Reviving the apocalyptic Vision

Reviving the apocalyptic Vision: Adventism and the Global Crisis

To lose the apocalyptic vision in the face of problems confronting the world today is unacceptable. How should we change Adventism’s mission?

Elijah Mvundura, MA, is a freelance writer who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Adventism was born in the mid-nineteenth century with a mission to preach “the eternal gospel . . . to every nation, tribe, language, and people” (Rev. 14:6 ).1 As George Knight strikingly put it, “Impelled by an apocalyptic vision straight out of the heart of the book of Revelation,” Seventh-day Adventists saw the whole world as its mission field; thus it “became the most widespread unified Protestant group in the history of Christianity.”2 But today, as he lamented, “Adventism has to a large extent lost the apocalyptic foundation of its message.”3

But to lose the apocalyptic vision in the face of problems afflicting the world today is unacceptable. All global problems pulsate with intimations of total catastrophe: the turmoil in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; Iran’s nuclear stance; worldwide eco­nomic problems; and ruinous natural disasters. To grasp the depth of the current economic crisis we must note the nineteenth-century foundations of our political and economic institutions. They can no longer support twenty­first-century structures.

The crumbling of the old order

As highlighted by a recent special issue of the international affairs journal the National Interest, the old order continues to crumble. “We are living in a time of transition,” wrote the editors, transition to a new uncertain order.4 In the lead article, Brent Scowcroft, a former national security advisor to presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, observed the financial crisis of 2008 “demonstrated that we had a single worldwide financial system in which a crisis in one area could quickly spread throughout the world. But the world clearly had no single global way to deal with that crisis.”5 And without a “single global way” to solve problems, “the only question,” the editors grimly noted, “is how much disruption, chaos and bloodshed will attend the transition from the Old Order to whatever emerges to replace it.”6

The crux of the problem, however, is that, due to disruption and chaos, transitions from an old order to a new one have historically been accompanied by strong spiritual movements or revivals. Apparently, faced with desperate situations, humans always resort to desperate means. If reason fails, as Ernst Cassirer noted, “there remains always the ultima ratio, the power of the miraculous and mysterious.”7 Thus, mystery religions attended the rise of the Greek and Roman Empires. Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Hermeticism, and Kabbalah, which together make up the Western occult tradition, all arose against the background of the collapse of the economy of the Roman Empire. Occultism also resurfaced when the Renaissance and the Reformation shattered the medieval universe. Occultism flooded Europe in the late eighteenth century following the painful social and cultural changes spawned by the rise of industrial capitalism. Coming to recent history, the upsurge of fundamentalist spirituality in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in the late twentieth century became closely linked to the crisis of modernity and to the breakdown of secularism.

All these spiritual movements or revivals, despite their different historical, geographical, and social contexts, not to mention fundamental differences in beliefs, share one salient trait: the passion to fuse together fragments of a disintegrating world, to build a unified religious social order. Passion for a divine order explains why Jewish, Christian, and Islamic fundamentalists are one in their distaste of democratic pluralism, in particular the separation of religion and politics. But an all-embracing order that does not separate religion and politics refers back to the primitive sacred, when the human and the divine, the visible and the invisible, were fused or, more precisely, were confused. If this confusion provided a perfect cover for the devil to play God, we find it highly significant that the myth of primal unity is the metamyth of all pagan religions and tells of the time when humans, nature, and the gods shared one universe. 

The passion of babel

Of course, in the Bible the bid for unity at Babel was not only negated by God but Babel became the typical symbol of rebellion against God, of a global unity ranged against the Creator. Historically, we can trace this passion for unity from the primitive sacred through ancient empires and medieval Christendom to the Napoleons, Hitlers, and Stalins. At a philosophical level, the same passion for unity can be traced from Greek philosophy through medieval Scholasticism to the all-embracing systems of seventeenth-century rationalists and nineteenth-century positivists and idealists. To be sure, there was a radical shift with Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, a shift captured in his foundational axiom cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”). A parody of the divine “I am who I am” dethroned God and deified the human mind, made reason the grounds of reality and truth. Descartes’s ambition was to devise a universal science that would “conquer nature and subdue the omnipotent God.”As he put it, “Now freewill is in itself the noblest thing we can have because it makes us in a certain manner equal to God and exempts us from being his subjects.”9

