The Mission of the CMS


Few religious phenomena are more paradoxical than apocalyptic expectations -- that is, the belief in an imminent, radical transformation of the world. On the one hand, one can say about them what one cannot say about any other religious belief: they have always proven wrong. On the other hand, despite the consistent disappointment of such beliefs, they surge up repeatedly, moving large numbers of people to extraordinary deeds. Indeed, the intensity of the movement is almost a function of its brevity: the sooner the end, the more intense the manifestations of its expectation and the faster the disappointment. Perhaps the most striking result of this paradox concerns the traces these movements leave on the record: partly because they prove wrong in the lifetime of the believers themselves, partly because they provoke some bizarre and embarrassing behavior, there is a tendency for the written record to reflect the (inevitable) 20-20 hindsight. Thus, the historical record tends to reflect not the power of these beliefs while they still offered hopes, but the weakness and ridicule they experienced in failure. The historian, working ex post facto, can only hear the second stage of the doppler effect: not the crescendo of noise, but its rapid fading.

And yet, seen ex ante, before they have proven wrong, these movements can have immense force, they can move their followers to monumental sacrifices, they can inspire the most dramatic sacrifices, and engender radical behavior that spans the gamut from the most pacific to the most violent. Moreover, even after disappointment, many movements -- the most powerful ones -- rarely disappear. They just rewrite their pasts to eliminate the mistaken apocalyptic beliefs which, like a booster rocket, first put their communities and movements in orbit. We need to look for the signs of these discarded (even disowned) apocalyptic booster rockets and, once found, to reinterpret the trajectory of their satellites. (For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between apocalyptic upstrokes and post-apocalyptic downstrokes, see Richard Landes, "On Owls, Roosters, and Apocalyptic Time: A Historical Method for Reading a Refractory Documentation, Union Seminary Quarterly Review 49:1-2 (1996).

This is true not only for good scholarly reasons (e.g., that we better understand our past), but also for good policy reasons (e.g., that we better understand the dynamics by which a powerful yet highly volatile religious belief plays out in various cultures including our own). In an irony well suited to the phenomenon, apocalyptic hopes and fears produce both the most irenic and capacious emotions and behaviors -- e.g. millennial peace movements -- and also the most paranoid, violent and destructive ones. Indeed the former can lead directly to the latter: peace movements can, in the aftermath of messianic failure, produce both civil society and/or holy war, both inter-religious tolerance and cross fertilization and inquisition and pogroms (this is the tale of both the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries). It is therefore incumbent upon us to understand these various strands, to learn to recognize the key turning points when the likelihood for turning from irenic to violent and (more rarely) vice-versa become greater. We need to understand the compelling rhetoric of these groups, not treat them as so many deliria with no meaningful content. As physicians we need to diagnose and prognosticate on the basis of a case history. The health of the patient -- civil society -- depends on good care.

The Center for Millennial Studies proposes to accomplish three major tasks:

  1. to gather and archive the vast "harvest" of apocalyptic literature that is appearing at the turn of the second Christian millennium;
  2. to collect and edit documents from earlier such times; and
  3. to encourage, through publications, conferences, and research, the study and analysis of apocalyptic thought, the millenarian movements it generates, and the kinds of mutations that they must undergo in order to adjust to the (inevitable) return to normal time.

The Principle:

In August of 1994 astronomers were the beneficiaries of an almost unique confluence of factors: during a period of several days, huge comets slammed into the planet Jupiter. Astronomers were able to observe this once-in-a-millennium phenomenon (as they themselves billed it) because of a particularly fortunate set of circumstances unique to the late twentieth century: the Hubble telescope had just been repaired and was now operative and the Galileo spaceship happened to be in a position to observe the other side of Jupiter where the initial impact would take place. As a result, science was able to reap a harvest of data that they can and will sift and analyze for decades.

There is a similar possibility now facing modern social science. As with the comets, so at the approach of the year 2000 will there be a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to observe the impact of the completion of a thousand-year period on a society. And as the serendipitous presence of extraplanetary telescopes in the right places made viewing the comets possible, so modern social science is, for the first time, prepared to study this phenomenon with a semblance of understanding and impartiality. Until now, the study of apocalyptic phenomena was severely distorted either by religious polemic (e.g. Catholic vs. Protestant) or by the contemptuous condescension of "positivists" for such irrational beliefs. Thus, at the approach of the year 2000 we find a uniquely opportune moment to study and document a major phenomenon in the shaping of religious and social culture -- the passage of a millennial date.

