Eschaton Si, Imminent No!

[Cross-posted to The American Catholic]

Over at Vox Nova, Henry Karlson offers some thoughtful reflections on eschatology (Part I | Part II | Part III), or rather — those who employ the catch phrase “Don’t immanentize the eschaton!” as a cudgel against those “doing the work of Christ”:

How many times do we find these words repeated, time and again, since Voegelin has suggested to do so is Gnostic? How ironic is this claim, when authentic Christian theology believes that the eschaton has been immanetized in Christ. Voegelin, and many of his followers like Buckley, became critical of anyone who would try to connect the supernatural with the natural in a way which understood the eschatological ramifications of Christ have any this-worldly implications. But this is exactly what Christian theology proposes. God became man; the eschaton has been revealed; the world and all that is in it has been affected by the immanentizing of the eschaton that history can never be the same. Christians are called to live out their lives in and through Christ, bringing the eschatological implications of Pascha to the world itself. The world is meant to be transformed and brought to its perfection, and we are to be Christ’s workers in helping to bring this about; of course, our work is not on the same level of Christ’s, but, if we truly become one with Christ in his body, we must understand this is exactly what we are called to do. Anything else is a rejection of the incarnation, anything else which tries to establish an absolute duality between the immanent and transcendent is what really qualifies as gnostic!

In response, I’d like to say a little bit about why I find myself sympathetic to Buckley and company.

* * *

Henry’s post was a good impetus to find out more about Voeglin, whose work I am not (yet) familiar with. This entry in Wikipedia, however, does a decent job of briefing novices like myself on Voegelin’s understanding of “gnosticism”, and what he perceived to be gnostic characteristics in various movements in history (National Socialism and Communism being two that figure heavily in his mind).

Concerning the “immanentization of the eschaton”, the phrase is apparently derived from a passage in The New Science of Politics, in which Voegelin asserts “the problem of an eidos in history, hence, arises only when a Christian transcendental fulfillment becomes immanentized,” remarking specifically on the heretical eschatology of Joachim of Fiore. A brief summary of Voeglin’s criticism is offered by D. Vincent Twomey (in the context of a discussion of Joseph Ratzinger — more on this later):

Eric Voegelin argued that the speculations of Joachim of Fiore are in large part the source of modernity; they helped replace the Augustinian concept of history that had formed Western Christendom. … In Augustine’s view, history is transitory, and empires pass away; only the eternal Civitas Dei (the “citizenry of God,” as Ratzinger translates it) lasts forever. Its sacramental expression is the Church, understood as humanity in the process of redemption. By contrast, Joachim proposed a radically new understanding of world history as a divine progression of three distinct eras, the last being the era of the Holy Spirit when all structures (Church and State) would give way to the perfect society of autonomous men moved only from within by the Spirit. This understanding of history amounts to what Voegelin called “the immanentization of the eschaton.” It rests on the assumption that the end of history is immanent in history itself—the product of its own inner movement towards ever greater perfection, towards the kingdom of God on earth. This idea is at the root of what we mean today by “progress.” It underpins, albeit in different ways, both radical socialism and liberal capitalism. And it has had a profound effect on political life, giving rise to both revolution and secularism.

As Henry mentions, William F. Buckley was quite fond of the phrase and was largely responsible for its popularization among conservatives as a general criticism of liberal “progressive” ambitions:

“Conservatives believe there are rational limits to politics, that politics should not, in the lofty phrase of Voeglin, attempt to immanentize the eschaton.” [Unmaking of a Mayor 196-97)]

More recently, Mises’ Institute scholar Gene Callahan employed the term in a criticism of ‘neoconservative’ foreign policy.

* * *

But what does it mean to say that the “eschaton has been immanentized”, at least from an orthodox Christian perspective? — Henry answers: “the Church is the continued presence of the Eschaton [Christ] in the World” :

The Church is where the kingdom of God is found in the world, and it is through the Church, which is the Body of Christ, that the world can be united with Christ and find its place in the eschaton. The Church is a sacrament – in her, the grace of God is found immanentized. […]

The Church finds its mission to be the mission of Christ to the world, to show the world the love of Christ in order to transform it. We are the ones who make the not yet become a part of the “already” as we do the work of Christ by being his continued presence in the world and bring more and more of the world into Christ.

