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Beyond Exotic Butterflies: The Varieties of Millennial Experience

Beyond Exotic Butterflies: The Varieties Of Millennial Experience

Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. Richard Landes. Oxford University Press, 2011.


Readers of Eric Voegelin’s work are familiar with the fundamental themes of millennial or millennarian thinking. In Christian eschatology, the millennium is the period following Christ’s second coming, in which Christ and his saints will reign on earth for a thousand years (Revelation 20:1-6). Prior to the onset of his glorious reign, Christ will gather the just, annihilate hostile powers, and found his kingdom on earth, allowing the just together with the resurrected saints to enjoy the highest spiritual and material blessings. Already in the 1950s, inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar and others, Voegelin drew attention to the historical and spiritual continuity linking ancient millennarian movements and the ideologies of the 20th Century.

However, the transition from Von Balthasar’s Prometheus to Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics in many ways entailed a loss of conceptual clarity (Rossbach 2007). Where Von Balthasar distinguished more or less carefully between gnosis and chiliasm, Voegelin combined these two traditions and thus spoke of Gnostic-apocalyptic movements as if the two adjectives could easily sit together–which they cannot. This confusion distorted Voegelin’s work on gnosticism from the start.

As Gregor Sebba pointed out in a 1978 letter to Voegelin, the term “Gnostic immanentization of the eschaton,” which occurs in The New Science of Politics (Voegelin 2000: 234, 240-1), is an oxymoron:

“. . . from the sources that were available to you at the time, it follows without doubt that not a single one of the features that are thought to characterize classical gnosis fits without problems . . . . Nevertheless the whole phenomenon of gnosis has a sharp profile. One motive applies throughout: the radical rejection of any immanentization of transcendence.” (Sebba 1978)

The fact that Voegelin opted to make Gnosticism–as he understood it–the primary target of his philosophical critique may partly explain why today’s scholars of millennarianism (millennialism, chiliasm) mention his work only in passing. Landes’ book is no exception.

Landes is clearly aware of Voegelin’s work, and he is quick to point out in a footnote that Voegelin’s Gnostic groups are in fact “millennial projects (based on esoteric knowledge), triggered by apocalyptic time” (Landes: 35, n.108).1 While this accurate observation should have increased Voegelin’s significance for Landes’ study, there are in fact only a few more footnotes referring to The New Science and the Political Religions (mentioned once). In particular, Landes appears to be unaware of the philosophical analysis of the millennarian outlook that Voegelin provided especially in his late writings–I shall return to this observation towards the end of my review of Landes’ book.

Richard Landes has successfully turned the study of millennialism into an academic career. He is a professional observer of millennial movements. From 1995 to 2004 he was the director of the “now quiescent” ( Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University, where he is currently an associate professor of history. He has published widely in his field, but the Heaven on Earth book appears to be his most substantial treatment (478 pages) of the subject so far. “ . . . work on this book,” he explains in the preface, “has, with multiple interruptions, taken place over more than a decade” (xi).

Landes’ book is ambitious in that it aims to “illustrate the near universality of millennialism, to cut against the grain that assumes a Judeo-Christian origin for all millennialism” (xi). In order to prove his point, his book discusses only non-Jewish and non-Christian movements. The examples are taken from a range of different types of contexts and societies–tribal, agrarian, modern, and postmodern–and from various time periods–Akhenaten’s cult (1360-47BCE) is given as an example of ‘agrarian millennialism’ while UFO cults (1946-today) feature as examples of “postmodern millennialism.”

The book’s subtitle–The Varieties of the Millennial Experience–reflects the author’s confidence because it is a deliberate reference to William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). According to Landes, James overlooked the millennial experience (xvi), thus leaving a convenient gap that Heaven on Earth wants to fill. In order to extend the traditional Jewish and Christian notion of the millennium to movements outside Jewish and Christian cultures, Landes needs to give millennialism a somewhat more abstract content.

The first 88 pages (!) of the book are thus devoted to methodological and conceptual questions. While Landes is critical of “positivist notions about the clear division between secular and religious phenomena” (xii), these 88 pages give an indication of how seriously he takes positivist expectations and conventions. The result, I must somewhat grudgingly admit, is helpful. Landes’ terminology may be eccentric, but it is clear. The term ‘apocalyptic’ refers to a “sense of immanence about the great upheaval and the scenario whereby we now go from this evil and corrupt world to the redeemed one,” thus making timing the key element of his definition (18).

