This essay corresponds to a conference that happened some years ago in France that was also centered around the title of this piece. A friend sent it to us.
When we think about the West we’re bound to think about Christianity. The West doesn’t define itself as a geographic territory, but rather as a metaphysical orientation distributed worldwide. Like the philosophy inaugurated by Plato and Aristotle, Christianity is an essential component of this orientation. If we were to designate all the domains that the notion of Christianity covers, at the intellectual or practical level, we would have to include nearly all of reality and all our history. Indeed, through its Church and the Christian empire, it has been the very form of our world. By inheriting the Empire that had extended its dominion over vast expanses of the Earth, the Church inherited the substantial edifice of Roman law, the model on which it would construct its theology.
Just as the origins of philosophy can be revealed against a vaguely shaped entity called “magic,” in relation to which philosophy developed in the course of a lasting competition involving absorption and rejection, assimilation and exclusion, until it made magic the key to its apparatus, it seems possible to identify the idea at the center of Christianity, around which the latter has constantly gravitated to the point of obscuring its terms and reshaping its original contents. This idea that’s been gradually obscured by two thousand years of speculations and successive reinterpretations is the messianic idea.
I. Apocalypse or Messiah
The apocalyptic is a feeling based on the imminence of catastrophe, the imminence of the Kingdom, the imminence of a certain end. Its time is a time obsessed by what is coming, what must necessarily arrive, without any regard for what is present. In a sense, the apocalyptic is an anti-messianic feeling. The time of the messiah is not that of the clock where one advances second by second in anticipation of the final and fateful hour. Messianic time is above all a “qualitative transformation of lived time.” The time of the messiah, ho erchomenos, he who is coming, is lived in the present, in a kind of absolute present that is constantly actualized. “Messianic time is the time of integral actuality” wrote Walter Benjamin on this point, before adding that “each day, each moment is the little door through which the messiah can enter.”
One can thus measure the enormous difference separating these two experiences of time, that of the apocalyptic and that of the messianic. The first marks each second without pausing, convulsed by an anxious and impatient expectation. The second attaches itself to each instant as the moment of recapitulation of the world and of history, while suspending chronological and profane time, and restoring it to a new use and to its true nature, which is eternity.
Contrary to the apocalyptic whose gaze is fixed on the future, messianic time is, as Saint Paul writes, ho nyn kairos, a now-time, which is to say, a time that claims itself and places itself at the door of each moment, each kairos, ready to open it to the messiah.
II. Apocalypse without Judgment
To raise the question of Christianity is first of all to raise the question of its eschatology. Christianity is essentially an eschatological religion— that is, a religion situated in a determinate and irreversible time and for which salvation is the thing at issue. Its philosophy of history is a theology of salvation, oriented towards an eschatological end. Salvation and eschatology are two inseparable themes. They presuppose each other in an inextricable alliance. Given this fact, it’s unimaginable that at the end of the supreme eschatological event, there would not be anything or anyone worthy of being saved.
At present the governments of the world proclaim a state of continuous crisis and generalized exception which nothing seems capable of ending and which presents itself as the only prospect of salvation. If one can say of this crisis state that it resembles, in a parodic form, a perpetual postponement of the Last Judgment, one can just as reasonably liken the duration of this postponement to the very space of a Judgment pronounced without end. In this state of affairs, no chosen one, no righteous one could be found among the living and the dead. At the end of this process, the world would close back in on itself, becoming an eternal hell which nothing could redeem and which would bear no relation to any paradise. One would end up with a truly unthinkable post-eschatological situation where, no chosen one having been found, and the world therefore no longer offering the place for a division between the righteous and the damned, everything would remain in this unsaved state. The only difference would lie in the impossibility of another advent and a new redemption.
