The Christian Millennial Expectation
Most secular accounts of the disintegration and decline of Christianity after 1500 AD suggest that it was the emergence of sceptical scientific rationality that gradually destroyed the foundations of Christian belief. Once physics had established the inertial motion of bodies - that they continued indefinitely in their paths - a Prime Mover whose task was to keep the cosmos in motion became redundant.
The problem with this account is that almost all the scientists and philosophers of that time were devout Christians. The study of science or philosophy simply did not automatically result in a loss of faith. What seems more likely is that Christian beliefs once had a sense and meaning which modern secular society can no longer grasp, and which it consequently assumes to be irrational and nonsensical.
In Idle Theory - using one translation of its terminology - Christianity emerges as plausibly rational. In this translation, Christianity is a religion which realistically recognizes that the circumstance of humanity is one of toil (the 'Fallen World' of Christianity), and that humanity's deepest dream is one of release from toil (the Christian 'Salvation') in a future world of ease (the 'Kingdom of God', the Millennium, the End of the World, the Time of Times, the Great Sabbath, the Saints' Eternal Rest). Although the terminology differs, a wholly mechanistic Idle Theory, with no basis in revelation, completely concurs. And this account of a rational Christianity opens up the possibility of a quite different and rational explanation for its decline.
Christianity is a millennial religion. The hope and expectation of the future Kingdom of God appears at the outset of the Lord's Prayer - "Thy Kingdom Come." The first Christians, it seems, expected the end of the world in their own lifetime. When the Kingdom failed to materialise, it was held to have been temporarily delayed rather than permanently cancelled. But to a greater or lesser extent, an intense hope and expectation of the millennium has always pervaded Christianity. Yet millenarianism provided a built-in self-destruct mechanism for Christianity: for once the Kingdom had come, or was believed to have come, then the guiding hand of the church, along with its moral precepts and exhortations, would become redundant, their purpose served. A time bomb was ticking away in the heart of Christendom.
These millennial expectations re-acquired new vigour after about 1500 AD, particularly in England, the "sceptr'd isle" and "other Eden, demi-paradise" of Shakespeare.
Clearly Oliver Cromwell believed that his English revolution would inaugurate the Kingdom. John Milton, at about the same time, wrote Paradise Lost and, more significantly, Paradise Regained. Isaac Newton, who was born at the outset of the English Civil War, was only slightly less optimistic: the Last Trumpet, he calculated, would sound in 1867 AD. These were substantial and sober men. Newton was the greatest scientist of his time (and perhaps of his era), and Cromwell was its ablest general.
Perhaps Christianity engendered such an intense hope and expectation of the coming Kingdom that eventually it boiled over into the conviction that the Kingdom had at last come, that what had been imminent was now actual. These post-millennial Christians, who regarded themselves as redeemed or saved, no longer had any need of church or clergy to steer the ship of humanity to its destination. For them, as they stepped ashore into their new Eden, the puzzle was how to organize newly-liberated human society. It was these arrivistes who shaped and defined subsequent secular Western society, redefining its goals, reforming its ethical codes. For them, secure in the Kingdom, the entire Christian cosmos - of God, the Fall , Heaven and Hell - became redundant. It was not for them to live in expectation of a future Kingdom, but to themselves live now within its immense freedom.
If so, what converted expectation of the Kingdom into conviction of its actuality? Quite simply, over several centuries, a growing number of people, mostly merchants, but including the clergy and nobility, had found themselves living considerably more comfortable and leisured lives. This growing European prosperity came from trade that extended first to the new world of the Americas, and later over the entire globe. Once-ascetic clerics now lived lives of luxury. The kings and nobility built sumptuous palaces. Suddenly a lot of people were living very well. For them, the Christian view that this was a Fallen world in need of Salvation had become increasingly irrelevant and meaningless. They began to see themselves as already saved, elected by the grace of God to a higher estate. For them, the millennium had already arrived. Of course, such people had existed in every age, but never before in numbers sufficient, as after 1500 AD, to sustain an entire new culture.
