The allure of prophetic and messianic religion is not something many American pundits comprehend. Conservative Rod Dreher is a rare exception. Dreher views the Islamic State’s barbarism as something familiar and comprehensible, if you consider their “fever dream of the Islamic apocalypse.” In a post over at The American Conservative, he explained the intoxicating power of apocalyptic visions:
I was reading last night from a passage in the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), who writes about the messianic urge within societies. Excerpts:
It is not only upon interpretation of the meaning of history, but also upon the formation of the very category of the historical, that messianism has its bearing. History is created by the expectation that in the future there will be a great manifestation, and that this manifestation will be a disclosure of Meaning in the life of the nations. It is the expectation of the appearance of the Messiah or of the messianic kingdom. The movement of history is also a movement towards that messianic appearance which will bring with it liberation from slavery and suffering, which will inaugurate for man a state of happiness. Messianic consciousness is born in suffering. When suffering does not crush man it is changed into a terrible power. The dynamic messianic myth is turned towards the future. It is in this respect a contrast to pagan myths, which were turned not towards the future but to the past It was characteristic of the Greeks to be concerned with the contemplation of the cosmos and its cyclic movement. This postulates that the world is eternal and has neither beginning nor end, a world, above all, in space and not a world in time. No philosophy of history is to be found either in Plato or in Aristotle. It is in ancient Israel that the philosophy of history begins, in the revelation of God in history, which found expression in the consciousness of the prophets, and in the Book of Daniel.
But it is within Christianity, Berdyaev says, that a philosophy of history first became possible because it “introduced disquietude about the future, a messianic and eschatological disquietude.” He means that Christianity accepted and extended Jewish messianic hopes, foretelling an End of History, culminating in the Second Coming of the Messiah. In this way, history has meaning. It’s not simply random or cyclical events; it is going somewhere. We can only understand the meaning of history if we have a vision for where it is going, he says. This is not something scientific; this is something “prophetic.”
Islam, which arose in the Middle East seven centuries after Christianity, is messianic in that it also sees history ending with an apocalypse. And Berdyaev observes that Hegel was also driven by a messianism, though of the post-Christian sort. So was Marx. And so are the Western democrats of today, who may or may not believe in God, but who do believe in liberal democracy as the End of History. The messianic impulse is part of what it means to be modern (as opposed to ancient). This is something that contemporary Westerners do not seem to understand. At all.
Berdyaev says that formal religion domesticates and stifles the messianic consciousness among the people. “The priest has more and more crowded out the prophet,” he writes. “Ritualism is dominant. But ritualism does not confer any understanding whatever of the meaning of history.”
What he’s saying is that people have a deep craving for the belief that what they’re going through means something. That their suffering is not in vain. That events are going somewhere, however random they may seem on the surface. This is an essentially religious impulse, but it was shared by orthodox Marxists as well as religious believers. This is at the heart of the meaning of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. We cannot let go of our sense that existence has meaning, and that the meaning will be revealed if we wait patiently and expectantly. More Berdyaev:
The messianic consciousness and expectation creates history, proclaims a meaning for it and holds it together, and yet at the same time, so to speak, breaks down history and seeks to overleap it. This contradiction has to be accepted as a part of experience. In the same way as the first Coming of the Messiah was prepared among the Hebrew people, so now among all mankind the way must be prepared for the Second Coming; and it is in this that history has its justification. The goal is no less than the attainment of the creative fullness of life and the realization of the Spirit not only in human life but also in the life of the cosmos.
It is nothing less than re-union with God, and the advent of Utopia. The end of all suffering, and the fulfillment of time. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power, especially for the wretched of the earth, you are not looking hard enough. If you cannot understand why this vision has immense power for the bored, clapped-out, shopped-till-they’ve-dropped bourgeois children of the West, you are not looking hard enough.
The most compelling book I ever read on eschatological fanatics was Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages. The book is a sweeping account of the radical religions that thrived during the upheavals of late medieval Europe. It taught me that the expressions of this monomania are manifold and prone to moral derangement.