apocalypse!
round one: Apocalyptic beliefs have proven remarkably resilient over time. What makes them so adaptable?  What tends to trigger apocalyptic movements? Can you think of some specific examples which demonstrate the ingenuity people have shown in shaping systems which suit their particular circumstances? Finally, does apocalyptic faith address some basic human psychological or emotional needs?
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RICHARD LANDES

Landes teaches history at Boston University and is a Director and co-founder of the Center for Millennial Studies.

(more about Landes)

Apocalyptic beliefs have proven remarkably resilient over time.

Especially remarkable, given how they are always wrong and need reinterpretation.

What makes them so adaptable?

They address profound yearnings in the human soul: a time of justice, when evil-doers no longer flourish and the good no longer suffer. A time when people overcome their self-limiting patterns of relationship and make an evolutionary leap into a new social paradigm.

They address profound psychological needs: they give meaning and purpose (apocalyptic believers are semiotically aroused--everything, the smallest details, has meaning), and the meaning lays out a clear program of action into which they can pour their heart and soul (apocalyptic believers are vocationally aroused--they are called to their task, their whole life has prepared them for this moment).

When they come together in an apocalyptic community, the sense of intimacy and purpose is far more potent than the wan ties that bind us in the messy grey world of civil society. Thus, when prophecy fails, believers would sooner reinterpret the prophecy than give it up, leading to what Paula Fredriksen has called "apocalyptic jazz."

In a sense, one might say that many millennial movements are caused by ADD II. Type I is the "normal" Attention Deficit Disorder--can't pay enough attention; type II is can't get enough attention. Some groups play this card intentionally, "love-bombing" as the Moonies call it.

What tends to trigger apocalyptic movements?

A culture clash in which an operating culture is thrown into turmoil by a more powerful one, whose impact is to allow systematic defections from the value systems and commitments of the weaker culture. Crises, rapid and disorienting social change, signs and wonders in the air (like a solar eclipse followed by a devastating earthquake), and charismatic apocalyptic prophets capable of arousing the apocalyptic energy of his or her audiences.

Can you think of some specific examples which demonstrate the ingenuity people have shown in shaping systems which suit their particular circumstances?

At the approach of 1000 in France, millennial and apocalyptic energies produced the Peace of God, the first mass peace movement in the history of mankind (unless we include Lysestrata), when neither the end (Last Judgment) nor the milllennial kingdom (Return of Jesus) came in 1000, the generation redated to 1033 and had a second wave of peace assemblies culminating in 1033 and a massive covenantal movement described by Rodulfus Glaber.


Catherine Wessinger

Wessinger is a professor of the History of Religions and Women's Studies at Loyola University.

(more about Wessinger)

I will make some very broad generalizations, which nevertheless I think are true.

All religions are about achieving well-being, either in the here and now, or in the afterlife. Most people want both. We want to experience permanent well-being, and we rebel against the limitations and suffering of the human condition. In other words, "salvation" is a condition of permanent well-being.

Some religions promise salvation to individuals. Millennialists expect a condition of collective salvation. Millennial religions offer the hope of salvation to groups of people.

beast
Often people experience a great deal of suffering, disappointment,hardship, and persecution. In these cases, what I call "catastrophic millennialism" makes sense. Society and humans are seen as being so evil and corrupt, that everything has to be wiped away in a great cataclysm before the millennial kingdom, the collective salvation, can be established. People who are more optimistic about society and human nature may adopt what I call "progressive millennialism." They see themselves working according to a divine plan to build the millennial kingdom through social work and personal reform. They are aware of life's imperfections, but they don't expect catastrophic destruction to precede the establishment of the millennial kingdom.

These two millennial patterns address the perennial human longing to be free of life's suffering, and they offer that salvation to collectivities of people. Individuals and groups may switch back and forth between these two patterns depending on how comfortable they feel in society.

By the way, I discuss these matters in essays posted on my web page.


michael barkun

Barkun is a professor of political science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and and serves on the board of directors of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. (more about Barkun)
The adaptability of apocalyptic movements is the result of a number of characteristics, not all of which may be present at the same time. First, expectations may be couched in sufficiently ambiguous language to cover a variety of future events. Not all apocalyptic movements make the kind of date-specific predictions that the Millerites did.

