Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rapture and the Gnostic Tendency

IF YOU ARE reading this, then you haven't been raptured! Poor Harold Camping and his followers, getting their hopes dashed. We really ought to take pity on these, some of whom gave up everything for an unrealized hope.

But this is nothing new.

(Image source unknown)
Imagine, if you will, Harold Camping's followers. These are poor, alienated, uneducated working class people, the bitter clingers holding on to their guns, booze, and bibles as the only constants in their life. These lonely, desperate people listen to Mr. Camping on their cheap AM radios late at night, and undoubtably believe that he is their only true friend. They hope that God will rapture them away from all this misery, and in this they are confident that they are one of the elect, the saved. Sadly, those of us who are left behind will be destroyed soon after, with certain knowledge that nothing will save us. These followers are of course profoundly ignorant, and oppose every societal initiative that will make their lives better. Mr. Camping himself shows a profound ignorance of the Bible, picking only those verses which support his theories. His historical timeline is also arbitrarily manufactured. Camping is definitely an oddity; he no longer belongs to any organized church (he claims the Age of the Church is now over) and holds to the unusual doctrine of annihilationism. He gets his conservative Protestant message out to his followers through his ownership of a large number of radio stations.

Rather, instead imagine a group of Franciscan sisters, very much in the spirit of Vatican 2: they have shed their habits and have gone beyond Jesus and the oppressive institutional male church, embracing instead a more global consciousness. They do not preach the doctrine of Hell, but rather they are in tune with the ancient wisdom of native peoples, and — as Francis himself no doubt would have done in a more enlightened era — are moving towards a holistic Environmentalist ethic. The good sisters are known for holding rather exclusive retreats, attended by prominent academics, celebrities, and progressive politicians. Their core message is that the Earth is dying, and environmental catastrophes will soon occur because of industrialization and consumerism; very many people will undoubtably die due to global climate change, but this will trigger a new age of humanity with a better way of life for those who are left behind — an age without a church. Our sisters of Saint Francis are a vanguard group, the new way of doing church as envisioned by the Council, and are highly respected by the primary agents of change in our contemporary culture. The sisters defend their charism with the help of highly-regarded scriptural scholars, whose critical exegesis brings to light a historical Biblical worldview quite alien to the naïvely simplistic and literalistic reading preferred by reactionaries in the church (e.g., Pope Benedict and Cardinal Burke).
Harold Camping being raptured. Drawing by Owen Swain;
image source here. Used with permission.

Even though my Franciscan sisters are imaginary, undoubtably the description is familiar; likewise my stereotypical Camping listener ought to sound plausible. However, I think it is fairly obvious that both groups seem to have a lot in common, including a doomsday scenario, a rejection of ecclesiology, the thought that we are entering a new age, the denial of Hell, salvation being limited to a self-selected elite, and twisting Sacred Scripture in novel ways to mean whatever they want it to mean, contrary to thousands of years of understanding. They both seem to express the same inclination in two different ways.

This inclination is perhaps broadly called gnostic, although I call it that with reservation. Gnosticism was the very first heresy in the Church, traditionally founded by Simon Magus, who wanted to purchase Saint Peter's power of miracles. It is from Simon Magus that we get the name of the sin of simony, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical offices. Many intellectuals have used the word gnostic to describe the worldview of people who are suffering under the modern malaise; however, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin writes about the overuse of the word gnostic in an article here.

This gnostic tendency pops up frequently, and is especially popular today. While the news media may not be treating Camping's doomsday scenario seriously, the Mayan Calendar doomsday — December 21st, 2012 — is getting far more serious press, if only to refute it. Environmental doom, however, is reported as an established fact, and certainly is far more plausible to elite culture.

This is not new. The Joachimites, followers of the Sicilian mystic, Joachim of Flora (ca. 1135-1202), believed that a new age of the world would come in the year 1260: the world would be unified in eternal peace (and ruled by the Franciscans) without need for law or church.

The American Baptist preacher, William Miller, predicted that the world would come to an end sometime in the year following March 21st in 1843. (Why do doomsayers like to use the 21st day of the month?) He gained tens or hundreds of thousands of followers; but when the world did not end, this led to what was called the Great Disappointment.

But do not think that these failed prophesies led to skepticism or to a widespread rejection of religion, or that people discarded the notion that we can predict the end of the world. Miller's failure at predicting the end of the world rather led to even more radical sects, which moved even farther from orthodoxy and towards gnosticism. The failure of the Millerites led to the anti-Trinitarian Jehovah's Witnesses and Adventists, and even gave impetus to the Bahá'í in Persia. The failure of the otherwise fairly orthodox Franciscan Joachimites eventually led, in the 1300s, to numerous gnostic-like sects completely outside of the Church.

