Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience
by Richard Landes
Oxford, 520 pages, $35
This is a disturbing and momentous book, for modern political thinking has trouble making sense of the intrusion of irrationality. It is conditioned by the Cold War, a geopolitical chess game between opponents who for the most part acted rationally. When the Soviet side saw that its position was unplayable in 1989, it politely resigned and accepted the consequences. But we cannot predict with confidence whether more recent challenges to world security—state sponsors of terrorism and nonstate actors seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction—will evince the same degree of rationality.
In Heaven on Earth, Richard Landes redresses our historiographical blind eye towards manifestly irrational social movements. History is written by the survivors, who restore stability after waves of enthusiasm have burned out. (Landes calls them “owls” in contrast to the millenarian “roosters.”) The writers of history thus tend to underestimate the fragility of social relations and the convulsive influence of salvific aspirations.
Landes, a Boston University historian who founded its Center for Millennial Studies, argues that orderly public life depends upon religious orthodoxy, that is, the integration of chiliastic and secular time that embeds messianic expectations within the liturgical calendar that accompanies ordinary human life. When messianic expectations lose their “orthodox” mooring in the daily life of faith communities and their members attempt to live in apocalyptic time, catastrophic consequences ensue.
In Landes’ model, the fragility of the social order corresponds to the fragility of this balance. He is pessimistic about the prospects for sustaining either.
By “millennial movements,” he means any organized attempt to perfect the world by radical change, from twelfth-century mystic Joachim of Fiore to the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult, and from the French Revolution to the Nazis, Communists, and Jihadists. His classification is broad. It is broad enough, in fact, to include the theory he proposes to supplant—Enlightenment rationalism—as a special case of millenarian movements. In a gesture worthy of Chesterton, he observes that the Enlightenment view, which found its apogee in Immanuel Kant, identified “progress in history” with the “rational, egalitarian, and humane organization and regulation of society” but turned out to be the old millenarian delusion in mufti.
One cannot read Kant today without the uncomfortable feeling that he was quite mad to seek “the realization of Nature’s secret plan to bring forth a perfectly constituted state as the only condition in which the capacities of mankind can be fully developed.” He proposed an international government as a substitute for the God who “will judge and rebuke nations,” and it is not much of a leap from what Landes calls his “sober philosophical millenarianism” to Marx’s “demotic millenarianism.”
Landes blames the underestimation of the convulsive influence of salvific aspirations in part on St. Augustine, somewhat unfairly. In Augustine’s long and influential treatment of apocalyptic expectations in The City of God, he “rejects the two most common options: neither say soon, for it can lead to disappointment and loss of faith; nor say later, for it discourages the faithful. Augustine’s solution: it can happen any time, and we cannot know when; live with the apocalypse at your shoulder.”
This “radical agnosticism,” as he characterizes it, “held virtually everyone to too high a standard. On the contrary, for centuries before and centuries after—indeed to this day—believers have alternated between the two options Augustine rejected.” His assertion that mainstream religious orthodoxy presents a standard too high for ordinary folk is dispiriting, although nothing in today’s religious landscape refutes it.
Having proposed a definition of millenarianism that embraces virtually all disruptive social movements, Landes must restore nuance. “I have defined apocalyptic as a sense of imminence,” he explains. “But there are all kinds of intensities to that feeling, from immediate to ‘within my lifetime,’ and along that spectrum run a large gamut of emotions, from quiet determination to delirium, exalted or panicked.”
He distinguishes two kinds of millenarian impulse, namely “innovative” and “restorative.” These in turn may be “hierarchical” or “demotic.” Nazism and global jihad are examples of innovative and hierarchical millennialism; Joachim of Fiore’s “Third Status” and communism, of innovative and demotic. By contrast, pathetic movements such as the American Indian Ghost Dance of the 1890s and the New Guinea Cargo Cults of the 1940s fall under demotic and restorative.
