What motivates people to commit atrocities in the name of God -- or of a godless paradise they wish to establish on earth? What makes them shed barrels upon barrels of innocent blood to promote one revolution or another?
Don't answer, "faith." Don't say, "ideas," either.
To borrow a phrase from Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), the father of an academic discipline called sociology of knowledge, you'd better plumb the "murkier depth of the soul."
In these murky depths, Mannheim suggested, we would find the motivation for the German Peasants' War of 1525.
Radical Reformer Thomas Muentzer, Luther's chief antagonist, led this revolt. It turned out to be the prototype of most utopian bloodbaths that have plagued mankind since the 16th century.
Muentzer felt called by the Holy Spirit to establish the Kingdom of God in earth. He was undaunted by the Bible's warning that any attempt to draw the hereafter into the present was a futile exercise: Man cannot know "the day nor the hour" (Matthew 25:13) when the Kingdom will break into our reality. It's God's prerogative to decide when this will occur.
But Muentzer, who like later utopians felt guided by the Holy Spirit, dismissed the belief in Scripture as the sole vessel of truth. He called this "Affenglaube," or the faith of apes.
Yet in Europe and America, Muentzer's presumption of God has never ceased to find copycats, even among atheists.
Think of what horrors the murky depths of Nazi souls have inflicted upon us. Alfred Rosenberg, National Socialism's chief ideologue, extolled Muentzer's Peasants' War.
The Marxist-Leninists bowed to Muentzer as well as they launched their immensely bloody project to establish a "workers' and peasants' paradise on earth." Wrote Friedrich Engels, Marx' faithful partner and financier:
Heaven was to be sought in this life, not beyond, and it was, according to Muentzer, the task of the believers to establish Heaven ... here on earth."
Marxism and National Socialism were mass movements rooted in an erroneous theology, which stands in stark contrast to Scripture and the traditional teachings of the church, Catholic or Protestant.
But the same murky source has spawned smaller, but still staggering horrors in recent history, too. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Don Lattin, the San Francisco Chronicle's religion writer, pointed to some of these seemingly incomprehensible events.
There was the Rev. Jim Jones, a minister of the Disciples of Christ, a mainline Protestant church. He built his little utopia in Guyana in 1978. We all know how this curious "paradise" ended. More than 900 died in a macabre ritual of murder and mass suicide.
Just before this happened, Lattin reminds us, Jim Jones said, "It is the will of the Supreme Being that this is happening to us ... Don't be afraid to die ... It's just stepping over to another plane."
Lattin discerns in these words a "chilling resemblance" to the "last night" document found in the luggage of Mohamed Atta, one of the pilots who crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
"Everybody hates death. But only those believers who know life after death and the reward after death would be the ones who would be seeking death ... You will be entering paradise."
There are theological parallels here: The Rev. Jones, who knew his Bible, dismissed its injunction against presuming God because he thought he knew better.
Similarly, Mohamed Atta, who presumably knew his Koran, dismissed its injunctions against killing innocent people and committing suicide, because he was evidently convinced that they did not apply to him.
Atta and Jones both thought that by committing a heinous crime they were on a fast track to paradise. What warped minds!
Then we read in Jones' suicide, "We committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world." Thomas Muentzer, the father of post-Reformation utopianism, sends his regards.
There is one even more sinister side to this lethal ideology of a presumption of God, an ideology that seems to transcend the barriers between the world religions:
From Muentzer down to our time, presuming God is not so much an exercise of the simple-minded as of the erudite. Muentzer, Engels, Marx, Rosenberg, Jones, Atta -- they were all educated men.
The same holds true for the 39 members of California's Heaven's Gate sect who killed themselves in the belief that they would rendezvous with a UFO trailing behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Even more astonishing was the educational level of the leaders of Japan's Aum Shinri Kyo sect that unleashed a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo subway passengers, killing 12 and making thousands ill.
When this columnist encountered some of them three years ago, he was astonished to hear that all of them held graduate degrees from Japan's elite universities
Yet these men and women outlined a dumbfounding pseudo-religious scenario: Allegedly Buddhists, they believed that Shiva, the destroyer in the Hindu trinity, had ordered them to launch the Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:16), the last struggle between the forces of good and evil in the Christian Apocalypse.
Christ would be victorious, they assured this writer. But who was Christ to them? "Shiva incarnate," they replied.
This columnist is neither a Muslim, nor a Buddhist, nor a Hindu. But it seems to me that in some respects there are similar dynamics at work in these religions as in Christianity:
Arrogance bares the soul's murky depths. And what we then see cannot be God's will -- all we then see is the abyss.