The Final Word: Prolegomena to Eschatology

The eschatological problem is more recent than the Greek problem of ousia [substance], yet like the problem of ousia it has sparked a “battle between giants,” and for this problem too, it is wise to come to a first conclusion: we do not really know what the final word is; on this subject, we are faced with an aporia. Faced with an aporia, however, we are not left unarmed, either existentially or conceptually. We can reach an understanding about our concepts and the meaning of our existence (that is, for the being that we are, being in the world between birth and death). And to arrive at such an understanding, let us be more precise about the “current” situation of our question.

After the research on eschatology carried out by modern philosophy, and after a new interest for eschatology has animated theology, further precision is necessary: in these scientific and technological times, the eschaton has inevitably become a scientific and technical reality. The question of eschatology, in its classical or modern form, concerned the absolute future of the human being and/or human beings. As I write these lines, human beings have no other absolute future than that of the universe. Understood as the totality of physical realities, and as a totality whose present behavior is known by science and whose future is predictable, the universe has an absolute future, whether science permits us to represent this in the semi-mythical form of the demise of all things or whether it leads us to believe that a new universe will reappear after this demise. And when history, from prôton to eschaton, becomes strictly “universal,” then our own history and, in it, “my” own history, as such subject to philosophical and theological concerns, are, alas, no more than pseudo-questions, because they are nothing more than philosophical and theological questions.

The consequence is clear, even if surprising: the question of eschatology, as we have posed it classically and as we would like to pose it still, is not commensurate with our times. It is not commensurate with the last of all our various forms of metaphysics, that of Nietzsche, since the latter leads to a rejection of all final words in the name of an “eternal return to the same.” And it is not commensurate with the times envisioned by Nietzsche, that of nihilism, where everything has value and nothing has value because everything is no more than valuation. In what contemporary babble calls post-modernity, the question of eschatology is derisory. In what survives of metaphysics in “post-modern” times, the question of eschatology no longer deserves anything more than being “destructed” or “deconstructed.” After the West has finished with eschatology, what can be said that is addressed neither to the “last man,” nor to the “overman,” but simply to the human being that desires to start being himself again? Let us make a few minimal propositions.


The most humble descriptions, those we proposed above, can provide an acceptable organon to all in times of scarcity, or following Nietzsche, in the time of the “desert.” There is no canonical description of temporality that enters into the definition of our being, but any description will confirm the status of elementary phenomena: to have finished with (this or that), being oneself in the mode of becoming and the event, the fragmentary character of our experiences of ourselves within the world, the inchoative character of our events of experience, etc. Nothing in these phenomena allows us to develop and elaborate a thought of history. They are to be inspected naïvely, without having recourse to the “new science” that began its philosophical career with Vico. The becoming that we surely are includes these corsi and ricorsi, this running in circles, so to speak, but on our own level, that is, commensurate with what we are, what each and every one of us is. The intimate consciousness of time, the constitution of a living present, the continuity of the self in the flux of presents, but also the reality of the self as becoming, and of the common experience when, remembering “our” past, we observe also that we ourselves have indeed been, and that we partly are no longer: the phenomenon of history cannot be apprehended if we have not described all these things.


Among all the things that appear to us, one class is of particular interest, those things that have the status of a trace. A trace is always of this or that. It is a trace of this or that which was present, has passed, and has therefore left the trace of its passage. And because a great number of traces are beings which are in principle visible to everyone, and which everyone can apprehend as being, if they have learned to do so, the presence of traces in the world signals on the one hand that the world I live in is a world where we human beings live, and on the other hand that this world has a past—it has been the horizon in which those other than us, prior to us, have made an appearance. Whoever recognizes that a trace, inscribed in a being within the world, appears to him as a trace, knows something about a past that survives partially in the present. He thus recognizes an essential trait of what we have the right to name history. The past precedes us, all of us. From some of its traces, the past “speaks” to us.


And if, across the play of protentions and expectations inscribed in our time, we also observe (how could we not) that we are not in the world exclusively as spectators, but also as agents, then we will admit that there is also a future, for all of us, and that we are to respond to it, partially. It has been rightly argued that the consciousness absorbed by the longing to perpetuate the present, in its “desire for eternity,” only leads to a neglect of action. In the dimensions of universal history, what we can do here and now is generally insignificant. To formulate a concept of history that matches with what we are, however, it is prudent to not appeal to universal history too quickly. Whoever acts in the present takes part in a logic of openness to the future. Speaking of action is not speaking of “fabrication,” even if there are at times products of our actions which will be tomorrow the traces of what we have done today. But before all “machination,” the present lives by being not only that of a consciousness, but also a maker of the future. Even if our contribution to history was on the small scale of our solicitude to a certain neighbor, solicitude exercised today and by virtue of a faithfully kept promise still exercises its lasting force on us tomorrow.


