The Pros of Millenialism

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:

  1. I have my biases, and I can be very rude and snarky. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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
Under pressure

"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.


Amy said...

You are such a fine writer, I'm so glad you're back.

For what it's worth...I find you trustworthy to talk about these things with.

As far as the second coming...it's the sort of thing that I believe many of my fellows believe in and hope for but don't actually expect if that makes any sense.

Trapunto said...

I really appreciate this post. At the beginning it sounds like you are referring to something specific. Did you get involved in a contentious thread?

Mormonism creates different issues from mainstream American Evangelicalism, and I have had different issues as a woman as well, but your nostalgia is a surprise. I can't look back on my own religious upbringing with anything less than a whole-body wince. The difference could be that while I have given up the church-people, I haven't given up the God (easier than it sounds, since I never really believed he was the guy they described)? Are you saying that your atheism freed you up appreciate the beauty of religions?

Maybe you have already talked about this in a previous god-wrestling post. I've never checked your archives. I should do that.

I see what you mean about millenialism giving relevance. The thing is, I've never been comfortable with communal relevance-appropriation. Religious or otherwise.

Have you thought about ritual as an alternative to millenialsim, as the center of organized religion? I suspect Mormonism and the kind of Chrisitanity I was familiar with are similar in that ritual is seen as a kind of ornamental side dish to go with the main dish of Eternal Just Desserts. The salted nut bowl of faith.

I agree it's part of human nature.

Sorry; rambling reply because I was already thinking in this vein. I just finished watching the Danish film Brothers, about the tragically expanding consequences of a single moral mistake (that's how I saw it). Your last paragraph encapsulates the very issue it explores. I think the filmmaker would say the answer is: therapy. But the movie made me revert to my natural existentialist. There are other things that give cosmic relevance, beside that sense of things-in-general ending, which I do think is kind of a weakness, especially in people like me.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Yes what you say makes perfect sense - I must admit I grossly oversimplified here in the interest of making a point. I think for many people even though they 'believe' that Christ will return in the end time scenario laid out in Revelations, they don't necessarily really actively BELIEVE it. It's a sort of interesting half-thought. But even then, at a theological level, for a lot of religions it's still the vitalizing force, so whether they've fully committed to believing it or not, it affects a follower in subtle ways. I'd argue in fact, that the United States' history is affected in many ways by it's millenialist protestant ambitions in the past and present. Thanks, I'm glad to know you trust me a little, I really enjoy your thoughts on faith :).

Ms Trapunto - As I stated, to Ms Amy, I must confess that I grossly simplified a very complex topic for the purpose of writing this essay. And mostly I didn't write about the CONS of millenialism at all short of a passing mention. Those cons are very real - and have something to do with why I'm no longer a member of the Mormon church: and this feeling is shared with some of the former evangelicals I've spoken to, as well. Millenialism, in a way, is sort of the Winston Churchill of philosophy: It's a fine and powerful way to get through a war, but it's troublingly absolutist in times of peace. Actions that in the middle of conflict might be at least temporarily palatable are not acceptable during a time when there IS leisure for thought and reflection. I could write a very long and ranting screed on the negatives I've run into in a millenialist upbringing, but that's been written far better by many people, I guess, and it's certainly important, but I wouldn't od it service. I'm not good at sounding intelligent about things I disagree with - I tend to sound snotty and self absorbed instead.

Also, I do not mean to imply that millenialism is the ONLY center to religion. Even in Mormonism, the example ritual is actually quite strong. Its a young, American church so it can't match the dusty pomp of a Catholic mass, but the sacrament is quite formally structured (the equivalent of the Eucharist), as are many of the rites of passage in the church, and the Temple is nothing BUT ritual, and a fascinatingly complex one, at that.

