Millennial Fever or Millennial Denial: Are these our only options?

The following article appeared in the November-December, 1998, issue of Catholic Dossier

Ours is the second generation in the history of the Church to experience the turn of a millennium, and it is to be expected that the uniqueness of the event will have its effect on our perceptions of what is occurring and will soon occur in our midst. It would be high drama in any historical context, yet the unprecedented crises and crimes of this century have injected into the situation a tension that in many people approaches the level of cosmic dread.

Natural disasters are increasing exponentially; the economy is tottering on the brink of disaster; the y2k problem threatens the vulnerable infrastructure of the computerized developed nations, raising the specter of widespread social collapse in the immediate future, with ensuing famine and lawlessness; wars are increasing in number and ferocity; world-class magazines give plenty of attention to the outbreak of pandemic plagues and the possibility of comets and asteroids smashing into our once secure little planet, thus ending civilization with whimpers and bangs.

Add to this mix the condition of modern man, child as he is of Rousseau’s revolutionary idealism, Fichte’s identification of man’s mastery of freedom and reason as the Millennial Kingdom of the Apocalypse and the universal reign of the Spirit, Hegel’s deterministic concept of history as dialectic, Feuerbach’s religious subjectivism, and the materialism of Karl Marx. Christopher Dawson points out that these, and the many systemic approaches to the problem of man which they have spawned, have evoked all the enthusiasm and faith of genuine religion, that they proposed a religion of Progress that would ostensibly restore to the West the spiritual unity which she had lost since the Middle Ages. Yet, Dawson notes, the so-called “Century of Hope” (the 19th) was also the Century of Disillusion. (1)

The events of our own very instructive century have brought in its wake a culture that John Paul II repeatedly refers to as the “culture of death.” But the human will, being what it is, cannot remain long in such a moribund state. New solutions are sought and found, some political, some economic, some religious. The most recent endlösung is a globalism which strains for a synthesis of all three of these elements, and which offers to the shaken confidence of modern man a vision of unity (read security) that calms his fears and fires his imagination with renewed optimism. Little attention is given to the cost of reconfiguring man into such a new world order. Even in Christian circles the costs (which can be measured in terms of human misery and the eclipse of absolutely essential principles) are downplayed. The Pope has frequently warned the people of the West that we must not conclude that because the more brutal forms of Marxism seem to be in decline man will now right himself and become what he was intended to be from the beginning. (2) He asks us to see that materialism is far from dead, and now manifests itself in less visibly monstrous forms that may in the long run bring about a more comprehensive destruction of the human community by turning some men into consumers without conscience, and other men into objects to be consumed.

Much negative reaction to this warning has been voiced by some otherwise orthodox believers, who, defending Capitalism as the last best hope of the West, cannot see that any form of market economy that minimalizes human dignity and matters of justice helps to create a world in which all men are eventually consumed. For materialism, which is the bed of modern humanism, seeks to erase “the whole truth about man” one way or another. And beyond secular humanism lies the ominous realm of the anti-human, the anti-word and the final anti-word—the destruction of everything. To have power over life, and to have it on the level of totality offered by nuclear warfare, may prove irresistible— the ultimate denial of our powerlessness, cataclysm as the final art form. Thus, to overcome the ultimate menace the globalist state, with all its vulnerability to ideological instability and utopian dreams, must necessarily increase its power to the level of a counter-totality—in other words, absolute control. In the end, the globalist élite that would rule in the name of mankind will find itself restricting the rights and duties of persons in the name of freedom, and destroying human lives in the name of humanity.

In his prescient 1949 essay, “The Terrors of the Year 2000”, Etienne Gilson warns that the brave new man is dominated by the spirit of “Anti-Christus“. Having abandoned belief or trust in the God who became man and suffers with us in order to raise us up, we would make ourselves into God, for man cannot live long without a god and a spirituality. Positing the “demoniac grandeur of Nietzsche” as the forerunner and articulator of this spiritual condition, Gilson warns that his influence is great because in our time he bears no resemblance to the fantastic beast of the Apocalypse.

The entire human order totters on its base. Antichrist is still the only one who knows this, the only one who foresees the appalling cataclysm of the “reversal of values” which is in the making, for if the totality of the human past depended on the certitude that God exists, the totality of the future must needs depend on the contrary certitude, that God does not exist. . . .

