Opposites attract, Part II

Early 20th-century idealism was based on an overly optimistic assessment of human nature. As such it received support from some of the "modern" and "liberal" theologians and church leaders of the time. This view of human nature wasn't compatible with the Christian view, and was resoundingly demolished after the fact by the Neo-orthodox theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

But this idealism was also rooted in the eschatology of early 20th-century America. You can't get much more millennialist than the idea of a "war to end all war." This optimistic millennialism had competition, even in the 19th-century, from far more pessimistic views. The "premillennialists" did not believe that God's truth was marching on through human history, progressing toward Christ's millennial reign. They believed that this millennial reign would not come until after human history which, they thought, was doomed to end very badly.

This rabidly pessimistic eschatology — called "premillennial dispensationalism" — got a slight boost from the publication in 1909 of the popularizing Scofield Reference Bible, an "enhanced" translation with extensive footnotes explaining the secret, hidden meaning of the scriptures. But that wasn't what made PMD's popularity really skyrocket. That happened, again, with World War I and the youth of Europe lying dead by the millions. The PMDs pessimism suddenly seemed more credible. Scofield's footnotes were updated and republished in 1917 and have been a bestseller ever since.

I should step back here and say a bit more about "millennialism." You've probably heard the term a thousand times, with a thousand different explanations. The word comes from the 20th chapter of St. John's apocalypse, in which we read that Satan will be bound for a thousand years during which Christ will reign as king and all the martyred believers will come back to life and reign with him. Revelation 20:1-6 is a puzzling passage and we don't need to get into a lengthy discussion of its particulars here, but let me just point out that, despite the vast linguistic and cultural distance of the two millennia that separate us, the author of the book of Revelation would not have misread or misunderstood my idiomatic use of the Big Round Number "a thousand" in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Robert G. Clouse, a professor of history at Indiana State University, offers a nice summary of the main competing views of Christian millennialism (reprinted here):

The concept of the millennium and the apocalypse referred to in Revelation has been an important part of certain Christian sects, but it has held less significance for most Roman Catholic and Protestant groups. Believers in Christian millennialism differ about when Christ will return to earth, how the millennium will start, and the nature of the millennium. The three major types of Christian millennialism are premillennialism, postmillennialism and amillennialism.

* Premillennialism stresses a literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation. In the premillennial view, worldwide destruction and the return of Jesus Christ are required to save humanity and bring about a new era of peace on earth. This belief system — also referred to as catastrophic millennialism — generally expresses a pessimistic view of modern society and sees the world as fatally flawed.

* Postmillennialism, also referred to as progressive millennialism, interprets the Bible less literally than premillennialism does. Postmillennialists regard the millennium as a 1,000-year reign of Christian ideals that will end with the return of Christ. In this view, the millennium will not start suddenly through an apocalypse, but gradually through the efforts of human beings. Postmillennialists believe that through social reform and by upholding Christian ideals, the kingdom of God will be built on earth and Christ will return. Christ will then defeat Satan in a final battle, as referred to in the Book of Revelation. Some postmillennialists believe the millennium has already started.

* Amillennialism, the predominant view for much of Christian history, is the belief that biblical references to the millennium are strictly figurative and that there will be no earthly millennium.

Discussion of such categories can be a bit misleading. Prophecy enthusiasts tend to obsess over the dispute between pre- and post- millennial views. This is a bit like trying to divide the world into two factions based on whether they side with Dean or Logan as Rory's ideal love interest. While it's true that several million people may indeed A) watch Gilmore Girls and also B) have a strong opinion about such matters, most people don't and so can't be forced into either of these factions. Such people might be categorized as a third faction, "a-Roryists," but this overstates their investment in the topic.

So let me underscore Clouse's observation that "amillennialism" is "the predominant view" among Christians, but also qualify that to point out that most amillennialists don't spend very much time at all considering themselves amillennialists. As a category, it's only really meaningful for the minority embroiled in the parochial dispute between the pre- and post- factions.