Every one of his vignettes is worth reading, but some persuade particularly well. A kind of chiliasm is found at the foundations of National Socialism, for example. The term tausendjähriges Reich means in German a “millennial empire,” and Hitler conceived of himself as its messiah. “For him there could be only one chosen people, and . . . that chosen people proved their status by exterminating the other claimants,” Landes observes.
Rather than the positive-sum notion of biblical chosenness—‘through you all the nations of the world will be blessed . . .’—the Nazis articulated a vision in which the very existence of the rival chosen people, the Jews, meant the certain death of the German people. They could only live by exterminating their rival for ‘election’ and subjugating the other nations.
Why should we subsume such a diverse range of political and social movements under the millennial concept? If the Nazis’ perverse reading of national election places them among the millennial movements, why not Cardinal Richelieu, who prolonged the Thirty Years’ War to realize the French ambition to be God’s proxy on earth?
Landes’ definition of millennial stems from an explicitly theological consideration. The differentia specifica of millennial movements is “the apocalyptic perception of time,” in contrast to “the Augustinian perception of normal time.” Augustine’s “solution to the still extant question of the End of Time is the most intellectually responsible for an eschatological believer: no one can know when; it could happen at any time,” but this sobriety leads him and those he influenced to “read the Apocalypse-driven past” through the distorting lens of their own more conservative theology. Millenarians who live in “apocalyptic time” believe that “now is the time.” That is the nub of his argument, although his cursory exposition of the theology underlying his thesis contrasts with the richness of his documentation.
That is a powerful application of theology to political analysis, and it could benefit from a more extended presentation. A bright line between “secular” and “apocalyptic” time is not quite what Augustine had in mind. In his discussion of time in the Confessions, he argues (against Aristotle) that we cannot perceive time except through memory and expectation. It follows that our perception of ordinary clock time ultimately depends on what we remember of the profound past (revelation) and what we expect from the distant future (salvation).
Among the theologians who reflected on Augustine, Franz Rosenzweig offered the clearest formulation of his thesis: “Revelation is the first thing to set its mark firmly into the middle of time; only after Revelation do we have an immovable Before and Afterward. Then there is a reckoning of time independent of the reckoner and the place of reckoning, valid for all the places of the world.” God has “set eternity in the hearts of men,” wrote Kohelet, such that our intimation of redemptive time always underlies our perception of secular time.
Augustine’s theory of time thus supports his celebrated assertion that our hearts are restless until they repose in God. It is misleading to read Augustine as an “owl” whose eschatological caution expresses a bias toward the established order. On the contrary, his “restlessness” always threatens to erupt, too often in the tragic ways that Landes recounts.
In the context of Landes’ survey, this distinction might seem like hair-splitting. But a great virtue of this study is that it creates a context for the tools of theology to clarify the nature of great political events. Very few books have this capacity to change the way we think about the world. But if we need theology to understand the procession of secular events, including some of the strangest and most destructive, our obligation is all the greater to employ theology with precision. It is a gauge of Landes’ accomplishment that he makes fine theological distinctions relevant to political analysis.
People of faith are all both owls and roosters, as Augustine understood. Religious orthodoxy—the tradition of long-standing faith communities—embeds the sacred time of redemption in the rhythm of human life. That is why orthodoxy in the main Christian denominations as well as Judaism has survived so many challenges through the centuries. It reconciles messianic expectation within the ordinary time of summer and winter, planting and harvest, birth and death.
If that were not the case, we would have ceased long since either to have faith or to live. I do not think there are any pure “owls” of the sort Landes describes, except perhaps the unfortunates who preside over the demographic death of nations that have lost hope of salvation. In that respect, we might view the listless despondency of declining nations as the opposite side of the millenarian coin.
Richard Landes’ magisterial survey tells us that every successful society is grounded in faith. The faith that tells us to await the coming of the Messiah, though he tarry, safeguards rationality, for in its absence the temptation to act on our apocalyptic impulses will be too strong to resist.
David P. Goldman writes the “Spengler” column for Asia Times Online and is author of How Civilizations Die (Regnery, 2011).