The Phenomenon:

Round numbers in and of themselves are powerful factors in social imagination -- the Romans, for example, made much of the completion of large units of time from the founding of Rome (365 years, 1000 years); and modern social scientists repeatedly use the approaching decade/century/millennium as an occasion for longer-range analysis. It is all the more important in a Christian society which has, from its earliest times and for almost 2000 years now, expected the return of Christ at the end of the current millennium (by a variety of dating systems). For those who follow the indices carefully, the approach of the year 2000, despite the emergence of a modern, scientific (hence "atheistic") culture, promises to provide a wide range of apocalyptic activities on a scale rarely seen in the recorded history of civilization. Indeed, one might even say because of modernization which, as a result of its corrosive effects of social stability, has provoked a powerful wave of anti-modern apocalyptic fundamentalism all over the globe. And just as the development of the printing press made the Gutenberg galaxy far more susceptible to Luther's heresies than the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages had been to those of Waldo and Wycliffe, so the presence of the Internet has given apocalyptic prophecy a new, pervasive and persuasive medium in which to find expression.

Observing and Recording the Phenomenon:

Like the meteors, past occurrences of widespread apocalyptic belief has been largely invisible to us because our recording instruments (in the case the written word or documentary record) have been unable to register them in any detail. Apocalyptic movements are what one might call "upstroke phenomena" -- intensifying as the expectation of the End becomes more imminent; whereas the written record tends to be the product of the subsequent "downstroke" -- reflection after the anticipated event has failed to materialize. Anticipating a imminent conclusion to history, few apocalypticists record their beliefs (until, largely after the invention of printing, the written word becomes a means of prophetic communication). Even when there is one, the written record of such beliefs is ephemeral: believers hardly wish to preserve mistaken prophecies and outsiders have little interest in such nonsense. The enduring written record is generally the product of the post-facto "failure" of apocalyptic prophecies. ere we find groups rapidly reinterpreting their past to eliminate the embarrassing (but initially crucial) prophecies, or outsiders trying to make sense of behavior.

This documentary situation, virtually unique to apocalyptic beliefs, creates an enormous historical problem: to understand our own past, we have to "deconstruct" the written record, to peel away the layers of incomprehension that informs all "post-apocalyptic" writings. It is to this problem in all its facets that we wish to focus the work of the institute. We wish to assure two things during the coming times: 1) for the first time, the ordinarily poorly documented apocalyptic period of the upstroke will leave the best possible record for later historians to analyze; and 2) the materials for interpreting them will be made available, both in terms of the subsequent movements and institutions they generate in their "disappointment" and in terms of their relationship to the longer past of Western culture and the role that such beliefs have played in creating the modern world. This reflects one of our paradigm-defining beliefs: 2000 will not be the end of the world. The world will continue, but what world? Apocalyptic beliefs are tremendously creative and protean in their forms; and many of the social and cultural shapes of the third millennium will have a millennial genealogy that we neither should deny nor be allowed to deny. We feel, therefore, that this archive, and the data it makes available, will make it much more difficult to rewrite history in such a way that voices which were consequential at the time are written out of the record by a new orthodoxy. The revelations of this immensely valuable archive will take generations of research and analysis to unlock.

Analyzing the Phenomenon:

In some of its more virulent forms, apocalypticism is perhaps the single most dangerous political belief extant: those in its grip live in a world of paranoid dualism where good and evil prepare for their final battle and there is no neutrality; they are impervious to rational argument and empirical disconfirmation; and they have none of the inhibitions that a future imposes on most behavioral calculations. Some of these groups have already had a major impact on political and social developments -- obviously Middle Eastern but also American politics and educational policies -- and according to our prognosis, their appeal can only increase over time. Most governmental policy has, until now, been carried out with minimal attention to religious issues, a blind spot as notable in the State Department's misreading of the situation in Iran in 1979 as it was in the Justice Department's handling of the situation in Waco in 1993. Now there is a slow but increasing recognition that what the press calls "fundamentalism" is a factor of far greater significance in the life of our culture than any "intellectual" would have ever imagined a generation ago. In fact this kind of violent fundamentalism is most often fueled by an urgent apocalyptic vision (see Charles Strozier, Apocalypse: On the Psychology of Fundamentalism in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