To which Michael Iafrate adds:

In Catholic eschatology, the eschaton is not merely an event or set of events in the future, but we believe that the future has broken into the world in Jesus Christ and continues to break into the world in a variety of ways, including the sacraments, Christ’s ongoing presence in the Church, in the struggle for justice, etc. In Catholic theology, indeed in Paul’s theology, the Kingdom is “already and not yet.” We are living in the overlapping in-between times. As members of Christ’s Body, we are to prefigure the Kingdom in history, today. Of course we don’t do that in the fullest sense. Sin still affects our efforts. The Kingdom is still coming, but it is also here, at hand.

I don’t think any Catholic would dispute Henry’s fundamental point — that the ‘eschaton has been immanentized” in Jesus Christ, God become incarnate in humanity and within history, and that, moreover, “the Church is constituted as the Body of Christ through the Eucharist.”

As (then) Cardinal Ratzinger asserted in his wonderful book on ecclesiology, Called to Communion:

Jesus himself is God’s action, his coming, his reigning. In Jesus’ mouth, “Kingdom of God” does not mean some thing or place but the present action of God. One may therefore translate the programmatic action of Mark 1:15 “the Kingdom of God is near at hand” as “God is near.” We perceive once more the connection with Jesus, with his person: he himself is God’s nearness. Wherever he is, is the Kingdom. [p. 22]

Furthermore, Ratzinger adds, “Jesus is never alone — he came to gather what was dispersed. His entire work is to gather the new people.” The fruit of Jesus’ work is the Church, “a communion of converted sinners who live by the grace of forgiveness and transmit it themselves” [p. 149] — united in our reception of the Eucharist: God himself.

There is, however, the thorny matter of what it actually means to “transfigure the world and bring it to its perfection” (to quote Henry Karlson), or “prefigure the Kingdom in history” (to quote Michael Iafrate). Henry remarks that:

understood properly, the immanentized eschaton leads to Catholic Social Doctrine — the reason why we have social doctrine is because we become persons in Christ, and are to do the work of Christ.”

Again, I don’t think anybody will dispute that the revelation of Jesus Christ should have a necessary and transformative impact on human conduct and our temporal affairs. With respect to “Catholic social doctrine”, however, I would add the qualification that Catholics across the political spectrum may very well likely differ over the prudential application of such. The Catholic Worker and the Catholic enterpreneur, while (presumably) united in an ambition to bring assistance to the poor, may differ in their practical strategies to do so.

However, it is when the idea of “the Kingdom” becomes politicized and ultimately perverted, taking the form of a political manifesto or concrete program for revolution — when we perceive politics itself as a suitable vehicle for “the transfiguration of the world”, that I find myself sympathetic to the wariness expressed by conservatives. For it is at this juncture that the very essence of Christianity, God’s reconciliation of the world to himself in Christ on the Cross — can be — and has been — subverted by our worldly ambitions. Or as Hans Urs von Balthasar cautioned,

Whoever removes the Cross and its interpretation by the New Testament from the center, in order to replace it, for example, with the social commitment of Jesus to the oppressed as a new center, no longer stands in continuity with the apostolic faith. [p. 81, A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen]

Indeed, Buckley’s own understanding of the “immanentization of the eschaton” — that there is “a rational limit to politics” — bears remarkable similarity to comments made by a certain Joseph Ratzinger, reflecting on the challenges to contemporary democracy:

… there is the inability to be reconciled with the imperfection of human affairs. The demand for the absolute in history is the enemy of the good in it. Manes Sperber speaks about a fanaticism that arises from disgust with the status quo. Disgust with the status quo is on the increase today, along with delight in anarchy, based on the conviction that there must be a good world somewhere after all. No one wants to pay homage to the enlightenment faith in progress anymore, but a sort of secular messianic belief has penetrated deep into the general consciousness. The notion that all history to date has been the history of bondage but that now, finally, the just society can and must be built soon is propagated in various slogans among atheists and Christians alike and even makes its way into bishops’ statements and liturgical texts. Strangely enough, the Reich (kingdom) mystique from the period between the two world wars, which then met with such a macabre end, is now making a comeback. Once again, instead of talking about the “kingdom of God”, people like to speak simply about the “kingdom” as something we are working for and building, which through our efforts has come within our grasp. The “kingdom” or the “new society” has become a moralistic slogan that replaces political and economic arguments. [Church, Ecumenism and Politics p. 195]

