Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Frederic Baumgartner, "Longing for the End" (1999).

Last week I mentioned that I was reading a book about millenialism (or millenarianism, which is a synonym), called Longing for the End. Frankly, I often found myself in sympathy with the book's title- not because I wasn't interested in its subject, but rather because of the author's exceedingly dry style. Frederic Baumgartner knows his stuff, however I wouldn't characterize him as a particularly adept storyteller. While that wasn't enough to make me put his work down before I finished it, I was certainly tempted to do so on a few occasions. In Baumgartner's defense, I had a lot on my plate while making my way through this modestly-sized book. Still, with the nature of the subject, it could have been a lot more captivating.

Longing for the End starts with a glossary (this probably should have been a red flag) that lists all kinds of words having to do with apocalyptic end-times. Some of my favorites were "parousia" (a Greek word meaning "coming", specifically referring to Christ's return) and "chiliasm" (Greek for "one thousand", used to denote the belief that the savior's thousand year reign on earth is imminent, and that violence is necessary to expedite his arrival). These were appropriate words to seize upon, as Baumgartner's chosen task was to detail the history of eschatology within Western civilization. Obviously the "end of the world" is closely tied to the future activities of God and Jesus within our society.

I was amazed by the length and breadth of this tradition. Since the beginning of recorded history, the faithful have been busy anticipating the wholesale destruction of life as they knew it. This makes an odd sort of sense, because religious adherents are drawn to the idea that the world should be made over in the image of their god(s). If they were satisfied with the status quo, they likely would not be drawn to worship the heavens. In order to get there, some process must be put into play that brings about the massive changes required. There's a quality of desperation in the fanatical that prohibits an embrace of incrementalism. It's really an all-or-nothing proposition. These folks do not work within the system.

I find it interesting that believers invest much more time imagining the exact qualities of the period leading up to salvation than the conditions they expect to be rewarded with once it has passed. Most millennial thinkers are vague about what "paradise" will look like once all the sinners have been removed by fire. Perhaps there is just something infinitely more compelling about suffering. After all, it isn't that interesting to describe complete satisfaction and bliss. Humans are more interested in the horrific specifics of revenge and hell. The tribulations that many predict to precede the savior (as outlined most notably in the Biblical book of Revelations, with its accompanying wars and holocausts) are often lovingly described. I guess it's like staring at a fatal accident- one can't look away.

There were plenty of formulations and figures within Longing for the End that I'd be interested in learning more about. Baumgartner's volume is a survey, and many of the passionate personalities he wrote about were sketched briefly and with little detail. I'd like to explore the story of John Nelson Darby, who the author identifies as the founder of the modern fundamentalist evangelical millenarian movement. It would also be interesting to hear more about the human scale of these influences. What was it like to be a follower of a prophet that turned out to be essentially mistaken? How did devotees process their disappointments? I'm feeling a further compulsion to dig deeper into modern-day parallels. Perhaps I'll have time before the apocalypse arrives.

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9 Comments:

Blogger rainywalker said...

How about the earth reversing its magnetic poles every 41,000 years, 24 times in the last million years? That should kill a few billion of us.

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You said: "Perhaps I'll have time before the apocalypse arrives."

I heard on the news yesterday we have to add one second to the clock (calendar) at the end of the year to adjust for the slowing down of the earth's rotation. It may have been a suggestion from scientists, not a reality. In any case, that was a new one to me.

Yes, I realize it has little or nothing to do with your topic, but (1) it would make an interesting blog topic, and (2), at least that would give you a bit more time to read another dry book.

Re your topic, it would make an interesting poll to ask...

Do you think the end of man's time on earth will come from:
1. A single short-term cataclysmic event. or
2. An event or series of events that will allow men to predict it's timing to a relatively short period, perhaps a decade or decades.
3. A slow gradual change which will extend for thousands if not millions of years.
4. None of the above

Then, add on...
Whichever you selected, is your answer based on:
1. Religion
2. Science
3. Intuition
4. A combination of the above

jg

8:11 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

rainywalker,

When is that supposed to happen again? What are the effects?

4:28 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

jg,

So it would take an awfully long time to make up for the seconds it takes me to respond to that thought.

As far as your poll question is concerned... I'm for incrementalism, so I'm going to go with option #3.

My answer is based on philosophical orientation. Probably some sort of combination of #2 and 3 with some X factor thrown in for good measure.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous john morris said...

My personal guess is that religion itself or more broadly, a movement away from reason will be a major contributing factor to the end of our species.

People don't like to identify that it was the closing of the west to rational philosophy that made the dark ages dark.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

john,

How would a movement toward religion, or away from reason, manifest itself in the destruction of humanity? I'm not saying that it couldn't, I'm just having a hard time visualizing it. Do you mean that fundamentalists will spark a world war that will be the undoing of the species, or what?

4:53 PM  
Anonymous john morris said...

I think a better question would be how would it not. The faculty of rational thought is the basic root of everything needed for human survival, science, invention, trade, medicine and conflict resolution. It is also the basic concept underlying western law-- that there is a truth that can be discovered through examination of evidence.

Star trek episodes showing mystical beings flying space ships are most unlikely.

The naked effects of living by faith are not evident to most people because religions in most western countries are not taken that seriously.

7:44 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

"Star trek episodes showing mystical beings flying space ships are most unlikely."

I assumed this went without saying.

The only ma-made apocalypses I can think of are nuclear destruction, or (quite a bit less likely) some other human activity that degrades the atmosphere past the point where any individuals can survive.

I really don't think religion has the capacity to achieve either of these ends by itself. As far as I know, only the US and Russia have the capacity to destroy the Earth with bombs (i.e' render it immediately uninhabitable). Unless a true believer somehow becomes the leader of either of those nations, and somehow convinces the rest of the powers-that-be that the apocalypse is necessary, I just don't see religion bringing about human extinction.

Perhaps (as I mentioned in my earlier post) some fundamentalists somehow will spark a conflict that escalates into a major nuclear exchange... but that entails the participation of many forces that aren't necessarily religious enough to want to bring about the "end times". At that level it would have to be about something else- perhaps a fight for the control of dwindling resources.

8:32 PM  
Anonymous John Morris said...

I guess I'm more a believer in the world as we know it fading out over a period of years, perhaps as few as 50. During that time, there's a rapid loss of scientific knowledge, and a rapid loss of infrastructure much of which needs constant maintanance. A few nuclear weapons are likely to fall around here and there as more and more irrational people get ahold of them etc..

The loss of scientific knowledge will rapidly manifest itself in dropping food output, lack of medicine and the ability to transport things. Also, the increase in magical thinking makes people more and more likely to turn to more and more irrational policies such as expropriations, hyperinflation of fiat money which will cause a spiral of chaos like in Zimbabwe. Like in the period of the dark ages, the pool of widely known knowledge is likely to shrink.

In a way, it's a race-- If for example lots of our most dangerous weapons become unusable from lack of repair, they will not be available to the crazies.

11:14 AM  

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