When tension in our world is too great and when frustrations and fear attains high levels among people and entire groups of people, ordinary everyday language and the language of secular politics is not powerful enough to express those emotions. People spontaneously reach for the language of religion. Political leaders – even in the so-called secular societies which have scrupulously striven to separate religion and politics – use the power of religious rhetoric and religious symbols. Once again the world is “bedeviled” and people are dehumanized. Political enemies are no longer perceived simply as people with different opinions and interests but as the army of the “Great Satan”. If religion becomes a weapon in political conflicts it can truly have destructive powers. Nuclear weapons turn human settlements into dust and ruins. Religion, when used as a weapon, transforms the landscape of political conflicts into a battle scene in an apocalyptic cosmic war between Good and Evil.
For many societies it is natural to perceive the world in religious terms. Our western (and particularly European) civilization, which underestimated the strength and vitality of religion over the previous two centuries, has been caught off guard. Many are disconcerted when even political leaders of the democratic world borrow the language of those who propagate “holy wars”. However, long ago, Carl Schmitt asserted that all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts. In the West, religion and theology are a forgotten and often deliberately displaced dimension of politics that is unconscious and profound. Sometimes, precisely where people take for granted that “God is dead”, it is surprising how easy and quickly the old gods and demons of our culture’s “collective unconscious” can be revived. Nowadays in the West, the “New Atheism” and militant secularism are not content to underestimate and ignore the importance of religion, as has been the trend of post-Enlightenment naivety hitherto. Now in many places they are attacking religion and seeking (without the capacity to differentiate) to reject, caricature and demonize all “religion” - the religion of “those others”, particularly Islam, and also the religious roots of their own civilization, particularly Christianity. However, such trends provoke and arouse those truly dangerous aspects of religious traditions and communities – fundamentalism and fanaticism. The alternative is an honorable dialogue – a dialogue between religions (or between believers belonging to various religious communities and within them), and between religious believers and those who believe in secular humanism.
I will seek in this lecture to draw attention to one element in Christian theology which, were it to be appropriately developed, could help overcome the main barrier (internal inhibition) to this dialogue and could be of major assistance to Christian theology in that dialogue. I am convinced that it can help it become an important stimulus for creating a climate of dialogue in our world. (I even dare to hope that the idea of “negative eschatology”, about which I will talk today, could provide inspiration not only for Christian theology but also for theologies of the other religions of the Abrahamic tradition – Judaism and Islam.
One of the basic prerequisites for inter-religious dialogue is finding a suitable language. This is no easy task. If “secularization” - a term once sacrosanct for several generations of scholars who studied religion, but now mostly rejected – still means anything at all, then it is “the crisis of religious language”.
Permit me to paraphrase St. Paul: If I spoke in the tongues of mortals and angels but had not love, I would be nothing (Cf. 1 Cor. 13.1-2). For many of our contemporaries traditional religious language is an esoteric “tongue of angels” that few understand. If Christians wish to address believers of other faiths, including those that profess secular humanism, they ought to translate their message into the language of love. By that I don’t mean sweetly sentimental talk of love, but a form of communication that would have the attributes that St. Paul ascribes to love: Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor.13. 4-7).
People are capable of mature love when they are no longer prey to naïve infantile illusions about their own omnipotence. Love is patient, it is not boastful. It knows that all our knowledge (and our religious knowledge in particular) is only partial, that “now we see in a mirror, dimly”. It is mature insofar as it is capable of waiting for the moment when we shall know fully – even though it knows that in this world, at this time (“in hoc seculo”) we won’t attain to the full knowledge of truth. It will endure remaining in this sacred uncertainty, it will endure and withstand temptations from right and left – of the many radical secularists and of the religious triumphalists, who suppose that they already dispose of that complete knowledge of the truth or that they will acquire it within the framework of this world and by means available to them in this world.
If Christian theology is to become a competent instrument for dialog with other, it must inject into our understanding of the church, of truth and of the world a radical openness, a sense of “eschatological differentiation” between what is available to us now and what is the object of our eschatological hope. What would seem to be the Christians’ greatest obstacle to dialogue with others is “triumphalism”, which conceals both a theological error and a psychological problem – self-fascination, immature narcissism..
