February 25, 2013

Apocalyptic Visions

This piece by Malise Ruthven from the New York Review, “Waiting for the Apocalypse: From the Romantics to Romney,” (8/25/12) provides a nice tour of apocalyptic visions over the centuries. It is interesting to think about such visions, often religiously inspired, in the context of nightmare projections today emphasizing ecological, financial, and other forms of collapse. Today, predictions of apocalypse often take the form of “settled science,”  making them fundamentally different in origin and tenor from earlier ideas. And yet there are some similarities:  

The idea of impending doom, whether divinely ordained or inferred by creative imaginations in the wake of absent deities, is a recurring theme not only in the work of writers such as Yeats, Eliot and Beckett. Imagining—or predicting—the end of the world has been the stuff of popular culture from the doomsday panoramas of the English artist John Martin (1789-1853) to the events of the “Rapture” described in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim F. LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. In recent years, apocalyptic rhetoric has turned up in international politics among terrorists and hard-line governments such as Iran, but also their adversaries in Washington, Israel, and elsewhere including the current Republican candidate for president. 

Perhaps this should not surprise us. Apocalyptic movements have been motors of religious—and secular—change throughout history. The origins of Christianity are inseparable from the apocalyptic spirit that consumed the Judeo-Hellenistic world in late antiquity. Albert Schweitzer in his highly influential The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), saw Jesus as the archetypical messianic prophet who expected to see the establishment of God’s rule on earth—as theologian John Riches puts it—through a “mighty act of divine intervention in history which would put an end to the evil age.” Muhammad’s original mission cannot be explained without reference to the apocalyptic admonitions, the foreseen calamities and terrors of the Day of Judgment described in the early suras (chapters) of the Koran “when mankind shall be like moths, besprinkled, when mountains shall be like tufts of wool…” [101:4-5] 

Apocalyptic rumblings—to name a few examples—surrounded Luther’s call for reforming the Catholic Church, Sabbatai Zevi’s claim to be the Jewish messiah, the French and American Revolutions (with George III as the Antichrist of Revelation) and the Babist movement in Persia led by Sayyid ‘Ali al-Shirazi, known as the Bab or ”Gate” (1819-1850), who claimed to be the Hidden Imam of the Shi’a and a “manifestation” of God on a par with Jesus and Muhammad. Although Shirazi was executed—along with thousands of his followers—his movement eventually evolved into the separate faith of Bahaism. 

Many such notions are also present in modern totalitarian movements. The most obvious example is Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The historian Peter Fischer sees Nazism as a “synthesis of nationalist ideology and Apocalyptic Christian mythology” with the “warrior-dictator” leading “Germany to the Promised Land …once he has destroyed evil, sin and death in their earthly embodiment as the potent, satanic Jew.” . . . 

The paradox of apocalypticism is that the prophets who predict the end of the world can also be great initiators and innovators. The fear of catastrophe, despite its perceived inevitability, acts as a spur to construction. A striking example is the evolution of the Mormon Church from a doomsday cult that originated in upstate New York during the 1830s to the formidable “kingdom” created in the Utah desert by the end of the nineteenth century. The sense of impending disaster inspired the Latter Day Saints, who saw themselves as a “saved remnant” of humanity, to congregate first at Kirtland, Ohio, then near modern Independence, Missouri, and eventually at Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi in Illinois (where the movement’s founder Joseph Smith was assassinated in 1844), before the great migration across the Great Plains and Rockies under Smith’s successor Brigham Young. 

The early Mormon experience can usefully be compared with that of early Islam: the persecution suffered by the Saints in Jackson County, Missouri, which they were forced to leave after being disarmed and flogged by slave-owning settlers, may be compared with that experienced by Muhammad’s first Muslim converts in Mecca, while the utopian community forged by Joseph Smith under divine guidance in Nauvoo corresponds to Muhammad’s reign in Medina. As the German historian Eduard Meyer noted in 1912: “Without the least exaggeration, we may designate the Mormons as the Mohammedans of the New World according to their origins and their manner of thinking. There is hardly a historical parallel which is so instructive as this one; and through comparative analysis both receive so much light that a scientific study of one through the other is indispensable.” . . .

You've just got to love that bit about the Mormons and Muhammad.

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