Second, there may be a closed system of belief that resists disconfirmation. This is particularly the case where conspiracy beliefs are involved, since conspiracy beliefs are often nonfalsifiable. The ideas about a "New World Order" conspiracy that now circulate are of this type. That is, the theory itself asserts that seemingly contradictory information has been planted by the conspiracy and thus ought not to be believed.

Third, many apocalyptic belief systems include not one but a sequence of expected future events, so that even if one fails to materialize, faith in others remains. Interestingly, more and more apocalyptic texts about the year 2000 advance predictions that go beyond the year 2000 sometimes by at least a decade or two, thus deferring what might be embarrassing errors. The issue of "triggering" was at one time the principle concern of students of millennialism. My own initial book on millennialism (Disaster and the Millennium) addressed this issue. The dominant view, I think, is that some sense of crisis is necessary to precipitate large-scale millennialism.

I would, however, add two caveats: First, one has to take account not only of objective circumstances--the stresses a society undergoes; but also the perception of crisis. People who appear deprived may have cultural mechanisms that mute or deflect the sense of deprivation, such as a belief in rewards after death or confidence that things will improve in the future; and people who may appear privileged can nonetheless sometimes feel a profound sense of unease even though their material conditions seem comfortable.

Second, there have been millenarian subcultures that are able to sustain themselves regardless of social conditions. This goes back to the previous question about adaptation, because millennialists need to adapt not only to disconfirming evidence but to circumstances that might lead to an acceptance of the status quo. In twentieth century America, for example, we have seen the ability of many Protestant millenarians to maintain their faith regardless of changing economic and political circumstances. Thus the issue of triggering relates not so much to the existence of apocalyptic ideas as to the ability of those ideas to move out of small subcultures into the "mainstream."

The need which strikes me as most important here is the need to believe in a world characterized by moral order. Apocalyptic beliefs can reinforce a sense of moral order by, for example, advancing a scenario of struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness; a struggle that is to climax in a final battle where the forces of light will be triumphant. In a world where good people often suffer and the wicked prosper, the promise of an imminent moral accounting is profoundly consoling.


PAUL BOYER

Boyer is the Merle Curti Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

(more about Boyer)

Apocalyptic belief systems are remarkably resilent and enduring, I think, because they speak to such basic human needs: for a sense of meaning and order in history, for the promise of a better world, for the drama and excitement they can add to life. Also, apocalyptic texts almost be definition wrap their prophetic message in symbolic or metaphorical language, that by its very amorphousness can be adapted to many different situations, and interpreted in many different ways.

Apocalyptic movements tend to be triggered by a charismatic figure who has absolute confidence in his or her particular prophetic scheme, and who comes up with an interpretive system that seems to address some of the central concerns of a particular time period. William Miller, for example, in upstate New York in the 1830s, came up with a complex mathematical scheme based on the Book of Daniel, which foretold Jesus' return in 1843 or 1844.

Miller conducted his revival services at a time of great revival fervor, when Charles G. Finney and other famous evangelists were in their prime, so the northern public was already familiar with this form of proselytizing.

His detailed interpretations of difficult scriptural passages and his complex mathematical calculations appealed to Americans at a time when the spread of the public-school system was making the basic skills of literacy and mathematics widely available. His followers used the latest means of mass communication: charts and graphs, newpapers and periodicals printed on the new high-speed printing presses of the day. And he brought his message to America at a time of intense reform activity, when a new and more righteous world order did indeed seem within grasp. The Millerite movement is a classic example of a leader with a message in perfect synchronicity with his era.

Hal Lindsey, publishing The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 is another example. Lindsey used the popular language of the day, even slang, to address such issues as the Cold War, fears of nuclear war, the rise of the European Common Market, and conflict in the Middle East that were of intense concern to millions of people, and place them within a particular framework of prophetic interpretation.

