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OK, it's not the end of the world

An appreciation of the environment, culture, and
history as global systems is redefining millennialism
from a religious fringe obsession to an intriguing
new interdisciplinary theme


FOR SOME PEOPLE, the approaching millennium is an occasion for merry- making. A stand-up comedienne has labeled her act "The Millennium is Here and I'm Not Ready." New York City's Rainbow Room already has on its books more than 150 confirmed reservations, with deposits of $500 per person, for the night of Dec. 31, 1999. Yet millions of other people worry-or hope-that the first day of the next thousand years could be the last day of this world.

In its various forms, as religious Time of Reckoning, secular milestone, and sociological phenomenon, the forthcoming millennium is attracting scholarly attention. But researchers, it appears, are not only studying the millennium but also redefining it. An idea that was once the nearly exclusive province of religious extremists is now becoming both a legitimate object of study and a conceptual framework connecting different academic realms, within Columbia as elsewhere.

"Millennium" in its original sense means more than the point when the calendar's zeroes flip over, or a thousand-year-long epoch; it's the theological term for a very old and widespread complex of beliefs. These center on the idea of a future age in which evil will vanish from the earth and perfect goodness, justice, and happiness will prevail. Millions of people of different religious persuasions hold such beliefs. As early as AD 50, Christian theologians were defining the millennium more exactly as Christ's thousand-year reign on earth after the destruction of the present corrupt world and the triumph over evil in the Battle of Armageddon. Some 50 million evangelical Christians in the United States today, according to polls, use the term in this sense and believe in what it signifies. Many other Americans seem to feel that, if not Armageddon, then something almost as big and awe-inspiring-perhaps a huge earthquake, a massive meteor collision, or another environmental catastrophe-could (and perhaps should) usher in the Third Millennium.

As the millennial year approaches, contemporary millennialism is inevitably attracting research attention. For the fall 1995 American Academy of Religion meeting to be held in Philadelphia, a Millennialism Studies steering committee seeks papers and discussion topics in "sociology of religion, anthropology, biblical studies, history of religion, political science, history, and psychology of religion." The idea is "to create an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural forum in which scholars can reflect upon millennialism in its many guises." (1)


BARNARD COLLEGE'S Randall Balmer, a professor of religion and an authority on American evangelical Christianity and New Age beliefs, feels the charge of religious and mystical meaning building up around the year 2000. The religious millennium need not coincide with the calendar millennium, but, Balmer says, "among evangelicals the year 2000 is extremely important. Many do associate it on scriptural grounds with the idea of Armageddon-with the end of this world."

"It's very American to create one's own belief system out of other traditions, from conventional dogmas to New Age spiritualism to Native American ideas of harmony and oneness with nature." Environmentalists, in fact, may be the new millennialists

The problem is if you get too specific about the date of the end of the world, you can end up embarrassing yourself. Balmer recalls William Miller, who in 1831 began to preach to his upstate New York followers that the Second Coming of Christ would take place on Oct. 22, 1844. Many of the Millerites, clad in white muslin, gathered on rooftops and hills to await the epiphany. Its failure to occur is known in evangelical tradition as The Great Disappointment of 1844. More recently, the Korean evangelical group the Mission for the Coming Days predicted that Christ would return to earth at 10 a.m. Oct. 28, 1992. The group even bought an ad in The New York Times the day before to warn the world of what was coming. In the view of at least one other sect, the line appears to blur between forecasting apocalypse and trying to evoke it: Japan's bizarre Aum Shinrikyo cult, allegedly involved in this spring's nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway, has been found in possession of massive stockpiles of chemical precursors. Perhaps not coincidentally, the group's leader Shoko Asahara has projected various dates in the late 1990s as the beginning of the world's end.

Balmer feels that popular interest in millennialist ideas will heighten over the next five years and then die down. But he warns against dismissing millennialism because of its excesses and absurdities. "It's very American to create one's own belief system out of bits and pieces of other traditions, from conventional dogmas to New Age spiritualism to Native American ideas of harmony and oneness with nature." One lasting legacy, he feels, will be the equation of spiritual cleansing with the cleansing of the environment. "Don't forget, 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day, and that was 25 years ago."


ENVIRONMENTALISTS, in fact, may be the new millennialists. Scientists since Darwin have come to think either in nanoseconds or in billions of years. But at Columbia's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation (CERC), anthropologist-biologist Don Melnick and Mary Corliss Pearl, head of the Wildlife Preservation Trust International, have cemented an unusual alliance between university science and outside environmental activism specifically to take the thousand-year view.

Millennialists have an obvious concern with whether there will still be a human race at the end of the next thousand years. Melnick's and Pearl's joint answer to this question is "Sure, if. . .": if, in Pearl's words, we adopt "the concept of man as belonging to nature rather than existing in dominion over it." And if, in Melnick's words, "we view the environment not as nature detached from man but in terms of the widest possible economic, industrial, cultural, religious, and biological context."