In all its forms, we must add, the promise binds us to our neighbor, also in all his forms, in and through a relation that merits the name covenant. Any covenant can be broken or reversed. Accepting that there is history also demands, banally and from the very first analysis, that in this history we perceive the always possible “undoing” of what we promise to “do.” The promise in any case, despite its banal phenomenality, shelters in the day after day of the world, and its history, something that resembles what others call the “sacred.” Our daily commitments do not explicitly call on heaven and earth as their witness. And yet . . . We promise (this or that), verbally or rather tacitly, to ourselves or to others, without using solemn formulas, but we do commit ourselves to intervene in a micro-history (the only one in which intervention by all of us is possible) and such commitment is not without witness (my conscience is a possible witness, but there are others too). The witness, witnessing tomorrow to a promise kept or a promise broken, has the status of a judge, and justice is always executed solemnly. An alliance or covenant, written or not, never has the status of a scrap of paper. Anyone who wants us to believe this is lying. And in a certain way, he blasphemes, against whatever “sacred” there may be.


The idea of a history in which we would only be spectators is disqualified as soon as it is proposed. The “fact” that we are always in the world while being within history, and always in history as potential manufacturers [facteur] of micro-historical events, leads to the simple conclusion that the historial and the historical belong to the category of the dramatic. A history governed by faceless processes could be mastered as we master any physical reality. A history governed by a benevolent god could be admired with sheer intelligence, as Leibniz does, as the best world to live in—better than other possible worlds. A history woven from covenants and promises, on the other hand, is a history of which we are the manufacturers [facteurs], from the verb δρᾶν, “to do” [faire], and whose dramatic character is due to the always possible and real undoing [défaite] of our doings [faires]. The first words of a phenomenology of history that knows that conscience takes part in history in the guise of a will to action are thus, necessarily, skeptical. History is the totality of micro-historical events. As such, it is the totality of promises made and unmade, of alliances accepted and refused. Events that will relaunch the drama are perpetually possible. Within history, the concept of the end of history, under the heading of a covenant that will not pass and a promise perpetually kept, can only serve to state what history is not.


And thus a spectator who is not impartial, who is not a philosopher of history, will be authorized to speak of a new start [relance], when he calls attention to some event which, he claims, has a meaning few others recognize. These events have taken place in the margins of universal history in the least “interesting” parts of the ancient Middle East. C. S. Lewis, a good observer of religious cultures, was said to be astonished that it was not in Egypt that humanity received promises worthy of faith. Almost everyone wonders why the Greek world was not the sole recipient of a covenant between the fragile human logos and the divine Logos. And we should be astonished when the believer, in this case the Christian, tells us, with a parade of details, that the Logos was made flesh and that it has dwelt among us, and that this event was surprisingly provincial. Kierkegaard, born in a “province” and always writing in the language of his “province” at a distance from a (German) culture that had almost annexed itself to the manifestation of the Spirit, knew something of this, and we must learn it from him. If we say that a new start to history is possible (for the simple reason that it has already taken place) then we need to have faith, not in the splendor of universal history, but in the “sense” of this history that can only be perceived by those who critique it from its margins.


A new beginning which allows for a non-aporetic discourse on the accomplishment of history, perhaps, but on the condition of accepting a ruse of the spirit that Hegel had not foreseen, and an irony (or a humor) on the part of the spectator which allows for a new gaze on the totality of events. This or that has happened in Roman Palestine. This or that was not merely micro-historical, but almost was. Our aptitudes for experience are broad and the transcendental, properly understood, opens us onto what comes “from elsewhere” in such a way that the promises (and duties) inscribed on the face of the other, and the promises (and commandments) that a god would give us, etc. are possibilities that perhaps disturb us but do not disturb philosophy. But a possible that would remain purely possible would only serve as a joy for philosophers or dreamers. And when we say that such a possibility, here that of small events capable of giving meaning to all history and to all histories, has become real, then we must accept that this reality has taken place where we did not really expect it. One easily objects to the “short formulas” which Rahner condensed his transcendental theology, and rightly so, that the concrete intervenes only to verify the a priori. Being interested in a few trivial facts of ancient Palestinian history allows the one who takes his time to perceive the possible that we would not perceive well if it was not first of all a reality that surprises us.


Analytical philosophy owes to I.T. Ramsey a fine plea in favor of those strange experiences that, when experienced, are only intelligible by discerning and by taking part in them, by discernment and commitment. This applies, as well, to our experience of certain histories that are strange primarily because they are marginal. There are realities that rightly interest us because of their splendor or their horror, which appear for whoever has “eyes” to “see”: the glory of classical China and the reign of evil in the Nazi period, to mention only two examples, cannot go unnoticed. To not see them proves a certain blindness, and the one unable to pass judgment on what one he has seen in this case, be it to wonder about it or to speak of its horror, would not be a credible witness. To see that which has every chance of passing unnoticed, on the other hand, demands intelligence, discernment, and finally taking sides. Louis XIV does not go unnoticed in a history (that of France) where he shines more than several suns, nec pluribus impar, but the master word of all times and all history, the logos, was uttered in trivial facts of universal history, and shines with a truly strange light, as “the logos of the cross.”