That we are striving for a new and definitely-better world is self-evident, says Ratzinger. However, he finds much that is “politically and philosophically questionable about such an imminent eschatology.” (Hey, there’s that phrase again! 😉

The more I read of Ratzinger, the more I find myself struck by a marked circumspection regarding any attempt by the Church to appropriate political power in pursuit of its aims. (I gather this is born both of his childhood experience of National Socialism and his later encounters with revolutionary Marxism). This warning appears again and again, from his early writings as a young academic down to his most recent book published under his pontificate, Jesus of Nazareth. Here I’d like to offer a few selections for consideration :

… the New Testament is acquainted with political ethics, but not political theology. Precisely along this distinction runs the boundary line that Jesus himself and then, very emphatically, the apostolic letters have drawn between Christianity and fanaticism. As fragmentary and random the various New Testament statements on the political realm may be when taken individually, they are entirely in agreement and thoroughly clear about this fundamental determination. Whether we reflect on the account of the temptations of Jesus and their political implications or th story of the coin of tribute that belongs to Caesar or the political admonitions in the lettersof Paul or Peter or even the Book of Revelation … the Scriptures always reject the fanaticism that tries to set up the kingdom of God as a political project. [Church, Ecumenism and Politics, p. 204]

* * *

The Kingdom of God, not being itself a political concept, cannot serve as a political criterion by which to construct in direct fashion a program of political action and to criticize the political efforts of other people. The realization of God’s Kingdom is not itself a political process. To misconceive it as such is to falsify both politics and theology. The inevitable result is the rise of false messianic movements which of their very nature and from the inner logic of messianic claims finish up in totalitarianism. [Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, p. 58]

* * *

[T]his by no means signifies that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God can be pushed aside as of no practical importance, and so transformed into a surreptitious justification of the status quo. The Kingdom of God is not a political norm of political activity, but it is a moral norm of that activity. … In other words, the message of the Kingdom of God is significant for political life not by way of eschatology but by way of political ethics. The issue of a politics that will be genuinely responsible in Christian terms belongs to moral theology, not to eschatology. In this very distinction, the message of the Kingdom of God has something very important to say to politics. It is healthy for politics to learn that its own content is not eschatological. The setting asunder of eschatology and politics is one of the fundamental tasks of Christian theology. In carrying it out, the theologian can know himself to be following Jesus’ own path in opposing the eschatology of his Zealot rivals. Only by taking this route can we preserve the hope which eschatology carries, and prevent its turning into the terror of the “Gulag Archipelago.” And conversely, only along this way can we preserve the morality of politics and so its true humanity. Where eschatology and politics are made to coincide, morality decrees its own dissolution, becoming no more than the question of how to find the most efficient way of reaching the unum necessarium of the absolute goal. [Ibid, p. 59-60].

* * *

Let us return to the third temptation. Its true content becomes apparent when throughout history we realize that it is constantly taking on new forms. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was not expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendour. The powerlessness of faith, the early powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. The temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria. [Jesus of Nazareth, p. 40]

* * *

I would also recommend Ratzinger’s “Preliminary Notes on Liberation Theology” — especially with regards to the transformation of fundamental concepts in Christianity: “Hope”, “Love”, “The People of God” and “The Kingdom of God” — by Marxist hermeneutics:

The fundamental concept of the preaching of Jesus is the “Kingdom of God”. This concept is also at the center of the liberation theologies, but read against the background of marxist hermeneutics. According to one of these theologians, the Kingdom must not be understood in a spiritualist or universalist manner, not in the sense of an abstract eschatological eventuality. It must be understood in partisan terms and with a view to praxis. The meaning of the Kingdom can only be defined by reference to the praxis of Jesus, not theoretically: it means working at the historical reality that surrounds us in order to transform it into the Kingdom.

Here we must mention another basic idea of a particular post­conciliar theology which has led in this direction. People said that after the Council every dualism must be overcome: the dualism of body and soul, of natural and supernatural, of this world and the world beyond, of then and now. Once these supposed dualisms had been eliminated, it only remained to work for a kingdom to be realized in present history and in politico­economic reality. This meant, however, that one had ceased to work for the benefit of people in this present time and had begun to destroy the present in the interests of a supposed future: thus the real dualism had broken loose.

