political theology

Politics = Eschatology

As far as the biblical imagination is concerned, eschatology and politics are the same thing, whether we are looking at God’s promise of fulfilment [sic] to Israel in the Old Testament, or the advent of the ‘Kingdom’ in the New. For the early Church, notably with Augustine, ‘biblical and classical Christian eschatology can be taken directly as political theory’.

Michael Kirwan, Political Theology: An Introduction, 171.


22 thoughts on “Politics = Eschatology

    • I can see how one would say Hegel (or more properly Moltmann), but what follows the quote is Kirwan talking about Elshtain and Cavanaugh on City of God (reading Augustine in terms of space vs. Cavanaugh in terms of time). It is also near where Kirwan deals with the dispensationalist move towards detailing the eschaton vs. Metz and Benjamin on the eschatological reserve. Perhaps I should’ve added the context.

  1. ken c. says:

    Politics = eschatology, I think this is right. John Gray’s book “Black Mass” is a good introduction to this idea. I think he does a good job to shatter the idea that progress, in any political form, isn’t somehow based on Eschatology. The end that western politics points to all have some grand utopia in mind. Gray see’s this (the idea of progress in the hands of politicians) as the cause for most of the horrors of the past two thousand yrs. I would recommend the atheist “Black mass” to a Christian readership because it shows how a theological idea of progress can mutate into a “secular” idea of progress.

    • Interesting. I’ll have to look into it. Sadly it seems that the author simply sees eschatology as idealism and a utopian dream, although that is certainly some of its function in politics. Thank you for the heads up.

      However, I am also somewhat in agreement with the book from what I can see: I have long held that the likes of Reagan have their own eschatology for the state (“morning in America”), but in the end, this is a domesticated and idolatrous perversion of Christian eschatology. However, the notion of progress is not always present in eschatology — or at least in terms of a positive incline (i.e. Hegel, which is why Myles mentioned him earlier). Christianity works on the notion that God comes to us (apocalypse) and will come again to us (eschaton), which sometimes can be at best a rupture into the broken system, rather than a “progressive” incline where power structures generally stay the same. Clearly then, the state version is very different. The optimistic promise of a brighter, successful future, combined with the state acting in the position of divinity (control over life and death) helps cement whatever the state wants to do, while Christian eschatology unbalances much and therefore challenges much, while also affirming material reality — this is how Christian eschatology = politics.

      • ken c. says:

        I think your right in your description of the State version vs. the Christian. John Gray’s thesis is that the idea of progress (positive incline) is inherent in Christian Eschatology and after God and his revelation has been dismissed by the state as the justification for a teleos, the Christian Eschatological belief in progress still functions as the teleos nevertheless.
        The view that “Christian Eschatology” unbalances and therefore challenges much presupposes progress in a linear way, and especially if it affirms material reality. If it challenges and unbalances things in the real world it seeks to move the polis into a view created by a revelation of how things should be. Gray, I think would say this is wrong for our world. One view of how the polis should be governed (based on a progressive teleos) is bound to do damage to others in the polis. He would probably affirm a view of history as not moving to any end, Christian, Marxist, Neo-liberal, but would rather affirm a pluralistic ( Mythos galore) perspective. I think this perspective (his) is a little refreshing in our world of grand projects. As a Christian, eschatology should be important (as well as Covenant, Horton), but to let it be the basis for secular grand projects is a little scary.
        The lesson I take away from Gray reminds me of the Built to spill Album “keep it like a secret” what I mean by this is, lets not let the world know what weird things Jesus said to people who were arrested by him and his words, lets just be thankful we live in countries (me Norway, you USA) where we can still believe in our Myths and Hope for what we Hope in.

