And wisdom to know the difference

And wisdom to know the difference March 19, 2018

OK, thanks to Michael Gerson and Chris Ladd, and the recent discussions they’ve sparked about the history of white evangelical Christianity in America, we need to revisit the whole “postmillennial” and “premillennial” business.

The language of this stuff seems almost deliberately confusing. The “pre-” and “post-” parts of those words don’t work quite the way we usually expect them to, and so the terminology winds up making already difficult concepts even harder to understand.

The bit there about “millennial” is simple enough. This refers specifically to the vision, from the book of Revelation, of a time of perfect peace and justice, when Satan is bound, Babylon is fallen, and Jesus reigns supreme for a thousand years. It refers more generally to all of the other biblical visions of utopian perfection, throughout Moses and the prophets and the Gospels, visions of exiles returned, peace restored, milk and honey, healing for the sick, strength for the weak, land for everyone, swords into plowshares, lions and lambs, etc.

To avoid the potential confusion of post- vs. pre-, it might help to think instead of these categories as pro- or anti-millennial. The folks Christian theologians describe as “postmillennial” were staunchly pro-millennial or pro-utopian. They saw themselves as having a duty to work for or to work toward some future blessed state — to work to make this world more like the better world that it ought to be. They believed that progress toward such an ideal was possible, and desirable, and obligatory. And that tended to mean they also thought that progress toward such an ideal was inevitable.

The theologies we describe as “premillennial” are, by contrast, anti-millennial and anti-utopian. They also believe in an ideal kingdom come, but they don’t think it’s possible, necessary, or wise for Christians to imagine that they can play any role in helping to bring that about. Only God can do that, they believe, and one day God will do just that in one massive cataclysmic future event. They believe such an event is coming, and they hope it comes soon, but between now and then they think there isn’t anything much that Christians can or ought to do to make this world more like the world to come. So it’s best, in this view, not to get too involved in trying to change the world lest we allow the world to change us.

Since these categories appear to be binary, they can be confusing on another level as well. Whether we say post- and pre-, or pro- and anti-, it makes it seem like everyone falls into one category or the other. It sounds like any Christian who is not “postmillennial” must therefore be “premillennial” and vice versa.

And that’s not at all true. Most Christians in most times and places are not and have not been “millennial” at all. Their worship and ethics and practice aren’t largely determined by any reference, one way or another, toward some future utopian ideal. This is what theologians call “a-millennialism,” but even though its usually the majority view, that’s not a term usually used by “a-millennial” Christians to described themselves because, again, they’re not obsessively concerned with millenarian thoughts at all.

It’s kind of like the way that devoted Twilight fans divided the world into Team Edward and Team Jacob. Yes, millions of people read those books and had strong opinions about the resolution of that love triangle, but most people never read them and most people, therefore, could not be categorized as belonging to either “team.”

In certain times and places, however, many Christians have gotten caught up in either postmillennial or premillennial fervor. That belief helped to shape their actions in the world, and thus it affected the history of their communities.

“American Progress” (John Gast, 1872)

The usual broad-brush narrative of white evangelical history notes that (pro-) postmillennial ideas were widely influential among American Christians in the 19th Century, but that this utopian idealism collapsed in the early 20th Century, giving way among white evangelicals to the pessimistic fatalism of (anti-) premillennialism.

Michael Gerson does a good job summarizing this standard historical narrative in his long Atlantic essay, “The Last Temptation: How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.” Gerson writes:

Prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists — that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era — a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

Following this standard version of the story, he goes on to describe how this “optimist lot” lost much of that optimism after the Civil War, gradually embracing a more pessimistic viewpoint, which would in turn shape white evangelicals’ perspective on society, reform, and politics throughout most of the 20th Century:

This general pessimism about the direction of society was reflected in a shift away from postmillennialism and toward premillennialism. In this view, the current age is tending not toward progress, but rather toward decadence and chaos under the influence of Satan. A new and better age will not be inaugurated until the Second Coming of Christ, who is the only one capable of cleaning up the mess. No amount of human effort can hasten that day, or ultimately save a doomed world. For this reason, social activism was deemed irrelevant to the most essential task: the work of preparing oneself, and helping others prepare, for final judgment.

Again, that’s a clear, succinct summary of this widely accepted historical/theological narrative. That’s generally how we tell this story and how we understand this story. I’ve leaned on that narrative quite a bit myself in trying to understand the political roots and ramifications of the World’s Worst Books. You can trace the outlines of that narrative in Neil Carter’s recent Godless in Dixie post on “Why Evangelicals Just Don’t Care.”

But I’m not sure this version of this story really quite works. I don’t think it fully explains everything it wants to explain, and I think there’s a great deal it struggles to accommodate or to account for. I have questions, objections, corrections, and interjections that I want to raise about this. It’s not so much that I think this narrative is wrong as that I think it’s inadequate. I’ll return to some of my problems with this broad-brush narrative in subsequent posts.

I’ll conclude here by mentioning just one of them: Anyone tracing this version of the story will likely find themselves preferring the postmillennial optimism of 19th-century evangelicals to the premillennial fatalism of their 20th-century successors. This version of the story reinforces that binary tendency we discussed above — the Team Edward/Team Jacob problem — suggesting that these are the main or the only options between which we must choose. And if we have to choose between those two things, then the 19th-century postmillennialism is probably the better option.

But it’s still not a good option. Neither one is a good option. Believing that progress is inevitable and inexorable can create just as many problems as believing that progress is impossible and undesirable. This was a major theme for the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose work is, in many ways, a (premature) post-mortem on the death of Christian millennialism. The essence of that is summed up in his most famous work — the short prayer that later became a mantra for 12-step programs: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Progress is neither inevitable (as in postmillennialism) nor impossible (as in premillennialism). Perfect peace and justice are likely unattainable, but we can do better — we can make the world more just than it is now. And where we can do better, we must do better.

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