Christian tradition distinguishes three forms of the church. Firstly, there is the ecclesia militans, the church militant– Christians in this world. Secondly the ecclesia patiens, the suffering church – the souls in Purgatory. And thirdly the ecclesia triumfans, the church triumphant – the saints in heaven, i.e. the eschatological dimension of the church.
Whenever Christians forget the need for eschatological differentiation between the “church triumphant” in the absolute future and the “church militant” here and now, they start to regard themselves as a perfect society (societas perfecta), already possessing the knowledge of the entire truth, than Christian triumphalism comes into being with all its tragic consequences. The struggle of the ecclesia militans originally meant a struggle with one’s own temptations and sins – including the temptation of triumphalism. If the church forgets the need for patient and humble openness vis-a-vis its eschatological future it gives rise to a militant religion and a militant church, battling against those others, those who are different, who hold different beliefs – whether in the “external world” or in the church’s own ranks.
(There is a striking resemblance here to the Islamic concept of “jihad” - here, too, the original concept of a moral struggle with one’s own failings becomes in certain circumstances a program of “holy war against infidels”. Religious triumphalism is a form of group narcissism and a illness of faith. It is one of the main obstacles to dialogue and the mutually beneficial coexistence of people of different religions in a world in rapid coalescence. The term “societas perfecta“ was used by the medieval church to describe itself during the process papal emancipation in the face of the threat of imperial hegemony, in the investiture struggle, that “papal revolution” that has been referred to as the “first European revolution” and which make a major contribution to the pluralization of the West and hence to the history of freedom. This term, however, in common with a whole lot of other terms, including “the war on terror” or “culture war” runs an inherent risk of being taken literally (i.e. wrongly), and then it becomes dangerous. We have said that Christian triumphalism occurs when the worldly form of the church (ecclesia militans) is confused with the ecclesia triumfans of the eschatological future.Triumphalism is actually a secularization of the church’s eschatological vision. An incapacity for “eschatological differentiation” gives rise to militant and intolerant religion. Often it is the expression of an unacknowledged loss of confidence in an eschatological future as such.
Jesus’s reference to an eschatological horizon is an invitation to patience and tolerance: those who are able to wait for the “time of harvest” will not pull up the wheat with the tares in a foolish endeavor to purify God’s field. Jesus warned his disciples against anticipating the the eschatological task of the angels. Any attempt at playing the role of the angels at the Last Judgement, at wanting to divide one's neighbors into good and bad, turns people into angels of darkness. The zealotry of revolutionaries, inquisitors and religious terrorists is a sin against all three “divine virtues”: hope, faith and love.
Something of the kind occurs in the lives of religious communities and the lives of individual believers. When believers lose the ability to endure patiently their own doubts stemming from the fact that here we know only in part, they start to project their shadow, their doubts, their lack of faith onto the those others – and only there are they able to contend with them. Intolerant, militant believers are often seeking simply to escape their own doubts and their own unbelief by shifting the battle with them out of their own minds and hearts to somewhere else. When they are are unable to “make friends” of their doubts and turn their own doubts into a partner in dialogue with thein faiths, they create enemies of “those others”. When they are incapable of coming to terms with the fact that here we see only as in a mirror, others, those who are different, become a mirror of their own inability to learn, of their own ignorance, of their own unconsciousness. That’s why they are so irritating. In fact those others, those who are different from us, can be a useful mirror for us, in which we may recognize what we are generally unable or unwilling to see. When we start to be capable of seeing in those who provoke us on account of their difference our own shadows, the things that we deny and displace and yet are part of us, we can say to ourselves: that is me too. In this way we can contribute towards peace with others and a better understanding of ourselves. In place of naïve, immature, narcissistic notions about ourselves we can come to a better understanding of our own identity. None of us has seen our own face – all we see is its reflection in the mirror. We need others in order to discover and recognize our own identity.
