Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Immanentizing the Eschaton

“It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton.” With those words Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea kicked off their brilliant parody of American conspiracy culture, the Illuminatus! trilogy. When I heard last week that Wilson had passed away, I took down the three battered paperback volumes from my shelf of old science fiction novels. I was never a fan of Wilson’s later work, but discovering Illuminatus! had been one of the few bright spots of my first and mostly unsuccessful stint at college, its wry sense of the absurd a useful antidote to the much less creative absurdities of the early Reagan years. The phrase “immanentizing the Eschaton” stuck in my mind even in the days when I didn’t have a clue what it meant.

I thought of it again after fielding some of the comments to last week’s Archdruid Report post, “This Faith in Progress,” another of my occasional attempts to challenge the religious basis of industrial civilization — the belief that technological progress is what gives human existence its meaning. One of my readers posted a comment to the effect that progress, far from being the source of all human values, was quite literally the root of all evil. In the prehistoric past, he insisted, human beings lived idyllic vegetarian lives in harmony with nature, until the invention of the first stone tools and their use to kill animals for food sent our species hurtling out of its place in the natural order on a trajectory toward violence, sickness, and everything else wrong with existence nowadays.

I think he thought he was disagreeing with the modern religion of progress. Trying to break free of a dualistic belief system by standing the dualism on its head is a popular one these days. Like those Satanists who accept nearly the entire worldview of Christianity and just root for the other side, or the proponents of matriarchy who insist that it’s bad for men to have more power than women but not the reverse, his worldview and that of the believers in progress share almost all the same assumptions. They differ only in the ethical value applied to progress. Both views, to return to Wilson’s useful phrase, immanentize the Eschaton.

“Eschaton” comes from an old Greek word for “end” or “border.” In Christian theological jargon it came to refer to the process by which the world as we know it is supposed, at some point in the future, to turn into the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God. An entire branch of theology, called eschatology – the science of last things – evolved over the last two thousand years or so in an attempt to piece together a coherent vision of the future out of the hints and visions provided by scripture and tradition. It’s a lively field full of fierce disputes, and no one version of the End Times commands agreement from more than a fraction of Christian theologians or, for that matter, ordinary believers. Central to nearly all Christian accounts of the Eschaton, though, is that it’s completely outside the realm of history as we know it. When the trumpet sounds, the sky tears open and something wholly other comes through.

This quality of “otherness,” in theologian’s language, is called transcendence. Its opposite is immanence. One of the great quarrels of theology is whether God or the gods are transcendent –that is, outside nature and free of its limitations – or immanent – that is, part of nature and subject to its laws. Like all such binary patterns, this one admits of several different kinds of middle ground, but the basic distinction is relevant. People who have mystical experiences – which are, after all, tolerably common among human beings – very often comment on a difference between the ordinary reality of their lives, and the nonordinary reality that surges into their consciousness. Did the nonordinary reality come from someone, something, or somewhere outside ordinary existence? Or was it right here, unnoticed, all the time? That’s the difference between transcendence and immanence.

Most religions that put much thought into eschatology also have a transcendent concept of the divine; the whole point of the Eschaton is that ordinary reality dissolves into the wholly other. Most religions that have an immanent concept of the divine, in turn, either have no eschatology at all, or make the end of the world a recurring event in an endlessly repeated cycle of time. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, with their transcendent god and richly detailed eschatologies, fall on one side of the divide. Hinduism, with its universes that bud, blossom, and fall through infinite cycles of time, and Shinto, which has no eschatology at all, fall on the other. So does Druidry, which traditionally sees divinity permeating every cranny of nature and treats the awakening to transcendence as something that occurs to each soul in its own unique time.

Now and then, though, the two patterns collide and cross-fertilize, and the resulting belief systems locate the Eschaton as a possibility to be realized within ordinary history, or even the inevitable result of the working out of historical patterns. Marxism offers an example familiar to most people nowadays. In Marxist theory, history is determined by changes in the mode of production that unfold in predetermined order, from primitive communism through slavery, feudalism, and capitalism to the proletarian revolution and the everlasting communist Utopia of the future.

