The Eschaton Has Been Immanentized: Against the Modern Gnostics

The Eschaton Has Been Immanentized: Against the Modern Gnostics August 18, 2009

Do not immanentize the eschaton. How many times do we find these words repeated, time and again, since Voegelin has suggested to do so is Gnostic? How ironic is this claim, when authentic Christian theology believes that the eschaton has been immanetized in Christ. Voegelin, and many of his followers like Buckley, became critical of anyone who would try to connect the supernatural with the natural in a way which understood the eschatological ramifications of Christ have any this-worldly implications.[1] But this is exactly what Christian theology proposes. God became man; the eschaton has been revealed; the world and all that is in it has been affected by the immanentizing of the eschaton that history can never be the same. Christians are called to live out their lives in and through Christ, bringing the eschatological implications of Pascha to the world itself. The world is meant to be transformed and brought to its perfection, and we are to be Christ’s workers in helping to bring this about; of course, our work is not on the same level of Christ’s, but, if we truly become one with Christ in his body, we must understand this is exactly what we are called to do.[2] Anything else is a rejection of the incarnation, anything else which tries to establish an absolute duality between the immanent and transcendent is what really qualifies as gnostic!

Gnosticism was dualistic in that it saw the transcendent eschaton could not be immanentized in this world; at best, a docetic presentation of the eschaton could be presented, but it would not be the eschaton itself – God did not become man, but only seemed to appear among humanity, because the eschaton must lie outside of history, outside of the immanent world of experience. Gnostics said that only those who have transcended the immanent reality and have experienced a gnosis which transcended the world of experience, the world of “evil,” can be saved, for only they have experienced the true God who can never enter the world.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). This Word, who is God, is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end – the eschaton.[3] The eschaton dwelt among us, the eschaton became flesh. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world”  (Heb 1:1-2). The Word has come to us in these last days, the eschaton has been revealed – the kingdom of God has been established through the death and resurrection of Christ – this is what Paul means when he says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:21). It was this truth which made Christianity a scandal – the Greeks could understand an emanation of The One entering into the world, but not the One itself. No one has a problem with the immanence of an emanation, only the immanence of the eschaton. “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities — all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:15 – 19). The Gnostics denied it; they said, like the Greeks, this could not happen – the eschaton might appear to be with us, might appear to be in the flesh, but this was only an illusion, something unreal. John said otherwise – this, he said, was the position of the antichrist. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already” (1John 4:2-3). The eschaton has become immanent with creation, the eschaton has immanentized, and all of creation rejoices, for “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.  (Rom 8:21). The world is to be transformed, not abandoned. Since the eschaton has been immanentized, we cannot ignore the world, we cannot dualistic seek only things of the spirit and reject the physical world and all its needs; we must seek the eschaton not apart from the world, but in it – for the Logos, the eschaton, has set up his camp and now dwells among us.

Gnostics rejected any attempt to help heal the world – because the world was outside of the scope of their understanding of the eschaton. While some forms of Gnosticism were highly ascetic and demanded austere practices (if one was attracted to the things of the world, one could not transcend it),[4] many others became so indifferent to the world, that anything in it became meaningless. There was no responsibility to anyone, there was indeed, more morality – the world is not real, and so what happens in it is irrelevant. While this might show why Gnosticism is difficult to present, because its principles lead in diverse directions, we can see that both tendencies nonetheless continue to influence those who follow the Gnostic rejection of the eschaton entering the world, and often converge together. For example, we can find it with many modern-day Gnostics as they combine an extreme puritan-like stand in sexuality with an indifference to the fate of the world itself.[5]

Of course, Christian morality also expects holiness in the body. It is because the body itself is holy and is have a share in eternity that must seek to live our lives in purity. Salvation is of the body and of the soul, and expects purity in both. “And since man is an animal made up of soul and body, that [salvation] must come about through the instrumentality of both of them, there is both bodily holiness, the safeguard of abstinence from all shameful things and all wicked deeds, and holiness of soul, the preservation of its integrity of faith in God, adding nothing and subtracting nothing from it.”[6] Our spiritual life cannot be had outside of the body. We must not view the flesh as evil and our sexuality as a thing to be rejected, but rather, both must be seen as good and capable as working for God’s greater glory in creation (and not apart from it).