Meeting others is a unique opportunity for us. If we are incapable of looking into the mirror they set up for us with patience and the courage of love, which endures all things, and instead we yield to the temptation to break that mirror, we are condemning ourselves to blindness. Then we cannot recognize even the truth in a glass darkly. If anyone thinks they can recognize the truth without dialogue with others, they have lost the key – and with it, most likely, the chance of one day having the mystery of their own identity revealed to them. The face of the other is the place where the face of God is most likely to be revealed to us, Emmanuel Levinas taught. We can squander the opportunity to meet with the other and thus with God not only by rejecting the other, but also when we fail to acknowledge and respect their difference – when, with arrogant impatience or with the naiveté of “goodwill” we seek to blur the differences, homogenize the other, to make what is foreign our own. The other must never cease to be for us a riddle, a mystery.
Understanding the other does not mean “to have done with” them, on the contrary. “Si comprehendis, non est Deus” – you can be sure that whatever you have understood is not God, St. Augustine maintained. If we want to meet God – whom we can only recognize in a mirror and only dimly – then the world and those others must become a mirror and a riddle, an unfathomable mystery for us. Living with others is an invitation to permanent dialogue and a process of deeper and deeper understanding, which has no end in this life.
Polite tolerance and relativistic assertions that “everyone is right is his way” can also conceal indifference towards others and their truth. If we believe in one God the truth of the other cannot be separated from my truth by an impenetrable wall. If we believe in a God that is not at our disposal in this world, but is the mystery of the eschatological future of all of us, then “our truths” albeit different, need not be weapons of conflict, but instead a mutually beneficial reminder that we and those others are still “journeying” and have not reached our destination, that there is still much that we still lack and we can learn much from each other.
Understanding ourselves and understanding other must remain an open issue, in the same way that our understanding of God is not real understanding otherwise. If we acknowledge that “God is truth”, then full understanding of the truth is an eschatological task. The truth is a book that none of us has yet read to the end.
When an atheist says there is no God, I have a wish to add to this assertion and elaborate: He is not here yet. He is not here in his entirety. The God of the Bible is “He who is to come”, God, according to the Bible, is our future.
Here and now, in our world, in our lives, in our “being here” (da-sein), He is present above all in the act of our faith, our hope, our longing, our intention. According to Christian teaching He Himself is present in that act as a gift (faith is grace) even though our act of faith does not cease to be equally an act of human freedom, of human courage to believe and hope, of human responsibility – the capacity to respond to the gift of grace, long for it and be open to it.
“The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me”, Master Eckhart maintained.
In our presence, in our world, the human and the divine encounter each other in faith, love and hope. Here and now, what started “in the past” (the act of creation and redemption) and what “is to come”, the culmination of the process of “creatio continua” and “redemptio continua” (in the terminology of Teilhard de Chardin: the “Christification of the cosmos” ) “comes into play”. By our faith we anticipate the situation when “God will be everything in everyone”, by passing from what is toward what is not yet but could be – even if it often seems impossible to us. I agree with Richard Kearney, that at the crossroads where only two paths seem possible, two assertions: “God exists” and “there is no God”, we can interpret important Biblical texts as a third possibility: God may be. God comes to us as a possibility, as an invitation, as a challenge: I will be with you if you step into the future that I open up to you, to which I invite you, which I promise you, to which I empower you.
God in this context is the one who opens up our present, our world, our being, to the future. He is at one and the same time that future and the one who opens us to that future. He is the openness of what is toward that which is not yet. Light streams in through this openness and in it we can see what is here – our world, our present, our history, our lives – in a manner quite different than if we lived a closed life, if we lived only from our past and our present. Faith – as defined by Thomas Aquinas – means “assentire non apparentibus” - adhering to what one doesn’t see . We cannot see God, just as we cannot see the future, and just as we cannot see the light itself; but in the light of faith, ray from the future, we see the world in a certain way and we are able to found our way about it.
