portland independent media center  
images audio video
newswire article commentary global

faith & spirituality | legacies | political theory

On the Threshold to the 3rd Millenium: Hope and Misery of the Modern Age

"The progress consciousness encouraged by new scientific discoveries and technical innovations trusted in a beginning without end..The themes of the whole 19th century were progress and evolution, growth and expansion, utopias and revolutions of hope.. No human future can "make up for" the crimes of the past. To live with this past of debris and victims without repressing or repeating them, we need this transcendent hope of the resurrection of the dead.. We can gain the "courage to be" (Tillich)."
On the Threshold to the 3rd Millenium: Hope and Misery of the Modern Age

By Jurgen Moltmann

[The emeritus Tubingen professor of systematic theology Jurgen Moltmann gave this address on January 13, 2000 at the invitation of the theology school. His address is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,
 http://www2.uni-jena.de/journal/uniapr00/essay.htm.]

The future in the 21st century will be marked by the 19th and 20th centuries. These two ages that are in no way past are in enormous contradiction. There is the 19th century: an age of fantastic advances in all areas of life, an age of discoveries and conquests - and here is the 20th century: an age of incomparable catastrophes and inconceivable crimes against humanity of the progressive West and the modern world. Both ages are present today: progress and the abysses. What was once possible did not disappear from reality but remains in reality. We globalize today the world of progress of the 19th century and at the same time possess all means for the "final solution" of the question of humanity through mass destructions developed and applied in the 20th century.

If there should be a future of rewarding work and life, it will be a world built on the ever-present abysses of destruction. Without reconciliation on the mass graves of the 20th century, there will be no alternative future of life in the 21st century.

The modern world had at least two origins before the time of the Enlightenment: 1. the conquista, America's discovery and conquest since 1492 and 2. the scientific-technical seizure of power over nature.

In 1492 the foundation was laid for that "new world order" that still exists today. With America's conquest, Europe moved into the center of the world from a peripheral existence in world politics. In 1492 the European seizure of power over continents and people began. According to Hegel, this was the hour of birth of the modern world. Before then the European powers were irrelevant in a world comparison. Spaniards and Portuguese and then English, Dutch and French each "discovered", claimed and organized America for themselves according to the will of the conquerors. The life and culture of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas were not acknowledged but oppressed as foreign and sacrificed.

The scientific-technical seizure of power over nature is the other cornerstone of the new world order. In that century between Nicolaus Copernicus and Isaac Newton, the new empirical sciences "demystified" nature (Max Weber) and took away her divine mystery venerated until then as the "world soul". The taboos of reverence for "mother earth" and the "great life" fell. Since then, natural science reason became "instrumental reason" (Max Horkheimer), reason with the manipulable pragmatic interest in power and advantage. Instrumental reason displaced the ancient notion of reason as a "receiving organ" and phronesis uniting science and wisdom. According to Immanuel Kant's rationalization of natural science reason, reason only "recognizes" what it produces itself according to its own design since reason "needs nature to answer its questions". "Knowledge is power." Natural science knowledge was first power over nature, then over life and today over the future. From natural science and technology, Europe gained decreeing executive knowledge to build a world-transforming civilization out of the resources of the colonized worlds.

What hopes motivated the European discovery of the world? In the vision of the "new world", Colombus clearly sought both God's garden of Eden and Eldorado the city of gold. The gold should serve personal enrichment and Jerusalem's reconquest as he says in his journal. According to Joachim von Fiores' prophecy, "one coming from Spain will bring back the ark (or tabernacle) to Zion." Why Jerusalem? Because the holy city will be the capital of Christ's thousand-year reign perfecting world history. Why the Spaniards? According to the political theology of Spanish state theologians, the so-called Qunito-monarchy, the Christian world monarchy, is nothing but the "fifth monarchy" superseding the four bestial world monarchies ending with the Roman according to Daniel 7. After the "messianism in the Iberian cultures", this Christian world monarchy will last until the end of history. This is the "new world order" as the Spaniards said long before the founding of the US. This is "the new world" in the messianic sense.