        • As much as this is true, I’m not sure it is quite right: “The view that “Christian Eschatology” unbalances and therefore challenges much presupposes progress in a linear way, and especially if it affirms material reality.” I’m worried here that apocalyptic redemption is not given enough weight to work on its own terms, but rather shoehorned into a progress-decline map. One thing I have learned from Bernard Lonergan, and have valued, is his keeping to a progress-decline-redemption map. I’d also like to see Gray reckon with Walter Benjamin’s Theologico-Political Fragment and The Arcades Project, especially when he quotes Hermann Lotze. However, this gets a bit away from the topic, and since I haven’t read the book (but it is on my book list to get), I can only voice my worry about how Gary deals with religious interruption. It sounds like his definition for progress is really, really broad.

        • ken c. says:

          What does it mean for apocalyptic redemption to not be given weight to work on it’s own terms? Is not apocalyptic redemption an idea for the whole creation to be brought back in to right standing (be it however one see’s it i.e morally, ontologically,etc.) with God? Redemption is progress even if it is proceeded by decline. We can change the words, but the end is the same – progress. One way to read the overall story of the scriptures is to read a story of an end that is better than the the beginning. The point is that the end is the end to progress and this is a better existence/utopia/Kingdom of God.
          In fact, dealing with religious interruption is the point of gray’s book. The idea of Progress is a religious interruption into a world without discoverable meaning. This is the problem with the concept of progress, it wouldn’t really matter which ideological/religious framework it functions in. The problem from Gray’s perspective is that it is a lie. Religious interruption is the problem when one concept (progress/utopia) of that religion (even when secularized) becomes dominant and structures and justifies State actions.
          What is your justification for a Christian to act for the betterment of structures in society?

        • Jerms says:

          I’ll throw in a shot, since I’m a central figure in DH’s coming to know Lonergan’s language at least (he can throw in whatever else he wants to from other angles).

          “One way to read the overall story of the scriptures is to read a story of an end that is better than the the beginning. The point is that the end is the end to progress and this is a better existence/utopia/Kingdom of God.”

          Yes, but this end is also better than what the created order could have achieved just from its own resources as created. It isn’t a simple restoration — it’s that and then some.

          “In fact, dealing with religious interruption is the point of gray’s book. The idea of Progress is a religious interruption into a world without discoverable meaning.”

          Here, Lonergan would part ways with this book, and thus so would (I think) DH’s use of progress/decline/redemption. Progress for him doesn’t rely on redemption in that way because there is meaning proper to the world as created, not just to the world as redeemed.

          “This is the problem with the concept of progress, it wouldn’t really matter which ideological/religious framework it functions in….”

          I, for one, wouldn’t agree with that. Progress could be understood as the accumulation of understandings and values that are proper to the world as created, but which are unable to reach any higher than the limits imposed by any introduction of misunderstandings and disvalues into the dynamic of history. If one then grants that there are any misunderstandings or disvalues at all, one can no longer claim that progress alone can result in a utopia without misunderstanding or disvalue.

          “Religious interruption is the problem when one concept (progress/utopia) of that religion (even when secularized) becomes dominant and structures and justifies State actions.”

          In such a case, it isn’t interruption that is the actual problem, for interruption itself isn’t limited to the concept of interruption. A concept is only that which is produced to stand for what has been understood, so in this case the concept of interruption is only a representation of what interruption has been understood to be, and even that understanding isn’t itself interruption. In fact, interruption can interrupt our misunderstood use(s) of concepts of interruption in order to rectify those misunderstandings. In other words, “when one concept (progress/utopia) of that religion (even when secularized) becomes dominant and structures and justifies State actions,” then it is interruption that will change that dominance and tear down that justification.

          “What is your justification for a Christian to act for the betterment of structures in society?”

          I’ll give Lonergan’s and mine, but I don’t think DH would disagree too much: progress, decline, and redemption are ever intermixed, ever pushing and pulling on one another through the dynamic of history, and while redemptive work often parallels progress in the sense that it is moving toward “betterment” (or some such), still it is different from progress because while progress proceeds from lesser positive to greater positive, redemption proceeds from negative (Lonergan uses the word ‘surd’) to positive. Thus, so far from neglecting social structures, redemption/interruption takes fallen structures beyond the limits of their fallenness and builds them up.