This idea of an eschatology without salvation, of an apocalypse without redemption and, in certain respects, of a millenarianism without a Kingdom, is perhaps what the latest advances of modern government have brought into reality, accumulating in a kind of measured frenzy the disasters and catastrophes that punctuate current experience and halo this epoch with a paradoxical glory. If one is allowed, in this context, to speak of an “apocalyptic government” or the “apocalyptic character of current government,” it’s because the unconcealment we’re concerned with here has not signaled any advent and the “empty throne” of Byzantine frescoes, which symbolically represented preparation for the coming Kingdom, was destined finally to remain vacant, exposed to its own emptiness and henceforth deprived of any signification.
In a sense, the veil separating the present Empire from the coming Kingdom has torn, is still tearing, constantly tears, but behind it what is taking place is not the Kingdom, but always the Empire. There really was a veil between things and their realization, but there where one expected to find the promised kingdom one finds only the exact replica of an unredeemed present. Considered from this angle, the “mystery of anomie” spoken of by Saint Paul, which is sometimes translated less correctly by the “mystery of iniquity” is partly solved. It’s through the realization of an eschaton without redemption that the Empire has finally dealt with the shadow cast on it by the flames of the apocalyptic.
The method, moreover, is well known and continually applied: it consists in affirming as form what is denied as content. This strategy was in part that of the Church, notably in relation to paganism, its rites and its celebrations, and to its own heresies, with and against which the Church constructed and asserted itself. It is indebted to them, above all, for the impeccable dogmatics of its formidable orthodoxy. For example, there was Marcion’s canon, the first proposed official list of reference scriptures, which forced the Church Fathers to draw up their own in reaction to the Pauline radicalism of that wealthy ship-owner from the Pontus, struck by the lightning bolt of his foreign God and his Gospel. In any case, the idea of a New Testament was born, thenceforth in opposition to an Ancient Alliance that needed to be shed. The innovations of the Gnosis were to precipitate the outraged judgments of the Dogma.
It must be said, further, that the systematic recourse to dogmatic defense has so deeply penetrated our minds that a Marxist intellectual will make as much use of it as anarchist whose “free spirit” will instantly lose its composure whenever an article of the credo, however slight, is attacked. The phenomenon is clearly identifiable, for example, in the paradox of an ideological defense of the critique of ideology, in that of a fanatical faith in the absence of god, or indeed in the sophisticated idea of a transcendence of the economy by means of the economy itself, on its own terrain.
III. The problem of eschatology
Too often, the eschatology theme has justified the existential stance of an anxious and feverish expectation in regard to the various ways of addressing the question of salvation, that is, the ways in which salvation is to be realized, and whether it can be the object of an institution that will mediate this in the necessary way.
The Christian philosophy of history is bound up with its theology of salvation, making lived historical time into an eschatological time that gives redemption a central place. The cyclical time of pagan Antiquity, where everything would return, located its eternity here on earth. When the repetitive circle of profane time was broken, it was replaced by the irreversible time of eschatology, in which unique events unfold a single time, along a straight line whose end cannot be seen.
The Christian’s soul is a fundamentally restless and tormented soul that lives its sojourn on earth as a passage, in a world that is itself passing away. Saint Paul writes in an epistle to the Corinthians: “paragei gar to schema tou kosmou toutou,” “for passing away is the figure of this world.” And Saint Augustine, a few centuries later, in his book of disquiet that continues to be called his Confessions, says this: “Inquietum est cor nostrum…” “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they find rest in you.”
To be sure, the feeling of an eschatological time, a time oriented towards an end, a time destined to end after traversing an eschaton representing its completion or fulfillment, leads to several immediate consequences that exert a still powerful effect on modern western minds. First of all, there is a consequence at the ontological and existential level. If a completion must occur, centuries hence or in a short while, if a higher order of fulfillment is promised to us, this means that things and beings are languishing in a state of incompletion and unfilfillment. It’s as if the telos of each thing, of each substance were thrown outside itself, as if its origin no longer coincided with its end, and its life consisted in a painful quest to meet this unattainable goal. As a result of this anticipation of an eschatological event through which things and beings will be saved from their decrepitude, the whole of reality is derealized. The disenchantment of the world has closely followed this strange derealization of the real where, everything being referred to “something” that doesn’t come but paradoxically claiming the status of the only real presence, one gradually loses the ability to see what is in front of one’s eyes, and to believe in the substance of what is there.