Have we understood at last? That is not certain, because the announcement of a cataclysm of such magnitude ordinarily leaves but a single escape: to disbelieve it, and in order not to believe, to refuse to understand it. If Nietzsche speaks truly, it is the very foundations of human life which are to be overthrown.   . . .

“He who would be a creator, both in good and evil, must first of all know how to destroy and wreck values” [Nietzsche writes]. They are, in fact, being wrecked around us, and under our very feet, everywhere. We have stopped counting the unheard of theories thrown at us under names as various as their methods of thought, each the harbinger of a new truth which it promises to create shortly, joyously busy preparing the brave new world of tomorrow by first annihilating the world of today.  . . .

Since men have refused to serve God, there is no longer an arbiter between them and the State which dominates them. It is no longer God but the State which judges them. But who, then, will judge the State? (3)

 

Josef Pieper, in his essay “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair”, makes a similar point, citing sources that range as widely as Saint John on Patmos, Nietzsche and Marx, Thomas Mann and Robert Oppenheimer, and most especially Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited. Huxley’s 1931 dystopia Brave New World had warned that the age of world-organization was approaching (though still distant), and that such an age would abolish private life and personal responsibility. Writing thirty years later, in Revisited, Huxley was a good deal less optimistic, and expressed his conviction that the prophesies he had made in 1931 were materializing at a much faster rate than he had thought possible. In the near future, he warned, we would see the rise of a “scientific dictatorship” in which there would be less violence than under Hitler and Stalin, “and in which we will be painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers,” and in which “democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial,” but “the underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism.” Pieper points out that this is the most inhuman form of totalitarianism, almost impossible to throw off, because it can always cite what appear to be valid arguments to prove that it is not in fact what it is. (4)

In The Judgment of the Nations, Dawson contrasted the collapse of the Roman Empire to the collapse of a Christian civilization. He believed that something far more ominous is at work in the latter:

For the civilization which has been undermined, and is now threatened by total subversion, is a Christian civilization, built on the spiritual values and religious ideals of Saint Augustine and his like; and its adversary is not the simple barbarism of alien peoples who stand on a lower cultural level, but new Powers armed with all the resources of scientific technique, which are inspired by a ruthless will to power, that recognizes no law save that of their own strength.

Dawson is here referring to overt tyrannies. However, he goes on to sound some additional warnings for us all:

 

Thus, the situation that Christians have to face today has more in common with that described by the author of the Apocalypse than with the age of St. Augustine. The world is strong and has its evil masters. But these masters are not vicious autocrats like Nero and Domitian. They are the engineers of the mechanism of world power: a mechanism that is more formidable than anything the ancient world knew, because it is not confined to external means, like the despotism of the past, but uses all the resources of modern psychology to make the human soul the motor of its dynamic purpose. (5)

Dawson is describing the shape of a possible future, a global non-violent totalitarianism that is the most serious of all from the Christian viewpoint, because in it evil has become depersonalized, “separated from individual appetite and passion, and exalted . . . into a sphere in which all moral values are confused and transformed. The great terrorists . . . have not been immoral men, but rigid puritans who did evil coldly, by principle.”

If sober minds such as Gilson, Pieper and Dawson (one could easily add a long list of admirable names to their company) have spoken with a certain urgency about the significance of our century’s unique character, surely we who live a generation later can afford a little reflection on the possibility that history may be approaching its definitive crisis. The widespread reluctance on the part of many Catholic thinkers to enter into a profound examination of the apocalyptic elements of contemporary life is, I believe, part of the very problem which they seek to avoid. If apocalyptic thinking is left largely to those who have been subjectivized or who have fallen prey to the vertigo of cosmic terror, then the Christian community, indeed the whole human community, is radically impoverished. And that can be measured in terms of lost human souls.

Much of the apocalyptic commentary issuing from academic circles these days is limited to the shibboleth of the first millennium. “Ah, yes,” we are told over and over, “in the tenth century there was a mass hysteria about the approaching millennium, and you see, the date passed and the world recovered its balance.” In preparation for his 1948 address to the bishops of France, Gilson studied that period carefully and found little evidence to support the theory of tenth century millennial fever. The tradition regarding a supposed widespread hysteria was so grossly inflated as to be ludicrous, and was in fact due largely to the writings of a single cleric. While there were isolated incidents, Gilson admits, mass hysteria was definitely not the temper of those times.