          The triad of progress/decline/redemption, then, rather than pushing one towards a purely two-poled setup of “either social structures OR interruption” actually preserves the legitimacy of involvement in what progress there is while at the same time affirming the necessity of interruption in order to overcome the limitations on progress imposed by the presence of misunderstandings, disvalues, and even sin(s) in the world.

          The alternative is a decline (sin)/redemption (interruption or grace) setup, in which Pelagianism is a real problem, among others.

        • ken c. says:

          I think the problem here is that Gray is an atheist. He takes the Evolutionary Model of ontology. Most of your response’s assume a theistic conception of the universe. Gray would think most of the fine distinctions you are making here are the hair splitting discourses of theologians.
          Obviously he will only see everything you/Lonergan are saying as a theological gimmick in the end, and try to break down what your saying into a root metaphor. This root metaphor will then be applied to your philosophy of History. The metaphor is the important idea to gray. Do we Christians have anyway to deal with the critique he poses without endless distinctions to ideas that really have the same root metaphor governing them? I write this as a first impression to your response, I need to take time to think through what you wrote.

  2. Jerms says:

    “One thing I have learned from Bernard Lonergan, and have valued, is his keeping to a progress-decline-redemption map.”

    I’m glad my influence on you has been useful at least.

    But seriously, do you mean this in the sense that it keeps a clear analytical distinction between progress, decline, and redemption, respectively, so that we don’t mistake one for the other (specifically, so that we don’t mistake progress for redemption, in this particular conversation)?

  3. Jerms says:

    For Ken C. —

    (We’d moved down the line far enough that I didn’t see a ‘reply’ link on the above thread, so I’ve restarted it)

    I’m not that interested in what Gray’s argument would be. I’m far more interested in verifiable and verified acts of understanding than I am in root metaphors, and I don’t see why his setup should constitute the criteria by which Christians’ arguments are justified.

    In other words, “Do we Christians have anyway to deal with the critique he poses without endless distinctions to ideas that really have the same root metaphor governing them?” I don’t care. Gray’s argumentative setup isn’t that by which the truth or falsity of Christian claims is governed, so I feel no compulsion to reply within the bounds he would lay out. Instead, I would question those bounds themselves.

    But having not read Gray, and having only put my nose in here in virtue of my friend’s use of Lonergan and only for the purpose of speaking from that angle to the general outlines of the conversation vis-a-vis progress vs redemption, I don’t even feel any compulsion to mess with thoroughly questioning Gray’s bounds, either.

    My fundamental point was simply that one can distinguish between the proper unfolding of a thing, and the reversal of failures in such unfolding. Once that distinction is made, one has what Lonergan (and I, and I think DH as well) would call the distinction between progress on the one hand, and redemption on the other.

    • ken c. says:

      First off I don’t want to be perceived as being argumentative just for the sake of a controversy. I live in Europe and this Book is being discussed as well as the Evolutionary biological thought that informs it. I brought it up on this blog to see what what you all had to add, since this voice isn’t in any of the responses I’ve seen in Europe thus far. Second, I have thought through Political theological discourses for awhile now and in this discourse A voice like Gray’s was strangely absent.

      I think it would be impossible to understand almost anything without root metaphors. This is the fundamental unconscious neural framework, that neural science has revealed to us, and it is how we think. Root metaphors are probably the most important element in thought. I don’t think we can simply dismiss them. Cards on the table – I do believe the discourse of Evolutionary Biology needs to be taken into account and not simply dismissed by the believer. I think it has more power to explain and it’s findings can be verified. Theological discourse seems unable to be verified. For example, You can’t verify the interpenetration (perichroresis) of the trinity you can only believe in it, posit it, then build a constructive Theological/political = political theology, social model of the trinity.

      I understand this response about “bounds and set ups.” I think it is helpful at times to question the structure of one’s framework in order to see what it lets you say and not say. I respect your choice to not care about Gray’s set up. I on the other hand think his setup/discourse is not so easily dismissed here In my local. The evolutionary biological does set the debate and form the criteria for a Christian HERE. Evolution is not on debate here, it isn’t just a discourse t we can say, ‘That’s just your Narrative or Metanarrative’ and then talk about ours. This ghettoized mindset doesn’t go over so well.

