MILLENNIALISM AND MESSIANISM HAVE LONG BEEN anathema to progressive religion. In their most raw forms, they are triumphalism undisguised: the good (i.e., us) are taken to heaven, the bad committed to the flames. And, unlike those aspects of traditional religion that seem to cry out for a renewal or restoration, messianism's bathwater seems not to hold a baby worth saving. A Utopian ideal, sure; perhaps something for which to strive. But as an actual, future-historical event, the Messianic Age offers little to the contemporary spiritual progressive.
And yet, we ignore the messianic impulse at our peril. Defying common sense, apocalyptic millennialism recurs, again and againmost recently, in the American spiritual scene, connected with the year 2012 (thought by some to be a turning point in the Mayan calendar), but also in connection with Y2K (remember that end of the world?), American evangelicals' support of Israel, some New Christian Right interpretations of the War in Iraq, and so on. The notion of an endtime seems to be as deeply rooted in the human psyche as other religious concepts, and seems to be alive and kicking today. Thus, to ignore such a deep-rooted impulse seems to miss something essential to how billions of people understand themselves and their religions.
So, what options are there for spiritual progressives dismayed by triumphalism and supernaturalism, but cognizant of the seeming centrality of the Messianic impulse? In this essay, I want to share one such alternative: a longstanding Jewish "spiritual view" of global transformation-that the "Messianic Age" is about a change in consciousness, not in politics or religious structures- and explore how we might see it underway today.
To begin, let us recall that Judaism is both a historical and an ahistorical religion. Ahistorically, Jewish time is cyclical: the Sabbath comes every seven days, and our agriculturally timed cycle of holidays renews itself each year. This Judaism shares with other earth-based religions. Historically, though, Jewish time is linear. We Jews tell stories of an ancient creation and hold hopes for a future redemption. We involve ourselves in history- in collective enterprises such as Zionism and individual ones such as righteous action on behalf of the less fortunate.
In this linear mode, one of Judaism's central historical tenets is the belief in a Messiah, a redeemer who in some future time will change, or even end, history. Jewish beliefs about the Messiah have themselves evolved over time. Initially, the Messiah was seen as a military/political leader who would bring independence back to Judea Over the centuries though, the Messiah came to be seen as a cosmic redeemer who would change the entire nature of reality- even, as in Christianity, a semi-divine figure who would atone for the sins of Israel. Because Jewish law is largely silent on matters of belief, all of these views have held sway at one time or another. Today, many Hasidim believe that the last Lubaviteher Rebbe will somehow return from "apparent" death to unite all the world. Many nationalists believe that an "inevitable" war in the Middle East will bring the Messiah. A handful of ultra-nationalists have even plotted to blow up the Dome ofthe Rock to jump-start the process. Fortunately, these remain a miniscule fringe.
In contrast to such traumatic and supernatural accounts of messianism, however, there is a longstanding Jewish tradition to regard the messianic age as one of evolving consciousness rather than revolutionary history. This view has two major forms.
The first is what Gershom Scholem called the "neutralization" of Jewish messianism, which took place in the Hasidic movement in the late eighteenth century. Contrary to Hasidism today, Hasidism then was a radical, spiritual renaissance. It arose in the wake of a great historical trauma: the Sabbatean heresy, during which one-third of European Jews believed the Messiah had arrived and now walked the earth. …