What hopes motivated modern civilization in the "old world"? This hope was and is the vision of " the modern age". The mobilizing and orienting interpretation for Europe's ascent to world rule was clear in two symbols of future hope: 1. the expectation of a perfection of history in the "thousand-year kingdom" in which Christ will rule with his own and judge the nations and 2. the expectation of a perfection of history in the "third kingdom" of the spirit that according to Joachim von Fiores' prophesy supersedes and perfects the kingdom of the Father and the kingdom of the Son. Both historical expectations are called "chiliastic" or "millenarian" and their present motivation "messianic". Where these expectations become effective, the future has priority in the experience of time. The present no longer rules over the present as in traditional societies. Thus the "modern society" was born. These expectations both see the perfection of history in an histor4ical future, not in a catastrophe demolishing history. The end is telos, not finis. Thus the past becomes "prologue of the future" and the times can be divided in stages or advances toward their perfection.

Since the 17th century, waves of chiliastic, messianic and apocalyptic hopes pass ed through Europe. The new turning point arose with the beginning of the modern age in the 17th century. Now the time of fulfillment has come. This hope can be realized today. "The modern age", the time of perfection, now begins after "antiquity" and the "Middle Ages".

The 19th century beginning after the turning points in Europe 1789 and ending in 1914 was an age of beginnings, utopias and revolutions. What was only desired in the past should now be "realized". For the first time, people saw alternatives to the present miserable state of the world in the future world, not in the world to come, in the real changes of this world, not in another world.

The democratic vision of popular sovereignty arose out of the French revolution on the basis of human rights, civil rights and the great promises "Freedom - Equality - Fraternity or Brotherliness" (sisterliness was added later).

From England came the industrial revolution, sister of the democratic revolution, with the promise of universal prosperity and the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The socialist revolution should perfect the democratic revolution through the "classless society" in a "kingdom of freedom" built on the industrial "kingdom of necessity".

The progress consciousness encouraged by constantly new scientific discoveries and technical innovations trusted in a beginning without end. Great theories of history like those of Auguste Comte, Hegel and Marx set the historical advances in the light of world perfection whiled the European superpowers organized the rest of the4 world in their colonial realms with the evil intention of dominating the world and the good intention of helping the education and development of the backward underdeveloped humanity. The themes of the whole 19th century were progress and evolution, growth and expansion, utopias and revolutions of hope.

One of the most moving symbols for the inversion from hopeful progress to the horrific catastrophes of the modern world comes from Walter Benjamin and his angel of history. "In a painting by Klee named Angelus Novus, an angel is shown looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open and his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." (Illuminations)

Where is this "pile of debris" that our progress left behind in history? 1. The beautiful messianic upper surface of European history has its ugly apocalyptic underside. The victorious progress of the European nations in the 19th century led to backward steps involving heavy losses to other nations. The modern world is only one-third the modern First world and two-thirds the modern Third world. The "modern age" has produced both the modern and the sub-modern. For the oppressed people of the Third world long enslaved and exploited, the messianism of the European modern age has never been anything but the apocalypse of their destruction.

2. The nature of the earth has not fared much differently. The beginning of modern industrial society was also the beginning of the "end of nature". The spread of the scientific-technical civilization led to the wiping out of more and more species of plants and animals. This is a crisis of the industrial world itself, not only a crisis of the natural environment. The destruction of nature is based on a disturbed relation of modern persons to nature. One cannot make oneself the master and owner of nature when one is only a "part of nature" dependent on nature.

