Jonathan S. Blake is a 2020-22 Berggruen Institute fellow.
“When the Messianic idea appears as a living force in the world … it always occurs in the closest connection with apocalypticism,” Gershom Scholem observed in 1959. Scholem could state this with authority. The greatest modern scholar of messianism in Judaism, he was immersed in the study of ancient and medieval religious thought and of the messianic movements to which it gave rise.
But he had also lived through apocalyptic times — two of them, in fact. Born in Berlin in 1897, Scholem was part of a cohort of remarkable German intellectuals who lived through the crises of Europe in the 20th century — first the catastrophe of the Great War and then in the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust.
Politics today feels alarmingly similar to that apocalyptic period. Commentators on the events of our moment routinely draw comparisons to that era: the July Crisis, the Weimar Republic, hyperinflation, the Reichstag Fire, the Munich Agreement, brownshirts, Nazism, Hitler. Europe’s early 20th century is a deep reservoir of metaphors and analogies with striking appeal in contemporary life.
We can debate the validity of the historical comparisons, but it is hard to deny that these are dark times. Floods, droughts, plagues of locusts, skies lit orange by wildfire; a global pandemic; war in Europe once again. There is a sense of biblical drama enveloping the world.
It is natural to seek meaning amid such chaos. It is natural, too, to seek succor and solace — to hold out hope for deliverance. So it is no surprise that some people are yet again turning to the redemptive promise of a coming messiah.
The logic of messianism holds that collective salvation will come from an external source. That logic shapes the strategies, expectations and desires of a host of actors, from the bubbly techno-optimism of Silicon Valley to the sober scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
But the messianic impulse shapes contemporary thinking in often dangerous ways. Today, the messiah many hope for is a secular, often technological one — a person or scientific breakthrough that will relieve us from global warming, the sixth great extinction, economic and political inequality, social upheaval and other tribulations of the present. As the political philosopher Michael Walzer has remarked, “Messianism is the greatest temptation in Western politics.” It circulates in the air that Western political thinkers and actors breathe.
But while we wait for that messiah to show up, the challenges we face do not. One of the problems with messiahs is that they do not come. Waiting around, hoping they do, is no strategy for salvation.
Nevertheless, the promise of a better future that is at the core of messianism is deeply inspirational, perhaps even necessary. In seeking to address the crises of the present, this should not be ignored. Harnessing the hopeful, future-oriented element of the messianic idea can drive whole movements of people to do the hard, collective work of bringing about the futures we desire. The messiah will not redeem us, but the effort we put in together to bring it about just might.
Contemporary political messianism is a form of thinking premised on the expectation of external solutions for our problems — not necessarily (or even typically) a divine solution, but a deus ex machina nonetheless. When facing apocalypse, there is a deep human yearning for quick fixes to complex problems and one-size-fits-all solutions. This messianic impulse offers an appealing narrative that suggests that transformational change can happen without major upheavals that hurt ordinary people or dislodge incumbent elites.
Scholem believed that after the Enlightenment, messianism was “secularized as the belief in progress.” Maybe the allure of messianism is even more fundamental: a human need to know that life has meaning, that there’s a purpose to suffering — bleak as things seem, it will all work out in the end. Or as the Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk has written: “The Messiah … is something that flows in your blood, resides in your breath, it is the dearest and most precious human thought: that salvation exists.”
Political messianism, like its religious analogue, produces opposing programs. It can create a mad rush to hasten redemption through revolutionary action that can end in catastrophe. It can also lead to withdrawn, expectant hand-sitting — in Scholem’s phrase, “a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be irrevocably accomplished.”
It’s this latter drive to inaction that worries me most. The clearest reason why is the world’s approach to climate change.
In climate messianism, an easy, technical fix to planetary warming — preferably one that doesn’t impinge on current lifestyles — saves us from catastrophe. Take solar geoengineering, a suite of theoretical technologies that would cool the Earth by decreasing the amount of the sun’s energy that gets to the atmosphere. A highly controversial proposal, solar geoengineering represents the rash action of revolutionary climate messianism. It is an attempt to realize a future that its proponents desire, despite a litany of potentially dangerous political and climatic consequences. What’s more, supporters like to say, it would be “remarkably inexpensive” (an estimated $2 billion per year) compared to the costs of the green transition or climate adaptation, and it requires no real sacrifices from the general public or elites.