FOLLOW UP COMMENTS FROM THE ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS

Gene Gallagher comments:

I think that millennial movements are only lightly attached to any particular calendrical system. The comments about the situations that generate millennial movements indicate that it's more specific social circumstances, and individual perceptions of them, that are the triggering mechanisms. The calendar is not irrelevant, though. I think that Richard Landes' notion that we may be in for a thirty-three year span of heightened expectations (corresponding to the supposed life-span of Jesus) at the beginning of the millennium may well be right.

Paul Boyer responds to Catherine Wessinger:

Catherine, I think you make an excellent point when you stress that the "apocalyptic worldview" is not dependent on specific events. It's rooted in the human condition: we are all born to die, and thus as human beings we are probably "hard wired" to try to make some sense of this absurd fact by projecting it onto a cosmic screen. Also you make the point that dualism, too, is woven into the fabric of our experience in some very basic ways: night and day, male and female, left brain, right brain (which people have probably always understood experientially, even if they didn't have the scientific basis for understanding it physiologically). So this gives a continuing appeal to the dualism that is so central to the apocalyptic vision of human history.

You also do well, Catherine, to remind us that the more optimistic "progressive millennialism" co-exists with the darker visions of "apocalyptic" millennialsm. I think the reason we may be neglecting it in this roundtable discussion is that since the Social Gospel era of the early 20th century "progressive millennialism" has been so thoroughly secularized and absorbed into the mainstream of the American reform tradition that it hardly exists as a distinct, biblical-based millennial position. The works of the theologian Walter Rauschenbusch in the early 20th century seem to me just about the last example of an effort to work out a fully biblical theology of progressive millennialism, though I could be wrong.

Michael Barkun comments:

I was intrigued by a comment of Richard Landes's, that the "apocalyptic community" provides a "sense of intimacy and purpose that is far more potent than the wan ties that bind us in the messy grey world of civil society." While this indeed helps explain the response of millenarians to cognitive dissonance, it also suggests that the experience of an apocalyptic community is often a kind of millennium-in-miniature or a millennium-surrogate. That is, the potency of the experience makes it appear to participants as though for them the millennium has indeed arrived, even when their belief system advances some specific future date.

Richard Landes responds:

Absolutely. That seems to be the experience of the Jesus community.

Michael Barkun continues:

Richard's later reference to "signs and wonders" as a triggering mechanism alerts us to the importance of millenarians' interpretive framework, for they indeed usually have a system for classifying events into those that are portentous and those that have no apocalyptic significance. Hence even though a "crisis" may not be evident to an outside observer, it may exist for millenarians when conventionally defined "signs and portents" appear.

Richard Landes response:

E.g., the eclipse followed so rapidly by the earthquake in Turkey. Or, for the apocalyptically-minded sign-watchers, the unusual number of large earthquakes (this is great stuff for the 5-5-2000 argument in which a slight additional gravitational pull from space will trigger large earth-changes here). Or, for the apocalyptically alert millennial scholar, the large number of suicidal rages that populate 1999.

Michael Barkun continues:

Catherine Wessinger suggests--correctly, I think--that pessimists and optimists self-select apocalyptic ideas, the former gravitating toward what she refers to as "catastrophic millennialism" and the latter to "progressive millennialism."

But I wonder whether the causal arrows might not also go in the other direction. That is, a society saturated with catastrophic motifs brings into being a populace that is fatalistic, while a society where progressive themes dominate produces a more reform-oriented community. In short, one can be socialized to pre-existing apocalyptic orientations as well as seeking them out in order to meet individual psychological needs.

Richard Landes response:

This is a function of the culture. All progressive millennialism is based on education and a learning curve. Optimism is a feature of cultures with such commitments. I think Augustine's doctrine of original sin represents his effort to encourage a culture of fatalism vis-a-vis millennial dreams--we are fundamentally flawed and an earthly millennium is therefore an impossibility.

Michael Barkun continues:

Finally, Paul Boyer makes the important observation that William Miller's followers, despite their "old fashioned" ideas, adopted cutting edge communication and marketing tools. This is by no means an isolated case. The juxtaposition of traditional beliefs with innovative technology is frequent, as we see in the fondness contemporary millennarians have for cable television and the Internet.

