Friday, June 4, 2004

The danger of the "Ideal Time"

Orginally published in June 2004 elsewhere

The ideological eschatology of the Western Left

Eschatology is the theology of last things, the time when history reaches its final fulfillment. Of the world's great religions, only three are eschatological: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Christianity sprang from Judaism and Islam claims to be the true faith of revealed religion that Judaism and Christianity corrupted.

In all three religions the establishment of the end time is the establishment of the ideal time. It is when the present world is either destroyed so that perfect world can take its place, or the present world's corruption is excised and creation is purified and restored. Usually in Jewish thought, the ideal time has been the restoration of a free, independent Israel living righteously within the Sinai covenant. Jesus' disciples persistently asked Jesus when he was going to bring it about, to which Jesus basically replied, "God only knows."

The establishment of modern Israel did not fulfill this vision fully. The dream of the original Zionists was threefold: to establish and Jewish state that was (a) politically free within its borders, (b) independent of foreign control and (c) extant over all the lands of biblical Israel. To date, Israel has never achieved all three simultaneously.

Hence, there have been 12 attempts by Jewish terrorists to destroy the Muslim al-Aqsa mosque and Dome of the Rock, which sit atop the ruins of the ancient Jewish Temple. These Jewish eschatologists believe that there is a prophetic necessity to the rebuilding of the Temple, so the Muslim edifices there must be removed. This restoration dream is shared by many American evangelical Christians.

In Islam and most strains of Christianity, the ideal time is established after judgment of the dead and the living. The Apostles Creed (dating not to the apostles but to the end of the second century) says that Jesus will "return to judge the living and the dead." In Islam, of course, judgment is the sole prerogative of Allah, but many (maybe most) Muslims believe that Jesus will be assigned the task by Allah and will judge humanity as Allah's agent. In both Christianity and Islam, the ideal time includes no sinners, who are either excluded from entering the ideal community of righteousness or are simply destroyed. In either event, it is too late to convert once the judgment has begun.

When all three eschatologies are taken to the extreme, adherents deny the goodness and value of the present world. After all, why work to increase the value, beauty or goodness of the present world and its institutions if everything that now exists will be wiped away or transmuted by God anyway?

In more moderate practice, however, the desire for an ideal time is positive. It affirms what common sense and a glance at this morning's headlines reveal: there is something seriously wrong with the present order. Hence, it can impel adherents to avoid complacency in the face of evil, to work for the improvement of the human condition so better to prepare persons to face the coming judgment. Indeed, most Christians have held through two millennia to the idea that the Kingdom of God, preached by Jesus, is just as much a present spiritual state of community as a coming physical reality. The Kingdom is within us now, although we can never achieve it fully on our own efforts. Nonetheless, we must do the best we can.

In Christian history this understanding has led on the one hand to the monastic movements that sprang up in the early Middle Ages. Monasteries were strict communities of faith, set apart from the world (although not so separatist that their leaders eschewed commerce with the world). On the other hand it led to the 20th century's liberationist theologies, which paradoxically came to eschew eschatology altogether and focused solely on the reform and even overthrow of present political orders. (It can be argued, though, that liberationism was as much a product of The Communist Manifesto as the Bible.)

But eschatology becomes evil when its adherents see only their own purity and others' sin. When they see the present state of affairs - always of others' affairs - as wholly corrupt, godless and faithless, then it is a short step to religious radicalism, what we have come to call religious fascism. Examples given: the mullahcracy of Iran and Taliban Afghanistan, the latter internally cruel to the point of murder, oppressive and ruthlessly class-ridden, a sort of real-world Animal Farm , only infinitely bloodier.

If the eschatologists are both radicalized and evangelistic rather than monastic, then the result is holy war, jihad. Holy war focuses on destroying sinners, not converting them.

That is the state of al Qaeda and a great deal of the Muslim faithful today. Al Qaeda is actively jihadist, while many millions of other Muslims are sympathetically so. They seek to attain the ideal time - the true Islamic society. Never mind that millions of other Muslims have a different understanding of what Islamic society should be. The radicalized eschatologist simply can wrote them off as apostate and make war against them as readily as against infidels.

Non-religious westerners are just as liable to eschatological fervor as religious people anywhere. Marxism is an eschatological ideology (a godless religion in its own right, really). The ideal time is when "the workers control the means of production" after the capitalists have been violently overthrown. Lee Harris explained the basic tenets of Marxism, and its fundamental flaws, in his excellent essay, "The Intellectual Origins of America-Bashing." Suffice it to say here that Marx considered revolution by the oppressed both essential and inevitable for true socialism to be established. This was a political version of Judgment Day, when the wicked capitalists would be judged and destroyed so that the pure in heart (the heavily romanticized working classes) could attain the Ideal Time.

