In the past, when Western culture was officially Christian, the end of a millennium held a powerful fascination for religious, social, and political groups. In fact, Latin Christendom has, from its earliest centuries, looked to the end of the current millennium as the time when Christ would return in power and glory, and, as a result of manipulating various chronologies, Christian culture has dated a millennial moment five times in its history.
Believers who anticipated some apocalyptic resolution to contemporary woes at the completion of a millennium looked forward to a bewildering array of possibilities from cosmic destruction to some form of earthly paradise. Of course the world has yet to undergo any of these scenarios; indeed apocalyptic beliefs are one of the few religious beliefs which one can safely say are false. But, like love, apocalyptic hope springs eternal, and like death, its failures mark the survivors. Movements started in the white-hot expectation of God's Day of Doom (Judgment) often spawn new forms of social and political organization in an effort to survive their disappointments, and, in cases where these hopes have been widespread, revitalize the larger society in the process. Historically, millennial moments have preceded some of the most dramatic social transformations in Western society. Following the tow most dramatic millennial dates of 1000 and 1500, we find two of the most revolutionary centuries in European history: the eleventh century, with its Papal Reform, communal revolutions, and crusades; and the sixteenth century, with its Protestant reformations, scientific revolution, and global exploration.
The approach of the year 2000 is both different and similar. No longer an officially Christian culture, the current "official discourse" views the approaching date as a media event, an occasion for some long-term reflection on the past and rethinking of the future, a convenient marker for planning initiatives. But not far below the surface of such de- sacralized invocations of the coming millennial date lies a different rhetoric appealing to powerful emotions. So-called religious "fundamentalism," on the rise globally, always benefits from the passions of apocalyptic hope, and even non- Christian groups invoke this millennium as a way to arouse passion. For Christian preachers like Hal Lindsay, the year 2000 lies at the heart of their apocalyptic scenarios; and groups like the Christian militias are steeped in apocalyptic imagery. But even for purely agnostic circles, with the corrosive effects of technology on the global environment and of modernity on social and political structures the world over, data inspiring a secular apocalypse abounds. Seeking to arouse modern man from his lethargic commitment to slow self-destruction, parties like the Greens regularly resort to apocalyptic rhetoric. As the year 2000 approaches, millennial anticipations appear with increasing frequency in the media, and the public is treated, with varying degrees of whimsy and alarm, to a broad range of utopic and dystopic scenarios.
The purpose of this program is to begin a dialogue between scholars of apocalyptic movements and the public at large. As Stephen O'Leary has pointed out in his book, Arguing the Apocalypse, modern society has yet to resolve the problems posed, and conversely to grasp the opportunities offered, by ancient and medieval apocalyptic expectations and its utopian imagination. "The Millennial Cusp" is an opportunity to explore what has historically been a prime mover of cultural and social change.