“He who knows about depth knows about God” Paul Tillich asserted. I would like to add to that: those who understand the world and life as something open, open toward the mystery of what is to come, can understand what the Bible means by the word faith. Then they are already standing in the faith and with their open hearts (“pure hearts”) they understand what Christian faith opens up toward, what it is directed toward – toward what Jesus calls the coming Kingdom of God – God Himself. Jesus blesses those with pure hearts, “for they shall see God” (future tense!). The God who comes out of His future, out of Himself, from the hiddenness of “light inaccessible”, and comes to us, remaining in our presence discreetly as a light that does not show itself, but shows the world. Preserving faith means making sure all the time that our openness toward the future is not occluded by projections from our past and present, so that the purity of our hope is not sullied by illusions and fantasies that are the product of our memories, wishes and anxieties.
Is such an “unadorned faith”, a faith without images – something that was already demanded by Master Eckhart – actually possible? Is it at all possible to preserve our attitude to the future free of the shadows of our past and present? Is it possible to put our experience “into parentheses” and rely on the words of Revelation: “See, I am making all things new” ?Is it possible to approach a spring of new wine without the old wine skins?
That is the task of what I call “negative eschatology”.
For centuries “negative (apophatic) theology” has maintained that the only thing we can say about God is what He is not; whatever we say about God is exposed and “deconstructed” as images (which are always inadequate by the very nature of the thing), as metaphors, analogies, symbols and signs.
In like manner, the job of negative eschatology is constantly to expose the notions that we create about is coming and is to come, as our notions, our imperfect human notions, which tend to obstruct rather than assist our openness to mystery. After Feuerbach, Nietzsche and Freud it is not difficult to expose many of these notions as human – all too human – projections of our wishes and anxieties, our illusions, resentment and alibism. The “hereafter” as the backstage of history has been rejected as fictitious and harmful instrument of attempts to belittle “this world”, as a specter or even the opium of cheap reassurance, undermining “loyalty to the Earth”.
But it was humanity’s historical experience in the twentieth century that did more than intellectual criticism to undermine the credibility of Christian eschatological notions. Compared to the horrors of the two World Wars, totalitarian regimes, and particularly the Communist and Nazi concentration camps, our traditional notions of hell seemed comical. On the other hand, the fantastic scope for a pleasant, interesting and entertaining lifestyle that 20th-century science, technology and economics offered people, outshone and put in the shade everything that the pious imagination expected from heaven. The fairy-tale world of luxury that was available to some directly and to others vicariously through films and TV serials appeared more fun than endless concerts of angels in heaven.
It would seem that “this world” (saeculum) has assimilated both heaven and hell. Man now has sufficient knowledge of “good and evil” - and the only thing that his life on earth now lacks is the dimension of eternity. The excitement aroused by the proposal to clone human beings was probably due to the expectation that humanity will at last gain control of the last remaining privilege of the “hereafter” - life without end. The human imagination has long since capitulated to the category of eternity and quietly substituted for it the notion of “infinite temporal duration”. However, those who already experience tedium and disgust due to being sated, those who, horrified by their own emptiness have become dependent on drugs of every variety, and above all the drugs of the cheap entertainment industry, often do not no long any more for a “life without end”. They find it hard to imagine an opiate powerful enough to conquer boredom for eternity.
The notions with which the imagination of artists, the rhetoric of preachers and the creative fantasy of human piety peopled for centuries the open space of mystery of “last things” have lost their motivational force. The yearnings and fears rooted deep in human hearts have found other objects. Erik Voegelin used to talk about “immanentizing the eschaton”. In place of pale Christian eschatology many secular eschatologies have appeared on the scene – from naïve enlightenment belief in a “heaven on earth” which will automatically be brought about by scientific and technical progress, to totalitarian regimes that likewise promised “heaven on earth’, but which gradually transformed the earth into hell. If people in a “society of abundance” try to quench their thirst for the Absolute throught values constantly proffered them by the Sirens of the advertising industry, they find themselves in a vicious circle of stress and frustration.
