The Meaning of the Millennium

Mrs. Hillary Clinton chaired a number of presentations about life in the second millennium. On the topic of religion and history, Natalie Zemon Davis addressed the first 1000 years and Marty addressed the second in this January 1999 “Fifth Millennium Evening at the White House.”

Introduction by Hillary Clinton

Everyone knows our next speaker, Martin Marty, as “Marty,” but they also know him as a Lutheran minister, a widely published author, a speaker, a host, along with his wife, Harriet, of musicales, and a scholar who has been called the “foremost interpreter of American religion today.”

For 35 years he has brought all of this and more to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he directs their public religion project. And I am delighted that the Divinity School has created a new Martin Marty Center to carry on his tradition by looking at the role of religion in our life and culture.

Over 20 years ago, the editors of 26 religious magazines voted Martin Marty and Billy Graham as the two people who have the most influence on religion in American life. And as you saw in the video earlier, just last year the President awarded Marty the National Medal for the Humanities. What the President and I have been privileged to learn over the years, and what you will hear firsthand, is that all of this knowledge and scholarship is delivered with insight and a sense of humor and adventure.

When asked how he would like to be remembered his answer was simple: that I was a good teacher. Tonight we’re privileged to have him here in the White House as a good teacher.

Thank you, Martin Marty.

PROFESSOR MARTY: “The people I respect,” wrote E.M. Forster, “must behave as if they were immortal and if society were eternal. Both assumptions are false. Both of them must be accepted as true if we are to keep open a few breathing holes for the human spirit.”

I want to thank you, Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, the National Endowment for the Humanities, for inviting me to join you in this particular reflection of the human spirit.

In the seasons ahead we will celebrate, or mark, the end of the year, the end of the decade, the end of the century, the end of the millennium. And all of those ends combined to thinking about our own personal ends force on us the question of the meaning: the meaning of the millennium. Or, the meanings of the millennium.

The millennium in my words will refer to the thousand years past, the thousand years ahead, and this turning-point moment between them. When I use the word, “millennial thinking,” I am going to refer to the ways people have visions of life ahead—either in hope or despair. They foresee a new world in which either they will play a positive part or disaster—perhaps even the abrupt end of everything they know.

Thinking about the end bears on how we think about time and its uses. They tell of an astrophysicist who once lectured about the future, in which our sun will scorch our earth. A listener hurried to the podium and asked her, “What did I hear you say? Will it all end in five million years or five billion years?” She answered, “Five billion.” “Whew,” he sighed, “for a minute I thought you’d said five million.”

As we smile knowingly at such exchanges, we can still identify with the fact that, whether we have five years or five decades ahead, we tend to measure the value of our doings in the light of the end. Citizens differ, of course, when measuring these millennial themes. From the word go, we disagree on whether the impending calendar change is any big deal at all; whether the millennial turn comes in 2000 or 2001; whether the non-Christian world should continue measuring years from the birth of Christ; whether the millennial observance is a non-event, a pseudo-event, a commercial con game, a product of hype, or an event offering creative opportunity (which is what the White House is committing us to) whether millennial thinking is necessarily religious, or whether there could be simply secular perspectives. And whether to greet the future optimistically or pessimistically.

Selling those disagreements is not our business this evening. The world is observing something on millennial lines these years. And our task is to glimpse a nation as it ponders meanings in focused ways. That people do or should seek meaning is the thesis that usually inspires long, philosophical inquiries. (Theologian Emil Brunner: “Since humans cannot help seeking the infinite, they now seek the meaning of their lives also in an infinity of things.”)

According to measurements of American life, over four-fifths of us will do this thinking about meaning and end at millennial times two in response to biblical themes. They reason for the end with Psalm 90, “so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.”

Of course, not all citizens agree on who God is, or on what teaching means, applying means, or wisdom could mean. So there are denominations and there are viewpoints in American life that describe our conflicts of religion, gender, race, ethnicity, income level, way of life, aesthetic taste and the accidents of existence. But still, as individuals, in groups and as a nation, we will be seeking meaning with new intensity at this time.

My long-time colleague, David Tracy, here tonight, has taught the public and me to think of three awarenesses that shadow all human life. Before we express faith and hope and love, we are conscious of finitude, contingency, and transience. That means we all know that we and all we cherish will die; that we will all be subject to accidents of history; and we will pass, eventually, without a trace.

But this consciousness does not lead to doom and gloom, at least not for everyone. We stand between pessimism and optimism, never in simple forms. One of my teachers urged, in looking ahead, “we do not know enough about the future to be absolutely pessimistic.” And when I am a little too optimistic about human nature, including my own, I look at the words of Pogo on all three of my study walls. A reason to temper hopes with realism, Pogo says, “We have faults we’ve hardly used yet.” Still, there abide faith, love, and hope.

Turning the pages on the millennial calendar will make more urgent a question that people implicitly ask. Notre Dame’s Father John Donne phrased it and applied it to kingdoms, or nations, and individuals: “If I must someday die,” he asks, “what can I do to satisfy my desire to live?”

