Pivoting towards the Parousia: A Fight Against GloboHomo Time
Part I: Background
Looming like a rainforest canopy, today only a single narrative (the capitalist letzter mensch) matters. Just as the animals make do with their secondary economies (downstream of photosynthesis) on the ground below, so people erect their micro-cultures in the totalising system’s shadow.
Few of these cultures contain sufficient firepower to change much. Even Christianity – a bigger beast – repeatedly proves inadequate in clashes with its ‘globohomo’ counterpart. I suspect this is because it has been neutered; its castration being the constant dismissal (often in the form of embarrassment) of the shape, colour and finality it bestows upon Time. In other words, its eschatology.
This bashfulness draws on several sources – not least that the red meat of canonical material came “late” (c. AD 96) in relative terms – but mainly from the fact contemporaries caricature the Church’s view of the End Times as an irredeemably infantile, isolated and fairy-tale finale. Such an attitude, however, involves a misreading of the faith. The Church does not hand an instruction manual down the generations; its “eschatological bureau” (Troeltsch) is not closed for business; the present is not paralysed by a forecast that renders all action useless.
Instead the Church forms an integral (and moving) part of the sense of ‘ultimate things’ that guides and orients action in penultimate things. Paul, who always referred to messianic time with the expression “ho nyn kairos” (the “now time”) never stopped reminding folk of this, even admonishing the Thessalonians not to be disturbed by the immanence of the Parousia. What interested the Apostle was not so much the last day i.e. the end of time, but the time of the end, the internal transformation of time that the messianic event (of Christ) has produced once and for all.
The literature that sits at the heart of eschatological speculation (that isn’t simply a commentary on the book of Revelation) is the second epistle to the Thessalonians. Much of the ink spilt, however, is wasted by treating it as a supratemporal enigma, a deus ex machina, designed solely to put an end to history when in reality it is a constant historical drama (mysterion means ‘dramatic action’) which is underway in every instant and in which the salvation of all creation is always at stake. The key passage is worth quoting in full:
“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be shaken in mind or alarmed, either by inspiration or by word or by a letter that claims to be sent by me, as though the day of the Lord were imminent. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the apostasy comes and the man of lawlessness [ho Anthropos tes anomias] is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when the time comes. For the mystery of lawlessness [mysterion tes anomias] is already at work, but only until the one who now restrains it is removed. And then the lawless one [anomos] will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will eliminate with the breath of his mouth, rendering him finished by the manifestation of his coming.”
Beginning with Irenaeus, the “lawless one” is usually identified with the Antichrist of the first epistle of John (2:18). Though Paul doesn’t seem to have been familiar with the term this interpretation was accepted by the likes of Hippolytus, Origen, Tertullian etc. In these authors the Antichrist formed a real person. The “one who restrains,” however, has a more contested history. Augustine noted that interpretations of his (or its) identity fell into two groups:
“Some think the Apostle Paul referred to the Roman empire and that he was unwilling to use more explicit language in case he should incur the calumnious charge of wishing ill to the empire which it was hoped would be eternal.”
Often called the doctrine of the katechon (that which withholds), it typically frames a Christian superpower as the only power capable of restraining the end of the world. The position can be fairly labelled as the “Jerome camp” because the church father wrote “nec vult aperte dicere Romanum Imperium destruendum, quod ipsi qui imperant aeternum putant” (or “he does not want to say ‘the destruction of the Roman Empire’ because those who rule think that it is eternal”). Augustine continues:
“Others think the words… refer only to the wicked and the hypocrites who are in the Church, until they reach a number so great as to furnish Antichrist with a great people, and that this is the mystery of iniquity, because it seems hidden.”
A camp best stamped “Tyconian” as it can be traced back to the North African author Tyconius who – in the second half of the fourth-century – argued the Church was a corpus bipartitum (bipartite body) which contained both sin and grace, a fusca (dark) part twinned with its decora (just) equivalent. Indeed, the Church was not so much of a Jerusalem that set its face flintily against Babylon but rather a city that contained the latter within itself, inseparably mixed. The End Times therefore usher in the great discessio (separation) within the Church, introduced by the definitive revelatio.