However, the Christian message is unthinkable without its eschatological dimension. The “Kingdom of Heaven” that was central to Jesus’s preaching is a kingdom that is “coming”. It is not “of this world” - but nevertheless it is “in this world”. The community of Jesus’s disciples, which regards itself as the “vanguard” of that coming kingdom, is intended to serve as a contrast and critical corrective vis-a-vis the practices of domination in this world. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Christ, the Lord of that Kingdom, is represented chiefly in this world by the poor and suffering; only beyond the horizon of time does he reveal his identity: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” If I understand correctly that eschatological chapter of Matthew’s gospel then the parousia, Christ’s second coming, has already begun – Jesus is present “anonymously” in the sick, the powerless, the persecuted and the poor. According to Matthew’s gospel, the Last Judgement will be a dramatic “happening”, during which Christ will unmask his multiple incognitos and thereby cause a shock for the just and unjust alike, for both failed to recognize Him among his “deputies” on earth. “No one comes to the Father except through me,” Jesus says and Christian exclusivists like to cite this statement as an argument against excessive indulgence of non-Christians. But who is the “me” in that statement of Jesus’s? In this connection Richard Kearney speaks about Christ’s presence in the poor and persecuted. Whoever demonstrates solidarity with one of “the least” comes to the Father “through Christ” (who is present within them anonymously). The rest, however, will not pass through the gate, however eagerly they appeal to him and say to him “Lord, Lord.” The expectation of “Christ’s early arrival” - and probably the reason for his real presence in the bread of poverty – has waned since the time that Christianity was established in the Roman Empire. Eschatology ceased to be hope “in a new heaven and a new earth”, which was formerly a critical barb vis-a-vis the status quo on earth – and it was “privatized” and turned into a concern that the souls of Christians should enter heaven after death. What had been at the heart of the Christian kerygma gradually became an appendix to textbooks of dogmatics – a final tract on “last things”. The flame of eschatological euphoria survived in a certain form among those men and women, who from the 4th century onward constructed an alternative model to “imperial Christianity” - the desert communities that gave rise to monasteries and monastic orders. The monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are eschatological in character. That is also why the flame of revolutionary enthusiasm often originated from monasteries; chiliasm in particular was a often a seedbed of political disorder. The origin of the social utopias that inspired early socialism owes much to the monk Tommaso Campanella and St Thomas More, whose vision of a utopian state, was also inspired by his experience of the Benedictine Order, which he initially wanted to join. An interesting transformation of eschatology, however, were the doctrines of Joachim of Fiore concerning three phases of history, corresponding to the persons of the Holy Trinity. The archetype of three historical ages and idea of a new age about to come into being runs through the entire history of western political thought. We encounter this theme in the Middle Ages both in the early days of the Franciscan movement and in the Hussite movement in Bohemia, and in the modern era it is particularly evident in the writing of Comte, Hegel and Marx. Moreover Jung’s vision of an “Aquarian Age” and the “New Age” movements, recall in some way the proclamation of “the Age of the Spirit”. Many ecclesiastical and social reformers, as well as revolutionaries of every kind believed they were ushering in various “third reichs”, marking the beginning of the supreme and final phase of history. Messianism, which has frequently accompanied eschatological and apocalyptic expectations, has assumed various secular forms in latter period of the modern age, particularly nationalism and the political ideologies of powers imposing their concept of happiness and salvation on the world.
We, who lived for decades in the shadow of the Tower of Babel of one particular political form of Messianism – the Marxist attempt at “immanentizing the eschaton” - have rich experience of it. The significance of negative (apophatic) theology does not reside solely in its perception that the only thing we can only say about God is what He is not, but rather in its view of what God is not – in its desacralizing of what often purports to be God. Intimately bound up with negative theology are critical political theology and theological critique of “political religions”. This is even more true of “negative eschatology”, which we can thus regard as a part and maybe even the heart of negative theology. Implicit in negative eschatology is a critique of political utopias that seek to sacrifice the present and entire generations to the “new beautiful world” promised by revolutionaries. God as the future does not demand revolutionary violence and its bloody victims. Only false gods feed on blood. Negative eschatology also embodies a critique of false satisfaction: no state of society or of the church can purport to be its final and definitive state, as a paradise that requires no further reform and development, and which refuses to accept any criticism. The Catholic Church long ago rejected the Millenarist ideology as heresy and in its definition of the church the Second Vatican Council returned to the image used to characterize the people of the original Covenant: the people of God on a journey through history: communio viatorum.
