Eschatology and Politics

"Eschatology" in the title of this chapter refers to Christian discourse about a final outcome and transformation, an "eschaton," of history. The great metaphysical divide is doubtless between those who think a dramatic story can truly be told about reality as a whole and those who think not. Judaism and Christianity present the definitive instance of the first position. Reality, their scriptures promise, is going someplace, and its twists and turns are therefore plotted. If we think that someplace abstractly, we speak of an eschaton; if we think it personally, we speak of God.

It must be said at the beginning that Christianity thus anticipates an event that is so fundamental a transformation of created being that even calling it an "event" stretches language to the breaking point. What sort of "event," after all, has no successor? Unless it be the event of God's own actuality, the event of the triune life?

The scriptures contain many scenarios of the end times; but these are not easily harmonized, are at key points allusive in their diction and in the sequences of their narrative, and are surely best taken - though there is no space to argue that here - as evocations of one single occurrence, that will be at once the conclusion of history and in its own sheer actuality the reality of "eternal life," of "the kingdom of God."

Perhaps, despite first thought, there is much conceptual analysis and material-poetic construction that can be done to specify this event, and much revisionary metaphysics that grow out of specifying it; but again, any general effort on those lines (Jenson 1999: 309-69) would exhaust the space of this chapter. Perhaps one may in almost unintelligible summary speak of an infinite implosion of love, of a created community pressed and agitated into perfect mutuality by the surrounding life of the triune God. For the rest, readers should take this paragraph and its predecessor as a sort of notice posted, which they should bear in mind through the following.

We are in this chapter to consider how Christian eschatology and political discourse relate under the common rubric "theology." We must begin by noting a fundamental circumstance: that the scriptures' eschatology and the classical eschatology of the Christian church are directly and almost exclusively a discourse about politics, so that no extrapolations are needed to move between eschatology and politics, in either direction. In the promise to Abraham and in the writings of the prophets, the eschaton is the fulfillment of Israel's political structures; in the Gospels it is a "kingdom," which precisely as a kingdom "of heaven" is a political entity also in this age, as the Roman authorities quickly perceived (Wright 1998); elsewhere in the New Testament it is a polis (Heb. 13: 14) which, unlike this world's would-be polities, is genuinely a structure of peace and justice; in Augustine's lovely phrase, one of tranquilitas ordinis, the lively tranquility enabled by mutually affirmed ordering to one another. Indeed, biblical and classical Christian eschatology can be taken directly as political theory, if we do not allow the modern West's secularized constructs to stand paradigm for what is meant by "theory" (Milbank 1990).

Eschatology is thus the initial form and should be a principal guide for Christian reflection on politics. I will begin with some hasty biblical exegesis, and continue by instancing the relentlessly eschatological classic of Christian political theory, Augustine's City of God.

I suspect that every chapter of this work will have its own way of using the word "politics." It will be prudent to lay out this chapter's quite naive usages at the start.

Notoriously, the word "politics" now has two very different common uses, to which this essay will adhere. In a generally Aristotelian and traditional Christian theological sense, a polity is the arena of a community's moral deliberation, whether this arena is an assembly of all citizens, an absolute ruler's bedchamber, or something in between. "Politics" then consists of the processes of such deliberation: argument and executable decision of such questions as "What shall we teach our children?" or "What would be a just distribution of communal goods?" But the word now carries another and almost opposite sense also: "politics" is precisely what must be kept out of such communal deliberation, lest it lose its moral character. Here "politics" is the manipulation of the community and the struggle to occupy positions from which this may be done, both of which efforts of course suppress politics in the former sense. The relation between these uses poses a rather crude irony: How does it happen that precisely those known as "politicians" regularly exhort each other to "keep politics out of this" when they claim to deal seriously with the community's good, that is, when they claim actually to function as political agents?

We will see that Christian eschatology interprets both phenomena we label "politics," and moreover provides an understanding of the relation between them. We are political creatures in the first sense because righteous discourse in community is the end for which our Creator intends us. That we turn this calling into its own suppression is much of what Christian theology calls "sin," and is what will be judged, that is, put behind us, at the end. And the link between the two is a structure of human being, in Augustine's language, that we desire, indeed that we desire eschatologically: we long for a final Good and do so communally.

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