What, then, are we to make of the widespread abhorrence among intellectuals for serious reflection on apocalyptic themes? Fear of the irrational? Yes, there is some of that—distaste for a subject that is full of unknowables and ripe for inflammatory conjecture. Clearly, it is a healthy thing to feel some aversion to the danger of projecting one’s formless dreads upon a big dangerous world. Nevertheless, this misgiving should not be allowed to paralyze the critical faculty, or more accurately the charism of spiritual discernment which Christians should exercise whenever they seek to understand the world. Have we become so worried about the danger of paranoia that we are no longer able to consider the possibility that something of the magnitude of an apocalypse might occur in our times? Is not the psychology of denial every bit as dangerous as the psychology of hysteria—perhaps more so? How easy to dismiss the entire question with a backhand swipe at the poor style and obvious excesses of many an “end-times” novelist or the screaming apocalyptic headlines of the tabloid magazines, and the various conflicting scenarios proposed by Protestant speculators. By its very nature the subject of world-catastrophe evokes knee-jerk responses, and thus for the academic mind there is a subtle but powerful counter-temptation to draw back so far from the problem that he practically dismisses the subject altogether.

Right discernment is crucial to the accomplishment of the missio of the Church, and both the Scylla and Charybdis of hysteria and denial can cripple this faculty to the degree that the life of our Catholic people becomes seriously distorted. Consider, for example, the damage that has been done by the mental constructs of liberal-moderate-conservative, or left-center-right as applied to the current ecclesial crisis in Europe and the Americas. Wherever these political categories have been superimposed on the profound mystery of the Church in all its multi-dimensionality, they have done at least as much damage to Catholic perceptions of reality as the assaults of our open enemies.

Human psychology is such that we tend to perceive our own times as normal. We are born and raised in a given culture with certain spiritual and material realities all around us. People of every generation experience the world as an imperfect environment, but it is still their world. At some point in history, however, a generation is going to go through the final apocalypse, yet to them it will appear to be a normal world. It will have problems, and its citizens may even admit that the problems are grave, but it will be difficult for most to understand it in terms of the absolute crisis presented in the Book of Revelation. This is precisely the condition which Jesus warns us about in Matthew 24: 36-42:

 

“As for the exact day or hour, no one knows it, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, but the Father only. The coming of the Son of Man will repeat what happened in Noah’s time. In the days before the flood people were eating and drinking, marrying and being married, right up to the day Noah entered the ark. They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them. So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. . . . Stay awake, therefore! You cannot know the day your Lord is coming.”

 

The universal human tendency to cling to a sense of earthly security is understandable. A more culpable state of mind, however, is the one which, knowing Scripture and scanning the signs of the times, still insists upon a supposedly more informed reading of reality than the one offered by Christ, the prophets, and the orthodoxy of the Magisterium. The modernist school of biblical criticism is an obvious example, for it would have us believe that the apocalypse is long over and that now all we need to do is build the City of God by human will. Thus, we are lulled to sleep at the very moment when we need to be very much awake. But not all damage is done by the heterodox. Many a faithful Catholic essayist and commentator has fallen into the trap of characterizing apocalyptic reflection as symptomatic of a disease that supposedly afflicts us every thousand years. Perhaps they are motivated by the desire to avoid panic among the people. Or perhaps they wish to establish their credentials as detached observers, to prove that they are not hysterics. Regardless of the motivation, they have been blinded to the possibility that omniscient optimism is also a disease. It is, of course, tempting to believe that good old American grit and know-how will pull us through. The optimism may be high-brow (some of it expressed with theological elegance) or it may be low-brow (rescue operations, like those dramatized in the recent films Independence Day, Deep Impact and Armageddon). But its cumulative effect is to leave us with the false impression that the end of history predicted throughout Scripture, most authoritatively in the words of our Savior, can be avoided by the very pragmatism and psuedo-democratic automatism that is suffocating the Church in the Western world.