While all this is wrapped in the jargon of 19th century materialist science, it’s not hard to see the religious underpinnings of the theory. Every element of Marxist theory has an exact equivalent in Christian eschatology. Primitive communism is Eden, the invention of private property is the Fall, the stages of slavery, feudalism and capitalism are the various dispensations of sacred history, and so on, right up to the Second Coming of the proletariat, the millennial state of socialism and the final arrival of communism as the New Jerusalem descending from the heavens. Point for point, it’s a rephrasing of Christian myth that replaces the transcendent dimension with forces immanent in ordinary history. Marx and his followers, in other words, immanentized the Eschaton.

They’re hardly alone in that. Over the last three centuries or so, Christianity’s influence on the Western intellect has crumpled beneath the assaults of scientific materialism, but no mythology has yet taken its place in the Western imagination. The result has been any number of attempts to rehash Christian myth under other names. The myth of progress is simply the most popular of these. The prophets of progress simply fast-forward the Book of Revelation to the thousand years between the Second Coming and the New Jerusalem; the redeeming revelation has already happened in the form of the Scientific Revolution, the allegedly prescientific past has been stretched and lopped to make it look like a Vale of Tears, and today’s scientists fill the role of the Church Expectant waiting for the great god Progress to bring Utopia in its own good time.

My reader, with his myth of a peaceful vegetarian prehistory, is simply another example of the same thing, focusing on the other end of time. His tool-free Utopia never existed – the habit of using stone tools evolved among hominids long before Homo sapiens did, and even chimpanzees catch, kill and eat animals – but this hardly matters to its believers; it’s a retelling of the myth of Eden, with the invention of stone tools as the Fall, and the approaching downfall of technological society as the Second Coming that will allow the virtuous survivors to return to paradise.

You can find Christian myths rehashed as future predictions all over today’s culture – and not the least in those corners of it that are concerned with peak oil, global warming, and other elements of the predicament of industrial society. There’s been a flurry of essays and blog posts in the peak oil community in recent months about the motivations of “doomers” – that is, the fraction of peak oil activists who believe that petroleum depletion will inevitably result in catastrophic dieoff and the end of anything like civilization on Earth. Many of these discussions have raised interesting points, but very few have noticed the extent to which old myths in new clothing have defined contemporary thinking, here and in so many other contexts.

Now I’m no great fan of Christianity myself. To me, all its myths and symbols put together don’t carry the spiritual impact of one blue heron flying through dawn mists or a single autumn sunset seen through old growth cedars; that’s why I follow a Druid path. Still, it seems to me that if people insist on thinking in terms of Christian myth, they might as well go the rest of the way and become Christians. That way, at least, they can draw on the riches of two millennia of Christian philosophy, rather than making do with hand-me-downs from Marx, say, or the current crop of neoprimitive pundits such as John Zerzan.

They might also be able to learn a few lessons from Christian history, or any other kind of history for that matter, about the problems that follow when people try to immanentize the Eschaton. It’s one thing to try to sense the shape of the future in advance, and to make constructive changes in your life to prepare for its rougher possibilities; it’s quite another to become convinced that history is headed where you want it to go; and when the course you’ve marked out for it simply projects the trajectory of a too-familiar myth onto the inkblot patterns of the future, immanentizing the Eschaton can become a recipe for self-induced disaster.


Iosue Andreas said...

Great post. I'd just like to point out that the phrase was coined by conservative philosopher Eric Voegelin.

"Don't Immanentize the Eschaton" was a button worn by conservative students in the days before Jacobins like George Bush, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann Coulter hijacked the conservative movement.

Theo_musher said...

That is so true!

I have seen so much of that in Green anarchists circles. They really do believe mankind fell from an almost literal Eden.

John Plummer said...

Excellent, excellent post! Thanks

Dawnpiper said...

I’m no great fan of Christianity myself. To me, all its myths and symbols put together don’t carry the spiritual impact of one blue heron flying through dawn mists or a single autumn sunset seen through old growth cedars; that’s why I follow a Druid path.

