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The New Eschatology


Lord Northbourne

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Winter, 1974). © World Wisdom, Inc.

MUCH of what is written and said with a bearing on religion today seems to suggest that the traditional conception of the destiny of man is giving way to a new conception. This new conception is to the effect that the culminating point of the destiny of man is some kind of collective Utopia peopled by supermen or by some hypothetical super-society, which will be realised in this world, that is to say, within the domain of time, space and relativity, even though its realisation may be long delayed; and consequently that the primary purpose of religion is to help mankind to bring about that Utopia by a proper use of human faculties and powers. The relationship of this conception to current theories of progressive evolution is evident: Teilhard de Chardin is its most widely acclaimed prophet.

The traditional conception, which in the Christian tradition is derived from the Gospels, is to the effect that the destiny of every individual soul, but not of the collectivity nor of any particular collectivity, is a paradise, or a hell, situated in eternity and infinity and face-to-face with the Absolute; and consequently that the primary purpose of religion is the salvation of the souls of men now living in this world, where change is still possible for them, while at the same time offering them the possibility of realising in this world an inward peace independent of all contingencies agreeable or disagreeable.

The new point of view is neatly set out by Sir Julian Huxley in an article entitled The Crowded World” in Your Environment, No. 4, Autumn 1970. He says:

…We must look at it (the question of population increase) in the light of the new vision of human destiny which human science and learning have revealed to us. We must look at it in the light of the glorious possibilities that are still latent in man…

This vision of the possibilities of wonder and more fruitful fulfilment on the one hand as against frustration and increasing misery and regimentation on the other is the twentieth century equivalent of the traditional Christian view of salvation and damnation. I would say indeed that this new point of view that we are reaching, the vision of evolutionary humanism, is essentially a religious one, and that we can and should devote ourselves with truly religious devotion to the cause of ensuring greater fulfilment for the human race in its future destiny…

…We have learnt how to control the forces of outer nature.”

This last observation is perhaps the most remarkable of all—coming as it does from a scientist whose boast—like that of other scientists—is a strict objectivity.

How trivial is the conception of religion as little more than a guide to a hypothetical evolutionary progress! And how improbable is the fulfilment of the hopes it fosters in view of the cataclysmic character of all history, human, terrestrial and cosmic! And how patently false is it in the light of the Gospels! Are we not told that God’s Kingdom is “not of this world”, that It is both “within you and “at hand; and are we not commanded to “take no thought for the morrow”? The Utopian conception of the destiny of man offers a hope which is certainly not the Christian hope, whatever it may be, and it seems steadily to be replacing the Christian hope, sometimes openly, but more often as it were by stealth, by a process of dilution and suggestion, so that its intrusion is not always obvious.

Many religious people seem indeed to be unable to see that either conception excludes the other; but it is bound to do so in practice because a hope centred on a terrestrial future must exclude or weaken by dilution a hope centred on what is not of this world; and “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. The fundamental incompatibility between the two conceptions resides however in the fact that they imply two radically different conceptions of the nature of God’s dispositions as they affect the destiny of this world in general and the situation and function of a terrestrial humanity in particular. This is the crucial point, and it underlies all that follows.

The Utopian ideal is usually in mind when people speak of “building a better world” or “making the world a better place”, or even “hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. There is not much reason to think that any such enterprise is within our competence. What else have we been trying to do for the last one hundred and fifty years or so, and with what success? The advent of modern science and the industry which depends on it was hailed by our great-grandfathers as the beginning of a new era of well-being for mankind, and even now we can think of nothing better than an intensification of the application of the governing principles of industry and science to our problems. Something that can be called the “building of a better world”, at least on a firmly restricted and local scale and in the short term, is no new idea; it is as old as mankind. What is new is its assimilation to Christian eschatology and its extension to a very long term, and perhaps, above all, the attribution of its fulfilment to a hypothetical evolutionary development in humanity as such. It looks as if we may have to learn by painful experience that such an enterprise is not within our competence, and that we must once more put our trust in God, absolutely, without knowing what the terrestrial future holds for us nor thinking that it is for us to decide, and above all without confusing God’s will with our own desires.