Richard Landes response:

This is true from the earliest times onward: millennialists are cutting edge in communications technology (Christians and the codex, Protestants and the printing press, Nazis and TV). This makes cyberspace's implications for the 21st century what printings were for the 16th.

Richard Landes responds to Catherine Wessinger:

CW: Some religions promise salvaton to individuals. Millennialists expect a condition of collective salvation. Millennial religions offer the hope of salvation to groups of people.

RL: Crucial point. The collective quality of the salvation is the key to millennialism. I'd amend slightly Catherine's point here. Religions -- especially Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism--have multiple traditions about this (e.g. Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism), and sometimes an "individual salvation" teaching can wax millennial when there are a wave of "conversions."

angels
CW: People who are more optimistic about society and human nature may adopt what I call "progressive millennialism." They see themselves working according to a divine plan to build the millennial kingdom through social work and personal reform. They are aware of life's imperfections, but they don't expect catastrophic destruction to precede the establishment of the millennial kingdom.

RL: Or, they think the catastrophe is behind us (e.g. after the holocaust... the sixties)

CW: These two millennial patterns address the perennial human longing to be free of life's suffering, and they offer that salvation to collectivities of people. Individuals and groups may switch back and forth between these two patterns depending on how comfortable they feel in society.

RL: Switching is very important. Millennial groups, once they are "going" tend to engage in apocalyptic jazz--whatever interpretation, reorientation of goals and expectations, can best sustain the sense of momentum will have a chance of drawing their loyalty.

Richard Landes responds to Michael Barkun:

MB: Second, there may be a closed system of belief that resists disconfirmation. This is particularly the case where conspiracy beliefs are involved, since conspiracy beliefs are often nonfalsifiable. The ideas about a "New World Order" conspiracy that now circulate are of this type. That is, the theory itself asserts that seemingly contradictory information has been planted by the conspiracy and thus ought not to be believed.

RL: This is like the creationist argument for fossils: God put them there to test our faith.

MB: The need which strikes me as most important here is the need to believe in a world characterized by moral order. Apocalyptic beliefs can reinforce a sense of moral order by, for example, advancing a scenario of struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness; a struggle that is to climax in a final battle where the forces of light will be triumphant. In a world where good people often suffer and the wicked prosper, the promise of an imminent moral accounting is profoundly consoling.

RL: Put differently, millennialism is the express train to theodicy (God's justice).

Richard Landes responds to Paul Boyer:

PB: Hal Lindsey, publishing The Late Great Planet Earth in 1970 is another example. Lindsey used the popular language of the day, even slang, to address such issues as the Cold War, fears of nuclear war, the rise of the European Common Market, and conflict in the Middle East that were of intense concern to millions of people, and place them within a particular framework of prophetic interpretation.

RL: Note, in terms of the current question, about millennialism, that Lindsey's book, which was a systematic interpretation of current events in terms of fulfilling the prophecies of Revelation--and, obviously, the belief that we are fast approaching the final events--was just the kind of thing that Augustine formally and explicitly banned, and that, for at least six centuries after Augustine, churchmen were careful never to record in writing. The popularity of this kind of millennial exegesis of current events is one of the most powerful dimensions of American apocalyptic.

Michael Barkun's response to Landes (re: preceding paragraph):

The contrast with Augustine suggests the staying power of oral, and possibly heretical, traditions in popular religion. While "official" religion sometimes took up the millenarian banner, even when millennialism was officially condemned, it retained its vigor in non-institutional religion.

Catherine Wessinger comments:

In response to the very thoughtful answers to the first question, I'd like to emphasize that while catastrophic millennialism (apocalypticism) can a response to crisis, catastrophe, culture clash, and persecution, the human condition by its very nature involves suffering and death. Therefore, the perennial appeal of catastrophic millennialism is that it gives meaning to suffering, promises defeat and elimination of evil, and permanent well-being to the believers. So even if widespread social change and confusion are lacking, catastrophic millennial beliefs always will have an appeal. Also, I think the tendency to think in dualistic categories is very human, and dualism is a characteristic of catastrophic millennialism. Dualism is the tendency to think in terms of good vs. evil, which unfortunately often translates into a sense of us vs. them. In our culture, a book, novel, movie, television show, video game, or news story is not considered to have a good plot unless it is involves a story of good vs. evil, us vs. them.