As a side note, I don't know if I AM an atheist, or not. It's a difficult question, because there is two parts, and I can't firmly answer either - the 'how do you live your life' side, or the 'what is the nature of god' side. Honestly, if anything, I'm closer to a Dystheist than an Atheist - sort of if there is a God of some sort, and perhaps there is or perhaps there isn't, s/he doesn't seem to be a particularly nice person, and I don't see what's the imperative to serve him or her, considering everything. My company has a boss, too, and I don't want to get on her bad side, but that doesn't mean I have to agree with everything she says, and if she does something unjust I ought to, morally, work against her. This is fairly arrogant, I guess as a way to live, but I can't help it, it's more an act of philosophical desperation than anything else, and it's very fuzzy and not well-formed. I'm not clever enough to have a clear idea of whatI expect the truth of the universe to be, and even if I did, I have little if any faith in my own judgement. I know so many very intelligent people on both sides of the question.

Trapunto said...

I waffled about whether I should use the word "atheist" because it didn't sound right. Then I went ahead and used it because I remembered you'd said you didn't believe in God. Also because I got annoyed at myself for my vestigial fear of giving offense with the "dirty words" of my childhood: Atheist. Deist. Humanist. Liberal. Pagan. Agnostic. AGHHH! I'm a grownup, and "atheist" is not an insult!

The word "dystheist" is new to me, Jason. It is what I am trying very hard not to be. Before I knew there was a word for it, I just called it Theism for depressives.

Actually, I do think millennialism is the at center of the contemporary incarnations of all the big-player religions, because of that wider cultural millennialism you were talking about (chicken and egg, I know). I was only asking what you thought about having ritual at the center because *I* am puzzling over it.

When I play my invent-a-bearable-religion-for-Trapunto game, I usually end up with one that centers on creed and ritual. There has to be a creed as well as ritual, because without one you've got modern paganism, which just doesn't float my boat. (I'd have had to be an ancient pagan.) When you add a creed, that *sounds* like Catholicism, but isn't. Catholicism has a lot of non-optional extras. Catholics would probably laugh at this description.

Based on my latest (not very recent) round of church attendance, I've settled for calling myself an Episcopalian. Which is a silly word. It has "pal" in it.

Inconvenient, believing in God. Temperamentally I would have made a great pantheist. And too bad inventing a religion is against the rules of having one!

Am I the only person who plays this game?

Trish said...

In my experiences of being Mormon, I always felt like I was being taught without being taught anything. I understood key principles of the church but I don't think that these things were stressed in a "what does it all mean" type of application. Honestly, I felt like so much of the doctrine was supressed and could only be grasped through deep theological digging. Even in my religion courses in college (my first year I attended Ricks), we studied the Book of Mormon but more as a historical text rather than a religious one. Sure the parables and allegory, etc etc but not the deep root of thought. This never really sat well with me. And I'm guessing that many of my friends who are part of the church don't REALLY understand what they believe either. Does this make any sense?

I haven't ever thought of Millenialism before and I don't know if I think it is a good thing or bad thing. Amy's thought about believing in a Second Coming but not really expecting one is an interesting thought for sure.
But I will say that I do love that Queen and David Bowie song--cheesy as it is. :P

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - Theism for depressives. I'll have to write that down. Ironically, I don't think if there is a god that they've done too poorly by me - or maybe that they have, in the sense that I certainly don't DESERVE all I have by any reasonable measure of morality. I have met people like Elie Wiesel who was angry at god, for what has happened to him, who are plantiffs in the trial against god. I'm not, more a material witness, I guess :D. I will say, however, that I have DEFINITELY played the Divine Paper Dolls game ("God would look so lovely in this one, snip-snip-snip")

Ms Trish - Yes, as a child, I really had a hunger for theology - to me religion wasn't to teach you morality, because everyone has to learn to be good, it was to teach you what God is, how the world works, how to understand existence, to answer the big questions, you know. And, in Primary, they don't like you to ask those :). It wasn't ever that anyone REFUSED to tell me things (well, not really), just the feeling - learn this, not that, you know :/. I completely sympathize with what you're saying. We'll have to have a former mormons party sometime :). Finally A) I'm not sure *I* know whether I think of millenialism as good or bad either, but I think it depends on the person, and B) 'Under Pressure' is an AWESOME song! Freddie Mercury and DAvid Bowie! How can you turn that DOWN? :D