In 1971, as a high school sophomore in Jackson, Mississippi, I wrote columns for the school newspaper taking the "liberal" side of current issues, such as school busing and the war in Vietnam. My "conservative" counterpart was David Bufkin, who idolized William F. Buckley, the founder of the magazine National Review, and occasionally wrote Buckley letters. One day David came to class proudly bearing not only a touching, respectful letter that Buckley had written him in response, and not only a copy of Buckley's latest book, which Buckley had enclosed, but also a large button which had been included in the package from New York. The button read: "Don't immanentize the eschaton." I had no idea what it meant, and I don't think Bufkin did, either.
Cut to almost 30 years later. I see the phrase again, for the first time since Callaway High School, this time in the New York Times, complete with a reference to its source: Eric Voegelin's 1952 book, The New Science of Politics. Still ignorant, but curious about what the phrase actually means, I buy the book and read it. It turns out that the phrase is a distillation of the book's main theme.
To immanentize something is to draw it in closely, to make it a part of one's immediate, subjective consciousness and experience. The eschaton is our ultimate destination, the final end toward which our lives are ordinated. Affirming an insight that lies at the core of classical Greek philosophy as well as Judaism and Christianity (the three streams of what Voegelin terms "the Mediterranean tradition"), Voegelin views the yearning for transcendence, the restlessness for a world better and higher than this world, as a universal and empirically self-evident component of human personhood, nothing less than a fundamental part of who we are.
Consequently, to immanentize the eschaton is to commit a basic error in self-understanding. It is to assume wrongly that human aspiration and destiny are coterminous with the natural world. It is to assume wrongly that metaphysical questions, which are life's core questions, either do not exist at all, or can be rationally investigated only through the methods of physics, which in practice tends to be another way of defining such questions as unanswerable and therefore irrelevant. In sum, to immanentize the eschaton is to assume wrongly that ultimate reality, of which God is the final measure, is instead some form of this-world reality, of which man is presumed to be the final measure.
In the case of Christian symbolism, when the gospel song says "This world is not my home," it affirms the Christian eschaton. Conversely, when the singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman recently produced a hit song called "Heaven's Here on Earth," and when, some years earlier, John Lennon, in perhaps his most famous song, invited us to "imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try," these poets were quite consciously seeking to immanentize the eschaton.
Why does any of this matter? Don't jump too quickly to the question of whether or not you believe in God. That is obviously a momentous question, but Voegelin's challenge to us cannot, at least initially, be reduced to a contest between theism and its alternatives. Indeed, Voegelin takes great pains to show historically that religious leaders, speaking in the name of their faith, are quite capable of immanentizing the eschaton, with frequently tragic results.
For Voegelin, at least in his role as political scientist, the great dividing line is between certainty and uncertainty. The good thing is uncertainty. Why? Because people who are certain about humanity's ends often seek to divinize society, to reunite heaven and earth, by establishing within this world the true and final purposes of man. For Voegelin, this form of certainty is the great threat to humanity. For the man who is certain in this way "will not leave the transfiguration of the world to the grace of God beyond history but will do the work of God himself right here and now, in history." Cromwell was certain in this way. Lenin and Hitler were, if anything, even more certain. Indeed, leaders and social movements possessed of this type of certainty shaped much of the 20th century, including almost all of its bloodiest and ugliest parts.
Voegelin argues that belief in God makes us, or at least should make us, less certain. If, as Paul puts it, "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," then faith is much closer to hope than it is to certainty. It does, or at least should, temper our all-too-human tendency toward pride and lessen the chances that we will transform any of the ideas limited to this world (History, Progress, Patriotism, there are many others) into final answers. At a minimum, belief in God suggests a difference between salvation and self-salvation.
Yes, many terrible things have been done and justified in the name of religion. But I think – okay, I also hope – that Voegelin is right to suggest that, in the modern world, sincere faith reduces rather than increases the risk of excessive existential certitude. Dr. R. Maurice Boyd, the pastor of the City Church, New York, says that Jesus' ministry can be summed up in two questions. When speaking about the kingdom of God to the powerful and the self-righteous, he always asked: Are you so sure you're in? And to the weak and the castigated, he always asked: Are you so sure you're out? Don't be so certain. To me, that is perfect.
Critics of religion often make a similar point about certainty and uncertainty, but in the service of a different interpretation. Religion, they argue, asks us to invest our hopes in another world, thereby slowing us down in this one, making us less insistent – less uninhibited – about changes in the here and now. The old gospel song describes the essence of Christian hope: "In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore." A few decades ago, U.S. labor organizers, who did much to improve the lives of working people, cruelly mocked that hymn for their own purposes, parodying the original stanzas with lines such as: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die!" I reject their implication that religion is an enemy of social progress – think of religion's role in the U.S. anti-slavery, character education, temperance, and civil rights movements – but they, and Voegelin, are surely right to suggest that belief in God implies the relativization of all political and social goals, however worthy.
So it gets pretty complicated. On the one hand, belief in God does not, in and of itself, either weaken our desire for social reform or always protect us from the epistemological error of seeking to immanentize the eschaton. At the same time, the growing drive in modem societies to
bring heaven down to earth, to draw God into man, has produced not only great evil, in particular the various totalitarianisms, but also great economic productivity, great advances in science, and great legacies of genuine social reform. As Voegelin chillingly and with only some irony puts it: "The death of the spirit is the price of progress."
Part of Voegelin's gift to us is conveying this complexity. But to me, his two main gifts are his insistence that political science rediscover its original purposes, which would necessitate recognizing man's spiritual dimension, and his provocative reflections on the role of uncertainty and its opposite in human affairs. Vaclav Havel once said (I am paraphrasing) that he would rather have a beer with someone who was looking for the truth than with someone who had found it. From what I can tell, Voegelin was a seriously religious man. Certainly he was no religious or moral relativist. But I think he would have agreed with Havel, and would have invited him out for a beer.