Just because these factions represent a minority, however, does not mean they have not been enormously influential — particularly in America.

The progressive spirit of postmillennialism has informed many movements for social change, including the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and the temperance movement. Prohibition was the high-water mark of this postmillennialist influence, demonstrating both its ambitious idealism and its naive faith in inevitable progress. It also exhibited the abolitionist tendency of American millennialism. Note that the movement to end American slavery was not called something like "liberationism," but rather "abolitionism" — the goal wasn't only to free the slaves, but to abolish the sin of slavery, thus moving the world one step closer to the perfect, millennial reign of Christ. The intemperate Temperance movement, likewise, sought to abolish alcohol. This abolitionist tendency is no longer firmly connected to its postmillennial roots, but it lives on in American Christianity (see also: Abortion).

The failure of Prohibition, like World War I and the coming of the Great Depression, dealt a severe blow to the relentless optimism of postmillennialism and, beginning in the early 20th century, pessimistic, catastrophic premillennialism became ascendent as the influential minority view in American Christianity and American society.

Pre- and postmillennialism can be viewed in the terms of Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, each representing an unbalanced extreme. The post- view is unable to accept the things it cannot change — or even to accept that some things cannot be changed. The pre- view is convinced that nothing can be changed, that no amount of courage is worth the trouble because nothing can be fixed until Jesus comes back.

The two views can also be viewed in the terms of what Niebuhr regarded as the most grievous of sins: pride and despair. Postmillennialism suffers from pride. It is idealistic but naively optimistic — about the perfectability of human society and human nature, about the potential for unambigously good outcomes, about the inevitability of progress. Premillennialism suffers from despair. It is all too willing to give up and await its deus ex machina happy ending. Postmillennialists are certain that the world is getting better and better, becoming more and more like heaven until finally Christ himself will arrive to declare a heavenly kingdom on earth. Premillennialists are certain that the world is getting worse and worse, becoming more and more like hell until finally Christ himself will arrive and send it there personally.

(Again, these views are not the only options. Nor are they the only resources for hope or humility. Since we've been talking so much about Niebuhr, you might want to consider, as an example of a different approach, the movement led by one of Niebuhr's students, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.)

But let's get back to my particular concern here. I'm trying to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable things.

The foreign policy of the Bush administration appears to be shaped by two major influences: 1) the millennarian optimism of PNAC, and 2) the premillennial pessimism of the Republican religious right. How are these things in any way compatible?

  • mds

    I asked if anyone could pick up a Bible, read it through, and come to the same conclusion as LaHaye and Jenkins and other PMDs do
    I believe that at one point Mr. LaHaye acknowledged that the Bible does not explicitly contain the Rapture doctrine (since the various passages could apply to the Second Coming at least as well as to the One-and-a-Halfth Coming). He justified the doctrine by saying that the Bible also doesn’t explicitly state that the Rapture doesn’t exist. This is somehow known as “Biblical Literalism.”