This is not to say that we should fall into the opposite trap of quietism or pessimism. Neither facile optimism nor pessimism are Christian views of the world. But a confident realism based on hope certainly is. For example, there is an eschatalogical current throughout much of the writings of the Holy Father, and indeed he has said that preparation for the approaching millennium is the “hermeneutical key” to his pontificate. John Paul II has never expressed these themes in terms of facile optimism or dire pessimism, but he has not held back from a sometimes startling bluntness regarding the times we live in. Take, for example, the following comment which he made during a visit to the United States shortly before his election to the papacy:

 

We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel versus the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine Providence. It is a trial which the whole Church . . . must take up. (6)

 

The use of the word final is significant. Even so, we must be careful not to infer too much from such statements, avoid projecting our personal fears, intuitions, longings and denials onto them to the detriment of their real purpose. An examination of John Paul’s speeches and writings yields a rich harvest of apocalyptic meditation, but it is always expressed in the context of hope. He knows that the popular desire for neat fortune-telling packages about the future undermines the true spirit of vigilance: “Stay awake and watch, for you do not know the hour when the Son of Man will return” (Cf. Matt 24:1-51, Mark 13: 5-23, Luke 17: 26-37). Genuine Christian meditation on the apocalypse demands the courage to see things as they really are. Christian realism is apocalyptic, for it stands ever waiting and watchful for the hour when the Bridegroom will arrive. But hope is a delicate virtue that can grow stronger only as it is exercised. In an era when despair is never far below the surface, Christian apocalyptic reflection runs certain risks: on one hand, a temptation to over focus on this present darkness, and a resulting (usually subconscious) shift from trust in divine providence to trust in stockpiles of food and gold bars. (7) And on the other, a tendency to defuse the concept of the apocalypse by insisting that it can only be some distant mega-drama at the end of history far beyond our present reality. Both are forms of thinly-disguised despair. John Paul II shows us that there is another approach, in fact the only truly Christian approach. Whenever he critiques the myriad destructive forces presently at work in the world he does not minimize them; rather, he draws us through them and beyond them, pulling us out of the tail-spin of fear which is the source of utopian solutions and spiritualized escapism alike, reorienting us towards the true shape of reality, that is, the ultimate victory of Christ (Cf. Luke 21:28). Consider for example the following passage from Dives in Misericordia:

The more the Church’s mission is centered upon man—the more it is, so to speak, anthropocentric—the more it must be confirmed and actualized theocentrically, that is to say, be directed in Jesus Christ to the Father. While various currents in human thought both in the past and in the present have tended and still tend to separate theocentrism and anthropocentrism, and even to set them in opposition to each other, the Church, following Christ, seeks to link them up in human history, in a deep and organic way. (8)

 

In other words, the truly Catholic view of history can never be a one-dimensional template: It must never be immanentist, it can never posit the omega of history as the culmination of a purely linear process; creation must not be idolized as an end in itself. Neither can the Catholic view be purely transcendent, for creation can never be ignored, negated or escaped. All of creation is to be transfigured, restored to the Father in Christ.

But how is this to be accomplished in an era that, as the Pope describes it, “gives not only grounds for hope for a better future for man on earth, but also reveals a multitude of threats, far surpassing those known up till now”? John Paul’s answer is fundamentally Christocentric, absolutely rooted in the person of Jesus Christ who is Lord of History, who is God and man, transcendent and immanent, reconciling in his very person the destructive split in human consciousness which is the result of sin and error. But man is free to choose, the Holy Father reminds us. Man must decide to open the gates of his heart and his mind to the saving power of Christ. Moreover, those who have already done this must take up their role in His mission, living in a state of continuous reconversion, willing to be “signs of contradiction” to the prevailing spiritus mundi in all its many manifestations. Thus, we must not only speak the truth about sin and error, we must live mercy, and our capacity to do this is dependent upon our fidelity to the fullness of life in Christ.

