi Germany and the clerical fascism of Franco’s Spain and the Ustaše regime in Croatia. But it has to be noted that progressives still – for the most part – believe in an eschaton which transcends material contingencies (like those of race and social class). Fascists explicitly reject any transcendental grounding of the eschaton, which is to be achieved in violent world-historical terms by a single charismatic bearer of a homogeneous world civilisation. To equate the two is vacuous and morally indefensible.
But one has to note some disturbing parallels. There is a tendency in both to a deracinated, depersonalised ecclesiology. There is a tendency in both to fetishise technology and technocracy in the service of carrying the civilisational burden. There is in each a call to mastery over man and nature which appeals to an appetite for authority without giving authority for the appetite.
And just so that there is no mistake: amongst the ranks of the secular cultural post-millennialists I count also the right-libertarians and neoconservatives (the talking heads of Fox News and practically anyone who has written for Reason magazine, the National Review or the Weekly Standard) who call for national ‘renewal’ and look for world-historical salvation to cultural artefacts of the American founding, such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and to the ‘civil millennial’ promises of the American experiment. It is simply that, for them, the building of the New Jerusalem is to be equated with a return to patriotic fervour and with an ever-broadening range of personal liberties. They no less than the progressives seek to inaugurate the Kingdom through human effort and mastery alone, and to locate it within the ‘shining city upon a hill’. Theirs also is the legacy of colonialism and the mythology of Progress which I highlighted in my earlier post ‘Awakening to a Nightmare’.
As the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray, man lives day-to-day upon his daily bread and upon the forgiveness of sins – but bread is found neither in heightening the contradictions nor in technocratic tinkering; forgiveness is found neither in revolutionary tribulation nor in parliamentary prattle. And if the theological pre-millennialism of the American ‘religious right’ has its secular mirror in Marxism-Leninism, and the theological post-millennialism of American religious liberals can be moulded with only subtle secular tweaks to the service of any of fascism, neoconservatism or right-wing libertarianism, what alternative is there?
If the two heterodox models of the heavenly Thousand Year Plan have their ends in such outcomes, perhaps it’s better to look to a humbler model. The Apocalypse shows over and over that victory comes to the humble and to the patient, who keep the works of God to the end. Tolstoy may have been wrong on several important theological points, but his anarchistic theological narodnichestvo had many deeply healthy impulses; perhaps it is well to say that it is not the ‘Kingdom’ itself which is ‘within you’, but the ‘Millennium’. Our job is to stay wakeful, to till and sow earth, to pick weeds and stones, to let the fruits grow; the day of harvest will come like a thief in the night, and no man can hope to know the hour. It will be both world-historical and personal, a true coming again in glory, but our hope can’t rest either in searching the sky for signs or laying the stones of a new Tower of Babel.
The implications of this approach to the eschaton are profound, but they are local and situated. Freed of the world-historical pretensions of both millennialisms, an amillennial eschatology – even a secularised one, insofar as one can be imagined! – throws itself first at the service of community endeavours. ‘Bread for myself,’ as Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev once put it, ‘that’s a material question. Bread for my neighbour – that’s a spiritual one.’ When the End disappears over the horizons of our human reasoning, our politics no longer strives after it by any means; instead, the shared means of bread and forgiveness for our neighbours are the ends.