Religious Studies

Answer the following questions; the answers don’t have to be TOO long.The SupernaturalSmith is clearly at great pains to play down the supernatural and mythic elements of Christianity. Why?The Centrality Of The ResurrectionPaul of Tarsus wrote: “If Christ be not risen, then is our faith vain.” Even without the supernatural apparatus, Smith seems to agree with that, true? Why is the Resurrection accorded such a central place in Christianity?The Good NewsSmith explains the “Good News” of Christianity as the belief that Christian love can overcome the fear of death, guilt, and the miseries of unbridled ego. If this Good News is not played in its mythic or supernatural aspects–something Smith really insists upon–how exactly is that supposed to work?
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The Death of Utopia
of Apocalypse have haunted western life ever since those early
beginnings.
Modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion. The greatest
of the revolutionary upheavals that have shaped so much of the
history of the past two centuries were episodes in the history of faith –
moments in the long dissolution of Christianity and the rise of
modern political religion. The world in which we find ourselves at
the start of the new millennium is littered with the debris of Utopian
projects, which though they were framed in secular terms that
denied the truth of religion were in fact vehicles for religious myths.
Communism and Nazism claimed to be based on science – in the
case of communism the cod-science of historical materialism, in
Nazism the farrago of ‘scientific racism’. These claims were
fraudulent but the use of pseudo-science did not stop with the
collapse of totalitarianism that culminated with the dissolution of the
USSR in December 1991. It continued in neo-conservative theories
that claimed the world is converging on a single type of government
and economic system – universal democracy, or a global free
market. Despite the fact that it was presented in the trappings of
social science, this belief that humanity was on the brink of a new era
was only the most recent version of apocalyptic beliefs that go back
to the most ancient times.
Jesus and his followers believed they lived in an End-Time
when the evils of the world were about to pass away. Sickness
and death, famine and hunger, war and oppression would all cease
to exist after a world-shaking battle in which the forces of evil
would be utterly destroyed. Such was the faith that inspired the
first Christians, and though the End-Time was re-interpreted by
later Christian thinkers as a metaphor for a spiritual change, visions
During the Middle Ages, Europe was shaken by mass movements
inspired by the belief that history was about to end and a new world
be born. These medieval Christians believed that only God could
bring about the new world, but faith in the End-Time did not wither
away when Christianity began to decline. On the contrary, as
Christianity waned the hope of an imminent End-Time became stronger
and more militant. Modern revolutionaries such as the French
Jacobins and the Russian Bolsheviks detested traditional religion, but
their conviction that the crimes and follies of the past could be left
behind in an all-encompassing transformation of human life was a
secular reincarnation of early Christian beliefs. These modern
revolutionaries were radical exponents of Enlightenment thinking,
which aimed to replace religion with a scientific view of the world.
Yet the radical Enlightenment belief that there can be a sudden break
in history, after which the flaws of human society will be for ever
abolished, is a by-product of Christianity.
The Enlightenment ideologies of the past centuries were very
largely spilt theology. The history of the past century is not a tale of
secular advance, as bien-pensants of Right and Left like to think.
The Bolshevik and Nazi seizures of power were faith-based
upheavals just as much as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic
insurrection in Iran. The very idea of revolution as a transforming
event in history is owed to religion. Modern revolutionary
movements are a continuation of religion by other means.
It is not only revolutionaries who have held to secular versions of
religious beliefs. So too have liberal humanists, who see progress as
a slow incremental struggle. The belief that the world is about to
end and belief in gradual progress may seem to be opposites – one
Gray: “Death of Utopia”: page 1 of 22
looking forward to the destruction of the world, the other to its
improvement – but at bottom they are not so different. Whether they
stress piecemeal change or revolutionary transformation, theories of
progress are not scientific hypotheses. They are myths, which answer
the human need for meaning.
Since the French Revolution a succession of Utopian movements
has transformed political life. Entire societies have been destroyed
and the world changed for ever. The alteration envisioned by
Utopian thinkers has not come about, and for the most part their
projects have produced results opposite to those they intended. That
has not prevented similar projects being launched again and again
right up to the start of the twenty-first century, when the world’s most
powerful state launched a campaign to export democracy to the Middle
East and throughout the world.