The new sects formed out of failed doomsday prophesies tend to be very potent, proselytizing far more intensely than any mainstream religion, and their ideas eventually can become engrained in our culture. How many times have you heard that the God of the Old Testament is angry and judgmental, while the God of the New Testament is nice and loving (despite the praises of the mercy and love of God in the O.T., and the promise of Christ being the Lion of Judah who will rule the nations with a rod of iron in the N.T.)? This came from the Joachimites. Some even claim that Naziism and Marxism are rooted in the same source. Millerite-style prophesies of the end-times are extremely common, as we see today.

The presence of elite, doomsday-preaching, scripture-interpreting gnostic-leaning sects is not the end of our story. It gets worse. We get new, more radical sects in the wake of failed prophesy; but some of these groups are not content to wait for the end of the world; rather, they mean to cause the end of the world.

The German-born political scientist Erich Hermann Wilhelm Vögelin (1901-1985) worked to discern the causes of the violent totalitarian political systems of the 20th century, including Naziism and Communism. He concluded that this violence was due to the gnostic tendency. Some people become alienated from society, and so come to believe that this alienation is due to the inherent evil and disorder of the material world. Like-minded alienated people come together into a sect, having determined that they alone have discovered the secret knowledge that can save humanity, and thereafter act as harbingers of doom.

These gnostics form an elite, and may see themselves as god-men, supermen or Übermensch, or an intellectual vanguard. As they alone have the knowledge of salvation, and due to their alienation from society, they undoubtably will have little regard for the vast bulk of humanity. It is natural to assume that these people would want to change the world for the better. But since these people are alienated from the world, and despise most the world's inhabitants, they would likely be open to changing the world by any means necessary, including widespread destruction.

According to Vögelin, the end-stage of the gnostic tendency is the willingness to “immanentize the eschaton”, that is, bring about in history the final, perfected stage of human society, to create universal peace, Heaven on Earth. We found this in the despotic regimes of the 20th century, and we see this with contemporary transhumanists or in those who promote the Technological Singularity. (By the way, tornadoes and hurricanes are the closest things to singularities that we find on Earth. When one of these near-singularities go by a place, indeed we find peace, for most everyone is dead.)

For the Joachimites, their eternal peace would come through an unprecedented world-wide crusade, where all the world's nations would forcibly come under their submission. For the greatly disappointed Millerites, the extremely violent American Civil War was the solution to their problem of injustice. (And some would say that the U.S. entry into the First World War was a continuation of the same ideology).

Environmentalists have been predicting worldwide biological catastrophes since the 1960s. These prophesies of doom have often gone unheeded — and unfulfilled. And so the sects have grown every more radical, from first suggesting that industry ought to voluntarily cut pollution emissions, until now, where they demand that the world population be cut by billions, and quickly. Radical indeed, and potentially bloody on an unprecedented scale. But they promise a return to Eden.

Extreme technophiles predict a new age of peace and prosperity that will occur after the revolution when the Machines take over. But haven't these people seen any science fiction film made in the past 45 years? Intelligent robots almost always turn into violent killing machines. Is that what they really want? Perhaps, if they have the gnostic tendency. See C.S. Lewis' book The Abolition of Man for a clear refutation of the idea of salvation through technology.

Violence, war, revolution, and strife are the fruits of the gnostic tendency. If matter is evil, then why should someone worry about death and destruction? If we experience times of peace, then undoubtably the gnostic tendency would prefer abortion and euthanasia. It's all pretty much the same. There will be peace when everyone is dead.

But we should recall that the eschaton has already been immanentized, in the Person of Christ. We have been living in the End Times for nearly 2,000 years. Christ Himself repeatedly told us that we would not know the day and the hour of the End, that it will come like a thief in the night.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Canon 676:
The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgement. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the "intrinsically perverse" political form of a secular messianism.
We must always be prepared. Let us not forget that each one of us is facing our own personal End of the World and Judgement Day, which can come any time, and without any warning. That the ultimate End comes on Saturday means little if you die on Wednesday.


  1. "Environmentalists have been predicting that life on Earth would be wiped out in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and now in the near future."

    Is this intended as a factual statement?

  2. Yes, that was my intent. But it was sloppily written. I revised it: "Environmentalists have been predicting worldwide biological catastrophes since the 1960s. These prophesies of doom have often gone unheeded — and unfulfilled. "

    Paul Ehrlich is well known for making dire predictions about the near future. He may not represent the mainstream position, but then neither does Harold Camping. Both men get lots of press, whether they deserve it or not.

  3. The formula was simplistic. The notion (nailing the day) was presumptuous. The baggage (trinity and hellfire) was typical. And he sure did flummox a lot of followers. But he is 'keeping on the watch,' as Jesus advised several times. No one can say he's not doing that. As so many before him have done. As you pointed out.