In deifying reason, Descartes unleashed the egomaniacal passions that shaped the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The demonism in these passions became noticeable in the decade before 1789 and took concrete ideological form during the French Revolution. As Robert Darnton pointed out, several key leaders of the Revolution were in the thrall of animal magnetism or mesmerism, the belief that a magnetic “fluid” flowed through all bodies in the universe and could be conjured to cure both physical and social ills. To conjure this invisible power, the leaders dabbled in a host of dark magical arts such as communicating with the dead, ghosts, distant spirits, and somnambulism.10This pungent spiritualism explains why the French Revolution, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “though ostensibly
political in origin, functioned on the lines, and assumed many of the aspects, of a religious revolution.” Again the passion was totalitarian. The ambition “was not merely a change in the French social system but . . . a regeneration of the whole human race.”11 This hubris “to transform the world and human nature,” as Eric Voegelin, one of the twentieth century’s foremost political scientists, observed, “reached its most obsessive and libidinous depths in the nineteenth century.”12

Humans become gods

The grand aim of the Romantics, the thinkers and artists who set the cultural mood of the nineteenth century, was to create a new mythology and Bible for the modern world—a mythology that would reunify humans with nature and re-create the type of social cohesion similar to pagan antiquity or medieval Christendom. The ambition was to reenchant the world, to reanimate it with mystery and magic. In this reenchanted world, artists, like ancient pagan priests or medieval priests, would be the new priests. Attacking Christ’s position as High Priest, as the only “mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5), the Romantic literary journal Athenaeum declared, “It’s only prejudice and presumption that maintains there is only a single mediator . . . between God and man.”13 Artists, due to their creative genius, are also mediators. They are “Gods in Human form,” intoned Lavater, or a “dramatic God,” said Herder.14 Novalis displaced God Himself. “I saw,” he hailed, “that now on earth men must become Gods”; and he said of himself, “Gott ist Ich” (“God is I”).15 “ ‘Let us,’ Shelley said, ‘believe in a kind of optimism in which we are our own gods.’ ”16

This self-deification led nineteenth-century intellectuals to philosophically murder God, to eliminate Him altogether. As Nietzsche blatantly put it, “God is dead. . . . And we have killed him.”17 They then transferred His attributes and prerogatives into their all-embracing metaphysical systems­ systems in which they scripted themselves godlike roles. Hegel is the classic example. He absorbed God into his Absolute Spirit, (Geist) the central concept, or, more precisely, the protagonist of his all-embracing philosophical system. The Geist embraces all nature and all history, unites the finite and the infinite, and reconciles all contradictions, even good and evil. Anticipating the theory of evolution, Hegel conjectured the Geist as self-created, self-contained, self-sustaining, and self-evolving. The evolution, however, is historical; a process in which the Geist, starting with the Greeks and cresting in Hegel’s mind, attains absolute knowledge and becomes conscious of itself as God in the minds of philosophers.

Hegelianism, as reworked by Feuerbach, Marx, and others, was that man is God, and nothing exists beyond matter. Darwin buttressed this materialism by explaining design without a Designer. If natural selection totally eliminated the Creator-God, historical materialism eliminated God from history and society. In conjecturing these closed-godless natural and social realms, Marx and Darwin realized Descartes’s ambition of a universal science that dethrones God and frees humans from being His subjects. Indeed, the logic of the social sciences is to transform and direct society according to scientific laws without reference to God. But as Voegelin argued, in using science as a means of transforming humanity, far beyond its proper limits, social scientists, like Marx, transformed science into a form of esoteric religion.

And in making science a religion, deifying self and murdering God, as Voegelin argued and as recent scholarship revealed, nineteenth-century thinkers were deeply inspired by ancient Gnosticism and Hermeticism.18 If pursuit of divinity is primordial—recall the serpent’s lie: “ ‘You will be like God’ ” (Gen. 3:5)­ nineteenth-century thinkers, drawing from Hermeticism, magnified this lie into all-embracing systems. But since humans are finite, see and know only in part (1 Cor. 13:12), all-embracing systems are always reductionist. They shrink reality to what can be grasped. Insofar as reductionism excludes God, it is a deeply spiritual endeavor, one always pursued against divine entreaties and warnings. In other words, reductionism involves a self-willed resistance of God. In this resistance, noted Voegelin, the thinker becomes aware of the untruth of his speculation but persists. And persistence in deception gets where revolt against God is revealed to be its motive and purpose. Actually, in continuing “in full knowledge of the motive of the revolt the deception finally becomes ‘demonic mendacity.’ ”19 This demonic deception, which has led the whole world astray (Rev. 12:9), structured nineteenth-century philosophy and defined secularism’s godlessness or revolt against God.

