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The Millennium Myth
Love and Death at the End of Time

by Michael Grosso

The American dream of the Millennium keeps evolving. It began with Columbus's medieval quest for the land of Eldorado, the terrestrial paradise thought to be somewhere in Asia, the hope of refurbishing a New Jerusalem. It proceeds to John Winthrop's city on a hill, and transmogrifies into the temples of Mormonism. Somewhere along the line there is a decided shift from Hopkins' pursuit of spiritual happiness to Locke's preoccupation with real estate.

This shift, which is a shift in values, a coarsening and literalizing of the dream, clashes with Native America, which, as Sitting Bull said, was not "crazy for gold or possessions". It turns out that the millennial lust for real estate, the unalienable right to possess "property" and undertake its economic development is not environment-friendly. The "conquest" of the Western frontier is, geographically speaking, complete, and America, in a true spirit of Baconian hubris, has succeeded in putting the land to the rack and turning the earth into a gigantic factory. World history, as a conquest of this Protestant messianic assault, has entered the dark age of toxic proliferation, which, we might say, is the direct offshoot, the successful enactment, of John Winthrop's city on a hill. The hills and valleys have mushroomed with cities, with the numberless tentacles of a driving technology reaching out and squeezing the life out of the land.

American expansionism is rooted in visionary thinking. America, deep in its historical consciousness, is driven by powerful psychic forces, seen, for example, in the Mormonist, neo-Renaissance, self deification project. Mormonism, as I said, is a growing religion; it appeals to deep parts of the American psyche.

Mormonism was born around the time of the myth of Manifest Destiny, which also appeals to deep parts of the American psyche. In 1845, a New York editor, John L. Sullivan, coined the phrase when he wrote that it was "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our expanding millions". At the time, the issue was the annexation of Texas. Manifest Destiny was again evoked in the dispute with Great Britain over Oregon; it was used to justify the Mexican War (1846 - 1848), to rationalize the Alaska Purchase (1847), and to instigate the Spanish-American War in 1898. Manifest Destiny was spawned from the Millennium Myth and gave America's "expanding millions" the confidence to master the continental frontier.

During the twentieth century, the myth of Manifest Destiny evolved into the myth of America as "leader of the free world". Woodrow Wilson, dreamer of an enlightened League of Nations, is a central figure here, a man who conceived the destiny of America in messianic terms. And there is no doubt that the messianic spirit lives on in American politics, even if it manifests itself in uninspired sloganeering, and even if the purity of its origins has been sullied by crass economic interest.

I think we should remember the deep idealistic strain that slumbers in the American soul. However, the old consciousness of America as the Redeemer Nation is on the wane, especially after the mighty binge of the Cold War. In these the whimpering nineties, eroding economic opportunity, crime and moral muddle, the specter of uncanny disease, and creeping ecological disaster have become the new obsessions. The old myth that America should be the guardian of the "free world" begins to seem more like a fossil from a burnt-out age of prophecy.

The American dream has evolved from puritanical frugality to pagan consumerism. It must be said that the old version of the dream, when the Millennium Myth was in full force, was an incentive to extraordinary deeds. In sum, the Millennium Myth has been a guiding force at critical junctions in American history: the discovery of America, the founding of the first colonies, the territorial expansion from "sea to shining sea", the birth of the nation, the healing of the nation in the Civil War, and in the twentieth century, the leadership of "the free world".

Does the original power of the myth still live in the people? Our leaders seem little inspired by the old rigorous puritanical vision of godliness and high destiny. The rhetoric is still present, to be sure, but one senses fatigue, hollowness, shrillness. The American dream is still alive, but for the most part, the dream has lost its spiritual content.

From an informal survey of college students, I culled these associations from the phrase "American dream": The American dream represents a "freedom to pursue your own goals, whether it is to own your own business, to have a loving family, or to indulge in your own fantasies". "The American dream is to entertain, feed, and fulfill everyone's life." "All the good things that America can offer, a house, a good-paying career, family, peace, and harmony."

At the same time, there are revivals of the Millennium Myth in its more extreme, more potent, more transformative forms. A steady stream of old time evangelicals and fundamentalists is more than noticeable. You have a fair share of Elmer Gantry types haunting the new electronic churches, trickster types who know how to exploit the confusion and anxiety that troubles so many Americans. The Millennium Myth also lives on through the tradition of American Spiritualism and Transcendentalism and is related to much that goes under the rubric of "New Age" ideas and practices. In my book "The Millennium Myth" I look more carefully at this sprawling development of twentieth-century America, noting its links with more ancient tributaries.

The American New Age is a complicated phenomenon, without clear boundaries. In some ways a consumer-driven, publishing artifact, many of its leading ideas are nevertheless rooted in ancient traditions. The New Age is a potpourri of pursuits and effects, ranging from the flaky to the intellectually provocative, the sinister to the spiritually daring. The New Age phenomenon is not just American; it is global, with ample signs of life in Great Britain, Germany, Italy, the Spanish-speaking world, post-Soviet Russia, China, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

The immediate ancestry of the American New Age includes Mesmerism, Theosophy, New Thought, Spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, and New England Transcendentalism. Two themes run consistently through the movement: one is an idealistic revolt against the encroaching materialism of modern life and science; the other, closely related, is the search for spiritual renewal through sources outside mainstream religion and bodily renewal outside mainstream science.