I want to call attention to the fact that the discussion so far has focused only on what I term catastrophic millennialism, or what many of the scholars here have termed apocalypticism. There is the other millennial pattern, that I have called progressive millennialism, or that many scholars of Christianity have termed post-millennialism. It is present also in America, and this pattern can be discerned in the heightened millennial expectations we are seeing now that 2000 is approaching.

I encourage people to pay attention to progressive millennial patterns. We need to learn much more about progressive millennialism. One question is: Does progressive millennialism ever give rise to violence? Progressive millennialism is when people believe that the transition to the collective salvation will be non-catastrophic, and that humans working in accordance with a superhuman plan will create the millennial kingdom.

Richard Landes responds to Wessinger:

I think the answer to that question is "yes." I think of post and pre-millennialism as two poles of apocalyptic scenario between which apocalyptic believers improvise in their efforts to keep apocalyptic beliefs alive. Thus the difference between enthusiastic purity and coercive purity is not just ideological but a matter of patience. It is easy to be patient and gradualist about expectations when there is wind in your sails. When things slow down, when prophecy is no longer exhilaratingly fulfilled but incomprehensibly contradicted by events, the urge to abandon an ideological position to keep the apocalyptic fires burning becomes ever more tempting. In a sense, the sixties started our post-millennial peaceful (radical progressive) and ended up pre-millennial violent (Chicago Convention, Black Panthers, Weathermen).

Catherine Wessinger continues:

It is important to remember that catastrophic millennialism and progressive millennialism are not mutually exclusive, and often these patterns are combined in interesting ways. I recently received an email message from a Catholic millennial movement that said that the Virgin Mary has warned that if enough believers pray the rosary that the imminent Tribulation can be averted and the Second Coming of Christ can be non-catastrophic. So, what shall we term a group that strongly believes that potential apocalyptic violence is imminent, but that there is the possibility it can be averted through a particular spiritual practice?

Richard Landes responds:

This is a classic apocalyptic trope that we find repeatedly, often as a post-factum explanation for why the world hasn't ended (e.g. Elizabeth Clare Prophet and the non-occurence of the nuclear war she had predicted). We might call it Ninevite apocalyptic: if you repent the world will be saved. Maybe the best term is prophetic, since that is precisely the purpose of prophecy -- change your ways, not because it's the end, but in order to save the world from destruction. in the case of the Peace of God movement in the 990s and early 1030s, collective repentence led to a kind of social covenanting that became strongly progressive in its hopes for social transformation.

Catherine Wessinger continues:

Perhaps we could call this "avertive millennialism." Avertive millennialism has been the emphasis of the Church Universal and Triumphant, which now may be tending toward a progressive millennialism. Avertive millennialism was the original emphasis of Aum Shinrikyo, although it pretty quickly shifted to a catastrophic millennial perspective that legitimated violence against non-believers, and eventually resulted in the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

So I encourage people to pay attention to progressive millennial patterns, to how catastrophic and progressive ideas are combined, and to how shifts take place over time between catastrophic and progressive expectations.

Richard Landes response:

Agreed. Indeed, I'd identify most "New Age" as progressive millennial, and find their response to y2k--community organizing--some of the most creative and socially constructive to come out of that phenomenon, along with things like the Joseph project (c.f. the conspiracist, catastrophic response of some y2k rapturists).

Michael Barkun responds to Wessinger's comments:

"Avertive millennialism" strikes me as a sort of "second-order" millennialism--that is, a defensive variety to hedge against the embarrassment of prophecies that don't materialize. If a mechanism is suggested that can keep destruction at bay, it offers believers a way out of failures of catastrophic millennialism.

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