Reviving the apocalyptic vision

Against this revolt, the birth of Adventism in the mid-nineteenth century, with a message straight out of the heart of the Apocalypse, was providential. The call to fear, worship, and give glory to the Creator-God clearly negates the century’s libidinous self-deification (Rev. 14:7). If the gospel call “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (v. 6) affirms diversity and recalls God’s negation of Babel’s drive to maintain primeval unity, the explicit listing of “ ‘the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (v. 7) alludes to the distinctions God inscribed at Creation and directly challenges the century’s totalitarian passions. The fall of Babylon underscores the vacuity of human hubris, of godlike efforts to unify all things (v. 8). And the pungency of “ ‘God’s fury’ ” must be considered against the genocidal violence that has attended totalitarian projects (v. 10). In pursuit of their utopias, the ideological progeny of nineteenth-century philosophy—Fascism and Communism—killed more than 140 million people.

And until 1989, the American-shaped postwar global system was a defensive reaction to the horrors of Fascism and the specter of Communism. Evidently, the nineteenth century cast a long shadow over the twentieth. The length of the shadow reanimates the prophetic rendezvous of 1844 as the beginning of judgment and the end of time. The prophetic jigsaw puzzle is falling into place. Communism collapsed in 1989 and now capitalism is in deep crisis, weakening the American global leadership. Accordingly, Pierre Manent, a prominent French philosopher, projected a key global role for the Catholic Church. “She is,” he wrote, “the center from which and toward which the spiritual constellation of humanity is ordered.”20 Addressing the current global crisis, Pope Benedict XVI, in the 2009 encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” which is redolent of medieval Christendom, called for the establishment of a “true world political authority” to check unbridled capitalism and work for the universal good.21

The human longing for a true and righteous rule is deep and primordial. And the devil has always exploited this to establish his dominion. Hence, the upsurge of pungent spiritualism and the coercive urge for a total and unified response during social catastrophes. Against this satanic miasma the challenge is to maintain God-inscribed distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the political and the religious, the natural and the supernatural. Only God can and will unify all things. Indeed, the core of the Advent hope—the core we must reanimate with apocalyptic fervor—is that only God has the ultimate global solution, “to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Eph. 1:10). Contrariwise, any system that claims to offer the final solution to the riddle of history and attempts to unify all things, is identified as Babylon and its head the antichrist.

 

References:

1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

2 George R. Knight, The Apocalyptic Vision and the Neutering of Adventism (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2008), 14.

3 Ibid., 15.

4 “About This Issue,” National Interest, May-June 2012, 5.

5 Brent Scowcroft, “A World in Transformation,” National Interest, May-June 2012, 8.

6 “About This Issue,” National Interest, May-June 2012, 6.

7 Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1946), 279.

8 Michael Allen Gillespie, Nihilism Before Nietzsche (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 34.

9 Descartes, quoted in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 147. 

10 Robert Darnton, Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1968).

11 Alexis de Tocqueville, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Anchor Books, 1955), 11–13.

12 Ted V. McAllister, Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), 126.

13 Athenaeum, quoted in Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 328.

14 Quoted in ibid., 336.

15 Novalis, quoted in Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, The Emergence of Romanticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 80.

16 Shelley, quoted in M. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), 447.

17 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 181.

18 Stephen A. McKnight and Geoffrey L. Price, eds., International and Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Eric Voegelin (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997). See also Glenn Alexander Magee, Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); and Ernst Benz, The Mystical Sources of German Romantic Philosophy (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 1983).

19 Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism (Washington, DC: Regency Publishing, 1968), 23.

20 Pierre Manent, “Human Unity Real and Imagined,” First Things, October 2012, 23.

21 Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” Vatican, accessed August 20, 2013, http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi /encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20090629 _caritas-in-veritate_en.html.

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Elijah Mvundura, MA, is a freelance writer who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

October 2013

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