 

In the Paschal mystery the limits of the manysided evil in which man becomes a sharer during his earthly existence are surpassed: the cross of Christ, in fact, makes us understand the deepest roots of evil, which are fixed in sin and death; thus the cross becomes an eschatalogical sign. Only in the eschatalogical fulfilment and definitive renewal of the world will love conquer, in all the elect, the deepest sources of evil, bringing as its fully mature fruit the kingdom of life and holiness and glorious immortality. The foundation of this eschatalogical fulfillment is already contained in the cross of Christ and his death. The fact that Christ “was raised the third day” (1 Cor 15:4) constitutes the final sign of the messianic mission, a sign that perfects the entire revelation of merciful love in a world that is subject to evil. At the same time it constitutes the sign that foretells “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1) . . . In the eschatalogical fulfillment mercy will be revealed as love, while in the temporal phase, in human history, which is at the same time the history of sin and death, love must be realized above all as mercy and must be actualized as mercy. (9)

 

The restoration of the world to the Father in Christ is certain, but what remains uncertain is the number of souls who will be saved. Central to the Holy Father’s pontificate is his call to all mankind that we avail ourselves of the mercy of God.

. . . At no time and in no historical period—especially at a moment as critical as our own—can the Church forget the cry for the mercy of God amid the many forms of evil which weigh upon humanity and threaten it. Precisely that is the fundamental right and duty of the Church in Jesus Christ, her right and duty towards God and towards humanity. The more the human conscience succumbs to secularization, loses its sense of the very meaning of the word “mercy”, moves away from God and distances itself from the mystery of mercy, the more the Church has the right and the duty to appeal to the God of mercy “with loud cries.” (Heb 5:7)

. . . And like the prophets, let us appeal to that love which has maternal characteristics and which, like a mother, follows each of her children, each lost sheep, even if they should number in the millions, even if in the world evil should prevail over goodness, even if contemporary humanity should deserve a new “flood” on account of its sins, as once the generation of Noah did. (10)

 

The parable of the prodigal son is the primary image that John Paul II uses in his 1980 encyclical on mercy, and it remains the definitive image for the final year of preparation for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000, as outlined in his 1994 encyclical Tertio Millennio Adveniente. This document, which is the crown of a uniquely prophetic pontificate, has at times been selectively quoted in an attempt to reinforce the spirit of denial, or a naïve optimism, and more perversely to put a stamp of approval on political forms of secular messianism. (11) A prayerful reading of the entire document (and indeed the entire missio of John Paul II’s pontificate) is necessary for an accurate reading of the context. The “new springtime of Christian life will be revealed by the Great Jubilee”, the Holy Father points out, “if Christians are docile to the action of the Holy Spirit.” (TMA, n.18).

 

In this eschatalogical perspective, believers should be called to a renewed appreciation of the theological virtue of hope, which they have already heard proclaimed “in the word of the truth, the Gospel” (Col 1:5). The basic attitude of hope, on the one hand encourages the Christian not to lose sight of the final goal which gives meaning and value to life, and on the other, offers solid and profound reasons for a daily commitment to transforming reality in order to make it correspond to God’s plan.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:22-24). (12)

 

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Footnotes:

 (1) Christopher Dawson, Progress and Religion, Sheed & Ward, London, 1939, pages 199-201.
 (2) Cf. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, n. 101, and Centesimus Annus, n. 28 and n. 46-47.
( 3) Etienne Gilson’s The Terrors of the Year 2000 was published by St. Michael’s College, Toronto, in 1949. It was redrafted from a conference which Gilson gave to the Bishops of France in 1948, titled “The Intellectuals and Peace,” and from lectures he gave to the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto in that same year.
 (4) Josef Pieper, Josef Pieper: An Anthology, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989, page 228.
 (5) Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1942, pages 10-11.
 (6) Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, from an address during a visit to the U.S.A. in 1976, reported in The Wall Street Journal, November 9, 1978.
 (7) I should qualify this by saying there is nothing wrong in a prudential storing of essential goods, including food and fuel, especially in a time of economic instability, as long as one’s highest priority is docility to the Holy Spirit, maintaining the right order of charity, a willingness at all times to share everything one has with the hungry and homeless. The precedent of Joseph in Egypt preparing for the seven lean years during the seven fat years is a valid one. Yet it must be remembered that Joseph’s highest motive was obedience to God, not self-preservation.
(8) Dives in Misericordia, On the Mercy of God, n.1, 1980.
(9) Dives in Misericordia, n.8
(10) Dives in Misericordia, n.15
(11) Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.675-677
(12) Tertio Millennio Adveniente, n.46.

 

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