IV. The Empire and the Kingdom
To evoke the strange historical success of Christianity, it is customary to quote this reflection by a French theologian, expressed in the form of a bitter wisecrack: “People were expecting the Kingdom and the Church is what came instead.” For his part, Nietzsche was content to cite this brief Latin adage: “fex urbis, lex orbis,” “shit of the city, order of the world” (which can be translated politely as: “From the dregs of the city came the law of the world.”). We know the good use which the Church made of the immense network of dioceses it was able to quickly extend over the whole surface of the Roman Empire, and of the alliances it was able to fashion within the highest elites. It was on this basis that a virtually unprecedented type of government developed. I’m referring to the pastoral type of government analyzed at length by Foucault. What is to be governed in this instance is not simply a political subject obedient to his emperor, but behaviors. A regime of government of this sort is applied omnes et singulatum – that is, in a way that is both general and singular. The object is no longer to ensure that the legal order is respected, but to govern interiorities themselves.
It’s a well concealed fact that the Church of the Fathers, in its struggle for doctrinal hegemony, was often placed in a minority position, lost in a multiform ocean of sects, schools, and tendencies, in one of richest periods of ferment and religious creation the western tradition has seen.
From the beginnings of the apostolic movement, the Churches of Peter and Paul would preach submission to the kings and to every authority, including that of the tax collectors, who were already the object of a nearly general hatred. Thus, “far from representing a revolutionary element,” writes Jacob Taubes, “the Christian Church became clearly favorable to the Empire even before its recognition by the latter. The Church no longer saw itself as a community in a foreign land [in der Fremde], and for Eusebius, the Empire and the Oikoumene [the inhabited universe] were identical.” As a matter of fact, for Carl Schmitt, that “apocalyptic of counter-revolution” (Taubes), this Church was so strongly identified with the Empire which persecuted it that it could legitimately claim the honorable title of Katechon, that is, a force “that restrains,” according to Saint Paul, powerful enough in the worldly sense to hold back the coming of the Antichrist, thereby delaying the Advent of the Kingdom. One could say that in Saint Paul’s theology, the Antichrist is necessary to the Advent of the Kingdom in much the same way that Judas is necessary to Christ the Redeemer, seeing that, on a certain gnostic reading, by his “betrayal” the process of redemption could be completed and all the world’s sins taken away. There, too, in a way, a “mystery of anomie” was at issue.
Hence, for the idea of an apocalyptic practiced collectively on the terrain of world history, the Christian Church gradually substituted the motif of an individual eschatology situated in the domain of interiority and the soul. Origen was among the first to initiate this theme that would become dominant starting with Augustine. The latter would help put an end to the tenacious idea of the first centuries, the idea evoked by the prophecy of the Millenium inscribed in the apocalyptic Revelation attributed to John that designated a period of a thousand years during which Christ and the chosen ones would dominate men and govern the world. The Millenium, according to Augustine, was no longer to be anticipated, let alone realized; it was already operative in the Church, which at the end of that time would pass the baton of its dominion to the eternal dominion of god.
The idea that “only a god can save us” doesn’t refer to anything but an alertness to what Matthew calls the “signs of the times” by which the expected messiah and the coming kingdom are found to be already present among us. If there is no supreme savior, we can only save ourselves by becoming gods, as this passage from the Gospel of John, chapter 10:34, expresses it in a striking way: “You are gods” since “God calls gods those to whom he addresses his word.”
The Historical Failure of the Apocalyptic and the Gnosis
“The apocalyptic,” writes Jacob Taubes,”negates the world in its plenitude. The apocalyptic embraces the whole world in a negative way.”
