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  • Political AuthorityA Christian Perspective
  • Michael von Brück

General Reflection: Apocalyptic and Utopian Models of Progress and Religion

European tradition of thought is shaped by two different mythical imaginations of time structure: apocalyptic thought and the concept of utopia.

Jewish apocalyptical thinking culminated in the expectation that God would finally complete the processes of history at the end of time. In conjunction with Iranian dualism this expectation was interpreted metaphysically: After the collapse of the existing order God would create a messianic kingdom of peace and justice, that is, a kingdom under the direct rule of God. This was not “political progress” in the modern sense of the term, for the subject of these final events was God himself or God alone. Human beings might participate in accelerating or slowing down these divine actions by lawful or unlawful behavior—measured according to the Mosaic Law, but human historical acting itself would not lead to a betterment in this sense. Nevertheless, this form of thought gave history a direction, and this is what inspired later Jewish and Christian intentionality. Early Christianity was shaped by the expectation of the coming end of time in the immediate future; however, at the same time it added a remarkable tension to the traditional apocalyptic idea: the tension of fulfillment of time, which had happened already in the advent of Jesus as the Christ (messiah) and an expectation of the imminent completion of time (the return of Christ, which would finally end history and start the new kingdom). Since the second century ad this myth of future time became ontologized or platonized—that is, the future was transferred into an “other world.” This means that the new quality would not be a dimension of the future (only) but graspable in the ecclesiastical mediation of the sacraments. The eucharist was the pharmakon athanasias (medicine of immortality). At the same time there was a mystical dimension that holds that in a specific spiritual experience this dimension might be experienced by any person who would be prepared to receive it as divine grace. The paradigm of early Christianity failed: Christ did not return. There was no new kingdom that would have ended known history. In order to cope with this disappointment, two forms of life emerged that shaped the [End Page 159] spirit of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, so to speak, until the end of the eighteenth century: ecclesiastical mediation of the saving reality and mystical participation in a transtemporal Beyondness.

Utopia develops on the basis of difference between imagination and reality. At least structurally utopian thinking can be found in all cultures; usually it is expressed in the power of myths. This marks a difference between utopia and apocalyptics. There are three different types of utopian thinking: spatial, temporal, and in terms of different states of consciousness. Spatial utopia expects the final accomplishment or climax of history, that is, the essence of hope, in spatial terms, in different regions of the world, faraway, behind oceans or mountains (Atlantis, the country flowing with milk and honey, El Dorado, Shambhala, the islands of the blessed, etc.). These spaces lost their power of inspiring imagination because there are no more white spots on the map, and that is why this utopia had to emigrate into extraterrestrial spaces of the universe (the contemporary myths of ET, Star Wars, etc.)

Temporal utopia transfers the field of expectation to the beginning of the world (paradise, Golden Age) or to the end of history (millennialistic thought, communistic utopia). These temporal expectations lost their power of inspiring imagination because the fulfillment was heralded time and again but never happened.

Utopia in terms of a different state of consciousness transfers the catastrophe (the turning point of time and history) into the consciousness of human beings (the prophets of Israel, Buddha, Jesus, in a certain way Confucius, modern New Age movements, etc.). An individual or even collective awakening of consciousness in humans would transform the world from within into a new paradise. The credibility of this model is challenged by the actual suffering in the world, which does not seem to diminish.

In actual history these three types occur in mixed forms. The Western idea of...