  • Nephi

    “[Christian fundamentalists must] take dominion over the US…[abolish democracy] which is actually heresy…[establish a theocratic republic] under biblical law…True to the letter of Old Testament law, homosexuals, adulterers, blasphemers, astrologers, [and for such offenses as] abortion, heresy, apostasy…will be executed.”
    -Rousas John Rushdoony, President, Chalcedon Foundation, in Christianity Today, Democracy as Heresy.
    “…we will see the beginning of massive killing of abortionists and their staffs. In time the killing, in protection of the innocent, will begin to spill over into the killing of the police and military who attempt to protect them…members of Planned Parenthood, and other pro-abortion/choice organizations will be sought and terminated as vermin are terminated.”
    -Father David Trosch, Director, Life Enterprises Unlimited,
    Letter to Members of Congress.
    “What should we do? We should do what thousands of people across this nation are doing. We should be forming militias…There are plans of resistance being made…Churches can form militia days and teach their men how to fight…This Christmas, I want you to do the most loving thing…buy each of your children an SKS rifle and 500 rounds of ammunition…”
    -Reverend Matthew Trewhella, Director, Missionaries to the
    Preborn, addressing the Wisconsin Convention of the US Taxpayers Party.
    ”Young men of faith{My brothers through the grace of our Lord and saviour Yah’shua Messiah} I stand before you{as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness}that you may hear the battle-cry {Which is sounded this day} From the Lord your God.
    You {who are shepherds} are to form localized militia in order that you may protect your flocks.You are called to be executors of Biblical law upon this nation{seeing as the state repudiates it’s own responsibility to do so}.Young men of faith….Strong,wise and self-controlled…Merciful whenever possible, ferocious when not ! You are to form death squads ! {you must}… Seek out local drug dealers,seek out local Pimps,abortionists and all corruptors of youth {all dens of iniquity} and execute ! execute ! execute !…..Drag their bodies through the streets and raise your right hand to the sky,proclaiming the Laws and statutes given to us by the king of heaven and {to the glory of} his only begotten son”.
    - Pastor Josiah Abraham II,addressing Christian Identity{Youth of the true Israelites} Rally in Belfast 2005 shortly before being deported.
    To learn more about Biblical law;
    http://www.armyofgod.com
    http://www.aryan-nations.org/holyorder/
    http://www.godhatesfags.com
    http://www.thesignsofthetimes.net
    http://www.aryannationsrecords.com
    http://www.forerunner.com
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Identity
    http://www.chalcedon.edu
    http://www.amprom.org
    http://www.Michaelbray.com
    http://www.orange-street-church.org
    http://www.streetpreach.com
    http://www.christiangallery.com
    http://www.moseshands.com
    http://www.aryanyouth.com
    http://www.silverringthing.com
    http://www.battlecry.com
    http://www.kingidentity.com
    http://www.holywar.org
    http://www.anglo-saxonisrael.com
    http://www.congregationofyhwhnz.org.nz
    Google the following;
    Richard Kelly Hoskins.
    Read ‘Vigilantes of Christendom’ By Richard Kelly Hoskins.
    Phinehas Priesthood.
    Christian identity Churches.
    Kinism.
    Dominionist theory.
    Read ‘A time to kill’ By the Reverend Michael Bray.
    Eric Rudolf.
    Paul Hill.
    Gary North.
    Read ‘The Turner Diaries’ By Andrew Mcdonald.
    Nauvoo militia.
    Read…. ultimate questions by John Blanchard.

  • hf

    It may be that these modern Gnosticisms de-emphasize the importance of occult wisdom, and believe instead that true gnosis (in the form of Sophia=Wisdom) requires mostly that the seeker be properly spiritually prepared.
    See, to me those two phrases sound like synonyms. I wonder, what evidence do we have that “Gnostics” lied to the uninitiated? Some Gnostic gospels claim Jesus did this, but probably they don’t reflect historical reality any better than the orthodox gospels.

  • Nephi

    Can I just point out that the sites on my previous posting are there as relevant material/links and that I do not necessarily endorse any of them .

  • Merlin Missy

    He justified the doctrine by saying that the Bible also doesn’t explicitly state that the Rapture doesn’t exist. This is somehow known as “Biblical Literalism.”
    The Rapture: it’s just like plastic in a way. Can I use that argument about aliens? (Even for the “the sun goes around the Earth” crowd, the Bible doesn’t say God didn’t create other planets with little grey aliens on ‘em, does it?)

  • Nephi

    God is a God of creation…so just because we are his ‘chosen’It doesn’t mean we are his ‘only’.I’m what many would describe as a ‘Christian Fundamentalist’,but I feel that belief in alien life-forms is completely legitimate.

  • PepperjackCandy

    Most of the Lilith-type stuff is found in Mesopotamian mythology and also in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.
    I haven’t read all of either of these, but that’s what I’ve been able to dig up.
    And the rapture, from what I’ve always been told, comes from Matthew 24: 40-41.

