Saturday, September 5, 2009

"We Must Not Immanentize the Eschaton" or "Why the Gospel Cannot Be Reduced to Social Justice"

Christopher Blosser at American Catholic has an excellent article on the perils of "immanentizing the eschaton," which is done in the social gospel and liberation theology and, increasingly, in the Evangelical Left. The relationship between the way in which the kingdom of God is both present and future is one of those delicate theological issues that requires disciplined use of terminology and careful distinctions lest one fall into heresy.

Blosser points to the work of Eric Voegelin as one of the most trenchant critiques of the Protestant tendency to turn the kingdom of God into a human project to be carried out in history by means of rational planning. He also points to the writings of Joseph Ratzinger throughout his long career as warning repeatedly against "the inability to be reconciled with the imperfection of human affairs" and says that "The demand for the absolute in history is the enemy of the good in it." (The Church, Ecumenism and Politics, p. 195)

Blosser states: "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." He then quotes the pope:

"… 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]

Blosser also points to Ratzinger's doctoral thesis on St. Bonaventure, in which he wrestled with the attack on the Augustinian philosophy of history mounted by Joachim of Fiore, who was the father of the modern view of history. Blosser quotes from this article by D. Vincent Twomey, who explains:

"His postdoctoral dissertation (Habilitationsschrift) was devoted to Thomas Aquinas's contemporary, St. Bonaventure, who was also very much in the Augustinian tradition. It is an analysis of the attempt by the great Franciscan theologian to come to terms with the new understanding of history conceived by the Abbot Joachim of Fiore. 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. Ratzinger was not a confirmed Voegelinian—he quotes Voegelin in only one of his early writings—but it is interesting to see how the two men reached similar conclusions from quite different starting points.

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. Bonaventure, according to Ratzinger, failed in his critique of this progressive theology. But Ratzinger's study of Bonaventure alerted him to the philosophical and theological issues underlying contemporary political life. This is seen, in particular, in his later treatment of the radical forms of liberation theology, based on a Marxist notion of history with its roots in Joachim of Fiore."

As you can see from this quote, both Voegelin and Ratzinger view both socialism and capitalism as aspects of modernity and as rooted in the replacement of the Augustinian philosophy of history by the "immanentizing of the eschaton" that began with Joachim of Fiore and continues unabated today in the progressive politics that dominates Europe and which recently has surged to power in the United States. When the mission of the Church is reduced to the pursuit of social justice, it is a sure sign that the modern understanding of history, progress and the rational, planned State has infiltrated the Church.

Today, it is a commonplace to assert that socialism is dead (except in the fevered imaginations of liberal academic elites) and that capitalism has achieved global hegemony. Conservatives who fear and loath the socialistic tendencies of Barrack Obama are mocked as not understanding the difference between Marxist-Leninism and democratic socialism. But what if the most dangerous tendency is something that both Marxism in its Soviet form and the welfare state/democratic socialist state have in common? Both are forms of modernity in which the belief in progress through rational planning leads inexorably toward the Total State: the attempt to rationally plan and control the totality of the lives of citizens in the name of social justice.

If the Augustinian view of history, in which we live in the "in between time," that is, "the secular time," between the first and second comings of Christ, is correct, then it follows that all utopian schemes are doomed to slide into totalitarianism. The church can never become the state and the state can never become the church, in Augustine's teaching; they must remain in tension forever until Christ returns. The loyalties of the Christian subject of both the kingdom of God and the human state will always be divided and a tension will always exist. The modest, limited state that tries to ensure an approximation of justice without over-reaching itself is the best kind of state in this period of history. The more progressive enthusiasm is whipped up for the attainment of the ideals of equality and justice, the more danger there is that the state will assume a demonic face and demand what the Christian cannot give - total submission. This is what "immanentizing the eschton" leads to and the fruit is always bitter.

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