The natural way to begin answering that at millennium times two is to think of the individual end, future, and death. Last April, the Metropolitan Opera presented Leos Janacek’s The Macropolis Case. The Atlantic Magazine condensed the story of its enigmatic, egomaniacal diva with a past: “Despite her ravishing voice and looks, she’s 337 years old. But time is running out on her at last. Without another dose of the elixir she drank three centuries ago, she will soon have warbled her last. The opera revolves around her attempt to recapture the formula, and her realization that immortality is no blessing, but what makes life worth living is the prospect of death.”

As she sang and I heard her I couldn’t help but notice her name in the superscripts—in this generation her name is the feminine of my own father’s, Emilia Marty—singing: “Dying or living, it’s all one, it’s the same thing. For you, everything has sense, fools, you are so lucky because of the idiotic chance that you die so soon you believe in humanity, achievement, love. There is nothing more you could want.”

We render that thinking about the end in the plural at millennial times. Millennial thinking is defined by Hillel Schwartz as “the belief that the end of this world is at hand and that in its wake will appear a new world, inexhaustibly fertile, harmonious, sanctified and just.” “The more exclusive the concern with the end itself,” he writes, “the more such belief shades off toward the catastrophic. The more exclusive the concern with the new world the nearer it approaches Utopian.”

We citizens jumble together religious and non-religious millennial concerns. To observe this muddle of meanings, just check, as I did, on the Internet—I pushed buttons “end” and “meaning.” “End” turned up 4,227 items on one bookseller’s list alone. The very first one was First and Second Thessalonians Living in the End Time. And the 4,226 titles that followed this one web and blur religious end-of-the-world themes with secular end-of-the-nation, end-of-history themes.

Push the “millennial” button for 855 items. Again, the same kind of jumble: “Best Practices in Manufacturing for the New Millennium.” “Angels, Demons and Gods of the New Millennium.” And not too far down, “A Basic Guide to Making Sense of the Millennium.”

Booksellers cater to our hungers. In our case it’s often a religious market. Already 14 years ago the Gallup Poll found that while most Americans may not have been explicit millennialists—yet 62 percent had, they said, “no doubts that Jesus will come on earth again to bring an end and some kind of new beginning.”

Scholars call at least a score of millions among these pre-millennialists. That “pre” means that their world views include hope that Jesus will return after the signs of the times in our evil days. Following bloody devastation in a battle against Antichrist that may take 2 billions of lives, some of them say, at Armageddon in Israel, Christ’s thousand-year reign on Earth will begin and will favor them.

Most citizens are not literalists. But millennial images and words do pervade all of American history. You carry a reminder in your wallet. The dollar bill displays the great seal of the United States. It shows an eye within a triangle, recalling a three-age unfolding of history. The words on it reflect the millennial theme of a novus ordo seculorum, a new order of ages, and a decisively unfinished pyramid, signaling also the work ahead in a new era, suggesting hope for the result of that work.

Millennial thinking runs through history of our hemisphere, long, I suppose, before Columbus came, but from Columbus through the Puritans to our literary greats. And their ways and words have been creative. Abraham Lincoln asked Americans, as God’s “almost” chosen people, to sacrifice even life for the holy causes of this nation as the last best hope of earth. Such thinking inspired the humane missions of America, the recall of which keeps us patriots, and it also licensed aggressive missions that put other peoples down.

Citizens have used millennial thinking to promote the general welfare through progressive movements and social gospels. They have also risked sounding arrogantly righteous, and too often they were.

The best case study we American historians agree on is inspired by promise that highlights the spirituals, gospel and soul music, or the sermons and popular expressions of the African American believing community. Their members were not, and most are not, apocalyptic doom singers—though in slavery and under oppression they had a right to be. Instead, they adopted biblical language with a millennial and futurist cast, marked by the word vision, accompanied by dreams, hope, action.

Listen to Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which uses explicit millennial and apocalyptic language from the Book of Revelation. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He hath loosed the fateful lightening of his terrible swift sword. He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat, while God is marching on.”

Americans have needed more of the Lincoln tradition to recognize the limits within all this, of all human, all national action. Unrestrained millennial thinking is deadly, as the terrifying global moments of our century have demonstrated. Adolf Hitler used different millennial arithmetic, but spoke of a thousand-year reich. Communism—Soviet communism—spoke of history in four inevitable stages, with their utopianism. In both cases, and always, along the way there flowed rivers of ink, and then of blood.

Most Americans who believe in explicit, if competing, forms of millennium, do not use force to realize them. They would like everyone to be attracted or subject to their view of ends and outcomes. Fortunately—I’m a pluralist—no single one of them is likely to prevail.

Founder James Madison, who foresaw the security for freedom in the Republic reposing in the multiplicity of interests, and the multiplicity of sects, would have a field day among the competing millennialisms of our day, which I am now, for time reasons, going to reduce to four clusters.

The meaning of the millennium—two of these are religious, two secular. Two are apocalyptic, as Professor Davis has described apocalypse catastrophic events between the ages; two are progressive and gradual.

