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Immanentizing the Eschaton

“It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.” With those words Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea kicked off their brilliant parody of American conspiracy culture, the Illuminatus! trilogy. When I heard last week that Wilson had passed away, I took down the three battered paperback volumes from my shelf of old science fiction novels.

I was never a fan of Wilson’s later work, but discovering Illuminatus! had been one of the few bright spots of my first and mostly unsuccessful stint at college, its wry sense of the absurd a useful antidote to the much less creative absurdities of the early Reagan years. The phrase “immanentizing the Eschaton” stuck in my mind even in the days when I didn’t have a clue what it meant.

I thought of it again after fielding some of the comments to last week’s Archdruid Report post, “This Faith in Progress,” another of my occasional attempts to challenge the religious basis of industrial civilization — the belief that technological progress is what gives human existence its meaning. One of my readers posted a comment to the effect that progress, far from being the source of all human values, was quite literally the root of all evil. In the prehistoric past, he insisted, human beings lived idyllic vegetarian lives in harmony with nature, until the invention of the first stone tools and their use to kill animals for food sent our species hurtling out of its place in the natural order on a trajectory toward violence, sickness, and everything else wrong with existence nowadays.

I think he thought he was disagreeing with the modern religion of progress. Trying to break free of a dualistic belief system by standing the dualism on its head is a popular one these days. Like those Satanists who accept nearly the entire worldview of Christianity and just root for the other side, or the proponents of matriarchy who insist that it’s bad for men to have more power than women but not the reverse, his worldview and that of the believers in progress share almost all the same assumptions. They differ only in the ethical value applied to progress. Both views, to return to Wilson’s useful phrase, immanentize the Eschaton.

“Eschaton” comes from an old Greek word for “end” or “border.” In Christian theological jargon it came to refer to the process by which the world as we know it is supposed, at some point in the future, to turn into the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God. An entire branch of theology, called eschatology – the science of last things – evolved over the last two thousand years or so in an attempt to piece together a coherent vision of the future out of the hints and visions provided by scripture and tradition. It’s a lively field full of fierce disputes, and no one version of the End Times commands agreement from more than a fraction of Christian theologians or, for that matter, ordinary believers. Central to nearly all Christian accounts of the Eschaton, though, is that it’s completely outside the realm of history as we know it. When the trumpet sounds, the sky tears open and something wholly other comes through.

This quality of “otherness,” in theologian’s language, is called transcendence. Its opposite is immanence. One of the great quarrels of theology is whether God or the gods are transcendent –that is, outside nature and free of its limitations – or immanent – that is, part of nature and subject to its laws. Like all such binary patterns, this one admits of several different kinds of middle ground, but the basic distinction is relevant. People who have mystical experiences – which are, after all, tolerably common among human beings – very often comment on a difference between the ordinary reality of their lives, and the nonordinary reality that surges into their consciousness. Did the nonordinary reality come from someone, something, or somewhere outside ordinary existence? Or was it right here, unnoticed, all the time? That’s the difference between transcendence and immanence.

Most religions that put much thought into eschatology also have a transcendent concept of the divine; the whole point of the Eschaton is that ordinary reality dissolves into the wholly other. Most religions that have an immanent concept of the divine, in turn, either have no eschatology at all, or make the end of the world a recurring event in an endlessly repeated cycle of time. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with their transcendent god and richly detailed eschatologies, fall on one side of the divide. Hinduism, with its universes that bud, blossom, and fall through infinite cycles of time, and Shinto, which has no eschatology at all, fall on the other. So does Druidry, which traditionally sees divinity permeating every cranny of nature and treats the awakening to transcendence as something that occurs to each soul in its own unique time.

Now and then, though, the two patterns collide and cross-fertilize, and the resulting belief systems locate the Eschaton as a possibility to be realized within ordinary history, or even the inevitable result of the working out of historical patterns. Marxism offers an example familiar to most people nowadays. In Marxist theory, history is determined by changes in the mode of production that unfold in predetermined order, from primitive communism through slavery, feudalism, and capitalism to the proletarian revolution and the everlasting communist Utopia of the future.

While all this is wrapped in the jargon of 19th century materialist science, it’s not hard to see the religious underpinnings of the theory. Every element of Marxist theory has an exact equivalent in Christian eschatology. Primitive communism is Eden, the invention of private property is the Fall, the stages of slavery, feudalism and capitalism are the various dispensations of sacred history, and so on, right up to the Second Coming of the proletariat, the millennial state of socialism and the final arrival of communism as the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens. Point for point, it’s a rephrasing of Christian myth that replaces the transcendent dimension with forces immanent in ordinary history. Marx and his followers, in other words, immanentized the Eschaton.

They’re hardly alone in that. Over the last three centuries or so, Christianity’s influence on the Western intellect has crumpled beneath the assaults of scientific materialism, but no mythology has yet taken its place in the Western imagination. The result has been any number of attempts to rehash Christian myth under other names. The myth of progress is simply the most popular of these. The prophets of progress simply fast-forward the Book of Revelation to the thousand years between the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem; the redeeming revelation has already happened in the form of the Scientific Revolution, the allegedly prescientific past has been stretched and lopped to make it look like a Vale of Tears, and today’s scientists fill the role of the Church Expectant waiting for the great god Progress to bring Utopia in its own good time.

My reader, with his myth of a peaceful vegetarian prehistory, is simply another example of the same thing, focusing on the other end of time. His tool-free Utopia never existed – the habit of using stone tools evolved among hominids long before Homo sapiens did, and even chimpanzees catch, kill and eat animals – but this hardly matters to its believers; it’s a retelling of the myth of Eden, with the invention of stone tools as the Fall, and the approaching downfall of technological society as the Second Coming that will allow the virtuous survivors to return to paradise.

You can find Christian myths rehashed as future predictions all over today’s culture – and not the least in those corners of it that are concerned with peak oil, global warming, and other elements of the predicament of industrial society. There’s been a flurry of essays and blog posts in the peak oil community in recent months about the motivations of “doomers” – that is, the fraction of peak oil activists who believe that petroleum depletion will inevitably result in catastrophic dieoff and the end of anything like civilization on Earth. Many of these discussions have raised interesting points, but very few have noticed the extent to which old myths in new clothing have defined contemporary thinking, here and in so many other contexts.

Now I’m no great fan of Christianity myself. To me, all its myths and symbols put together don’t carry the spiritual impact of one blue heron flying through dawn mists or a single autumn sunset seen through old growth cedars; that’s why I follow a Druid path. Still, it seems to me that if people insist on thinking in terms of Christian myth, they might as well go the rest of the way and become Christians. That way, at least, they can draw on the riches of two millennia of Christian philosophy, rather than making do with hand-me-downs from Marx, say, or the current crop of neoprimitive pundits such as John Zerzan.

They might also be able to learn a few lessons from Christian history, or any other kind of history for that matter, about the problems that follow when people try to immanentize the Eschaton. It’s one thing to try to sense the shape of the future in advance, and to make constructive changes in your life to prepare for its rougher possibilities; it’s quite another to become convinced that history is headed where you want it to go; and when the course you’ve marked out for it simply projects the trajectory of a too-familiar myth onto the inkblot patterns of the future, immanentizing the Eschaton can become a recipe for self-induced disaster.

Editorial Notes: Rev. Sam Norton recently argued the issue in Misplacing the apocalypse from a Christian point of view. -BA

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