Or consider negative emissions technologies: techniques for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Such technologies are a cornerstone of the hyper-rationalist world of international climate diplomacy and science. The Paris Agreement, for instance, set a goal to “balance” carbon emissions with removal.
The Earth does not contain enough natural carbon sinks (oceans, forests and other ecosystems that absorb and store more atmospheric carbon than they emit), so keeping the planet under 2 degrees Celsius of warming — to say nothing of 1.5 degrees — will require the mass deployment of manmade carbon sinks. One estimate found that humans will need to create a carbon sink that can remove as much greenhouse gas as all the world’s oceans currently do. This is probably an impossible technical task. As a result, the Paris Agreement’s reliance on negative emissions is, in the words of some leading climate scientists, “the world’s biggest gamble.”
The IPCC’s climate models rest on the same expectation of future technological deliverance — the way that the scientific body computes pathways to moderate levels of planetary warming includes the heavy use of carbon removal technologies in the future. But there’s a catch: we do not yet have these capabilities. “It should be noted,” the IPCC admitted somewhat coyly, “that CO2 removal technologies are not yet ready or unable to achieve the scale of removal that would be required to compensate for current levels of emissions, and most have undesired side effects.”
Despite that rather massive limitation, countries rely on IPCC models to craft climate policies. So there is a severe risk of not taking important climate mitigation action in the present because decision-makers hold firm beliefs in future technological salvation. It is no surprise that many fossil fuel corporations publicly support the development of negative emissions technologies. Betting climatic stability on “technologies yet to be developed,” as Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, warned at last year’s COP26, “is, at best, reckless, and, at worst, dangerous.”
Techno-messianism also played a prominent role during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID vaccines — indeed miraculous — are appealingly simple, and it is too easy to fall into their reassuring trap. As the global movement against them shows, relying on vaccines as the end-all and be-all of pandemic policy is dangerously naive.
In the U.S., both the federal government and society at large put too much faith in vaccines. We neglected other necessary interventions: testing, contact tracing, access to sick leave. Also, techno-messiahs are bound to fail without the right politics to support them. Many rejected a vaccine due to politics, and politics prevented vaccines from being shared with the rest of the world.
Vaccines can’t solve the structural problems that drove the pandemic, like inequalities, broken politics and anemic, distrusted institutions. They can’t overcome human foibles and prejudices, selfishness and self-righteousness, nor eliminate the human forces that are making future pandemics more likely — our march into wild spaces, churning up new pathogens through deforestation, industrial livestock practices, trading in wildlife and overusing antibiotics. The vaccines did not even end the pandemic, though having them seems to have prompted the U.S. Congress to recklessly avoid further action.
Outside specific policy debates, there are traces of the messianic idea in how we think about the nature of time and history. The messianic era, Scholem observed, “is in no causal sense a result of previous history.” It bursts out of the stream of historical time and exists fully apart from the known timeline, a sudden and complete break from all that preceded it.
So too is the idea of the Anthropocene, the geological epoch marked by human interference in the Earth system. The era of the human, in the eyes of many, is distinguished from everything that came before. It marks a radical break, an irreparable temporal rupture — not an age of redemption, but rather the opposite. Yet, still, it shares with the messianic era a sense that it is something entirely new.
The idea of the messianic era and the Anthropocene share a philosophy of history as unfolding in stages toward a foretold end (a linear structure shared by Marxism as well). Some scholars have even identified the Anthropocene as an updated Christian eschatology, pointing out climate rhetoric drawn from Christian political theology.
Indeed, one early harbinger of the Anthropocene, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, made the linkage explicit. He understood the geological consequences of humanity — “this irresistible tide of fields and factories, this immense and growing edifice of matter and ideas” — as progress toward spiritual redemption. “With hominisation,” he wrote in “The Phenomenon of Man,” his posthumous book from 1955, “we have the beginning of a new age. The Earth ‘gets a new skin.’ Better still, it finds its soul.” A man of science and the cloth, Teilhard saw the human mark upon the Earth as one step towards planetary salvation in the form of unification with God.
Teilhard’s woo-woo history of Earth is extreme, but it is consistent with the messianic and the Anthropocene’s temporal imaginations. For all of them, the arrow of time moves forward in sudden leaps. The trajectory of history (from pre-messianic to the messianic age; from the Holocene to the Anthropocene) is not marked by incremental evolution but abrupt transformations, precipitous and irreversible state shifts.