The Post-Millennial Creed
This culture developed into modern secular humanism. It was an optimistic, experimental, liberal culture. For when, in their leisure, these Elect considered the world about them, their thinking reflected their own condition of liberty and leisure, which they took to be the natural state of all humanity.
For them, human life was not something to be endured, but to be enjoyed. Fulfilment did not lie in the future, in some life after death, but was to be had here right now. Emancipated humanity had a natural right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The now-redundant Christian clergy were to be pensioned off, or else retained to preach the optimistic doctrines about which Schopenhauer was to later complain:
Protestantism has given up the inmost kernel of Christianity by eliminating asceticism. In the end this results in a doctrine of a loving father who made the world in order that things might go very pleasantly in it (and in this, of course, he was bound to fail), and who, if only we conform to his will in certain respects, will afterwards provide and even pleasanter world (in which case it is only to be regretted that it has so fatal an entrance). This may be a good religion for comfortable, married, and civilised Protestant parsons, but it is not Christianity.
Wealth for them was not leisure - which they had in superabundance - but rather those goods and services which could be produced by foregoing leisure. Wealth meant possessing things, objects some sort. Avid consumers themselves of every amusement and pastime, they saw in the economy a free association of producers and consumers of every sort of pleasure and delight. Men were rich not to the extent that they were idle, but to the extent that they busied themselves making and selling each other delightful luxuries - art, music, poetry, literature, sculpture, architecture. To them, the original state of humanity was one of idleness, and humanity had lived in indolent poverty until they learned to set themselves to work to construct mansions to replace their mud huts, carpets to replace earth and straw, roast duck on porcelain to replace porridge in wooden bowls.
The savage would slumber for ever under his tree unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger or the pinchings of cold, and the exertions that he makes to avoid these evils, by procuring food, and building himself a covering, are the exercises which form and keep in motion his faculties, which otherwise would sink into listless inactivity.
The new man embraced an ethic of work, to provide himself with the 'good things of life' and a 'higher standard of living'. If men were poor - i.e. still lived in mud huts - it was because they were lazy, and had only themselves to blame. The new man took it upon himself to educate idle men in the merits of work, so that they might also become industrious, and improve themselves.
At the same time, any idea of social equity gradually lapsed. Why should one man, who had worked hard to build himself a mansion furnished with carpets and paintings and sculptures and libraries, be obliged to share out this wealth among a host of idlers? A Christian sense of shared common humanity, of all being together in the same boat, dwindled away. It was for each man to make the most of his own life, and become a successful, 'self-made' man, living his own chosen way of life.
In their leisure, these people came to regard life as a game. It was a game largely given over to acquiring a wealth of amusements, luxuries, pleasures. And like any game it had winners and losers. Thus it was increasingly in games of one sort or other that they saw their life, and all human life, reflected. The game - cricket or football or whatever - began to take on a sacramental role, holding up a mirror to society. Playing the game, playing hard, playing to win, playing by the rules, fair play - games offered moral advice about conduct in everyday life. Laws and customs became the rules of the game of human life.
And the rules of the game could be changed at will. Where Christianity had enforced a strict moral code, Post-millenarians set about removing the restrictions, gradually eroding ethical standards. Anything went. These customs and codes only restricted free action, inhibited the fullest enjoyment of life.
But if the rules of the human game could be changed, it followed that human society could be re-organised at will. Society could be reconstructed and remade according to almost any utopian scheme. The old order could be replaced with a new order. All that was needed was a sufficient social will, and anything could be done. Human life could be whatever anyone wanted it to be. What mattered was will, determination, courage. Political will and political action came to be seen as the primary means of changing human society. Power was political power, and was all that was required to effect change. But equally, if the results were undesirable, it was political authority that was blamed. Governments, of whatever colour, were expected to perform miracles.