There are some who would maintain that the Utopian conception represents the true interpretation in the light of modern discoveries of the teaching of the Scriptures, usually with particular reference to the hypothesis of progressive evolution. This implies, among other things, that the Scriptures must not be taken at their face value, but as an elaborate and pointless circumlocution, for if God’s Kingdom is after all of this world, why do the Scriptures insist that it is not so? It implies also that the evolutionary hypothesis has been established as a principle, whereas it has in fact been seriously questioned from a scientific point of view as well as from other points of view; and it implies less directly, but no less conclusively, that there is nothing in principle inaccessible to the approach of modern science, and therefore that the truth which is the beginning and the end of religion, and eventually even God Himself, must be brought within the range of that approach. The acceptance of all or any of these implications, so far from clarifying the eternal and universal truth enshrined in the Gospels, inevitably perverts that truth.

In the present confused state of the world, it is easy to think that nothing could be more disinterestedly charitable than to devote oneself to building a better world for the benefit of our successors. We must, however, first decide whether we are thinking of a world more agreeable to live in, or of a world more dedicated to the service of God. If we think of the latter mainly as a means towards the former, we are no better than hypocrites. The nature of Christian charity is implicit in the commandment to “love your neighbour as yourself”, and that commandment is subordinated to the “first and great commandment which enjoins the love of God. A right attitude to the neighbour must therefore, if it is to be fruitful, be motivated by a love of God. Whether it is so motivated in any particular case, or whether it is not, is known to God alone; therefore it is not for us to judge—lest we be judged. Nevertheless, our intelligence was not given to us for nothing, and we have a perfect right to think that an act undertaken with an illusory objective in view is less likely to be fruitful than it could be if that objective were realistic, that is to say, if it were in accordance with the truth communicated by the Scriptures and by tradition. It is far from uncharitable to think so and to say so, for true charity cannot condone error; charity must even be severe when necessary, as it was towards the money-changers in the temple and the Scribes and Pharisees.

The man who asked, “who then is my neighbour?” asked a pertinent question. The answer given to him makes it clear that your neighbour is not someone with whom you can have no contact, and therefore certainly not some remote descendent of someone you cannot possibly identify; he is, on the contrary, someone with whom you have a close contact here and now, especially if it is a difficult contact, as is usually the case when the relationship is one of obligation, as it was in the parable. We can in fact love only someone we know, and we can act only in the present and wherever we may happen to be. To live now in charity with the neighbour is the best that anyone can do, and a good deal more than most of us can do, and we can only do it effectively if we have first loved God. If we strive above all for that, the morrow will look after itself, for the quality of the future is conditioned by the quality of the present, and not by what we think the future ought to be like. The quality of the present is conditioned not by wealth nor by culture nor by knowledge, but by the reality of our love of God, which is manifested in our keeping of His commandments. Among them is that we take no thought for the morrow. May it not be that the more remote that tomorrow is, the more vain is our thought for it, and therefore the less effectively charitable are our endeavours to make it what we would like it to be?

Everything that has a beginning has an end. All forms are perishable. Our hypothetical Utopia must therefore be perishable, however glorious and long-lasting it might be, and though its creators and lords were supermen. There is no common measure between the perishable and the Imperishable; in the sight of the Imperishable the perishable, indefinite though it be both spatially and temporally, is as the twinkling of an eye. Man as man is perishable, but he alone has been accorded a vision of the Imperishable, and has been told how to seek it. We seem deliberately to be choosing to seek the perishable, and that in some dim and distant future, although the Imperishable is never not here and never not now.

Any comparison between the traditional eschatologies and the modern, calls for at least a brief reference to certain traditional cosmological theories concerning the nature of time. These theories are expressed in different ways in different traditions; the fundamental ideas of Christian eschatology are strictly in accordance with them. These traditional theories are incidentally also compatible with modern scientific theories concerning the cataclysmic nature of cosmic phenomena. The basic idea is familiar, namely, that everything that exists in time has a beginning and must have an end; but the implication that the nature of time itself is cyclical, and not linear as it is commonly assumed to be, is seldom grasped. In other words, the universal law is not one of a progressive evolution, but is one of birth, life and death; and it applies to everything without exception, including the cosmos in its entirety. The only thing that endures is the potentiality of which any given temporal phenomenon is an expression, and that potentiality subsists in God considered as the unchanging Principle of all things, their beginning and their end, their Creator and their Goal.

From the point of view of beings such as ourselves who are involved in a particular temporal cycle, that cycle contains all we know or can know or need to know. Hence the Bible is concerned with no other cycle, except in a few passages, for instance in the Book of Revelation (Chap. 21) in which a new “creation” is predicted. St. John the Divine saw “a new heaven and a new earth”, and God said “Behold I make all things new”. This new beginning corresponds to a return of time on itself, and is followed by a redeployment under new conditions of the potentialities eternally present in the Divine Principle. Hence the traditional conception of a golden age or an “earthly paradise”, which is related only to the primordial state of innocence, and of a sense of the Presence of God which preceded the Fall of man and is restored only after the Great Judgment. It has no relation whatever to any evolutionist conception, since it represents a fresh start, right from the beginning.