Beautiful passage - captures perfectly why Druidry speaks to me!


taran said...


One of your finest posts.


tRB said...

Speaking of the difference between "imminent" and "immanent"...

If I may, Mr. Greer, I would like to ask you about something you wrote in a comment to your January 10, 2007, blogpost. You wrote that "if you live someplace less than 350 feet above sea level, move to higher ground."

It is my understanding that if all of Earth's ice melted, sea levels would (so far as we know now) rise 80 meters or so. I have also seen the 100-meter figure. So your advice to Dawnpiper would be good. However, it is not likely that she will live long enough to have to deal with that particular set of consequences.

What have you seen for the timeframe for total melting? My inexpert perusing has brought me to reports that say that, for example, "The world's oceans may rise up to 140 cms (4 ft 7 in) by 2100 due to global warming". That's bad enough, and suggests that people should build community in places that have better long-term prospects than today's low-lying coastal areas. Think of the great-grandchildren.

However, substantial or complete melting of Greenland and West Antarctica "are expected to take several centuries to melt completely".,,2-2100776,00.html "If the entire Greenland ice sheet were to melt into the ocean it would raise sea levels by up to seven meters (23ft).... Computer models suggest that this would take at least 1,000 years...."
Again, I am no expert, but if Greenland will take that long, and Antarctica has more volume, that should take longer. It seems that we should still think of fifty generations from now, but shouldn't expect *all* of this to happen within our lifetimes.

Again, if you have other sources with different figures, I would love to see them.

Please note that I am not condoning the destruction of Earth's coastal cities in the "distant future", be that over the course of decades or even centuries. Just because the worst destruction won't happen to the current generation doesn't let us off the hook for preventing it. But I also think that we should base our responses to the known and likely threats.

Meanwhile, I'm slowly learning how to use a slide rule. They're pretty clever devices.


David said...

Myths are seductive, though, because they promise certainty and sometimes even offer it in practical terms, especially if they seem to accurately reflect the current reality. I mean, becoming a primitivist "believer" may well have survival value.

But I suppose the value of immanence in this situation is that you stay in touch with reality, do your best and take things as they come rather than aiming for the transcendent future. So it actually has a broader survival value.

Seems harder to me though, with more shades of grey. Less certainty, a lot more learning and thinking and decision-making, and it's certainly less glamorous. Maybe that's why the mythical views tend to draw more attention.

John Michael Greer said...

Iosue, thanks for the reference! I'm not at all surprised -- old-fashioned conservatism was IIRC largely motivated by a Burkean distrust of attempts to achieve heaven on earth. Nowadays we're stuck with liberals who've forgotten how to liberate and conservatives who've never known how to conserve.

Theo, exactly -- I've encountered the same thing far too many times in those and other circles.

TRB, the problem in predicting the effects of global warming is that we just don't know how fast the collapse of a continental glacier can take place. One of the unwelcome discoveries of recent years, as a result of analysis of the Greenland ice cores, is that temperature changes once thought to have taken centuries or millennia turned out to happen in decades or less. In the same way, it's entirely possible that the collapse of the remaining ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica will unfold over centuries, but it's also possible that once again the uniformitarian bias in the earth sciences will turn out to be misplaced in this specific case. One way or another, it doesn't hurt to be safe, and getting 300 feet or more above sea level is a very simple insurance policy.

David, of course you're right that it's possible for myths to be adequate summaries of real situations -- that's presumably why mythic thinking evolved among human beings. Part of our predicament now, though, is that the myths that worked during the Age of Exuberance (above all the myth of progress) are fatally out of step with the conditions we're likely to encounter in the near future.

Immanent spiritualities also have their myths -- I've come to the conclusion that human beings think with stories, as inevitably as we walk with feet and eat with mouths -- but spiritualities based on the idea that the divine is always already manifest in nature seem to make it a bit easier to recognize that the laws of nature aren't going to be suspended for their benefit.

jlpicard2 said...

Methane Burps: Ticking Time Bomb

"There are enormous quantities of naturally occurring greenhouse gasses trapped in ice-like structures in the cold northern muds and at the bottom of the seas. These ices, called clathrates, contain 3,000 times as much methane as is in the atmosphere. Methane is more than 20 times as strong a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.