      If your interested here’s two great books on metaphor from a Evolutionary Biological/cognitive psychology perspective. I think Every christian has to deal with these books eventually. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s, “Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and it’s challenge to western thought” and John Teehan’s, “In the name of God: The evolutionary Origins of Religious violence.” As a Pastor here in Norway I have to see how Christian Theistic accounts of the world fit with established facts of science without one eating away the other.

      I’ll try to find Lonergan’s work here, thanks for the heads up.

      • Jerms says:

        I see now that your context is pastoral and not, strictly speaking, systematic-theological. That does change things a bit and puts requirements on you in terms of what positions demand to be engaged. In your case, it certainly sounds like Gray’s position is one of those, but unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Gray, the root metaphor material, or what is meant by an evolutionary ontology in your context to engage with these issues further. The foci of my studies are elsewhere.

        One final thing I will note, however, is that I did not mean to dismiss Gray’s position as just another metanarrative and treat the question in a ghettoized fashion. I do believe that normativity has to play a role in comparing metanarratives, and I’m pretty sure that were I to sit down with Gray’s work, the root metaphor issue, and/or the evolutionary questions that drive your concerns, I could articulate exactly what I think is wrong with that perspective, what I think is right with it, how it relates to Lonergan’s perspective, and how Gray’s questions aren’t actually the most fundamental. For me, to question whether his setup should be the one by which Christian truth is adjudicated is not the same as dismissing his setup outright; it’s about which is more fundamental. Specifically here on this blog, I’m only dismissing it as a matter of my own practical time and knowledge limits, not in the sense that it wouldn’t be worth SOMEONE’s time and effort. After all, I have a dissertation to continue working on!

        I hope all goes well for you in your dialogue with it. I plan to be a professor because I don’t think I could handle being a pastor, so my heart goes out to you in your efforts.

      • Ken, I’m writing a paper on philosophy and theology of history, specifically focusing on Hegel and Benjamin, so I’ll use them here. Well, one more than the other: Benjamin seeks betterment, but rejects progress.

        Here is a quote from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, which is largely a quote of Hermann Lotze:

        “Denial of the notion of progress in the religious view of history: ‘History, however it may move forward or fluctuate hither and thither, could not by any of its movements attain a goal lying out of its own plane. And we may spare ourselves the trouble of seeking to find, in mere onward movement upon this plane, a progress which history is destined to make not there but by an upward movement at each individual point of its course forward.’ Hermann Lotze, Mikrokosmos, vol. 3 (Liepzig, 1864), p. 49. [N13a,2]”

        Unfortunately for Gray, from what I can see here, he seems incapable of distinguishing between the difference of a Jewish, Marxist Continental philosopher (Benjamin) and Hegel. Benjamin had a drastic negative turn that sought to open up the future by simply clearing space — this has been called the eschatological reserve or remainder. While many readings of Hegel note him for his focus on progress. Benjamin and Hegel are at major odds, so much so that one couldn’t describe Benjamin’s seeking of helping the oppressed as progress. So I’ll focus on him here. Benjamin does not think highly of progress. In thesis IX (from his famous theses on history), progress carries away the angel that sought to minister to history: the angel sees the past as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… [and a storm from Paradise] irresistibly propels him into the future to which is back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.” Nevertheless, the struggle to make circumstances better does exist in Benjamin’s thought, but any betterment breaks into history explosively, rather than through progress, which evolves from and stays within dominant narratives. In thesis VII redemption is recognized as not a natural move within the set systems; it does not simply come from inside the status quo. In fact, Benjamin goes further: the successes of the victors in the past is constitutive to the victors today. Redemption then is impossible within the set structures. Also for Benjamin, redemption must be expansive enough to extend to past generations. Redemption is made through remembrance of and for correcting injustice — both the record of injustice in the past and contemporary injustice today. The oppressed suffering and dead are not allowed to remain oppressed throughout history, despite the attempt to silence and kill them; but instead, remembrance resurrects the past so that both the injustice of the past and today may be dealt with as much as they can be. Progress then, if the word could even be used to describe Benjamin’s thought, is about righting wrongs. Thus progress for Benjamin must be concurrent, if not synonymous, with an interruptive redemption.