It is a challenge to think the fulfillment of history through a glimpse of this strange light, and every challenge is addressed to us as beings gifted with intelligence and will. If the still point of history is a cross erected outside the walls of Jerusalem, and everything “turns” around this, and if the absolute history of all things is intelligible only by presupposing the long event of the word which leads to this final word, then the philosophies of history should remain silent and entrust the task of naming the eschaton to the theology of history. A philosophy can be silent because it is a clumsy philosophy; it can also be silent because it knows itself all too well, and knows to some extent that of which it cannot speak. Philosophy and theology are both human, and thus make use of the logos. Philosophy often ratifies the presence of realities as quotidian as a pipe on the table or a meaningful sentence. Theology is organized around non-quotidian realities: our example, that of the divine logos hidden and manifested in the cross of Jesus, is a paradoxical but excellent one. And we will say of the one who agrees to listen to what the theologian says, and especially the one who listens and recognizes the truth of this discourse, that he “believes.” “To believe,” in a properly theological sense, is first of all to envision and perceive the phenomenality of that which goes unnoticed for the one who knows only how to recognize and perceive the Sun King or pipes placed on a table.


No one perceives except by perceiving this or that, such and such a “fact,” this or that event, etc. And no one thus solely “believes”: the believer gives his approval to words, to events of truth, and to these events as having the force of a promise and a covenant, a promise addressed to all and a covenant offered to all. Our aptitude for experience is an aptitude for this experience, certainly more complex than most, but also as intelligible as most experiences. Promise, covenant, these words are at once of common use and of major importance: in the fabric of everyday life, what they say (and what they do by saying) introduces what we have already cautiously named the “sacred” or, if you will, the “holy.” “Holy,” in fact, because the covenant most worthy of its name and the promise never revoked, are, for the one who believes, the work of the God who alone is holy.


The language we are using and the phenomena to which we are returning show that the question of “beginning anew” is in fact answered by preterition. Heidegger’s final word, almost, is that “everything needs to be said differently,” alles ist ist anders zu sagen. These are words we cannot really endorse. We do not say things in the era of metaphysics as we must say them when metaphysics has exhausted its forces, we do not say things within nihilism as we must say them to leave nihilism behind, etc., but whoever wants to discern the theological meaning of history in a time where its philosophical sense has become opaque knows his right to rely on ancient narratives, on the words used in these narratives, etc. It is good that the theologian does not appeal to philosophies of history that he cannot critique. But it is also good that he knows it: the theology of history does not have to be built again from the bottom up but more modestly we must let it be, as such, at a distance from the philosophical constructions that have lent it this or that stone. When we repeat what has been said, we always say it differently, but this affirmation is true only because it is somewhat vapid. We probably will not speak of covenant, of divine promises and their fulfillment, as another era in theology spoke of them. Our ambition, in any case, is not to propose a “wholly other” entry into the realities and the experiences that deliver the theological meaning of history. Our ambition here is something else: to point out that we already have at our disposal the necessary means to speak about history and its end in the era of nihilism—and that we have them at our disposal because they are older than everything that has led to the hardened forms of metaphysics and to its nihilistic collapse.


When I speak of the eschaton, it is a man who speaks. One will authorize this man, which is no small thing, to know that before its philosophical history, history has had a theological history, and that the latter better allows us to speak of the end of all things. Eschatology, as we know, was destined to be Westernized and to be subject to metaphysical takeover. The phenomena that we have cited and called upon as our witness—the covenant, the promise, and others that we have briefly mentioned, first and foremost hope—can without difficulty be immunized against such takeover. The task to be fulfilled, we are happy to say, can be fulfilled almost easily, because these phenomena entail a common appearance, and because we commonly encounter them outside of any contamination by Western eschatology or metaphysics. And if we speak of divine promises by taking the only “step back” that leads somewhere when we speak of the eschaton, we will not be capable of laying claim ipso facto to a fully organized “eschatology”—we will not pronounce a final word on the eschaton—but we will know at least how to begin speaking of it. Which is no small thing.


Those who bear witness in the world to promises that are not of the world, and speak of a God promising “to make all things new,” believe that some of us here and now will be made “new” in the end. Whoever speaks of history speaks at the same time about beings as a whole and of the totality of events, past, present and to come. We also exist in the mode of the event, and we exist in the mode of unfulfillment that our death lacks the means to accomplish or fulfill. The accomplished reality of our humanity is not at our disposal within the time of the world. The only thing at our disposal is the reality of what we are, what we have been, and what we will be by the strength of our doing and our solicitudes, under the shadow of death. But we are “free” to say that death is our final enemy, and that its defeat has been promised to us . . .

Translated by Stephanie Rumpza and Joeri Schrijvers

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from God and Phenomenology: Thinking with Jean-Yves Lacoste, used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Fresco of Christ in Majesty (Sant'Angelo in Formis, Capua), 11th c., photo by Mongolo1984; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jean-Yves Lacoste

Jean-Yves Lacoste is an independent scholar living and working in Paris, who has taught at Universities throughout Europe and the United States, and is a Life Member of Clare Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Experience and the Absolute and From Theology to Theological Thinking.

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