Many Americans feel that, if not Armageddon, then something almost as big and awe-inspiring -- perhaps a huge earthquake, a massive meteor collision, or another environmental catastrophe -- could (and perhaps should) usher in the Third Millennium

"Over the. . . last one hundred years," Pearl has written, "the environment has moved from a peripheral to a central concern of science, of belief systems, and of the global political agenda."(2) She speaks of postwar ecological thought as having given rise "to a vision in the last years of the century of a post-industrial society where science and technology must be informed with an ethic of interdependence, peace, and harmony with nature."(3) Pearl's ecological vision is strikingly like the definition of millennialism in the AAR Millennialism Studies committee proposal: "belief in a future age when spiritual enlightenment, material prosperity, and political harmony will be established on earth."(4)

Like historian Balmer, Pearl sees Earth Day in 1970 as a turning point: In its wake came passage of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of 1977. Ecological millennialism is thus far more than a hopeful vision. It is also a trumpet-call for political action. Along parallel lines, many American evangelical Christians are setting aside their belief in an imminent Armageddon and energetically pursuing earthly politics. As Balmer points out, "there's a strain of evangelicalism that says you can build the City of God right here on earth as if the Second Coming had already happened." The redefinition of the millennium is not entirely a secular effort.

Researchers on other academic fronts also have been rethinking what goes on during thousand-year cycles. Joel Kaye, assistant professor of medieval history at Barnard, suggests that many members of his profession are changing their views of both the previous millennium and the next. On the millennium as historical phenomenon, Kaye points to a shift in attitude. "In the 1960s and '70s, professional historians tended to downplay the significance of the AD 1000 millennium."

Earlier historians had taken descriptions of widespread social disaster and scattered references to the millennium as signs that the peoples of Europe were expecting Armageddon, but the actual evidence is scant. In the years leading up to AD 1000, the population was spread thin, literacy was rare, centers of information were isolated, and communications technology consisted of messengers on foot, horseback, or muleback, delivering news by letter and word of mouth. People's sense of chronology wasn't exactly precise, either: Dionysius Exiguus, the official papal chronographer, may have dated Christ's birth (and everything else) six years too early, and he was only one authority of many. If there was no big upheaval in anticipation of the End of Days, it is not surprising.

But in the past decade, Kaye notes, some historians have begun to believe once again in the importance of the second millennium. Their re-evaluation is based not on what took place beforehand but on "what happened in the century after 1000 AD." Kaye offers intriguing comments on both his discipline's view of the future and the future of his discipline. "Some historians are rather demoralized about the future," he avers, but he himself is hopeful that in the years beyond AD 2000, "maybe things we're learning about systems theory and ecological theory will start to change the way historians think about history."

Systems theory is humanity's latest attempt to create a kind of unified field theory of knowledge. It requires the scholar to build up a subject out of perceptions drawn from a broad set of separate but related disciplines. A good example of systems theory as applied to the field of history is Fernand Braudel's Les Structures du Quotidien: Les Possible et L'Impossible, the first volume of Braudel's great three-volume history of Europe, published in English as Civilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century. Braudel's work is truly catholic in scope, offering detailed accounts of the period's demographic features, urbanization, transportation, technology, food, clothing, housing, economics, class relations, and state power.

Ecologists, in turn, see their discipline as another form of systems theory, a way of "integrating knowledge in a wide range of disciplines."(5) In Conservation for the Twenty-first Century, a collection co-edited by CERC's Pearl, future ecological thinking will be a construct of biology, demography, economics, genetics, anthropology, political science, and even broadcast journalism.(6)

"Historians view history," Kaye observes, "from within their own culture. As systems theory continues to develop, it may help future historians consider matters in broader, richer, and less static contexts. This would be a positive direction for the discipline."

The first century after the first millennium-the 1000s-brought neither Armageddon nor the Kingdom of God upon earth. But it did bring an explosion of human energy that literally remade western civilization. On sites that for centuries had been nothing more than villages, cities sprang up. From iron-shod ploughs and the horse- collar to water and windmills, technology revolutionized agriculture, and agriculture in turn supported population growth. The Roman Catholic church systematized its religious practice and (perhaps as important) established a uniform and enduring form of organization across most of Europe. The end of the century witnessed the beginning of the Crusades, which opened Asia to European architecture and military technology and made Europe aware of the medical, scientific, and philosophical achievements of the Arab world.

Nobody quite knows why this explosion happened-and in most of the world, of course, the millennium didn't happen at all. But some millennialist historians are now suggesting that the fact that the world did not come to an end brought a bracing sense of renewed promise.

"Our age," writes essayist James Atlas in a recent New York Times article, "is fixated on the notion of being post-."(7) Yet many thinkers are looking forward, not backward, previewing the millennium just ahead as an era in which a tamed, humane technology, a synthesis of once discrete disciplines, global communications, and a great synthesis of knowledge and belief may avert ecological apocalypse. Futurist researchers are taking the ancient millennialism that Balmer calls a "theology of despair" and reinterpreting it as a narrative in which humankind not only will endure but, by seeing itself inside a broad context, will prevail.


Related links...

Talk 2000, a millennial site

Conference announcement on interdisciplinary approach to environment

Bruce Sterling on futurology in Wired

  1. For information on the AAR conference, write to Phillip Lucas, lucas@suvax1.stetson.edu.

  2. Mary Corliss Pearl, "Ecology and the Environment in the Twentieth Century," in Richard Bulliet [ed.], The Columbia History of the 20th Century. New York: The Columbia University Press. 1995. (Used by permission.)

  3. Ibid., p.15.

  4. Phillip Lucas et al., "Proposal to Establish New Consultation," accepted by Program Committee, American Academy of Religion, 23 January 1995.

  5. Pearl, op. cit., p.13.

  6. David Western & Mary C. Pearl [eds.], Conservation for the Twenty-First Century. New York and Oxford. Oxford University Press. 1989, pp. xix-xxi.

  7. James Atlas, "Pinpointing a Moment on the Map Of History," Week in Review section, The New York Times, March 19, 1995, pp. E1, E5.

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Durer: all rights reserved, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo credit: adaptation of Bettmann Archive photograph.

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