  • Beth

    Can I just point out that the sites on my previous posting are there as relevant material/links and that I do not necessarily endorse any of them.
    You don’t necessarily endorse neo-Nazism, terrorism, eliminationism, etc? I guess that’s a good thing, but personally, I’d feel better if you unreservedly condemned them.

  • cjmr’s husband

    Not to mention the basic Netiquette of separating out the ones that can get you fired if your boss sees them.

  • Jeff

    This is somehow known as “Biblical Literalism.”
    Also known as “making sh** up”?

  • Matt Austern

    Thanks for posting this, Fred.
    I am not a Christian. I know a little bit about Christian theology, but most of what I know comes from reading philosophy and ancient history. So I know a moderate amount about metaphysical issues that third century Egyptians thought were important, I know a bit about schisms related to specific words in the Nicene crede,… Interesting, but not directly relevant to my life.
    You are doing an excellent job of explaining how theological issues play out today in the majority-Christian society that I live in. That’s extremely valuable.

  • Zossima

    Fred, two thoughts:
    * Maybe they aren’t. We all hold conflicting beliefs.
    * BUT Follow the money: I suspect it will resolve the conflict.

  • Doctor Science

    forestwalker:
    Your quote about Strauss, etc. was from Walker’s “Choosing Hope” blog, right, and is itself a quote from Jack Whelan, who was talking about Shadia Drury’s Leo Strauss and the American Right, correct? I’m just putting the links here for my own reference and for the benefit of other people in this conversation. I think I’ll now look up Drury’s Terror and Civilization: Christianity, Politics, and the Western Psyche in the library.

  • forestwalker

    I was quoting Jack directly (bookmark him–consistently good stuff). Click here and scoll down to August 23, “The Neocon Nightmare World.”

  • the opoponax

    this may have been explained already, but regarding the Adam/Lilith/Eve stories and the contradictions in Genesis (as well as angelic hierarchies and other such things that seem extrabiblical to us):
    what we know as the Old Testament is merely one part of the whole of Hebrew scripture. it’s a very important part, yes, but not the entirety. it’s my understanding that a lot of those extrabiblical religious details and stories can be found in the parts of Hebrew scripture which are not canonical for Christians. Especially concerning the whole complicated angelic/demonic mythography. and i think Lilith’s in there, too.
    additionally, what complicates matters a lot in the first five books of the Old Testament is the fact that there seem to be four base texts that the Pentateuch is built upon. These four texts are ever so slightly different from each other on certain details, and sometimes more than one version of the same account appears. i.e. the differing specifics of how God created the world. There are two seperate strains here (the other 2 of the 4 really only come in later, in the laws). One strain appears to generalize a lot about what happened and doesn’t try to say that the world was created as-is in exactly 6 days or any of that. God made the world. God made plants and animals. God made men and women. the other strain adds in all those specific aspects of Genesis we’re so familiar with, but in a slightly different way which would appear to contradict the other account. This isn’t a contradiction, exactly, but a weaving together of mulitple threads, which reads a little strangely to us narrative-minded modern types.
    this is the big problem with the entire notion of Biblical Literalism. in just the first five books of the Bible, there are four completely different voices giving us vastly diverging versions of the same stories and laws. if you read the New Testament closely, you’ll find that the gospels do it, too. with all these different voices (all supposedly divinely inspired), it’s hard to tell exactly which part to take literally. if it all has to be 100% gospel truth, but in one chapter it says one thing and then in the next chapter it says something else, how are we to tease out the literal? the answer is that the bible was never meant to be taken literally in the way it is nowadays.
    not to mention the fact that in between the writing of each set of scriptures there was tons of theology and scholarship done which managed to be popularly influential without actually making it into either canon, as well as the fact that after the Christian canon was agreed upon, Western Europe saw about a millenium and a half of anti-intellectual illiterate philistinism, during which time plenty of gilding was done to the lily in the form of Mary Magdalene, the seven deadly sins, the holy grail, the true cross, indulgences, purgatory, the lives of the saints, etc. etc. etc.
    no wonder the fundies like Paul so much — one guy we’re pretty sure existed, writing actual letters to actual congregations on the nuts and bolts of basic Christian behavior. no contradictions. no competing accounts or crazy mythologizing. it’s the one part of the bible where you can try to tease out some kind of literalism without the whole thing devolving into a farce.