It is not the first time, of course, that Christians borrowed concepts and images from Jewish tradition in order to define themselves. That tradition is understandably so familiar to us that we regard it as art of our own identity. However, history has demonstrated the great risks inherent in that familiarity. Until quite recently Christians imagined – and I fear that many of them still do – that they were given the task of replacing and substituting for Israel. It was not until they were confronted with the tragedy of the Holocaust or Shoa that many Christians realized that the fruit of that dangerous theory of substitution was the indifference of many Christians toward the Nazis’ attempt to implement with absurd consequences the notion that “Jews have no place here any more.” Radical Islamists and radical secularist alike regard Christianity in the same that Christians regarded Judaism. For radical Muslims, Christianity was simply the lowest stage of the religion of the last Prophet, while for radical secularism Christianity along with all other religions is simply an infantile phase on the path to adult atheistic Humanism. Islam and atheism also started to read and interpret our sacred texts differently from the way we read and interpret them, rather in the way that Christians were convinced that only their interpretation of the Hebrew Bible was right and that Jews had a false understanding of their own sacred texts. The portals of medieval churches was often adorned with a statue of a blindfolded woman representing the synagogue. Likewise certain radical Muslim extremists and certain sections of militant atheism have come to the conclusion that Christianity has no longer any place in our world.
It is now the sacred duty of Christians to proclaim that the house of the common Father of all people – both in heaven and on earth – has “many mansions”, and that all of us: Christians, Jews, Muslims, advocates of secular Humanism and many other spiritual paths have their place here and the right to seek freely their path to truth. We profess Jesus, who said of Himself: I am the way. We believe that He is the alpha and omega of the church’s journey and that the church is His mysterious body. Nevertheless the Apostle reminds us that in in this body and in this world we have by no means reached our goal (Cf. Philippians 1.22-24). We are all sinners and “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3.23). We relate to our goal through faith, hope and love. These are the three forms of “eschatological patience”.
The mission of negative eschatology is to uphold the openness of the human world vis-a-vis the absolute mystery, which defies human capacities and to which human beings can only relate through patient faith, hope and love. An important expression of that patience is the persistent rejection of the temptations of religious triumphalism, particularly its attempts to turn faith into a closed ideological system and believers into “possessors of the truth”.
What this means for Christianity was precisely spelled out by the Croatian protestant theologian Miroslav Volf: believing in Jesus Christ, who is the witness to the Truth and embodies the fullness of the truth, means acknowledging that we are not Jesus Christ, that we are not self-denying witnesses of the truth and hence not its “possessors” either. Nonetheless to abdicate the search for truth would be to consent to a world in which a only the most powerful have the right to decide. “Truth is a shield against the violence that the powerful inflict on the weak,” Miroslav Wolf has written, and he went on to say, “However, if this shield is not to be transformed into a deadly weapon, it must be in the hands of those who renounce violence. (…) Devotion to truth must go hand in hand with devotion to non-violence, otherwise devotion to truth will itself become a source of violence.” (Cf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.) If we Christians are a “communio viatorum”, a pilgrim community, then we must learn to respect and show solidarity to all other pilgrims and renounce all forms of violence and haughtiness toward them However, our belief in one God, who is the absolute mystery of the eschatological future, also tells us that those who believe in other religions are also only pilgrims. If we realize that we are all pilgrims we need not allow ourselves to be enthralled by the ideals of others and we must not be uncritical toward them. They also have not reached their goal and we have the right and duty to remind not only ourselves of that fact, but also them. Today I have been talking about “negative eschatology”, about the need to disencumber our eschatological hope of the burden of triumphalism and “excessively human” projections or our fears and wishes. However, I would like to add and stress that the heart of Christian eschatology is trust in mystery, the mystery of the inconceivable generosity of God’s love. In that respect, we could also call “negative eschatology”, “mystical eschatology”. None of us is perfect. Just how far our world is from our notions of a perfect world – even, indeed, from a slightly more bearable world – often fills us with fear and dread. Everything will pass away, says the Apostle, but love will never pass away. So love is perhaps the only thing that is worth striving to perfect. “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4.18.)