This is evident in how geologists are searching for the Anthropocene’s “golden spike,” the date of the geological period’s beginning that gets designated with a physical marker hammered into a rock layer somewhere. Suggested dates vary: early hominids’ mass eradication of megafauna starting 50,000 years ago, the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, the marked increase in carbon emissions during the Industrial Revolution.
But the scientific body tasked with this work is honing in the middle of the 20th century and the appearance of artificial radionuclides blasted around the planet by widespread nuclear bomb testing. This chemical signal marked an instantaneous geological transformation. Unlike the gradual planetary impact of human agricultural or industrial activities, which unfold through historic time — making it difficult to precisely detect a boundary event — nuclear fallout arrived in an identifiable instant: July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m. local time in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto Desert. No build-up, no development — just before and after.
Though the Anthropocene is generally regarded as an age of ruination, some still find hints of paradise — the possibility of a “good, or even great, Anthropocene,” with technologically produced human flourishing never before seen. Others find a silver lining in the apocalyptic purge they assume must follow — a climatic comeuppance for long-time archenemies like fossil fuel corporations or capitalism or modernity in general. A few misanthropists even anticipate the day that anthropogenic changes overwhelm the human species itself, bringing an end to Earth’s infestation of “upright mammalian weeds.”
I write with the zeal of the unconverted. I’m not sure there is a bright future for humanity, but I desperately want to hope that there is. I want to take up of the messianic impulse, hold it tight, and teach it to my children. I want to find comfort in its certainty of better days ahead.
It seems to me at least worth a try, since the alternative is worse. Without the idea that the future can be better, the great temptation is nihilism. If nothing can improve and doom is guaranteed, nothing matters. And if nothing matters, why even try? As Roy Scranton put it squarely in “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene,” no matter what we do, “we’re fucked.”
Apocalyptic despair that counsels surrender is as dangerous as messianic passivity or revolutionary rashness. If there is no future, there’s no reason to act. Messianism, despite its problems, at least provides hope.
But at the same time, we must reject teleological visions that promise certain salvation (or certain doom) at the end times. Productive politics requires a philosophy of history with ample room for human agency. That agency can’t just be motivated by fear of dystopia: We must believe there is a future worth fighting for.
The challenge, then, is to find a middle position between what Hannah Arendt called “reckless optimism and reckless despair.” One answer lies in a tradition that embraces the possibility of collective redemption while eschewing the self-fulfilling politics of messianic extremism in either its passive or rash keys — what we might call “realistic messianism,” or what the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls “thinking and acting realistically without losing the utopian impulse.”
Progress is not inevitable, and we mustn’t act as if it is. But, even in the darkness, we cannot let go of the idea that it is possible. Progress takes work. For between the twin temptations of passively waiting for a messiah to come and living dangerously with the antinomian conviction that things will turn out fine, there is another path to redemption: a path that runs through the collaborative labor of politics.
In one sense, collective action is an inversion of the messianic idea, which relies on an anti-political, deus ex machina solution. But there is also a long tradition of diverting people’s messianic fervor into political action. Both the Jewish and Islamic traditions, for instance, teach that if you are about to plant a tree — a future-oriented act of improving this world — and the age of redemption arrives, you should first plant the tree before welcoming the messiah.
Redirecting the fire for redemption does not mean abandoning hope in radical change; it means that we must work for it rather than wait for it. Transformation must come from us, not from outside forces.
No one is coming to save us. The messiah will not be heralded by the Prophet Elijah and angels with golden trumpets. Collective redemption will not be found — it must be constructed, surely with less pomp, through what Max Weber called the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.”
This is why political struggle remains vital even when techno-messiahs are promised or even made real. Technologies don’t fix anything on their own; they require policies and movements to create a supportive social and political environment. A better future requires profound action in the present, not the bated breath of anxious expectation. It requires rejecting the anti-politics of messianic anticipation and creating a politics of messianic striving — the determination to take, in Scholem’s words, “irrevocable action in the concrete realm” to bring about a better future.
Long-shot, messianic solutions can be part of our toolkit, but we mustn’t rely on them exclusively. And we can’t wait around for them to be suddenly discovered or invented. Rather, we must harness our longing for deliverance to drive the work that must be done and done together — for that is where the truly salvific solutions are to be found.