Eschatology, in contrast, “anticipates a complete end to history, to the saeculum.” Finally, millennialism “designates the belief that at some point in the future the world that we live in will be radically transformed into one of perfection” (19). The movements studied in the book all share, according to Landes, the simple combination “of a millennial vision of the world transformed, and an apocalyptic belief in that transformation’s imminence” (22).

He further distinguishes between various kinds of millennialisms: hierarchical, imperial, iconic, demotic, egalitarian, iconoclastic, restorative, innovative, suicidal, bipolar, totalitarian, genocidal, narcissistic and enraged, thereby creating a rich conceptual apparatus, which is then put to use as he turns to the historical examples. The key indicator that identifies a historical episode as an instance of millennialism is the existence of an ‘apocalyptic wave’ (52-61). Landes characterizes the unfolding of a millennial project in terms of four distinct historical stages.

First, during the “waxing wave,” the millennial vision “breaks into public discourse and gains social mass and speed” (52). During the subsequent ‘breaking wave,’ millennial discourse and activities come to briefly dominate public life. As millennial expectations are (inevitably) disappointed, during the ‘churning wave,’ the millennial movement must “mutate to survive.” According to Landes, the nature of the movement and its lasting impact very much depend on how it deals with failure as the “old” world continues and credibility is lost. The final stage, the “receding wave,”  means that the millennial vision recedes from the public back into the private sphere. The ‘anatomy’ of the “apocalyptic wave” thus switches from normal time to apocalyptic time, when “everything quickens, enlivens, coheres” (14), and back to normal time.

The apocalyptic wave occupies a central place in Landes’ approach in that it is the key tool that allows him to extend the concept of millennialism beyond the Jewish and Christian contexts. The carefully delineated concept of millennialism is operationalized, therefore, not so much in terms of ideas and symbols, but as a historical process. Landes includes no less than eleven historical instances of millennialism in his book, devoting approximately thirty pages to each: the Xhosa Cattle Slaying (1856-57), Papuan Cargo Cults (20th century), the reign of the monotheist pharaoh Akhenatan (1360-47 BC), the Taiping movement in China (19th century), the French Revolution (1789-1815), Marxism (19th century), the Bolshevik Apocalypse (1917-35), Nazism (1933-45), UFO Cults (1946 to today), and what he calls Global Jihad (1979 to today).

The emphasis in each of these sections is on proving that the relevant events did in fact follow the dynamics of the apocalyptic wave. Identifying millennial projects in terms of a historical process allows Landes to point to similarities across a wide range of seemingly diverse phenomena, which in turn justifies treating them as members of one category. It is important, however, to also draw attention to the weaknesses of this approach. Landes remains a collector and organizer of historical events, which are treated as ‘facts.’

He collects unusual and peculiar historical phenomena as others collect exotic butterflies and then categorise them as members of a particular species. The bulk of the work therefore remains at the level of description, which unfortunately gives us little insight into the struggles of the human souls that are caught up in the historical processes in question. In other words, contrary to the book’s subtitle, Landes does not offer us a philosophical analysis of the millennial experience. What he does offer is an original sociological analysis of historical processes.

On the (rare) occasions that he endeavors to understand the movement of the psyche on its journey from normal to apocalptic time and back, he tends to fall back on simple psychologizing. In the Akhenatan chapter, in my view the weakest chapter in the book, we learn that the young king’s “embarrassing physical features” created a sense of “chosenness,” releasing a burst of visionary activity (168-9). Hong Xiuquan, the messianic leader of the Taiping movement, underwent his crucial conversion experience as a reaction to the “devastating humiliation he experienced when he failed multiple times to pass the exams and enter the Mandarinate” (188). As the old world seemed to reject him, Landes implies, he responded by rejecting the world.

I do not want to dismiss the possibility that the disappointment of an aspiring intellectual could lead to the forceful death of 20-35 million people, as it did in the Taiping episode, but the problem with Landes’ treatment of these key leaders is that it mainly consists of ad hoc remarks. The sociological framework of his study has little room for a more sophisticated analysis of the soul falling for the “magic of the extreme.”

