Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton!
Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is an omniscient and loving God. Accept no immanent substitutes.
Readers of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review are probably among the few people familiar with the title of this essay. The idea came from conservative thinker Eric Voegelin but Buckley “popularized” it (in his own unabridged, polysyllabic way), making it a rallying cry for Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative group Buckley helped found.
So why am I, a theologian, writing about slogan in a Catholic newspaper? Because (a) it’s true, (b) it fits with the end of the liturgical year, and (c) it’s very appropriate when we consider “the signs of the times.”
First of all, what does it mean?
The “eschaton” is the end of history, the end of the world, the Second Coming and General Judgment. “Immanentize” is a neo-verb from the word “immanent,” as in “immanent” and “transcendent,” two categories rather important to theology.
Something (or Someone) that’s “immanent” is in this world of space and time. Something (or Someone) “transcendent” surpasses, “transcends” the limits of space and time. The God of the Old Testament is seen almost always in transcendent terms: beyond the world, beyond space and time, “living in unapproachable light,” who sometimes descends to speak with His People. Jesus, in His Incarnation, underscores the immanent: God is here and now, in and part of this world.
Catholic theology, which is prone to resolving contrasts by “both/and,” recognizes we need both transcendence and immanence. God is not just “my good buddy” and certainly not on my level. He is utterly Other. At the same time, “the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us,” starting in a baby in Bethlehem. Overemphasize transcendence and you wind up with an abstraction disconnected from me; overemphasize immanence, and you never break out of this world. You are always subject to the confines and measure of space and time. History, untampered by eternity, devours us: the great French philosopher Jacques Maritain called it the “minotaur of immanence.”
So what does this have to do with William F. Buckley and/or Catholic theology? The truth is that it has to do both with Buckley and Catholic theology. But let’s start with the theology.
In these last weeks of Ordinary Time, the Church’s readings focus increasingly on the End Times. But we need to connect that focus on the four “Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell) with first things: God, man, and the purpose of creation.
God made man to know, love, and serve Him and to be happy with Him forever. God’s original game plan was different. Then sin came along, changing how we “know love, and serve him in this worldand be happy with him in the next.” Would/how might man have transitioned from the Paradise God planted him in on this earth to a Heavenly one “at the end of his [earthly] life” if he had not sinned is a matter for theologians’ speculations. But let’s leave that aside. In the world we know, we have to die in this world to live in the next.
Because sin came along, the human relationship to God was warped, flawed, damaged, interrupted. God’s design for our salvation was detoured by sin, having to take the new Way (John 14:6) via Calvary to get back on track to its destination.
That Destination is God: not just the Way, but the Truth and Life as well. That life, physically and spiritually, was given at Creation. It suffered grave damage by sin but Jesus, through his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, got man back on track … not perhaps without some scars (an arm that’s been broken is never going to be quite like new) but essentially ready. Getting back on track means Jesus restoring man to the spiritual and physical life that sin takes from him. The Resurrection on Easter was the start of it. The Resurrection at the End of the World is its culmination.
God created man and the universe for good. Life is always good, death is never good. Good is good, evil is evil and never the twain shall meet. The End of the World is, therefore, nothing less than an affirmation that God and good has the final Word in human history. Not evil. Not sin. Not the devil. God.
The Christian affirmation of the end of history is the restoration of all things in God and goodness, the triumph of God and goodness. But notice what we say: the end of the world is the end of history. It is an entrance into eternity, which is not just a “long time” of “now” but the end of time, of history. It is a qualitatively new and different moment that introduces a qualitatively new universe (see Romans 8) — not the broken world of sin we know, nor even the natural paradise given at the origin of the species, but a universe groaning to give birth to the “sons of God” and reflect his greater glory.
That’s what we mean by not “immanentizing the eschaton.”
The triumph of God and good is God’s work. Man is called to cooperate, but without God’s lead, that victory would not happen. Just like the Incarnation: finite man needed to make satisfaction for sin to an infinite God, but only an infinite God was capable of infinity. Divine Love found the answer in Jesus, true God and true man. But that same Divine/human interplay is true of whatever good we do: it’s is God’s grace that inspires us to do good and sustains us in the doing — his grace precedes and surrounds us. But our mite is demanded.
I emphasize the eschaton — the triumph of God and goodness — is God’s work because man, on his own, will not be able to bring it about.
Which doesn’t mean he isn’t tempted to try.
That temptation has been especially more appealing in recent centuries, as belief in God has waned or grown more abstract. The fact that human beings don’t believe in God or think they’ve outgrown Him changes neither the facts that man recognizes there is evil in the world nor that he knows that evil shouldn’t be there and wants to get rid of it.
The problem is he wants to take a divine task — eliminating evil — on human shoulders. As James Weldon Johnson reminded us, “your arms are too short to box with God” … or even the devil.
Even if faith in God fades, the human aspiration to justice and good does not. But when faith in a God who transcends this world goes into eclipse, man becomes increasingly trapped in this world, in an immanent world in which he projects all the aspirations that used to be seen in proper proportion on a transcendent canvas. That’s why the triumph of goodness that God promises in the eschaton turns into rude caricatures in human history. Like the elimination of injustice by faith in “revolution,” leading not to heaven but communism. Like the elimination of injustice by faith in holding the “right” views about race, class, sex, gender, identity, economics, politics, social relations, etc. — except how do I know what values might be eternally “right” if I can never escape the immanence of my own history?
Not “immanentizing the eschaton” means (a) recognizing the Kingdom is God’s work; (b) you’re not God; (c) the here and now is too cramped a place for the glorious revelation of a “kingdom of justice, love, and peace”; and (d) trying nevertheless to force that Kingdom into the narrow confines of this world is less likely to make “heaven a place on earth” as rather into that other place.
“Not immanentizing the eschaton” means recognizing that, while we are commanded to do good and avoid evil, we are not going to build the Kingdom in this world, and certainly not by human power. “The poor you will have always” – as well as sinners and the selfish and those who do are unjust, unloving, and unpeaceful. Since their conversion is beyond human capacity, many of those who aspired to create heaven on earth turn conversion into cancellation. Take your pick who to “cancel”: the “enemies” who did not salute la République; the 100,000,000+ “counterrevolutionaries” who did not salute a red rag on a stick; or the unwoke who have yet to atone for their “privilege” or “wrong-think.” When man aspires, beyond his abilities, to change things in his fellow man, things can get bloody.
Leaving God’s work to God is, theologically, a recognition of whom God is and whom we are, of humility, and of genuine tolerance of the sinner in whom “but for the grace of God goes I.” Leaving God’s work to God is, politically, also a recognition of humility: that politics has limited goals and limited abilities. They may be important goals and abilities, but they are limited. Politics might be able to fix potholes (the record there is debatable), but it can’t fix men. And it shouldn’t try, because it will then do more evil than good.
The failure to keep these boundaries in place, to think the eschaton can be siphoned off into human history, leads to an unrealistic politics that is tempted to all sorts of excesses because it is trapped in its own immanent world, a Caesar who will not give to a God he does not know. But because people still want what only God can give, Caesar then promises bread and circuses, usually with the proviso: that he eventually be deified.
“He will come to judge the living and the dead” is the Christian’s profession of faith and his riposte. It’s a judgment that confesses an omniscient and loving God as the Judge, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Accept no immanent substitutes.