The world, the flesh, and the workings of both, can be and should be seen as good, and worthy of preservation. God so loves the world that he seeks to save it, not destroy it, and the Christian must seek to have it saved by the means God has chosen – through the incarnation, through the eschaton immanentized.[7] “Action, then, is preserved by faith, because unless you believe, says Isaias, you shall not continue; and faith is given by truth, since faith rests upon reality: for we shall believe what really is, as it is, and believing what really is, as it is for ever, keep a firm hold of our assent to it.”[8] One who lacks faith will not act for the betterment of the world, because they will not believe the world is real and worth preserving; the one who has faith knows it is real, created by the good God, knows it is worthy of being saved and preserved from corruption, and will follow the example of their God by working with God’s grace to its benefit. The incarnation expects earthly glory; Gnosticism rejects it; one’s belief about the eschaton explains the way one will deal with the world. Christian belief is incarnational; unbelief attempts to remove the eschaton from the world, as Ireaneus says: “And others again despise the coming of the Son of God and the dispensation of His incarnation, which the apostles have transmitted to us, and which the prophets foretold would be the summing-up of humanity, as we have shown you in brief. And such people too should be counted among the unbelievers.”[9]

The dispensation of the incarnation is for the world, for its transformation and transfiguration, while those who reject the immanentized eschaton in Christ find all kinds of excuses to reject the world and excuse disinterest in its wellbeing. Such faith without works is dead, because it is not a faith in the incarnate One, but in the disincarnate eschaton which rejects the world. Life, however, is a thing of the world.  “Irenaeus, with great perspicacity, understood this, and showed it [Gnosticism] up for what it was. For him Christianity is about the divine and spiritual Word becoming flesh and body. The redemption depends on the real Incarnation, the real suffering on the Cross, and the real resurrection of the flesh. All three of these are a real scandal for Gnosticism.”[10] All three reveal not only that the eschaton has become immanent, but what the eschaton has done in that immanent activity – it is a scandal to believe the eschaton can be immanentized, it is worse to believe that immanentized eschaton suffered – how can the transcendent suffer? And yet the answer to this, as it always should be, is that God is love, and the incarnation is the revelation of this love. God loves the world, and so gives himself over to the world – the eschaton emptied itself to give us the gift of himself, the gift of love. A rejection of the immanentized eschaton is a rejection of God’s love, for it seeks to keep God separate from us. But for the Christian, this can never be believed, for we have witnessed the love of God for us, and we have encountered God on the cross: “Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2: 5- 8). This is the Christian message, and our life in faith requires us to follow through and follow his example, of self-giving love for the betterment of the world. Either we believe in Christ incarnate or we do not; but we must never let it be said, like the Gnostics, we believe in Christ unincarnate, the eschaton non-immanentized: this must always be seen as the ideal of antichrist, for it teaches a God who does not love.

Footnotes

[1] Lubac’s understanding about the divide between the natural and supernatural in Western thought proves itself valid here: because the supernatural is transcendent, Gnostic speculation says it is incapable of being seen in the natural world and any attempt to see the two working together is rejected. Grace no longer works to perfect nature, but one seeks to overcome nature and the world through it, so that the world is of no real importance. In extreme forms this becomes Manichaean dualism, which rejects the world as evil and sees anyone who seeks to preserve and protect the world as evil as well. It is no wonder that the crusading spirit of this modern Gnosticism looks like the Gnostics of old – they “know” they are right, and those who oppose them are wrong; they know their rightness makes them as those who support all that which is good, and those who they oppose as pure evil, an evil which must be destroyed. They have no ability to see evil for what it is: a wound which needs to be healed, to be overcome by love, not annihilation.

[2] Thus the Church is, as Balthasar points out, the continued presence of Christ in the world, in history, and through the institution of the Church, Christ continues to work in history. “The institution of the Church, which from within is the presence of Christ and a liberating sphere, acts as a scandal to the world. And this very scandal is indispensable to prevent the Incarnation of God, and even his crucifixion, from dissolving into idealistic vapor and shallow morality,” Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations. trans. Sister Mary Theresidle Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986).Therefore, one can say with the continued incarnation of Christ’s presence in the world the eschaton continues to be immanentized.

[3] “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:1).

[4] Many Gnostics, including later forms of Gnosticims like the Cathars, saw sexual reproduction as evil, entrapping more and more sparks of the divine through reproduction.

[5] But it is also true, many are indifferent when it comes to sexual morality, but most who say “do not immanentize the eschaton” say such words whenever anyone works for a better world, revealing full well their rejection of the world and an uncaring response to its needs.

[6] St Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching. Trans. Joseph P. Smith, S.J (New York: Newman Press, 1952), 48.

[7] John 3:16.

[8] Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, 49.

[9] Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Teaching, 108.

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies. Trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 3.

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