A Course in Miracles, the near-death prophecies, the alien-abduction apocalypses, the god-making rhetoric of the channelers, the declarations of holistic healers, the wisdom of runes, crystals, I Ching, Tarot cards, astrology I could extend the list; the point is that the American New Age is a call to transformation. An exercise of the malcontented imagination, an unhappy consciousness hungering for a new spiritual identity. New Age discontent is deep in our history; it began with the pilgrims. Harold Bloom is right when he says, "Extravagant as the New Age is, it is only the most garish of all the American originals that have expressed our national spiritual exuberance." Let us look at this exuberance, as sampled in some New Age ideas and pursuits.

In the American New Age, the apocalyptic yearning for a new cosmic epoch is evident in the pursuit of new paradigms. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions provided the key terminology, paradigm and anomaly.

The paradigm is the overall socio-mental pattern that defines what is real and researchable in the domain of the real. Anomaly refers to events that do not fit in a given paradigm; anomalies are irritants in our epistemic eyes. As such they stimulate the hunt for better, more comprehensive paradigms. Anomalies are the juice of vital science, though in practice, they are often ignored or gruffly dismissed. Anomaly is the scientific term for sign and wonder words from the prophetic lexicon.

How does the pursuit of new paradigms relate to the pursuit of the Millennium? Think of it like this: The Millennium Myth is a vision of a new reality, a new heaven and earth. A new paradigm is also vision of a new reality; but the scientist, not the prophet, now speak. A paradigm shift might indeed be described as a kind of apocalypse. And New Age thinkers say we need just this: a radical shift in our concept of reality, a new paradigm for a new heaven and earth -- in scientific language, a new cosmology. The paradigm is an ontological map, a set of guidelines for what we can do and experience or hope to do and experience. It is widely felt today that the old paradigm fails to do justice to the whole of natural fact or to the whole of human potential. Above all, there is a felt need for paradigms that speak to the ecological crisis.

So what is the problem with the old reality maps? Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead offers a diagnosis in his Modes of Thought, in a chapter called "Nature Alive". Since the rise of seventeenth-century science, we seem to find ourselves in a universe made of lifeless matter, a place de-animated, mechanized in Max Weber's word, disenchanted. The major complaint against the old paradigm, as far as I can see, is that it destroys animism; in other words, it takes the soul out of the universe, strips it of feeling, meaning, purpose, beauty.

Now, if the universe is dead, the human adventure is spoiled at the core; the shadow of death hangs over all; the possibilities of joy and communion are checked. Hence the need for a new paradigm. Rupert Sheldrake has titled one of his books The Rebirth of Nature, which summarizes in a phrase the goal of the new paradigm. I am reminded of Saint Paul's strange remark that the whole of creation is "groaning" to be reborn. Evidently, Paul, Whitehead, and Sheldrake all agree that our view of nature in some sense is dead and wants to be reborn.

So the New Age paradigm quest is a quest for rebirth. In contemporary vocabulary, it wants to overcome a worldview that is mechanistic, Newtonian, Cartesian, dualistic, hierarchical, authoritarian, patriarchal, anti-ecological, and unspiritual. The enemy is Whitehead's dead and deadening nature, that scene of bits and pieces of impervious matter floating atop an unfeeling matrix of space, a nature without redemptive power, bereft of life and color. As historian Edwin Burtt said, after Galileo launched the mechanistic worldview, human beings, reduced to spiritual impotence, became accidental observers in a universe ruled by alien causes.

The new scientific materialism had practical consequences; worst of all, a Promethean man-centeredness was unleashed on what we have recently come to personify as Gaia or Mother Earth. At first the technological rape of the planet was slow. But things have come to a head by the end of the twentieth century: the mounting onslaught against the environment, the runaway decimation of species, the despoiling of eco-rich rainforests, the pillage and plunder of Native cultures, and the general toxicosis of the environment depress our collective spirits with increasing urgency.

The new paradigm that New Agers seek would remedy all this. A paradigm that promises a rebirthing of Gaian ecology, it heralds the return of an animistic cosmology, a more amicable and harmonious relationship between people and nature. This, of course, is very much in the spirit of the Millennial Myth.

The Millennium Myth expresses itself in two ways. In one, as Norman Cohn has stressed, aspiration is filtered through the disoriented, ignorant, and resentful outcasts of society, justifying violent revolutionary politics; in the other, as I want to stress, the Myth works through the humanistic, life-affirming side of people.

Like the Italian Renaissance, which looked back to the Golden Age of pagan antiquity to restore its waning spirit, the American New Age looks back to perennial Eastern philosophies and shamanic realities to revive its fatigued spiritual imagination. Perhaps the American New Age is just a beginning, the forerunner of an American Renaissance.

This article was excerpted from 
"The Millennium Myth - Love and Death at the End of Time"
by Michael Grosso

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About The Author

Michael Grosso, Ph.D. is an artist, philosopher, and psychic explorer. He chairs the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Jersey State College. His lively and provocative essays have appeared in popular magazines and scholarly journels and have been reprinted in many anthologies. His web site, Cabaret St. John, is a visionary sounding board for information that challenges prevailing paradigms. His books include Soulmaker, The Final Choice, and Frontiers of the Soul. This article is excerpted with permission from his book "The Millennium Myth" published by Quest Books, Wheaton, IL 60189-0270.



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