The cosmological situation of man on this earth can be looked at from a spatial as well as from a temporal point of view. From this point of view man can be considered as situated on the “vertical” axis which connects all the innumerable states of being, and they in turn can be regarded as “horizontal” planes of indefinite extent centred on this axis. The terrestrial state as a whole is represented by one such plane. Only by way of the axis is communication with any other plane, either “higher or “lower, possible. At the centre of the cosmic cross is man and his “central” situation, and that alone, makes him unique in function and in potentiality among all creatures.

From the point of view of religion, which differs from the above only in the manner of its expression, man is the mediator between God and His creation, and his function is to keep the world in touch with God. The purpose of the creation of man is the exercise of that function, and his worth in the sight of God depends on how well or how badly he exercises it, and he will be judged accordingly. No higher function is possible, and appointment to it carries with it the qualities and faculties necessary for its accomplishment, as well as dominion over all other creatures. The most important of those qualities are something that has been called a “thirst for the Absolute” or a “sense of eternity”, but it can also be called a “love of God”, together with humility before God and charity towards all creatures, non-attachment to the world, simplicity and dignity. These are the essential and distinctively human qualities, and they will never be other than they are now. They have nothing to do with that power of control over the environment on which current hopes seem mostly to be based. One could also say that the quality which counts for most is holiness: but holiness is undefinable. The conception of the future evolution of a superman or of the kind of super-society” envisaged by Teilhard de Chardin, with enhanced powers over human destiny, is therefore both superfluous and misleading, since we now have a choice between the highest possible individual destiny and the lowest, and no conscious being could have more than that. God in His infinite Mercy has not relegated the highest possible attainment of humanity to a distant future, but has offered it to every man according to his capacities here and now, if he will but fulfil his appointed function as well as he can in the situation in which God has placed him. That situation, considered either from a cosmological or from a religious point of view, will be the same a million years hence as it is now; it cannot ever be “more central than central”; it will therefore be the same independently of any evolutionary change in man himself or in the world he lives in for so long as there is a humanity. We, the present representatives of humanity, occupy that situation now. To dream of a Utopia may be consoling to us in these days of confusion and fear, but if we take our dream seriously it cannot do otherwise than delude us concerning our present situation, our essential function, and our inescapable destiny.

How wonderful to have been born into the human state, and by virtue of that fact alone to have the possibility of seeing beyond the perishable, and more, to have been shown how to seek the imperishable! The urge to make that search is universal in mankind. It would not be a search if it could not take a wrong direction, and it inevitably does so in those who cannot accept the reality or the uniqueness of Revelation, and for whom the authority of religion and tradition is consequently a dead letter. They, like all men, are nevertheless impelled to seek the Imperishable, but they are left with no alternative but to seek It in the perishable; in the universe and not in its Creator, in the very big or the very small and not in the dimensionless, in duration and not in the timeless, in that which is seen and not in That which sees, in the expanding periphery and not in the motionless centre, in their environment and not in themselves . . . and so on. Inevitably their search is in vain. Every line explored leads either to a dead end or to a proliferation of new lines demanding further exploration, simply because of the indefinity of the possibilities comprised in the perishable. The perishable coincides with the relative, and its indefinity reflects in multiplicity the infinity of the absolute, which is one and alone is imperishable. Finality resides only in the absolute “as it is in itself” and not in its reflection in relativity; but the absolute is not merely the end, it is also the beginning—and the middle as well. It is the ubiquitous centre subsisting in the eternal present; and so for us, who are tied to the relativity of space and time, it is here and now, wherever or whenever our particular individual here and now” may be. Whatever we may call the object of our search, whether it be “the absolute” or “the imperishable” or “truth” or “the kingdom of heaven, it must be sought here and now; it is no more to be found in the future than in the past. The wonder of our situation is precisely that God in His Mercy has shown us now and clearly what are our true vocation and destiny, and we can be sure that His Mercy will be no less fully bestowed on our successors; but that is all that we can ever know about them. Dreaming of a future that will be theirs and not ours certainly will not help them, and it can do nothing but harm to us by distracting our attention from the present, in which alone we can exercise our function and fulfil our destiny.

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