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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
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
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
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
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.
"The Millennium Myth
- Love and Death at the End of Time"
Info/Order the paperback book
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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