Now here's the scary part. A temperature increase of merely a few degrees would cause these gases to volatilize and "burp" into the atmosphere, which would further raise temperatures, which would release yet more methane, heating the Earth and seas further, and so on. There's 400 gigatons of methane locked in the frozen arctic tundra - enough to start this chain reaction - and the kind of warming the Arctic Council predicts is sufficient to melt the clathrates and release these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Once triggered, this cycle could result in runaway global warming the likes of which even the most pessimistic doomsayers aren't talking about."

Also, global warming affects the poles and artic areas far more than the equator. Add into this that ice reflects solar energy, while open see absorbs it. Less ice means more heat absorbed, melting more ice, etc. There are many positive feedbacks in global warming.

James Lovelock's new book "The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity" - The End of Eden

"He measured atmospheric gases and ocean temperatures, and examined forests tropical and arboreal (last year a forest the size of Italy burned in rapidly heating Siberia, releasing from the permafrost a vast sink of methane, which contributes to global warming). He found Gaia trapped in a vicious cycle of positive-feedback loops -- from air to water, everything is getting warmer at once. The nature of Earth's biosphere is that, under pressure from industrialization, it resists such heating, and then it resists some more.

Then, he says, it adjusts.

Within the next decade or two, Lovelock forecasts, Gaia will hike her thermostat by at least 10 degrees. Earth, he predicts, will be hotter than at any time since the Eocene Age 55 million years ago, when crocodiles swam in the Arctic Ocean.

"There's no realization of how quickly and irreversibly the planet is changing," Lovelock says. "Maybe 200 million people will migrate close to the Arctic and survive this. Even if we took extraordinary steps, it would take the world 1,000 years to recover.""

I would not put too much trust into the models. Models are only as good as our understanding of the Earth, and that understanding is still poor.


Now regarding the post. Excellent and eye opening. Everything old is new again.

The Magician King said...

How interesting! Though I've found a lot of your posts magnificently insightful, this one disappointed me.

It seems that your perception of Christian theology is a bit myopic. Most mature Christian theologians (of whom I'm admittedly not one, merely well-read of their scholastic output) would point to significant development of both immanent and transcendent conceptions of the Divinity, and ongoing engagement of the tension between these concepts in the actual lives of their adherents.

Unfortunately, I find that you've falling into the same trap you attribute to others -- developing a strawman out of over-simplifications of Christian theology in order to bolster the strength of your own argument.

A more productive approach perhaps might have been to examine the mythopoetic "origin stories" of any religious belief and then to explicate how a hypothetical example drawn from numerous and diverse traditions can lead any particular religious following to unquestioning subscription to a "Golden Era" longing for reversion to older principles.

If you really wanted to be transparent and impress me, you might have taken a look at how this occurs in druidry and what might be done to temper individuals' somewhat misguided enshrinement of The Past.

Good luck and thanks for the debate.

John Michael Greer said...

jlpicard2, the "clathrate gun" hypothesis certainly counts as one of the possible drivers for fast ice sheet collapse. Mind you, I'd be slow to put money on either side of the debate. We just don't know -- which is why it's probably a good idea to play it safe.

Magician King, you seem to have missed the point of my post, and seen a debate between Christianity and Druidry where nothing of the sort occurred. My point was simply that patterns out of Christian myth (a term I don't use dismissively, BTW) are being recycled, in not very helpful ways, all through today's supposedly nonreligious views of the future. As the mythic patterns I'm discussing come from Christianity and not Druidry, and most readers of this blog have no background in Druid beliefs, it would be rather silly to focus my discussion on Druid myth, don't you think?

We could talk about transcendence and immanence for quite a while; I've published a critique of the ways this distinction has been used to dismiss polytheist spirituality in my book A World Full of Gods (ADF, 2005), and am quite aware of the difficulties in compressing some three thousand years of theological discussion into one paragraph meant, as this blog is, for a general readership. Still, I'd argue, if an argument was called for, that the distinction between religions with a primarily transcendent concept of divinity, and those with a primarily immanent concept of divinity, does exist in the data and helps make sense of important differences between the faiths in question. That being the case, it's not out of place to talk about it when discussing the bad results of unthinkingly reading myth into history...which is, after all, the point of this post.