Nihilism of time and of history
The apocalyptic had already accentuated, to the bursting point, the tension that exists between this world and the coming world, established for eternity. Its time was situated on the narrow border between a world destined to end and a new eon – a different time and space – the Kingdom of Heaven and of eternity, erupting in this world and consuming it. The time of the apocalyptic did not come to completion. Little by little, the hopes raised in favor of a second coming of the Messiah, in the Glory of a Holy Carnage, died down but without entirely dying out, flaring up again from period to period, with all their original intensity, into what some have called the “Millenarian Frenzy.”
In the opinion of Jacob Taubes and many others, the historical failure of the apocalyptic gave rise to the Gnosis and the idea of a redemption that is primarily interior and individual. That time of a furious and anxious anticipation was succeeded by the time of the Gnosis. In contrast to a horizontal apocalyptic, born of a tension created between two heterogeneous and contradictory worlds and times, the Gnosis made way for a vertical apocalyptic, as a radical caesura of time in which the event of the Resurrection has always already taken place, and Salvation is still assured for the rare chosen ones who in fact have chosen themselves.
Nihilism of the world and of matter
Hatred of the body and rejection of matter produces two attitudes that appear to be opposed but are not at all contradictory: that of a savage asceticism pushed to the extreme or that of a frenetic and extravagant libertinage. Asceticism and libertinage are two complementary forms of negation of the body that share the same assumption: that the body is nothing, neither the body that one mortifies, the body that one offers, nor the body that one sells. It’s on this same nihilism of the body that the modern practice of pornography, for example, is based. The body itself no longer being anything, being nothing divine, coitus between two bodies no longer being anything, being nothing divine, the pornographic performance can openly display its infinite nothingness, its infinite sadness; it can profane it scene after scene without restoring it to any use whatever. In a sense this involves a profanation without restoration, an apocalypse of the flesh that doesn’t reveal any triumph.
Nihilism of values and of morals
The “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus of Nazareth spoke of was just as much an ethical commandment -- a “state of the heart” as Nietzsche writes – as an already present eschatological indication. The latter goes on to say that the evangelical faith “is itself at every moment its own miracle, its retribution, its proof, its ‘Kingdom of God.’” As the Kingdom and its promised transfiguration of everything approached, a strict and mechanical observance of the Law and its commandments could no longer suffice. With the attempt to go beyond morals by introducing the sort of ethical intelligence that was modeled by the parable of the good Samaritan, The Christian Church managed above all to reinforce the domination of moral conscience by supplanting the code of the Law with self examination and the many delights of the guilt feeling.
Christianity and Sabbatianism
Gershom Scholem establishes a surprising parallel between the history of early Christianity and that of Sabbatianism, the messianic movement that sprang up in the course of the 17th Century around the figure of Sabbatai Zevi. After several months of messianic turmoil throughout the Diaspora, Zevi was forced to convert to Islam. The consternation was general and only a small group of followers were able to overcome the crisis by giving this apparent “betrayal” a deeper theological meaning, that of a descent into the quelipah, the husk of evil, the kingdom of darkness. Something similar had happened with the disciples of the Nazarene whose defamatory death went against all the received notions of the historical role of the Messiah. The problem had to be surmounted at the doctrinal level, through the myth of the Resurrection and the Pauline critique of the Law.
On this subject Scholem writes: “Inevitably there is a far-reaching and highly illuminating similarity between the religious characteristics and the development of Sabbatianism on the one hand, and of Christianity on the other…In both cases a certain mystical attitude of belief crystallizes round an historical event which in turn draws its strength from the very fact of its paradoxicality. Both movements begin by adopting an attitude of intense expectation towards the Parousia, the advent or return of the Savior, be it from Heaven, be it from the realm of impurity. In both cases the destruction of the old values in the cataclysm of redemption leads to an outburst of antinomian tendencies, partly moderate and veiled and partly radical and violent; in both cases you get a new conception of “belief” as the realization of the new world of Salvation…In both cases, finally, you get in the end a theology of some kind of Trinity and of God’s incarnation in the person of the Savior.” (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 307)
Translated by Robert Hurley