2016-07-27
An excerpt of an email interview with Richard Landes, director of the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. The interview originally appeared in the Spring 1998 issue of Mass Humanities.

Mass Humanities: Why should thoughtful people interested in the humanities give serious attention to the millennium?

Richard Landes: Millennialism is amazing: No social phenomenon is more completely the product of the human imagination than millennial thinking. Because God never has brought (nor will bring?) about the End of the World, the impact of the phenomenon is purely the product of human desire and communication. On a psychological level, millennialism combines two of the most fundamental human emotions: hope and fear about the future.

MH: Can you give a specific example of how millennial thinking has shaped new forms of community?

RL: An example would be the Shakers; a more controversial one, that goes to the core of the problem, would be [early] Christianity, or, for that matter, Judaism [around the time of the Exile]. A more recent one would be Jehovah's Witnesses or Seventh-Day Adventists. More secular ones might be anarchist or hippie communes.

Millennialism is one of the most fertile forms of social imagination. It's also very heady and leads to megalomania. What the West has done more than any other culture is to develop an ascetic millennial tradition so that the dramatic impulses of apocalyptic fever get channeled into what I call millennial projects.

MH: Explain what you mean by "an ascetic millennial tradition."

RL: Apocalyptic millennialism is instant, total and permanent gratification. To be able to get worked up into a lather of expectation, but not go bonkers with impatience, to anticipate a radical transformation occurring right now, but be able to work on it without overreaching yourself, to handle the frustration of having your expectations crushed without giving up, that's ascetic millennialism.

On an historical level, millennialism may provide one of the strongest explanatory models for the rise of the West -- a culture which, whether one likes it or not, dominates the global community it has created over the last half a millennium. [The central thesis is] that while God tarried, [we] tried to bring about the millennial kingdom of plenty and fellowship and justice, with mixed results. In the course of this century, when we looked in the mirror (e.g., the post-war period), we saw more of a Frankenstein's millennium than we had hoped for.

MH: Do you mean to suggest that Hitler and Stalin were millenarians?

RL: Not suggest, assert. They were proponents of what one might call "secular millennialism." With each disappointment with God for not delivering on His millennial promises, Europeans gradually replaced God as the agent of millennial redemption -- first by substituting "divinely inspired" agents [such as Crusaders and church reformers] and by around 1500 bumping God from the equation entirely and producing secular movements that promised salvation here and now. Marxism and Nazism often present themselves as millenarian groups -- that is, they depict the world as one permeated by evil, and present themselves as the last-minute saviors that will lead the "chosen" people into the promised land of plenty.

MH: In his new one volume A History of Europe, the British historian J.M. Roberts claims that the era of Europe's domination of the world -- roughly the period 1500 to 2000, or what we might call the modern era -- is essentially at an end.

RL: I'd be careful with that. As long as the civilization the West has generated continues to work, there is not yet a competing culture capable of taking over.I would say that, given how often the West has been written off, it has shown remarkable resilience. I think millennial thinking may play a key role in that resilience -- revitalizing the culture every time it faces crisis.

MH: You seem to be saying that millennial thinking is connected more with cultural stress or crisis than with certain special calendar dates, like 2000. Is millennial thinking always out there? Why should we pay particular attention to it now?

RL: Lots of conditions can lead to millennial movements. In the late 6th Century, prophets and christs seem to crop up after disasters. Millennial dates are just particularly "charged" moments.

MH: Do you see significant signs of millennial thinking in the culture today?

RL: The Pope and his Jubilee 2000 are a modified form of millennialism, as are the Promise Keepers. They won't openly say things like "Jesus is coming back in 2000," but language like "if we have enough faith, this Jubilee [2000] could be a turning point in human history" (John Paul II) or "the next three years are going to bring the greatest harvest in the history of the church" (Promise Keepers, 1997), makes use of the rhetoric without owning it. It's sort of a free ride on the millennial wave. So, if it isn't the turning point they think it is, they can always say, "I never said that." The important point is not what the Pope or [Promise Keepers spokesman] Bill McCartney said technically, but how it was heard. This is clearly apocalyptic rhetoric.

The most fascinating example I am now aware of is the joining of Native American prophets and UFOlogists (Jesus was a starman and he's coming back in a spaceship). UFOs are a kind of post-modern substitute for apocalypse: What you project onto them is a technologically more sophisticated version of God the avenger or God the redeemer.

MH: Do you agree that we are at the end of the modern era, entering a radically different post-modern era? If so, might this transition fuel millennial, not to say, apocalyptic expectations?

RL: I agree that this is an age of transition. But let me suggest that if we assess the European past, we focus on the entire last millennium beginning with the 11th century, when Europe first started on its path to modernity. I would characterize the first half of this millennium as the period during which the key elements of modernity were first set in motion: popular participation in public life, technological innovation, improvement of communications, colonization, markets, ideology (e.g., Christianity, Marxism, democracy), limitation of arbitrary political power, and so on. In the first half of the millennium, these things took on religious form; in the second half we have the emergence of secular millennialism [such as]scientific and socialist utopianism, Marxism and radical democracy.

MH: Are there reasons why the modern era began at that time -- reasons having to do with millennial expectations?

RL: Funny you should ask. The year 1500 had a double [end-times] meaning: It was the year 7000 from the creation of the world, according to the Byzantine, something any learned person knew. It was also read as the meaning of "time and half a time" (i.e., millennium and a half) in [the Book of] Daniel. Thus, both AD 1500 and 1533 (1500 years from the Passion) had immense significance.

Albrecht Dürer's self-portrait -- where he shatters every restraint of medieval convention and portrays himself as Jesus Christ -- is dated 1500 A.D. (and equals both Anno Domini and Albrecht Dürer). That is a good example of the kind of self-aggrandizing individuality that this millennial moment brought with it -- the portrait can be taken as the declaration of independence from all cultural restraint. Now, today, with the Internet, we have millions of people doing something similar with their own websites.

But along with individuality we also get collectivity. The year 1533 saw the gathering of the Anabaptists at Münster in Germany where they proclaimed the millennial kingdom. The West is a constant combination of both.

MH: Is millennial thinking peculiar to Western culture?

RL: The most virulent, penetrating, and pervasive forms are in the Western traditions stemming from ancient Israelite religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). But it is everywhere -- Buddhism is a close competitor, and the mix of Buddhist "matreya" millennialism with Christian brands can be very potent. Partly I suspect its universality comes from how it resonates with a profound human emotion -- hope for a better and more just world -- and an equally profound human sense that "things could be a whole lot better than they are."

Some people would even argue that the millennial impulse is not only universal, it is at the core of the religious impulse.


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