As someone who probably talks too often of having wrestled with God (unlike Jacob, God did not grab the small of my thigh, and I didn't take him down), there is an (admittedly somewhat natural) assumption when people speak with me that there are things that I will not like to hear about. And honestly, this is very, very sad for me (if nothing else, it makes me a little sorry that I must throw off an air of snubbiness, or a lack of understanding, or aggression, or something).
When I started school, a very long time ago, I originally went in order to study religion, mythology, folklore, because the WAY people grapple with the ineffables of the universe is beautiful to me - in all the many incarnations of it. I am aware the reticence on the part of the speaker is my fault:
- I have my biases, and I can be very rude and snarky.
- I have a tendency to feel uncomfortable in a situation where people don't think well of me, so I'll say some very stupid things to get approval of the people around me.
- I have a problem with latching onto the idea of a story in a situation, and not being able to accept things that contradict it.
I know these things, and I promise, I'm suitably ashamed of them. I do my best to fight them, but I know they make me less than a trustworthy person to talk about the affairs of heart and soul. I get that.
But like I said, I think a lot of things that I may not believe can be beautiful, I think the way someone else may believe these things is intricate and beautiful.
I grew up in a faith with a strong millenialist piece - I was a Mormon as a child, and the very name of the church reflects it's sense of history: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Growing up, the idea that history was reaching it's pinnacle, that we lived in the fulness of times, was ingrained in every lesson we were taught. Each week, we would sing hymns, some the same old songs most Protestant faiths have sung (Rock of Ages, for instance), intermixed with Mormon hymns, which seemed to all speak to the coming day of glory when Christ Jesus would return to the earth:
How Blessed the day when the lamb and the lion,
Shall lie down together without any ire,
And Ephraim be crowned with his blessing in heaven,
And Jesus descend in his chariot of fire
These lessons, growing up, were not impersonal theology, they weren't the sort of things one learned if one was interested. They were the bread and butter of everyday activity. Mormon boys should be missionaries when they are 19, because the end of the world is at hand, and God calls forth these boys as an army to spread his gospel to as much of the world as possible before his second coming, for instance. We needed to live exemplary lives, because the world was drawing to it's close, when god is sending his greatest souls, and Satan is setting his worst traps. We sang, forever, of being part of the Army of God: "Onward Christian soldiers," "We are as the Army of Helaman," "Holding aloft, our colors, we march to the glorious dawn."
And there was something glorious, and stirring and powerful in all this, - Religion is not just a search for understanding, it's also a search for relevance. There is something in life, at least for me, that strikes one with a feeling of extraordinary smallness, something that makes you realize how insignificant your actions are in one sense. Millenialism reminds you, that what you do is urgent, by placing a timeline on it. There is no someone else who will come later and do what you leave undone, because there is no time for someone else to come. Christ has saved you, one of his chosen souls, for these last days, because he can depend on you. And that's something you can hear, that can make you feel valuable in spite of any evidence to the contrary. I remember, very strongly in my life really WANTING to believe this.
There is something in that urgency, that compression of time, that can give a clarity and direction to life. The reason, at least to me, that many people could believe in the Mormon church that there was a prophet, and believe that the laws he gave were from God, and worth following, was because the compression of history into it's final moments gives a feeling of perspective. To many of the Mormons I knew who were most faithful, it was easy for them to empathize with history, to feel for Moses, or Daniel, or Jesus, or Martin Luther, or the Founding Fathers more directly than many of us can feel for someone that far from us. Millenialism, because it forces the viewer to broader and broader spectrums, CAN make someone very sympathetic, very compassionate.
It doesn't, always, of course. As with any powerful idea, it can be turned to good or evil, and Millenialism is very easy to twist into cruel, hateful dogmatism - after all, it is just easy to compress history into a story of a hateful god as a loving one, I'm afraid, and I have found, souls tend to live the way they imagine their gods (whether this be cause or effect being a discussion I'm not smart enough to have).
And here's the part where you'll laugh at me, I had this idea finally congeal into something recognizable, a few weeks ago while listening to Queen and David Bowie singing 'Under Pressure' (Hey! You can't judge me!). And the reason is this: because the idea of millenialism, the song reminded me, is not something that is limited to the religious. Secularly, Millenialism is a huge part of our culture, and has been for years. The lyrics of Under Pressure are not particularly unique:
'Cause love's such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
"Edge of the night", "Our last dance", and even the title itself, stirs up in my mind the same feelings I got when I imagined history when I was trying to be a Mormon, this sort of defiant teetering along the edge of the chasm of the end of history. Mankind, particularly I think since the World Wars and even more so since the Atomic Age, has this terrifying, invigorating sense that, actually and truthfully, we really have arrived at the end of history, in some sense. Our history has reached a point of extinction, of course for the gloomy reasons (nuclear weapons, global warming, engineered diseases, etc). But, also, in the same way that the Apocalypse promises the Millenium, there is the vague sense (and a powerful and meaningful one, I think), that there really is the hope of a future grandeur. Really, think of it! We live on the edge of the future! We can grow (mechanical) wings and fly, we can literally move mountains, we live in a greater perpetual level of cooperation and interconnection, in spite of everything else, than the world has ever seen! Think of it, for just a moment, 50 years ago, when my mother was alive, blacks rode on the back of the bus. Heck, 10 years ago, a man could be ARRESTED in Texas for having sex with his boyfriend. 20 years ago, I would never know any of you, and 10 years, I PROBABLY would never have known you. The world is bubbling into the grand struggle for the greatest dreams humanity has ever had, a struggle that really IS very much one between, if not the load words 'good' and 'evil', with their feeling of exclusion, at least between progress and destruction, between the eyes that look forward and the annhihalation of the void.
And of course, this is all nonsense in another sense. In another sense, we all ALWAYS think of ourselves as being that moment. In the year 1000, people believed the millenium was coming, too. In the 50's, people thought they'd be flying rocket cars by the time they died. The world is forever coming to it's end, and forever being born. But, that's not just part of the human mental disease. It's not a weakness - that sense of urgency is, in one way, a gift, it's the root of the urge to go forward, to leap forever into the void. Yes, when we leap into the dark, the lights turn on and we find the new road is the same as the old. But without that millenial urge, that sense of the finality of life, we'd never be able to leap into it, it would be too terrifying and hopeless. Without the sense of future, the world is just what the news always say: an endless progression of crime reports, wicked leaders, greedy corporations, murder, mayhem, the threat of destruction of ourselves, of the very world itself. The sense of apocalypse is unavoidable - the sense of a millenium, that is a choice.
About a year ago, we had some friends over, and we were talking about Mormonism, and I told them, I still have an affection for it in part of me, and when they asked me why, I said, Mormonism tells you there is something worth dying for, and there is nothing worth living for that isn't worth dying for. I wonder, still, if that's true. Of course, the problem is that if something is worth dying for, to some it is worth killing for, or hating for, or mocking for, or, if there is such a thing, sinning for. And that's the great balancing act of life, I guess - do we risk greatness, or settle for fineness? Do we fight for what we think is justice, knowing our own minds to be imperfect, unjust? That's the call of the Millenialist streak in us, whether we believe in God, or not, it's that streak that whispers to us that this day, this hour, this moment, is the very last of it's kind, this instant is the last chance to do what we might do this instant, and that this isn't a curse, it's a blessing.