Utopian projects reproduced religious myths that had inflamed
mass movements of believers in the Middle Ages, and they
kindled a similar violence. The secular terror of modern times is a
mutant version of the violence that has accompanied Christianity
throughout its history. For over 200 years the early Christian faith
in an End-Time initiated by God was turned into a belief that
Utopia could be achieved by human action. Clothed in science, early
Christian myths of Apocalypse gave rise to a new kind of faith-based
violence.
When the project of universal democracy ended in the bloodsoaked streets of Iraq, this pattern began to be reversed. Utopianism
suffered a heavy blow, but politics and war hare not ceased to be
vehicles for myth. Instead, primitive versions of religion are replacing
the secular faith that has been lost. Apocalyptic religion shapes the
policies of American president George W. Bush and his antagonist
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran. Wherever it is happening, the revival
of religion is mixed up with political conflicts, including an
intensifying struggle over the Earth’s shrinking reserves of natural
resources; but there can be no doubt that religion is once again a
power in its own right. With the death of Utopia, apocalyptic
religion has re-emerged, naked and unadorned, as a force in world
politics.
Apocalyptic Politics
‘A
new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first
earth were passed away’ we read in Revelations, Cross out
‘heaven’, just keep the ‘new earth’ and you have the secret and the
recipe of all utopian systems.
E. M. Cioran
The religious roots of modern revolutionary movements were
first systematically uncovered in Norman Cohn’s seminal study
The Pursuit of the Millennium it has often been noted that for its
followers communism had many of the functions of a religion – a
fact reflected in the title of a famous collection of essays by
disillusioned ex-communists, The God that Failed, which was
published not long after the start of the Cold War. Cohn showed
the similarities went much further than had been realized. At its
height twentieth-century communism replicated many of the features
of the millenarian movements that rocked Europe in late medieval
times. Soviet communism was a modern millenarian revolution, and
so – though the vision of the future that animated many Nazis was in
some ways more negative – was Nazism.
Gray: “Death of Utopia”: page 2 of 22
It may be worth clarifying some key terms. Sometimes called
chiliasts – a chliad is anything containing a thousand parts, and
Christian millenarians believe Jesus will return to the Earth and rule
over it in a new kingdom for a thousand years – millenarians hold
to an apocalyptic view of history. In common speech ‘apocalyptic’
denotes a catastrophic event, but in biblical terms it derives from
the Greek word for unveiling – an apocalypse is a revelation in
which mysteries that are written in heaven are revealed at the end of
time, and for the Elect this means not catastrophe but salvation.
Eschatology is the doctrine of last things and the end of the world (in
Greek eschatos means ‘last’, or ‘farthest’). As I have already
indicated, early Christianity was an eschatological cult: Jesus and his
first disciples believed that the world was destined for imminent
destruction so that a new and perfect one could come into being.
Eschatology does not always have this positive character – in some
pagan traditions the end of the world is seen as meaning the death
of the gods and final disaster. Despite the fact that the Nazis
adopted a Christian demonology, negative eschatology of this kind
was a strand in their ideology. However, it was a positive version of
apocalyptic belief that fuelled medieval and secular millenarian
movements, which expected an End-Time when the evils of the
world would disappear for ever. (Millenarianism is sometimes
distinguished from millennialism, with the former believing in the
literal return of Christ and the latter looking forward to the arrival
of some kind of holy kingdom. But there is no consistent pattern in
the use of these terms, and except where otherwise indicated I will use
them interchangeably.)
In the forms in which it has affected western societies
millenarianism is a Christian inheritance. Most religions lack any
conception of history as a story with a beginning and an end.
Hindus and Buddhists view human life as a moment in a cosmic
cycle; salvation means release from this unending round. Plato and
his disciples in pre-Christian Europe viewed human life in much the
same way. Ancient Judaism contained nothing resembling the idea
that the world was about to come to an end. Christianity injected the
belief that human history is a teleological process. The Greek word
telos means ‘end’, a word that in English means both the terminus
of a process and the goal or purpose that a process can serve. In
thinking of history in teleological terms, Christians believed it had
an end in both senses: history had a pre-determined purpose, and
when that was achieved it would come to a close. Secular thinkers
such as Marx and Fukuyama inherited this teleology, which
underpins their talk of ‘the end of history’. In that they view
history as a movement, not necessarily inevitable but in the direction
of a universal goal, theories of progress also rely on a teleological
view. Standing behind all these conceptions is the belief that history
must be understood not in terms of the causes of events but in terms
of its purpose, which is the salvation of humanity. This idea entered
western thought only with Christianity, and has shaped it ever since.