  • J

    As long as we’re discussing the apocalypse, are there any Catholics or Catholic-educated people out there (I tried my wife: she couldn’t help) who can help me understand how Michael is both an archangel and a saint? I thought that to be a saint, the church had to officially say you were a saint. I also thought that saintliness was only remarkable because it represents a transcendance of human limitations (or not, in the case of Dominic, Ignatius, and a bunch of other saints who also presided over bloody Inquisitions and wars).
    That being the case, why is it considered remarkable when an angel acts saintly?

  • Ray

    Gabriel and Raphael are saints too, it seems.
    Seriously, why do you expect consistency and rigorous logic from a church?

  • Doctor Science

    it’s my understanding that a lot of those extrabiblical religious details and stories can be found in the parts of Hebrew scripture which are not canonical for Christians
    Not if you use “Hebrew scripture” to mean “Jewish canon”. The canonical Jewish texts are the same set as the Protestant Old Testament, though they are arranged slightly differently. This is the “Palestinian canon”, the set used by the Jews of Judea & Gallilee. The Jews of Alexandria used all these, plus some additional books (e.g. Maccabees); their canon was translated into Greek as the Septuagint, became the standard canon of Greek-speaking Jews and Christians, and is the basis for the Catholic canon.
    So, everything that is Biblical canon for Jews is also canonical for Christians.
    The material you’re talking about is from the Mishnah, Talmuds, and other truly extrabiblical Jewish writings, especially the kind called Aggadah. For the purposes of this discussion, the most important feature of Aggadah is that it is not meant to be narrowly literal.
    Jewish textual interpretation assumes that each verse of the Bible has multiple levels of meaning and should be interpreted from varying angles. The elaborations of Aggadah and the stories built around the stories in the Bible are not meant to be bald statements about is or will be historically true, but are supposed to lead the hearer/reader/student into deeper, more complex, mystical levels of understanding. The attractions of a good story are only the bait.

  • Doctor Science

    Ray wrote:
    why do you expect consistency and rigorous logic from a church?
    Because many of the best minds of the past several thousand years have worked in them. Thomas Aquinas was as great a scholar and logician as the thirteenth century (or most others) produced. You can accuse him of plenty of things, but not lack of consistency or logic.
    About Angels — in both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox belief, a Saint is anyone who is in Heaven. Angels are thus Saints “ex officio”, even though they are not human.

  • Ray

    Many of the best minds of the last few thousand years have worked on them, but all of those minds have insisted on the necessity of believing 23 impossible things before breakfast, and 87 mystical contradictions over lunch.
    Incidentally, do you have a reference on that “anybody in heaven is a saint” thing? I don’t know about the Orthodox, but when I quickly googled for an answer to J’s question, the Catholic references I saw were more like this (which accords with my own vague memories of catechism).

  • Simon St.Laurent

    Wikipedia has a lot on Saint Michael at:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Michael
    ———————
    Catholic and Orthodox Christians often refer to the angel Michael as “Saint Michael”, an honorific title that does not indicate canonisation. He is generally referred to in Christian litanies as “Saint Michael the Archangel”. Orthodoxy accords him the title Archistrategos, or Supreme Commander, of the Heavenly Hosts.
    ———————-

  • J

    Thomas Aquinas was as great a scholar and logician as the thirteenth century (or most others) produced. You can accuse him of plenty of things, but not lack of consistency or logic.
    I suppose. Frankly I’ve never been able to make heads or tails of anyone’s philosophical or theological writing (except for Plato). I do know that Aquinas spent rather a lot of energy railing against the idea of woman-on-top sex. You can call that an ad hominem attack if you want, but I still think it rather diminishes the man’s credibility.