        I should also note that Benjamin has what is called an eschatological reserve or remainder — — a negative moment that refuses to allow for a detailed eschatology. For Benjamin, this opens up history and therefore allows for history to change. The structures of oppression are too rigid, too set in defining the future, and oppressive to the point of depression, or acedia. And so, against the victor’s narrative that assumes that itself is natural and/or fated, Benjamin argues for a negative move.

        Does this help show how betterment doesn’t have equal progress, as it seems to for Gray? I believe he would piss off philosophers as well — the standard definiton of progress is apparently rather sophisticated in comparison to Gray’s idiosyncratic definition. Still, one should be able to see the difference between Hegel and Benjamin and I’m not sure if Gray can. And if that is the case, I wonder if — philosophically speaking — he is actually a minority, but just really loud. Is he similar to Hitchens and Dawkins? If so, you should read this book review by Terry Eagleton of Dawkins: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching

        • ken c. says:

          I understand the distinctions you are making between betterment and progress. I don’t have a problem with what you are saying here. I will not argue for Gray But I really think you should give him a read especially because he is a great contemporary philosopher by all most accounts. He isn’t like Dawkins or hitchens at all, In his newest book “Gray’s Anatomy” he criticizes them harshly. I think he understands the distinctions between Philosophers of different stripes. I don’t think you could get a teaching post at the London school of Economics if you didn’t know your stuff.

          Let’s forget Gray for a minute, Let me ask you about your Philosophy of History. Do you Believe History is going to some End? If so, Is this end a good end? Finally, How do you justify this claim? If you would I would like your thoughts on these ?’s.
          Thanks for the response, I will read your entry again and think about it.

        • Oh, I think I may like Gray in the end, although I know there are parts to disagree with strongly. After reading an article of his in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/mar/15/society), I think he might be one of the good atheists, the kind worth engaging with like Slavoj, Badiou, and others.

          As for myself, I’m working through those very questions right now. I purposely set out with the two thinkers in mind because they are at such odds. I do believe that Hegel is right insomuch as he recognizes the value of teleology and its somewhat determinative impact on the present — and theological there is basis for something like this, but not with Hegel’s ultimate answer. On the other side, I am sympathetic with Benjamin’s emphasis on memory, messianic interruption, redemption-revolution-transfiguration, and apocalypse. In some ways, they’re both right (and what follows here is a bit of a quick, crass reduction, I know, but I’m trying to summarize here): Benjamin looks back to keep history and us just and Hegel forward after seeing a pattern in history; Benjamin is concerned with the oppressed and Hegel transcendence; Benjamin rightly reckons with evil and Hegel actually works towards a constructive vision because the theologians have gone Kantian, saying that they know they know nothing.

          I believe both thinkers, or at least the concerns of both are vital for today. Moltmann is correct (I rarely say that phrase now) that God is a promise maker and promise fulfill-er. Hegel it seems helped him see this. While Metz follows Benjamin and uses anamnesis wonderfully for discipleship — he ties the christoform life directly to our life today. He also brings in the apocalyptic interruption that is soooo needed and I’ve been harping on for years ever since I started reading Metz. But then so is the affirmation of creation. The no doesn’t mean there isn’t a yes. Apocalypse, revelation and redemption, goes beyond interruption. In the end, I see less tension between the thinker’s concerns — indeed, I don’t see them at odds at all really — although the Hegel and Benjamin themselves are seemingly at odds in a rather sharp way. Now, I do want to say that I am more suspicious of Hegel than I am of Benjamin — Hegel, specifically his dialectic of double negation, seems to tell any possibility of future revolution to wait for it to fit into his schedule.

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