A recent study of the "ephemera" of the Intifada, for example, found that Hamas repeatedly invokes apocalyptic symbolism. The Israelis are presented not as human enemies with whom they must come to terms, but rather as agents of absolute evil who must be obliterated in a titanic battle. Those scholars confused or embarrassed by the enthusiasm some Palestinians showed for Saddam Hussein failed to understand the resonances of his proclamation of "the mother of all battles" with its promise of ultimate, total victory. Nor does it help to view such behavior as fanatic and irrational: within its own premises, it is fully rational, and ignoring this logic cannot help policy-makers deal with the situation.

As a result, the second major function of the proposed center is to study and analyze the groups producing and consuming the apocalyptic rhetoric of the year 2000. This includes not only the most obvious groups (i.e. Christians with an explicit Year-2000 timetable like Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson, and even John-Paul II who has proclaimed a Jubilee Year in Rome for the year 2000) but also other messianic religious groups (Hamas, Gush Emunim, Lubovitch, Cargo cults, Rajneeshis) and secular groups (environmentalists, New Agers, the Gaia movement). In this sense, we anticipate being able provide important services for both scholars and policy-makers in areas where apocalyptic beliefs play an important role. This we hope to do both through research, white papers, and the publication of both a newsletter and a Journal of Millennial Studies in which we hope to give a forum to scholars researching the phenomenon both historically and contemporaneously.

Thus the Institute as a whole would constitute a combination of activities spanning the three major elements of historiographical endeavor: compilation of an archive, analysis of past events, and prognosis for the future. Since our principle concern -- the role of apocalyptic expectation, both anticipated and disappointed, in the shaping of society -- shows every sign of increasing in significance over the next few generations, this combination of activities will have the time and opportunity to develop its own self-supporting dynamic. Each task will give fuel to and shape the others; each readjustment in one area will assist the others in sharpening and focusing attention on the key variables.

The center will constitute an independent entity with at least one specific attachment to an institute of higher learning with which it could co-sponsor activities and train and grant degrees to graduate students.


Archiving: both passive -- i.e., collection, storage, retrieval of apocalyptic material ca. 2000, and active -- i.e., recording the activity and audience response to roosters; generating a database on all apocalyptic material in historical documentation.

Interpreting the evidence, past and present -- traditional history and contemporary field work

Courses, workshops, seminars, both within universities and adult education programs, and without.

Conferences: A series of international conferences and panels to deal with various aspects of apocalyptic thought and behavior, to coincide with the passage of 2000 (1996-2002).

Publishing Material:

Journal of Millennial Studies -- articles on any aspect of apocalypticism, millennialism, messianism, and allied issues (revivalism, revitalization movements, certain forms of fundamentalism, prophecy), in any historical or current period, anywhere in the world; reviews of books; debates; conference volumes

Multimedia productions of films, web site publications, lecture series, multi-media collections, etc.

Editorial Work: Collection and edition of historical texts relating to millennial movements, especially of the irenic kind (revivals, peace assemblies, jubilees, etc.), to include text, translation, manuscript history, historical context, historiographical treatment of text/movement

Experimental Projects Historical drama workshops -- combining historians expert in given periods/personalities with improvisational actors to generate the possible contents of various "apocalytpic" exchanges which we know took place but for which we have no transcript. This at once forces historians to "fill in" the blanks in the documentary record, confronting them with the difference between the spoken and the written, and gives them a voice to communicate on a more dynamic plane with an audience that goes beyond their colleagues.

Performances and exhibits of millennial works -- Public events designed to reproduce the artistic forms that either explicitly or implicitly embody millennial themes and religiosity. First performance -- the apostolic Mass composed by Ademar of Chabannes in 996 Anno Passionis on the occasion of the conference on the Apocalyptic Year 1000. An exhibit of art and artefacts from around the three millennial years (1000, 1500, and 2000) is planned for the year 2000. Opera/Play of 1000/2000 -- Scenario and proposed script for a performance scheduled for 1999 of a multi-staged piece in two acts on apocalyptic time and European culture (with Robert Wilson, Watermill Center/Byrd Hoffman Foundation).

Academic Research and Exchange Facilities and funding for visiting faculty, post-docs, and graduate students wanting to research a current group

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