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Paranoid Eschatology, Part 2

I discussed in my last column the overly fearful reaction of some Adventists to the current financial crisis. How do we make sense of it?

Back in 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote a piece for Harper’s Magazine that has become a classic monograph on political paranoia.1 Hofstadter wrote “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” in the wake of McCarthyism, the founding of the John Birch Society, and the fearful hatred of the civil rights movement that lurked in the Goldwater right.

His principles apply equally well to certain approaches to eschatology. I once heard a sermon insisting that the Pope meets each day with his advisors to fret about and plan against Seventh-day Adventists; that we preoccupy the thoughts of the Vatican. We are that important. Hofstadter says that a mark of paranoid movements is that they take themselves very seriously.

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.…Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.…This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.

An apocalyptic conflict requires a superhuman enemy.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.…Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

In conversation, my friend Fritz Guy has suggested comparisons between our own fairly top-heavy, high-control church hierarchy and that of the Catholic Church: that we have become in certain ways like our enemy. Hofstadter goes farther: he says that for a paranoid movement, the enemy is a projection of the self, both good and bad:

The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry.…The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy.…On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex.

The fears may have a small foothold in reality:

Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivably pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended.

Adventist eschatology sees the abusive Catholicism of antique times as the foundation for our “broad defensible judgment” against them. But it becomes present paranoia when bolstered by a peculiar kind of evidence, evidence of foggy and mysterious provenance but with a strong, dramatic narrative:

One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed.

This “evidence” may show a sort of internal logic. Says Hofstadter, “The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world,” for it must appear to prove the exaggerated danger.

The paranoid never achieves what he’s fighting for, and doesn’t necessarily want to: were the conflict resolved, the apocalyptic purpose would disappear, and with it his place at the center of history. That is why the paranoid “resists enlightenment.” “The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.”

The paranoid, concludes Hofstadter, is a “double sufferer”: “he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”

We Seventh-day Adventists have a wonderful message, a message filled with hope. Who doesn’t want to see the end of evil? No more war, earthquakes, cancer, or abused children? I can hardly wait.

But when we talk about our blessed hope, we have shown tendencies toward paranoid thinking. It appears in certain kinds of evangelism. It is particularly pungent on our cultural fringes. In some way or another it affects all of us, for one of the official anchors of our eschatology is the identification of the papacy as our personal end-time enemy.

Throughout Scripture, it is redundantly clear that God doesn’t want us to live in dread and fear, but with peace, joy, and hope. Said Jesus, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Satan is already defeated, and God is victorious, and nothing the Pope (or anyone else) might do can change that! The eschatological battles are God’s to fight, not ours. Life is hard enough, and we have enough to worry about without exaggerating dangers that may not happen, and that aren’t our responsibility if they do.

Perhaps the real danger is that a preoccupation with prophecy and the end times distracts us from living big-picture Christian lives—lives consistent with the Sermon on the Mount.

Or perhaps it is just easier to focus on the evil without than the problems within.

Notes and References

1. Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1964, 77–86. Reproduced in full at this Web site.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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