According to progressive faith, the “arc of history” always bends Left. Well, history just spawned Donald Trump, and if European political trends are indicative, this is not an isolated incident. For leftists, this is akin to if Christians woke up to find Jesus’ bones had been discovered. It shattered their faith.
The freak-out is especially acute among millennials. These are the “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” bunch we’ve heard about the past decade. Millennials, we were told, didn’t abandon faith per se—can the human spirit truly live without faith?—they simply redirected it away from “organized religion” toward other things, chief among which was politics. I wonder how that’s working out for them.
As ridiculous and ubiquitous as the pathetically referenced “stages of grief” has become to explain how they feel about losing an election (!), the depth of leftist grief does magnify the essential religiosity they place on politics. Some reflection is in order.
The Roots of Leftist Religion
In 1949, the influential book “The God that Failed” presented six essays by former communists who came to realize that communism is essentially a secular religion, and a failed one at that. This work is evidence that Christianity’s decline in the West gave way not to atheism, but to political expressions of faith, particularly totalitarianism.
Arthur Koestler’s description in the book of his conversion to communism is illustrative: “Every page of Marx, and even more of Engels, brought a new revelation. . . . [T]he demonstration of the historical relativity of institutions and ideals – of family, class, patriotism, bourgeois morality, sexual taboos – had the intoxicating effect of a sudden liberation from the rusty chains with which a pre-1914 middle-class childhood cluttered one’s mind. . . . [I]t is difficult to recapture that mood of emotional fervor and intellectual bliss.”
Koestler’s language—“revelation,” “intoxicating effect of a sudden liberation,” “emotional fervor”—betrays the inherent religiosity of his conversion. Change the words, and he could just as well be describing his day at the revival tent.
Political philosopher Eric Voegelin rightly recognized the psychic mechanisms going on here as ultimately gnostic. Gnosticism fits the quest for an atheist spirituality (or secular religion), because it grants meaning and morality through the back door when your premise is scientific and materialistic absolutism. The political religionist is a gnostic who on one hand denies any teleology for this world (the randomness of its evolution being absolute), while on the other hand insisting with fervor and absolute conviction on quite specific political ends.
Voegelin identifies six characteristics of the gnostic psychic mechanism. (1) It begins with a dissatisfaction with one’s situation. (2) Lacking a doctrine of original sin, the drawbacks of one’s situation are attributed not to anything in him, but rather to the constitution of the world, or even nature itself, at a minimum to the intrinsic corruption of the world’s systems and institutions. (3) Contrary to all evolutionary evidence, but faintly recalling the paradisaical Eden of traditional religion, the gnostic “just knows” salvation is possible, that the world can be changed into something special. (4) For this salvation to occur, the order of being itself must be changed in a historic process. As Voegelin writes, “From a wretched world a good one must evolve historically.” (5) This historical change in the order of being lies within the capacity of human action. (6) Knowledge, or gnosis, here becomes the central concern, for only one enlightened about history’s proper course can help spearhead the world-historical change.
Voegelin sees Joachim of Fiore, the twelfth-century monk and first new-age prophet, as ground zero for secular religion, or as it’s sometimes called, millenarianism. Joachim divided history into three epochs, claiming that imminent in his day was the final epoch in which God’s Spirit would have direct influence—outside the workings of the church—on the direction of history, by inspiring an elite body of elect saints to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
Joachim’s position set the foundation for Hegel’s spiritualization of history, which Marx, Comte, and others adapted to proclaim the gospel of communism, progressivism, and other totalitarian creeds. Taking Joachim to his logical end, a spiritual atheism animates their political creeds, whereby all the goodies we identify with Christianity—charity, respect for the dignity of individuals, societal justice, care for the poor, etc.—become magically destined by history to be baked into our DNA. This creates a species of “new man,” an updated version of Joachim’s elect saints. Significantly, the church is no longer needed as a third-party administrator of those goodies. Today’s “spiritual but not religious” millennials are descendants of Joachim through Hegel and Marx.
When the Political God Fails
For the secular religionist, faith rests on history’s destiny as understood in these Hegelian and Joachimic terms. Yet if history (real, small “h” history) is any guide, the millenarian movements of the Middle Ages provide some guidance on what will happen now. In one medieval example, the anointed Anabaptist “apostle” John Bockelson and his gang led a millenarian movement in Munster, Germany.
After booting out Lutherans and Catholics, he cancelled debts, instituted property-sharing, changed marriage laws, renamed streets, burned books, and made rules like “everything which offends against love—all such things are abolished amongst us by the power of love and community.” (Stop drooling, university provosts!)
The debt cancellation especially drew millennial students the area’s poor who had run through their parents’ fortunes and earned nothing by their own industry. As their program went into full effect, per usual, the city fell into starvation and despondency. A siege by the area bishop didn’t help. To keep his despondent followers transfixed on the imminent triumph of his vision, Bockelson mesmerized them with dramatic displays, games, and dance, and desecrations of the Mass.
One can only imagine what awaits us in the aftermath of history’s betrayal of the Left and the Trumpian siege. After the fall of communism, some argued communism needed quasi-religious myths to undergird its vision. We can probably expect something of the same from the Left. They will likely double down on their media-generated myth making.
Expect the music to get more passionate, more anxiety-laden, and more despairing, because every religious movement needs its hymn-writers. Expect the movies to become over-the-top in their critiques of institutions, capitalism, and the government. Expect histrionics like never before, not seen even in the days of Ronald Reagan. Such dramatic displays will preserve the flame of gnosis in leftist hearts.
None of it, of course, will matter. If the last eight years are any guide, there will arise another leader, another apotheosis of their religious fervor, who will likewise do precisely nothing. Still, it’s part of the religion, the liturgy of the Left, the cyclical rehearsal of a psychic drama answering the riddle of human despair in an imperfect world. The leftist answer has no lasting substance and never has, but each new generation must learn this truth on its own.
Perhaps last week was the beginning of an education for millennials denied them until now. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”