This is also the reason why Landes’ confident appropriation of the title of William James’s work is misleading. Landes may be right that James’s classic does not discuss millennialism as a sociological category, but James does explore various types of conversions as experiences, and as the case of Hong Xiuquan seems to suggest, somewhere beneath the “anatomy of apocalyptic waves,” we find the visions and conversions of troubled souls. If (!) there are gaps in James’s classic, Landes’ approach prevents him from filling them because he simply does not have the tools to analyze experiences.

This is also reflected in the somewhat irritating, patronising tone in which Landes writes about the people who are carried along on his ‘apocalyptic waves.’ While he declares that he wishes to empathize “with those who hope so outrageously” (79), the fact is that he occasionally struggles to take his subject seriously. The bearers of millennial visions are compared to Charlie Brown, who is “always ready to kick the football that his “friend” Lucy holds and will, at the last second, pull away” (4). And the first example on which Landes tests his concept of the apocalyptic wave is Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes (74-79).

Quite contrary to his appeal (74) “to make the imaginative leap back in time to a moment when the future was unknown . . . , a time when it was not at all clear that the world would not end,” Landes writes from a perspective that always already knows that Lucy will pull away the football. Really, Charlie Brown should stop trying: “How many times . . . must apocalyptic prophecy fail, before it loses its promise?” (4)

These observations allow me to return to my earlier remarks on the relevance of Eric Voegelin’s work. Whatever its weaknesses, Voegelin’s work at least takes us beyond the collection of exotic butterflies. For the first four volumes of Order and History, he carefully chose as an epigraph St Augustine’s dictum that “[i]n the study of creatures one should not exercise a vain and perishing curiosity, but ascend to what is immortal and everlasting.” History is perhaps the most important evidence and ‘data’ we have that allow us to trace the movement of souls–this data cannot be ignored: yet, it must be subjected to a philosophical analysis with a view to determining its meaning and significance.

In a letter to Max Mintz, Voegelin explained in 1940 that theory was “not just a statement about objects,” but a “way of life” that expressed an existential disposition toward them (Voegelin 1940). Apart from collecting the facts that make up an apocalyptic wave, Landes’ book does not help understand the meaning of the millennial experience. While it is obvious that Landes takes millennialism very, very seriously, I personally wish he had shown more–much more–empathy with “those who hope so outrageously.” Apart from hindsight, what makes their hope so outrageous?

Is the apocalyptic wave not simply a dialectics of hope and disappointment, which we can find also in historical transformations that did not end in destruction? Is the “social mysticism” Landes finds in millennialism (13) not to be found as a feature of all functioning communities? Indeed, could we not find a miniature ‘apocalyptic wave’–and the “outrageous hope” it manifests–at the very centre of human action? If we are to address these questions, I am more inclined to turn to William James’ classic study of human nature than to Landes’ historical process tracing.



Rossbach, S. (2007) “Understanding in Quest of Faith: The Central Problem in Eric Voegelin’s Philosophy,” in Robert Hamerton-Kelly (ed.), Politics and Apocalypse. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, pp.219-261 Sebba, G. (1978) Letter to Eric Voegelin, 20 October 1978, Eric Voegelin Papers, Hoover Archives, Stanford University, Box 35, File 35.7.

Voegelin, E. (1940) Letter to Max Mintz, original in German, 11 April 1940, in Selected Correspondence 1924-1949, Volume 29 of Eric Voegelin’s Collected Works, ed. by Juergen Gebhardt. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, pp.243-244.

Voegelin, E. (2000) The New Science of Politics, in Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions; The New Science of Politics; and Science, Politics, and Gnosticsm, Volume 5 of Eric Voegelin’s Collected Works, ed. by Manfred Henningsen. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, pp.75-241.

Von Balthasar, H.U. (1947) Prometheus: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Idealismus. Heidelberg: Kerle Verlag.



1. I have had access to the “uncorrected advance reading copy.” All page numbers refer to advance reading copy and may differ from the page numbers in the published work.

Stefan RossbachStefan Rossbach

Stefan Rossbach

Stefan Rossbach is a Senior Lecturer of Politics at the University of Kent. He is author of Gnostic Wars: The Cold War in the Context of a History of Western Spirituality (Edinburgh, 1999).

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