Millenarian movements may not be confined to the Christian
West. In 1853 Hong Xiuquan, the leader of a movement called the
Taiping Heavenly Army who believed himself to be the younger
brother of Jesus, founded a Utopian community in Nanjing that
lasted until it was destroyed eleven years later after a conflict in
which over twenty million people died. The Taiping Rebellion is one
of a number of Chinese uprisings moved by millenarian ideas, and
while Christian missionaries may have brought these ideas to
China, it may be the case that ideas of a similar kind were already
present Beliefs concerning an age of destruction followed by an era of
Gray: “Death of Utopia”: page 3 of 22
peace guided by a celestial saviour may have existed in the country
from the third century onwards.
Whether or not they are uniquely western in origin, beliefs of
this kind hare had a formative influence on western life. Medieval
chiliasm reflected beliefs that can be traced back to the beginnings
of Christianity. Modern political religions such as Jacobinism,
Bolshevism and Nazism reproduced millenarian beliefs in the terms
of science. If a simple definition of western civilization could be
formulated it would have to be framed in terms of the central role
of millenarian thinking.
Millenarian beliefs are one thing, millenarian movements
another, and millenarian regimes something else again. Millenarian
movements develop only in definite historical circumstances.
Sometimes these are conditions of large-scale social dislocation, as
in Tsarist Russia and Weimar Germany after the First World War;
sometimes a single traumatic event, as happened in the US with
9/11. Movements of this kind are often linked with disasters.
Millenarian beliefs are symptoms of a type of cognitive dissonance in
which normal links between perception and reality have broken
down. In Russia and Germany, war and economic collapse produced
full-fledged millenarian regimes, while in America an
unprecedented terrorist attack produced a millenarian outbreak that
included an unnecessary war and a shift in the constitution. When
and how millenarian beliefs become deciding forces in politics
depends on the accidents of history.
Apocalyptic beliefs go back to the origins of Christianity
and beyond. The recurrent appearance of these beliefs throughout
the history of Christianity is not an incursion from outside the
faith: it is a sign of something that was present from the start. The
teaching of Jesus was grounded in the belief that humanity was in
its final days. Eschatology was central to the movement he inspired.
In this respect Jesus belonged in a Jewish apocalyptic tradition,
but the radically dualistic view of the world that goes with
apocalyptic beliefs is nowhere found in biblical Judaism. The central
role of eschatology in the teaching of Jesus reflects the influence of other
traditions.
Contemporary historical scholarship has shown beyond
reasonable doubt that Jesus belonged in a heterodox current of
charismatic Judaism. The term ‘Christian’ that came to be applied
to Jesus’ followers comes from the Greek word christos, or ‘the
anointed one’, which is also the meaning of ‘messiah’ in Hebrew and
Aramaic. The term ‘messiah’ is rarely found in the Hebrew Bible
and when it appears it is a title given to the king or a high priest.
With the development of Christianity as a universal religion from
the time of Paul onwards, ‘the messiah’ came to mean a divine
figure sent by God to redeem all of humanity.
Originally a message directed only to other Jews, the teaching of
Jesus was that the old world was about to come to an end and a new
kingdom established. There would be unlimited abundance in the
fruits of the earth. Those who dwell in the new kingdom – including
the righteous dead, who will be raised back to life – would be rid of
physical and mental ills. Living in a new world that is without
corruption, they will be immortal. Jesus was sent to announce this new
kingdom and rule over it There is much that is original and striking in
Jesus’ ethical teaching. He not only defended the weak and powerless
as other Jewish prophets had done, but he also opened his arms to the
outcasts of the world. Yet the belief that a new kingdom was at hand was
the heart of his message and was accepted as such by his disciples.
The new kingdom did not arrive, and Jesus was arrested and executed
Gray: “Death of Utopia”: page 4 of 22
by the Romans. The history of Christianity is a series of attempts to
cope with this founding experience of eschatological disappointment.