  • bulbul

    There’s also some info on St. Michael and related issues at Catholic Encyclopedia.
    I do know that Aquinas spent rather a lot of energy railing against the idea of woman-on-top sex. You can call that an ad hominem attack if you want, but I still think it rather diminishes the man’s credibility.
    And what about a certain promiment physicist who was known to visit titty bars? Does this diminish his credibility, too?
    The material you’re talking about is from the Mishnah, Talmuds, and other truly extrabiblical Jewish writings
    Tiny nitpick: Mishna and Gemara are both strictly defined collections of various texts and together they form what we know as Talmud. Aggadah and Halakhah, on the other hand, would be best described as genres: Halakhah covers all legal and ritual matters, while Aggadah is anything else, mostly stories on various subjects ranging from alternatives to Biblical accounts through anecdotes about famous teachers to folkloristic material.

  • hf

    In the titles of the gospels, at least, the word “saint” translates the greek word for holy.
    Bulbul, did this physicist somehow tie the moral goodness of titty bars to the laws of physics in one of his official scientific papers? (Trick question, no peer-reviewed journal would publish it.)

  • J

    And what about a certain promiment physicist who was known to visit titty bars? Does this diminish his credibility, too?
    Richard Feynman? I agree with hf on this–and not just ’cause I’m a UWM graduate: Feynman’s penchant for topless bar visitation does not affect his standing as a physicist, while Aquinas’ woman-on-top-o-phobia sort of does. Aquinas wrote a lot on matters moral and sexual and some of his transparently silly views thereof call into question his validity. By contrast, I don’t know of any of Feynman’s theorems that concluded, “And therefore, we know that space-time is curved like a pair of boobies.”

  • Skyknight

    Well, of course you haven’t. Anyone who’s anyone knows that space-time is curved like a pair of storm-petrels…^^

  • Doctor Science

    do you have a reference on that “anybody in heaven is a saint” thing?
    I don’t suppose “my Catholic girlhood” counts as a reference.
    Here’s “Ask a Franciscan”, which says it’s all about using your free will for God. Angels have free will (they can fall), therefore good angels can be saints.
    Yes, we can easily see ways that Aquinas or Maimonides leaped to premises, or where their logic wasn’t up to modern standards. But they were both extremely learned and intelligent people, who were as logical and consistent with the intellectual tools at their disposal as anyone in history. If you dismiss even religious thinking on their level as second-rate you’ll cut yourself off from a huge number of humanity’s most brilliant minds.

  • Ray

    That reference is still kind of vague.
    If I was looking for an explanation of a syllogism, or basic geometry, then yeah, Aquinas was very smart. But when your question is along the lines of “don’t these two elements of church teaching contradict each other?”, then it’s a toss-up between an erudite explanation of how the contradiction is only apparent and a close reading will reveal the underlying harmony, and an explanation of how all things are possible for God so let’s not worry our little heads about incomprehensible mysteries.

  • J

    Yes, we can easily see ways that Aquinas or Maimonides leaped to premises, or where their logic wasn’t up to modern standards. But they were both extremely learned and intelligent people, who were as logical and consistent with the intellectual tools at their disposal as anyone in history. If you dismiss even religious thinking on their level as second-rate you’ll cut yourself off from a huge number of humanity’s most brilliant minds.
    I suppose . . .
    I’m not sure I’m really a big believer in “brilliant minds” when it comes to philosophy. Probably the spirit of lurking materialism. Look at it this way: A scientist or doctor–even a great one–of 100 or 200 or 300 years ago would be considered an ignoramus today. And yet we insist that, in matters religious, someone from centuries ago might well have had it perfectly right. What sense does that make? To arbitrarily say, “This field of knowledge progresses; this other one does not ever progress.” That strikes me as a mental mistake as least as likely to “cut [ourselves] off from a huge number of humanity’s most brilliant minds” except that the minds in question exist in the present and future, not the past.


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