This appealing but basically foolish ideology held power in the USSR for 70 years, abandoned long before its end by almost all the working classes themselves and most of the ruling class. Soviet communism became a shell game in which commissars and higher ranks lived large and the masses merely lived. Its Ideal Time, however, was hammered home by the propagandists as just around the corner. True Communism was always coming soon, a state in which material production was so great that all human needs were met without shortage. Greed would therefore disappear and the inherent but capitalist-suppressed natural nobility of men and women would emerge. They would be transformed into true communists - altruists who worked each day for the good of the people, not for crass, selfish profit.

But, as Soviet army officer Victor Suvorov came to realize, in a True Communist society, who would stoop to volunteer to shovel manure?
But who will be busy in the sewers? Is it possible that there will be anybody who will say, 'Yes, this is my vocation, this is my place, I am not fit for anything better?'
Of course not. Despite this basic, and indeed obvious flaw, the Soviet promise of its Ideal Time enraptured enormous numbers of Western elites who should have known better.

The old USSR has gone the way of the dodo and hardly any die-hard true believers remain in its former states. But they remain in droves in the West, convinced that Western economic-political systems remain irredeemably corrupt. Having shunned Christian faith for some decades, Western ideologues also discarded a key thing that has prevented Christian eschatologists from experimenting with Taliban-style social orders: the New Testament formally denies the possibility of the self-perfectibility of the human person. (Christian oppressions and brutalities done for other reasons were bad enough, but only rarely, and on small scales, did Christians ever attempt to enforce an Idealized community by force or coercion.)

So the philosophical and ideological origin of the modern Left: Rejecting the idea of a divinely shaped world yet to come, but believing, all evidence to the contrary, that human beings are fundamentally good, most Western ideological eschatologists found a natural fit with Marxism-Leninism: the present order must pass away, and we can build something better on our own. The violent destruction of the present order, if necessary, had a natural fit with Marxism from the beginning.

The Left, rejecting as a basic tenet of its faith the major features of Western societies, came to romanticize heavily non-Western, non-capitalist cultures, especially those of the Third World. The village society became idealized, always assumed to be populated by selfless, caring people whose spirits (never souls, which might need saving!) were uninfected by the crass materialism of capitalism. This was their Eden, the Ideal Time from humankind had sprung; Marxism-Leninism provided the framework for transforming Western societies into a New Jerusalem. Over time, and not a very long time, the Left idealized anyone who opposed the West, no matter how cruel, oppressive or personally repulsive he might be: Castro, Che, Mao, Saddam and others. And now Osama.

That such figures murdered by the thousands or millions dismayed some of the Left, to be sure. But again, Marxist theory provided a way to rationalize the deaths: building the Ideal Community might well require bloodshed, and besides, such violence and oppressive structures were understood to be mere temporary expedients en route to the Ideal Time, when the inherent goodness of human beings would finally flower and coercion would no longer be necessary.

It must be pointed out that the Left, especially the Hard Left, was always mostly from the privileged classes of Western societies. In their dreams of an Ideal Time, they always remained in power. They saw as natural allies anyone who wished to overthrow the Western order, even if (especially if?) by hard violence. They were apparently oblivious to the fact that the others never saw them as allies, not even Stalin, who had moved firmly in eastern Europe to kill or imprison the homegrown communists there before they could get the foolish idea that they would have some say in the newly established workers' paradise.

The romantic thrall much of the Left has today with Islamism is little different than its swoon over Stalin, and no more moral. The Left never had the chance to enjoy the benefits of Stalin's rule and so never really understood that he considered them "useful idiots" to be eliminated if the Soviets ever occupied their countries. Likewise today, the Left, convinced of its own moral purity, fails to understand that al Qaeda views them with contempt equal to Stalin's, and considers them nothing more than infidels to be dealt with when the time comes.

Fortunately, though, there are some of the Left (or at least of liberals) who recognize the peril (linklink, for example) and we may pray others will awaken, too.

Update: Also read, "Mephisto," on Belmont Club. Also, I recommend reading "The Ideological War Within the West," by John Fonte, whichn helps illumine these concepts. Fonte "suggests there has arisen a conflict within the democratic world between liberal democracy and transnational progressivism, between democrats and what he calls post-democrats." Well worth the time.

See also, "Six fatal shortcomings of the modern Left," by Paul Berman, an old-style Leftist, Dissent Magazine, Winter 2004.