David said...

Speaking in extremely general terms, do you have a useful guiding myth (or set of myths) for the post-industrial age -- a desired destination? Or is it more about deconstructing the myths that aren't working and just hanging on and surviving the best we can?

Not to ignore the real, harsh material realities and necessities of the collapse, but I just wonder what is the broader metaphysical arc of this collective story.

John Michael Greer said...

David, as far as I can tell, human beings can't think at all without thinking in mythic terms; those who believe they're myth-free are just not paying attention to the myths that guide them. The only way you can deconstruct one myth is by comparing it with another.

As I see it, though, the best strategy just now isn't a matter of fixating on a single alternative myth -- breadth and flexibility are good to have, which is why most other cultures have a wide range of myths to draw on -- but you're right that attention to the mythic meanings of the whole collective story is a good thing as well. I'll be discussing this in more detail in a later post.

Magister Patricius said...

The reverse happens. Sometimes, maybe many times, the Christian myth begins to fail the Christian. This was true for me, and it took many years for me to get clear that this was happening. Matthew Fox and Meister Ekhart and Thich Naht Hanh helped. And so, I had to leave. After a 5 year hiatus, I cast about and Druidry found me. Your statment could easily be my words:
"Druidry sees divinity permeating every cranny of nature and treats the awakening to transcendence as something that occurs to each soul in its own unique time."

Once I began to explore Druidry in an intentional way, I found, over and over and over again, that something in me had always been Druid. It was that simple. That powerful.


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Gareth Doutch said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Loveandlight said...

Probably only JMG will see this comment as I went back and read this post when it was mentioned in a comment on a much later post.

Not everyone who thinks of civilization, or at the very least civilization as it has existed for the past 10,000 years, as a dead end is necessarily "immanentizing the Eschaton". I agree with the primitivist critique of civilization mostly because I think agriculture and the very complex societies to which it gives rise are totally unsustainable. Horticulture such as was practiced by the Natives who inhabited this continent before the arrival of Columbus can be sustainable, as long as those practicing it recognize and revere their connection with nature and because of that live within certain limits. The thing is, a society that does so will experience limitations on how complex it may become. That is why it is not appropriate to call it "civilization" as we know it. There may be some complexity, but increasing complexity for its own sake would not be possible for a sustainable human society observing those limits.

Such societies, when its human parts are doing things properly, are functional, sustainable, and adaptable. That doesn't mean it's "Paradise", though it may be perceived as paradise in comparison to the havoc civilization has wraught. It is widely known that many American colonists who experienced Native life "went Native" to live with and as who we now call Native Americans. The only time the "Indians", as we once called them, "went White" is when they converted to Xtianity because they survived the smallpox epidemic that we brought over that wiped out so many Native populations; the survivors who converted did so because they were badly traumatized and believed the missionaries who told them the pandemic was "God's punishment" for the Natives' not being Xtians. The smallpox was so virulent, by the way, because the horrors of civilization in Europe made it so with overcrowding in cities, domestication of animals, and bad living conditions.

Some tribes also converted wholesale to the European colonist way of life as a survival strategy. They thought that adapting the way of life that appeared to be taking over would prevent them from having their land and sustenance taken from them. But because the White people from civilization perceived the Natives as being racially inferior, these adopters of colonist life had their land taken from them anyway. That's another aspect of civilization, namely destroying or enslaving other societies simply because the "others" are "different" in some way such as skin-color, even if the "others" change themselves to please the invader's notion of truth and the right way to live.

Perhaps the persistence of such outrages are why those who would defend the "necessity" of civilization have to cling to morally, spiritually, and intellectually bankrupt nonsense so very often in order to mount their defense. Yes, primitive people can be bad and warlike, but the limits on their complexity places natural limits on how much damage more destructive primitives can do.