Religious apocalypticism, or catastrophism, usually appears in America in the forms we pointed to as pre-millennialist. Its advocates will include the most visible and fervent futurists among us, and they will complain to you, as the year goes on, that they are also the most derided by those who do not share their world view. Their pre-millennial docudramas portray a cosmic battle between God and the forces of evil, between Christ and Antichrist. They disagree among themselves on many finer points, especially about the timing of events.

And even some of their own scholars, I’m happy to say, to help them to keep a sense of humor, or to cause others to take their doomsayings with perspective, point to some inner contradictions, which we all have. Thus their institutional leaders may often announce the immediate return of Jesus, and the end of the world as we know it, and then ask for donor funds in the form of annuities to assure that their end-time messages will be preached for generations to come. Others will take believers on tours to Jerusalem, the site of Jesus’ expected return, and sell tickets marked “Round trip — if needed.”

But rather than end with those smiles which come so easily, those who reject their world view, I think, will put the millennial turning seasons to better use, if they at least respect the seriousness of this search. They might inquire why, for millions of Americans, this search takes the extravagant forms it does; then probe for alternative ways to think seriously about ends, meanings and resolves, apart from that literal thousand-year rule.

Meanwhile, we must add, we need also remain alert to the sometimes dangerous forms of apocalyptic thinking. We’ve seen this in para-Christian versions like the Branch Davidians in Waco; non-Christian forms like Heaven’s Gate; and non-Western eruptions like Aum Shinrikyo in Japan.

Secular apocalypticism appears in extreme doom-filled versions of the end, beginning with prophecies best known about the potential computer foul-up Y2K—you all know its other nickname is “the millennial bug”—in 2000. Among the urgent efforts to prevent nuclear or other forms of military or terrorist mass destruction, or to prevent ecological disasters that await an uncaring globe, some reach for extremes of apocalyptic despair which diverts others from seeking those peaceful life-supporting, hope-filled alternatives for our globe.

The third cluster—religion without apocalypse, but millennium or future—displays believers who foresee futures and ends without literal versions of inevitable catastrophe. They make up the majority of the best represented faiths in America. These faiths include the prophetic three—you could hear anticipations here in Islam, in Judaism, in America with the vast majority of Christians.

Tomorrow the President will be visiting the Pope, who is in this hemisphere celebrating, thinking about millennium, referring to it in every speech. As for the ordinary faithful, each week around the world a billion Christians, Catholic and others, recite creeds that end with faith that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the quick and the dead.

At their sacrament millions of Americans, I among them, weekly acclaim something like “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The millennial turn won’t lead them to literalism, but it will cause them to reflect anew on what they mean by all this, and one hopes impel them into works of justice and mercy.

Few believers who sincerely profess this faith expect that docudrama in which heavens literally open, clouds literally part, trumpets literally blow, saints are literally lifted up before Jesus begins a literal thousand-year reign. They draw on other scriptural motifs, like their own personal resurrection or what the apostle Paul called the groaning of the whole creation that awaits renewal and then look for their place in it.

And, finally, there’s secular non-catastrophic, non-apocalyptic millennialist and futurist thinking. It concentrates on notions of stewardship of the earth. Its adherents also number their days. Many of them will heed themes like those of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz, who wisely told Europeans that the failure of Marx’s vision has created the need for another vision, not for rejection of all visions. Or those of our Martin Luther King Jr. who projected dreams and visions for this troubled and divided nation.

No single version of these meanings of the millennium I’ve said will prevail, but the energies put into the best of them can counter the cynicism that may be a greater danger than catastrophism, that can challenge the apathy that’s more unnerving than prophecy. Beyond today’s culture wars, polarizing, identity politics, demonization of the other and self-centered searches, there are new reasons to address the dreams and hope of deliciously diverse elements of humanity. There will be new impulses for Americans to seek some common stories, more common ground, much common sense.

For civic purposes, whether citizens are literalists or not, religious or not, matters less than whether they make good use of these seasons of attention to the end and new beginnings. Instead of ending in pessimism or optimism, they might search for meaning with what I call realistic hope. Hope does not let itself be utterly less than whether they make good use of these seasons of attention to the end and new beginnings. Instead of ending in pessimism or optimism, they might search for meaning with what I call realistic hope. Hope does not let itself be utterly restrained by realistic assessments. Death camp psychiatrist Victor Frankl noticed and announced that some concentration camp victims, even on the day they knew they would be executed, remained in control of the one dignity that no one could take from them: the ability to choose how they would respond to their circumstances.

Realism is mixed with hope in my closing word, a quotation from Reinhold Niebuhr—a Christian, but one who spoke also to and for others, who put the meaning and the search into this context. He said, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful, or good, makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

Such belief, for many of us, demonstrates reasoning that goes beyond our own end, as well as creative reasoning about the end. Such faith can help citizens find meaning for the millennium, even if we cannot claim to have found the determinative and decisive meaning of the millennium.

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. I would like to take about the last four sentences of Professor Marty’s talk and emblazon it on the consciousness of every human being on the face of the earth. . . . We thank Professor Marty for giving us a chance to make some sense of the millennium, and for reminding us, in the end, that the only meaning it will have is the meaning we give it, and our own lives.

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