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The Millennium

June 20, 2012

The Millennium – a period of a thousand years in which peace, justice, the fulfillment of mankind’s hopes will be met? This idea has risen, submerged and risen again repeatedly in Western Europe and the countries effected by its cultures.

Repeatedly the notion has brought on wars, has transformed the entire economic and social structures of countries, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but nearly always at immense cost of human life.

Where does this animating idea come from? It’s associated with Christianity, but where does Jesus outline such a thousand- year project? He predicts that no stone of the temple in Jerusalem will remain one upon another within the lifetime of his immediate hearers.

And he was right. Rome battered rebellious Palestine into submission within the lifetime of many of those who saw and spoke to Jesus. His prediction was not a threat but an observation that his fellow Jews were eager to take on the forces of Rome that were far beyond their capacity to oppose successfully. No Millennium there.

But there is in the Lord’s prayer an invocation of something very like what those who long for the Millennium as a Golden Age, may have in mind: “Thy kingdom come, Thy Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” What better could one ask of life on earth?

Most references to mystical events in the future are derived from the Book of Revelations which is highly symbolic, after the manner of ancient seers. Here is the seedbed of violent apocalypse, the nursery of the struggle for the Millennium.

Much of medieval writing stored in the Vatican Library is exegesis of the Bible, and a large percentage of that focuses upon the writings of the Apostle John. Among those who wrote on the subject of the meaning of the Apocalypse was Joachim de Fiore, but his works were condemned by Pope Alexander IV as heretical.  In 2009 the Vatican seemed inclined to reaffirm that condemnation.

 But, unlike most of the writers of biblical interpretation whose work has not, or has, been condemned by the Catholic Church, Joachim’s writings have had a profound effect on mankind’s history from medieval times to today.

Mao’s revolution that transformed China, liberating it from a decrepit dynastic monopoly, drew much from the ideas of Christian missionaries who planted a radical notion of the equality of human beings and the possibility of a future in which the common people ruled.

Where the missionaries in China ceased to appeal, Karl Marx’s analyses of governments and economies took over with its offer of a way of life built upon “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”  No government has claimed to achieve full national communism, but only to be working toward that ultimate goal.

The experiments so far have been disasters. But China is evolving so rapidly now that what will be accomplished there is unknowable. And one might say that what is being achieved in China now is the result of liberation from the millennial ideal.

Both China and Russia have been engaged in apocalyptic and millennial ventures at immense human cost. How close they are to following in the path Joachim set out in the twelfth century will be seen. But first lets’ look at a couple more millennial experiments: Nazism and the French Revolution.

It’s precisely because the millennial idea, lying dormant in Western ideology, is so powerful that Hitler was able to tap into it and make belief in the Third Reich such an animating prospect for the German people – a highly educated population steeped in hundreds of years of European culture. Of all the disasters brought on by millennialism, Germany achieved the most ghastly.

The French Revolution: here we have some of the most literal derivations from Joachim carried to bloodshed.

The Jacobins, infamous for the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution, acquired their name from their meeting place, the refectory of the Dominican Order on the Rue Jacob in Paris. That refectory had been the center for the teaching of Joachim de Fiore’s radical theology in the 13th century.

The French Revolution, in true millennial form, declared a new calendar, and the Jacobins inaugurated it with an apocalyptic time of fanatical bloodshed – to the point where they too became victims of their violence.

In a reach for something approximating  Joachim’s idea of a glorious Millennium, like the Nazis and communists after them, the Jacobins believed they were clearing the way for the next phase of history – a phase that was inevitable but somehow required their brutal midwifery to bring it into being.

Joachim never suggested that any action was necessary on the part of mankind for the three phases of history to march along to their fulfillment. The movement of history was God’s work. He had already accomplished two transitions, there was no reason to suppose He needed the help of finite, blundering mankind to achieve the third.

What were the three ages Joachim proposed?

The first was the Era of the Father, a period of a thousand years of tribal social order epitomized by Moses.

The second was the Era of the Son, begun at Jesus’s birth and epitomized by him. This was to be the era that saw the rise of the Church and of nations ruled by kings and it was to last until the year 1260.

Joachim based his calculation of the date on Revelations: 11: 3: “I will give power unto my two witnesses and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and three score days.” (He was writing at the end of the eleven-hundreds and didn’t expect to see this transition himself.)

The third, the Era of the Holy Spirit, was to see the disintegration of the Church, kingship and nations. A single world-order gradually was to come into being through the thousand year period which was to begin in 1260.

Government would be modeled after the custom in monasteries where the abbot was elected by the monks. The voters’ choices would be wise because the Holy Spirit would infuse each soul directly with divine wisdom and guidance.

Well, we haven’t reached that enlightenment yet, have we. But, interestingly, we have moved toward the technical possibility of a single world – through the evolution of the internet.

Teilhard de Chardin foresaw the process of divine motion in history as bringing on the no-osphere – a development of world-wide knowledge infused in mankind — and he foresaw it as a result of technology. Can one ask for a better definition of the internet?

One might say Joachim possibly wasn’t wrong — the fit of his view to the developments for mankind in the last thousand years may show self-fulfilling prophecy, or may not.

But if Joachim was right, and we do have a great age of a unified world at peace to look forward to, it’s not going to be achieved by class warfare and annihilations clearing the way for a way of life imposed upon everybody by an oligarchy or a dictator.

It will come as the past transitions have come: through a slow evolution that takes a millennium to be accomplished. And such a millennium is not made up of 1,000 years, but 1,260 years – according to Joachim.

From this vantage point in the twenty-first century it looks like it may be achieved through inspiration. Through invention. And who’s to say the myriad ideas, conceived in numerous heads, that have been transforming the world we live in are not the whisperings of the Holy Spirit? 

Soberingly, when I asked my friend who is a scholar medieval theology whether the year 2000 was going to bring in the Golden Age, she replied, “No. First there’s to be a hundred years in which all the devils of hell are let loose.” From the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 to the present (I write this in 2021) it’s looking like this piece of medieval theology may be correct.

See:  Joachim de Fiore Expositio in Apocalypsim

And Norman Cohen’s The Pursuit of the Millennium Millenarians/dp/0195004566/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340238444&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=Norman+Cohne+The+Pursuit+of+the+Millennium