* * *

Commenting on Pope Benedict’s second encyclical, Spe Salvi, Fr. James V. Schall characterized it Benedict XVI’s own attempt to “de-immanetizing the eschaton”: “he restores the four last things and the three theological virtues to their original understanding, as precisely what we most need to understand ourselves.”

Spe Salvi Section 24 in particular — titled “the true shape of Christian hope” — seems to me expressive of the Pope’s desire to reign in our more grandiose ambitions. Benedict reminds us that “incremental progress is possible only in the material sphere”; that “freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning”; that “the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone” — indeed, that

since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.

What this means is that every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs; this task is never simply completed. Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of good, which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. [Spe Salvi 24-25]

Wherein, then, lies the Kingdom?

The Kingdom is at once now and not yet. As expressed in Catechism of the Catholic Church:

In the New Testament, the word basileia can be translated by “kingship” (abstract noun), “kingdom” (concrete noun) or “reign” (action noun). The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us. It is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ’s death and Resurrection. The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst. The kingdom will come in glory when Christ hands it over to his Father:

It may even be . . . that the Kingdom of God means Christ himself, whom we daily desire to come, and whose coming we wish to be manifested quickly to us. For as he is our resurrection, since in him we rise, so he can also be understood as the Kingdom of God, for in him we shall reign. [CCC 2816]

The Church looks to the time of Christ’s return — when, as the Catechism states, “the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness”, when “the just will reign with Christ for ever, glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed”; when “God will then be “all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28). [CCC 1060]”

Until that time, Christians, as Henry righly noted, are called to manifest the Kingdom in the “here and now”: in our actions toward each other; to be a witness in this world, “the salt of the earth.” The Catechism is explicitly clear that the vocation of the laity is to “illuminate the temporal order” and direct it according to God’s will — “discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. [CCC 899]”

At the same time, our work on this earth is provisional — we should enter into the social, political and economic realms, cognisant of the necessary imperfections of human affairs, accomodating the demands and reality of human freedom, and particularly vigilant concerning pseudo-messianic attempts to realize “the absolute in history.”

Once again, the Catechism reminds us:

The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.

The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection. The kingdom will be fulfilled, then, not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God’s victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven. God’s triumph over the revolt of evil will take the form of the Last Judgment after the final cosmic upheaval of this passing world.

As Benedict puts it in Spe Salvi #31:

His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is “truly” life.

* * *

Eric VoegelinFinally, a bit of papal trivia. We mentioned D. Vincent Twomey’s reference to Voegelin in “The Mind of Benedict XVI” (Claremont Review of Books).
Twomey notes that Joseph Ratzinger’s postdoctoral dissertation was titled Theology of History In St. Bonaventure — an analysis of the Saint’s attempt to come to terms with the understanding of history put forth by the progressive theology of Joachim of Fiore, the subject of Voegelin’s own analysis. While Ratzinger concluded that Bonaventure failed in his critique of Joachim, it did “alert him to the philosophical and theological issues underlying contemporary political life,” particularly his later analysis of the radical and Marxist forms of liberation theology.

Eric VoegelinNot suprisingly, Ratzinger’s study makes reference to Voegelin’s own study of this subject. And in a subsequent book, Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience of Our Age Ignatius Press, 2007), Twomey further mentions encountering a letter by Ratzinger, then Archbishop of Munich, to Eric Voegelin on the occasion of his eightieth birthday:

It was as great a surprise as it was a joy for me to receive your philosophical meditation, which you kindly sent to me with a personal dedication, in which you intend to awaken such a necessary and such a very fragile consciousness of the imperfect in opposition to the magic of the Utopian. Ever since your small book, Science, Politics and Gnosticism came into my hands in 1959, your thinking has fascinated and stimulated me, even though I was unfortunately unable to study it with the thoroughness I would have wished.”

Addendum

By no means do I wish to infer that Henry Karlson or Michael Iafrate ascribe to the radical positions above, of the type criticized by Ratzinger. (In fact, this is why I’ve taken care to explicitly indicate my agreement with them on their fundamental points).

Rather, the intent of the post was to identify what I think were the perfectly valid and shared concerns, of Voegelin, Ratzinger (and perhaps even Buckley): that time and again, humanity’s desire to “immanentize the eschaton”, to bring the world to its perfection through political means, has resulted in complete (and oftentimes bloody) disaster.


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