3. The European Christian world powers destroyed one another in the 1st World War. This was a war of annihilation without clear war goals on any side. The annihilation idea dominated military thinking, not the hope for a victory. At the end, there were over 600,000 dead and nearly no losses or gains of territories. "The lamps went out in Europe". Lloyd George said in London 1914. The lights of the Enlightenment and of the glorious progress in a better world were darkened. Progress seemingly turned against itself and devoured its own children. What we have suffered and endured in the 20th century is apocalypse without hope, destruction without justification, pure delight in torture, rape and murder. The "downfall of the West" was pursued in Europe with the drive to self-destruction. The annihilating nothingness celebrated triumphs in the nihilism of this century. The age that began in 1914 was the "age of anxiety" (W. D. Auden).

The 2nd World War 1939-1945 continued the nihilistic destructive work of the modern world. Disguised under the misused symbol of hope of the "Third" or "thousand-year empire", the "final solution of the Jewish question" was pursued in Auschwitz in Germany and with the "eastern peoples" rooted out by work and hunger. The expulsion of people began. Millions fell victim. In August 1945, Japan was punished with two nuclear bombs killing hundreds of thousands instantly.

The 20th century brought no new ideas, visions or utopias that could give a meaning to history. The fields of history strewn with corpses forbid all meaning and all theodicy, all progress ideology and all delight in globalization. Progress in this century leaves behind debris and victims. No historical future can make up for this suffering. No better future can assure us that the victims' suffering was "not in vain". A total incapacity of meaning in view of history in the 20th century replaced the 19th century's belief in the future.

The hopes pointing to the future of the next millennium are bridges into the future that must be built over the abysses of destruction experienced in the 20th century.

I'd like to return to Walter Benjamin's "angel of history". He sees "piling wreckage" in the past. The "pile of debris" grows skyward before his staring eyes. He is paralyzed since the "storm blowing in from Paradise" is caught in his wings. His wings cannot be closed any more. What did this angel really intend? Why was he sent? He wanted to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what had been smashed. However he couldn't do this as long as that storm was caught in his wings. This "storm" is "what we call progress", Benjamin says. Conversely if we could reverse this storm and stop the wind of progress, the angel could awaken the dead and make whole what had been smashed."

"Awaken the dead and make whole what had been smashed" is a future hope for the past. There is no historical future in which this can happen. This must be a future for all history, a future with a transcendent substantiation. Since mortal persons cannot awaken the dead, the smashed cannot be made whole. No human future can "make up for" the crimes of the past. To live with this past of debris and victims without repressing or repeating them, we need this transcendent hope of the resurrection of the dead and the healing of the shattered. On the basis of the resurrection of the smashed Christ, Christian future hope in its core is resurrection hope. Without hope for the past, there is no hope for the future. What will be, what passes away, what is born, what dies and is not yet will be no more. Resurrection hope is not directed to a future in history but to the future for history in which the tragic dimensions of history and nature are cleared up.

If the future of history is defined by the resurrection of the dead, our own past encounters us. The killed, gassed, murdered and "disappeared" meet us among the dead. The dead of Verdun, Auschwitz, Stalingrad and Hiroshima await us.

Only the remembering can see this future that is called "resurrection of the dead". Only the one looking at this future is really able to recall the past and live in its presence. "The dead are dead but we raise them", said the historian Leopold von Ranke. If we compare Benjamin with Ezekiel, the storm wind that we call "progress" blows in the opposite direction. This wind blows " from Paradise", Benjamin says. In other words, this wind drives people again and again from their original home. The resurrection storm does not blow from the past into the future but from the future into the past and brings back the lost forever, the dead, and heals the incurably shattered, the debris.

How do these two storms relate - "progress" and "resurrection"? How can the transcendent hope in God be connected with the imminent hopes of people? I believe: in the opposite direction. Because the resurrection hope sees a future for the past and gives courage for the future to the present. Because there is the great hope for overcoming death and passing transitory time, our little hopes for better future times gain strength and no not fall to resignation and cynicism. We hope "nevertheless" in the middle of the age of anxiety and do not give up. We gain the "courage to be" despite the lure of non-being as Paul Tillich formulated. Our limited human future hopes then become a reaction to the divine future for the past.

homepage: homepage: http://www.mbtranslations.com