Part II: Today
It’s worth noting as a slightly sulky prelude that an Orthodox angle might suggest the ‘dark’ part of the Church consolidated itself in the Latin perversion of the faith which, by over-institutionalising itself as an alleged societas perfecta, ended up furnishing the modern state with a model for moulding humanity in a totalitarian fashion sans Christ.
Historical grievances aside, when the state (aided by technical criteria that reward market performance and opportunistic cultural stances) views justice as a mere idea, entirely inert and impotent in the face of the excesses of the law and economy, only an eschatological mind-set can break Man free. Whether an ’empire’ or the Church plays katechon, the point is that folk are enduring the ‘mystery of lawlessness’, a period in which the essential illegitimacy of every power (including the state) has been made plain.
It is therefore incumbent upon the Church to realise it cannot play the passive creature sitting on its laurels and deferring its historical burdens to some distant eschatological catharsis, a position adjacent to its paying lip service to evil (a power it fails to explain or dominate and so resorts – using the language of kenosis – to placing within God and so, in a Gnostic or semi-Marcionite gesture, risks allowing “to take its seat in the Temple of God, declaring it to be God” [2 Thess. 2:4]). Today the Church’s eschatological element risks disappearing up its own fundament, less retreating than simply mimicking a worldly economy that is becoming infinite, interminable and aimless. Moreover, if the Church faced up to its eschatological inheritance it would instil courage in its flock, a courage that is shorthand for the capacity to be worthy of one’s end.
Only by rediscovering its eschatological backbone will the Church be able to make use of a criterion of action that is not subaltern with respect to profane politics, sciences and technologies; it will stop being content in a vain, headless and reactive manner to simply set limits to them.
Oikonomia (salvific action in the world) is part and parcel with the end of the same world (eschatology). When the eschatological element is set aside, a secularised oikonomia materialises and quickly becomes so perverted that it is literally without end i.e. without a goal; a Church that floats ark-like upon a drowned landscape but without the initiative to release ravens or doves (Gen. 8).
When eschatology is restored to its proper proportions evil will not be cast as a gloomy external theological drama imposed upon us from high – paralysing all action – instead folk will be reintegrated into a shared historical drama in which each person’s decision is always in question, and always relevant to the End. The flock must be reminded that mysteries do not unfold above its head and play us like chess pieces. In fact, the Bible’s use of “mystery” rarely maps neatly on to the modern sense of a secret doctrine. Instead it connotes praxis, action or drama. To cite 1 Corinthians 2:6-8:
“Yet among the perfect [teleiois, the initiated] we do express the Wisdom of God, though it is not a wisdom of the world or of its princes, who are rendered inoperative. But we express God’s wisdom in a mystery [laloumen en mysterioi], wisdom that was hidden and that God had decided before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.”
Mystery is emphatically not a “secret” here. On the contrary, it is something said and manifested. It is not the ineffable wisdom of God but the means by which it is expressed and revealed. This occurs in such a way that – as occurred in the ancient mysteries – the uninitiated do not comprehend it but the contents of this mystery are not “mysterious.” Instead they constitute an explicit and universal message:
“We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and Gentiles.”
(1 Cor. 1:23)
The mystery, then, is nothing other than the historical drama of the passion, which the uninitiated fail to understand but the faithful grasp. In the Time of the End, mystery and history correspond without remainder.
On a rather postmodern note, while most are familiar with the Antichrist as an evil figure (literally the opposite of Christ) ‘anti-‘ can also mean a mirroring/resemblance in the sense that the Antichrist might not be evil so much as an entity that offers (or imposes) a counterfeit of the Parousia: blocked history (lawlessness, no legitimacy, posthistory etc.) takes on the figure of the end of history. In this way we can see the double-identity of the End Times as a Time that is both “now” and “not yet.” It’s emphatically not a time of abstract actors or powers stamping their feet on the earth but a conflict in which concrete historical forces act. The ending, however, is foreseen: The Lord eliminates the anomos “with the breath of his mouth, ending him with the manifestation of His coming.”