Where Christianity had taught forgiveness, the new society taught blame. If the misdemeanours of the unfree could be let pass, free men were held fully accountable for their actions. The poor had only themselves to blame for their poverty. Every sort of criminal - thief, murderer, rapist - could only be malevolently evil, because his acts were freely chosen. Malefactors came to be increasingly demonised. Witch-hunts multiplied. And if anything went wrong in human society, then someone somewhere was to blame for it. Where the dream of Christianity had been of redemption, the nightmare of the new society was of fall.
These ideas stored up trouble. The leisured elect only made up a subculture within a largely working peasant society. As news of the new doctrines of liberation trickled down to the lower orders, they began to request for themselves the same freedoms and the same liberties as the elect enjoyed.
In 1867, rather than the Last Trumpet sound, Karl Marx published Das Capital, and sought the imprimatur of Charles Darwin for a Class Struggle which mirrored the Struggle for Existence and the War of Nature described in Darwin's Origin.
Underpinning modern secular humanism is a cheerful, optimistic belief that humans are free agents, with a world to make for themselves. But this conviction of the reality of human freedom is inherited from a Christianity which longed for just such a freedom, but called it Redemption or Salvation. Secular society, on little evidence or none, has convinced itself that this primary Christian hope has somehow at last been actualized, that the dream has come true. Despite its claims to rationality, common sense, and emancipation from superstition, post-Christian secularism is itself an irrational religion. It is a religion in which the unbearably intense and ancient Christian hope of salvation has been declared a reality, and this our world the best of all possible worlds, because the alternative is intolerable. It is an immensely attractive creed, because it is what everyone wishes, and has always wished, to be true.
There is no evidence, however, of any substantive change in the human condition in the past 500 or 1000 years. The bulk of humanity works as hard now as it ever did, if not harder. Men and women still starve and sicken and die. Most technological development has gone, as it always has, into the development of weaponry - and war, in one region of the world or another, is continuous. While weapons technology has evolved continuously, the technology of everyday life has barely changed: we live in the same houses, and sleep on the same beds, and eat the same food as humanity did 2000 years ago. All our amazing technology is merely adapted military technology: aircraft, automobiles, telephones, computers, spacecraft. The Last Trumpet did not sound in 1867, or in any other year: the Kingdom never came.
Indeed, that Kingdom recedes further year by year. For, now that the Christianity which set its course for heaven has been shouldered aside by the new post-millennial creed, and its moral codes reversed, humanity is set to work rather than freed from work, made less equal rather than more equal. Life inevitably becomes ever more stressed, rushed, and harried. Our cities become labour camps. It is as if the ship of humanity, having sailed for centuries towards the port of Heaven, has now turned about and set course for Hell.
Only disaster can come of this. Human life must now inevitably become harder, life ever more degraded, dehumanized, and wretched. Somewhere down the line, the modern secular conviction of freedom will come to seem what it always actually was - a credulous delusion, mere wishful thinking, empty vanity, sheer conceit. Men will wonder one day however anybody at all, let alone entire successive generations, could have ever convinced themselves that they were 'free'. And they will realize that all the ethical and political and economic theories developed by these deluded men are outright nonsense.
There is evidence that, at least in Britain - the home of both Cromwell and Newton - some believe in the actuality of the Kingdom *:
..although some scholars (especially in Germany) continued to stress the future character of the kingdom, .. others (especially in Great Britain) emphasized its present reality.
It may be objected that the 'rational' Christianity constructed by Idle Theory is an attempt to shoehorn a very complex set of religious beliefs into a very small box. The objection carries some weight. But the reply must be that Christianity was anyway always a consortium of religious beliefs derived from Israel, Persia, Egypt, and Greece. Christian orthodoxy was thrashed out over centuries, in council after council, and innumerable rival sects expunged in the process. Idle Theory cannot explain many of these beliefs, but it can explain some - and these beliefs would appear to be far older than Christianity itself.
Author: Chris Davis
Created: 19 June 1998
Last edited: 3 Oct 2002