The premise of apocalyptic thinking is a very simple one: the belief in an imminent end of the world or its radical transformation.
Clearly, this kind of thinking was “in the air” during the time of Jesus. Many of his teachings have an apparent apocalyptic tone to them. In fact, scripture scholars today generally agree that the first followers of Jesus expected his imminent return to earth. Of course, since that did not happen in the first generation or two, the early church communities had to adjust their thinking.
Around the year 1,000, though, there was another outburst of apocalyptic fervor. Certain people were interpreting the Scriptures to indicate that all signs were pointing to the year 1,000 as the day of reckoning.
People sold their homes and possessions and gathered together in small believing communities so that they would be ready for the “Great Day.” Well, obviously, the year 1,000 came and went and still no Jesus.
A similar phenomenon happened when the world turned 2,000. Perhaps you remember it. Some fundamentalist communities went through the same drill. Still no Jesus.
Of course, the above interpretations are all literalistic and fundamentalist. Is there another way to look at what the Second Coming means? Of course.
All the way back in the 12th century, a mystic by the name of Joachim of Fiore (1145-1202) said that the history of our world could be divided up into three great epochs: the Age of the Law (The Father), the Age of the Gospel (The Son), and the Age of the Spirit (The Holy Spirit).
The Age of the Law was the time when God was seen as the great lawgiver in the sky. Religions concentrated on laws and prohibitions, telling people what they should or should not do..
All of that changed with the Age of the Gospel. Here Jesus simplifies all of the laws and precepts in the Great Law of love of God and neighbor. This setting free of humanity, an “apocalyptic” event, represented, according to Joachim, a quantum leap forward in the evolution of humanity.
We are now, according to Joachim, in the Age of the Spirit, begun around 1260 A.D. In this final age, people would come to understand that the God that was originally seen as an old man in the sky, and later focused fully on Jesus of Nazareth, was actually a part of our inmost being. People would gradually awaken to this reality, the church as a structure would disappear because it had done its job, and “Christ” would have come again. A strain of Joachim’s thinking was revived by a group called the Spiritual Franciscans. There is a reference to this group in Umberto Eco’s novel, “The Name of the Rose.”
The radical insights of Joachim were to reappear in secular thinkers like Lessing (1729-81) with his age of the Eternal Gospel; with Hegel (1770-1831) who called it the age of Absolute Spirit; and with Marx (1818-83) who preached Advanced Communism.
Looking back on all these latter theories, there seems to be a common strain: we humans continue to evolve, sometimes by fits and starts, and that our going there is part of our destiny on this earth. The Second Coming is a process not from on high but from within.
Next posting: Mysticism and Madness
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