Albert Schweitzer captured this predicament when he wrote:
In the knowledge that he is the coming son of man, Jesus lays hold of the
wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution that is to bring all
ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn and he throws himself upon it.
When it does turn it crushes him, instead of bringing the eschatological
condition, that is, the condition of perfect faithfulness and the absence of guilt,
he has destroyed these conditions.
In fact, eschatological hope was not destroyed. Among his followers
in the early Church the belief sprang up that Jesus rose from the dead
and ascended into heaven. It was not long before an attempt was made
to interpret Jesus’ teaching of the end of the world as a metaphor for an
inner change.
Already in St Paul there is the hint that the kingdom of heaven is an
allegory of a spiritual change. It was Paul – a Hellenized Jew also
called Saul of Tarsus – who more than anyone else turned the Jesus
movement from a dissident Jewish sect into a universal religion. Paul
shared the expectation of Jesus’ original disciples that the world was
about to come to an end, but he opened the way for a view of the End
that applied to all humankind. A more systematic attempt to defuse the
eschatological hopes that animated Jesus and his disciples was made
by St Augustine (AD 354-430). Augustine began as a follower of the
Manichean religion, which viewed evil as a permanent feature of the
world, and his theology shows marked traces of this view. Whereas
Mani believed the war between light and dark would go on for ever, the
followers of Jesus looked forward to an End-Time in which evil would
be permanently destroyed. Augustine believed that human beings were
ineradicably flawed, and this doctrine of original sin became the
cardinal tenet of Christian orthodoxy. Yet it may owe more to Mani than
to Jesus.
Another major influence on Augustine’s reformulation of Christian
belief was Platonism. Much impressed by Plato’s idea that spiritual
things belong in an eternal realm, Augustine suggested that the end of
time should be understood in spiritual terms – not as an event that will
happen at some point in the future but as an inner transformation that
can happen at any time. At the same time Augustine introduced into
Christianity a categorical distinction between the City of Man and the
City of God. Because human life is marked by original sin, the two cities
can never be one. Evil has been at work in every human heart since the
Fall of Man; it cannot be defeated in this world. This doctrine gave
Christianity an anti-utopian bent it never completely lost, and Christians
were spared the disillusionment that comes to all who expect any basic
change in human affairs. In Augustinian terms, the belief that evil can
be destroyed, which inspired medieval millenarians and resurfaced in
the Bush administration, is highly unorthodox. Yet some such
belief was a central feature of the apocalyptic cult to which the
followers of Jesus belonged The outbursts of chiliasm that recur
throughout western history are heretical reversions to Christian
origins.
By de-literalizing the hope of the End, Augustine preserved
eschatology while reducing its risks. The kingdom of God existed in
a realm out of time, and the inner transformation it symbolized could
be realized at any point in history. With the denunciation of
millennialism by the Council of Ephesus in 431 the Church adopted
this Augustinian view, but that did not stop the eruption of chiliastic
movements that harked back to the beliefs that inspired Jesus. Nor
did it end the role of chiliasm in the Church itself. In the twelfth
century Joachim of Fiora (1132-1202) reversed Augustine’s
theology. Believing that he had gleaned an esoteric meaning from
the scriptures, Joachim – a Cistercian abbot who had travelled in
Gray: “Death of Utopia”: page 5 of 22
the Holy Land where he experienced some kind of spiritual
illumination – turned the Christian doctrine of the Trinity into a
philosophy of history in which humanity ascended through three
stages. From the Age of the Father via the Age of the Son it would
move to the Age of the Spirit – a time of universal brotherhood
that would continue until the Last Judgement. Each of these ages had a
leader, with Abraham at the head of the First and Jesus the Second.
A new and final leader who embodied the third person of the divine
trinity would inaugurate the Third Age, which Joachim expected to
arrive in 1260. Joachim’s trinitarian philosophy of history reinfused medieval Christianity with eschatological fervour, and
versions of his three-phase scheme reappear in many later
Christian thinkers. Taken up by a radical wing of the Franciscan
order, Joachite prophecy inspired millenarian movements in southern
Europe. In Germany it helped create a messianic cult around
Emperor Frederick II, who after conquering the city in a crusade
crowned himself king of Jerusalem and was denounced by Pope
Gregory IX as the Antichrist.
The division of human hi …
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