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Tag: "The Messianic Meme"

The Subtle Trap of the Messianic Meme (Think About This)

by Carter Phipps

Our society is very familiar with apocalyptic thinking—especially when it comes clothed in religious garb. Indeed, it seems that every few years another date for the rapture or end of the world or the return of Christ is set, anticipation reaches a fever pitch, and then the day goes by with no noticeable change in our global social order. Then speculation dies down for some time before another date is set by yet another religious leader filled with messianic conviction. But religions are not the only place we find such convictions. In his latest blog posts, EnlightenNext Executive Editor Carter Phipps argues that messianic thinking has become quite attractive in progressive circles as well, where so many people believe that we are reaching some sort of culmination of history and that we need some sort of era-defining event to pave the way to a new future. He calls our attention to the dangers of this way of thinking and suggests that the hype around 2012 as the final year on the Mayan calendar is just the latest example:

2012 is the progressive version of traditional eschatological thinking. It’s the idea that an event is going to occur that is dramatically outside the normal processes of history and change everything, lifting the majority of humanity to a higher level of consciousness and creating a more enlightened future. There are darker versions as well, where a sort of mini-apocalypse has to occur before we get to the better side of the future, but generally 2012 represents a positive version of eschatological thinking. It’s a more benign strain, we might say, but it’s still the same basic song, just a prettier arrangement.

Read part one of this post, “Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style.”

Read part two of this post, “No More Messiahs (Part II).”

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No More Messiahs (Part II)

by Carter Phipps

In my last post, “Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style,” I spoke about both the messianic tendencies that arise in traditional religious cultures the world over and the surprisingly similar tendencies toward eschatological thinking that we see even in progressive culture. I asked how we can find our way to a legitimate idealism about the development of human culture without falling prey to the mind-trap of messianic thinking.

A few years ago, I was doing research on an article on messianic thinking, and I came across a fascinating historical tidbit from the nineteenth century about Anne Besant, who had been a women’s rights activist in London before joining the Theosophical Society and eventually becoming its president. Besant was an interesting character for many reasons, but she is perhaps best known for her efforts to find the young boy who was supposed to grow up to be the World Teacher of the Theosophical Society. That boy was Jiddu Krishnamurti, the great twentieth-century teacher who rejected his association with Theosophy along with any sort of messianic titles and became a powerful independent philosopher/teacher in his own right.

It’s a fascinating story in many respects, but what struck me at the time was the reason for Besant’s messianic turn. It seems that she was incredibly passionate about progressive causes at the time, and amidst difficult conditions of the poor, and the squalor and poverty of an industrializing London, she began to lose faith in the modernizing forces at work in the economics of the day. After a flirtation with Marxism she met Helen Blavatsky, founder of Theosophy, and became interested in those esoteric teachings.

I’m sure there were many reasons for Besant’s interest in Theosophy, not the least being her own longtime spiritual interests, but one reason struck me as important: she was losing faith in the capacity of progressive causes to make a difference in the rapidly industrializing homeland.  Continue reading…

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Apocalypse Now, Progressive Style – Part I

by Carter Phipps

May 21st. Apocalypse now. The rapture has come and gone. At least that’s the story as told by the latest Christian end-times believers who think that the world is coming to an end—oh, a few days ago. People quit jobs, spent their savings, said goodbye to friends and family—all with the firm belief that last exit to heaven was actually here. One couple in Florida spent their life savings, because why would they need it after May 21st? Yes, it’s crazy. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, this seems to happen about once every five years. Yes, it’s hard to believe in a modern age that this kind of thinking can still flourish to such a degree.

In academia they call this sort of thing eschatological thinking or golden age millennialism (the reference is from the Bible where Christ will eventually reign in paradise for 1000 years). Truth be told, this kind of thing has always been a fundamental part of religious traditions. While it may have been weaned out of some over the last few hundred years, it’s hardly a side issue. Just about every major religion, even Buddhism, has some kind of central messianic eschatological tradition. If it’s not the second coming of the Christ, it’s the return of the Mahdi, or the coming of the Maitreya, or the appearance of the Kalki, the end of the Iron Age, the coming of a new Jerusalem, the return of Quezacotl, the…well, you get the idea. And even today, most religious traditions still have a rich and active eschatological strain.

I wrote a great deal about this in an article almost a decade ago (which you can find here). It’s a fascinating subject.  And even after failure upon failure, people are shockingly undeterred. End times thinking is one of those mind viruses that simply won’t bow to the reality of failure. Continue reading…

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