A Road Leading Away from Rome: Agamben on Messianic Time
Posted on July 31, 2016
For the last day of the philosophy of time class I taught for JCI Scholars this summer, I had us read The Church and the Kingdom, a “sermon” of sorts in which the philosopher Giorgio Agamben relays in accessible form the interpretation of messianic time he treats at greater length in The Time That Remains. I decided to close with this piece about how the early Christian church thought about the Second Coming (Parousia) in part because they have interesting perspectives on the material I like to think about, and because I thought it might speak to their own experience of awaiting release from prison.
The central problem of Agamben’s text is to retrieve the original meaning of “the time of the messiah,” wresting it free from the commonplace misunderstanding of it as a dramatic or cataclysmic future event set to happen any day now, until which we experience a life of injustice and suffering ticking along day after day with a vacuous and grinding banality. With a history of false prophets proclaiming that “the end is nigh” and providing embarrassingly precise timetables, the church has on the whole come to prefer discussing the eschaton in vague terms, just to be safe, as coming at some point. Yet even this vagueness still misunderstands the original eschatological message, according to Agamben: “The time of the messiah cannot designate a chronological period or duration but, instead, must represent nothing less than a qualitative change in how time is experienced. For this reason it is inconceivable to speak of a chronological delay in this context as though one were speaking of a train being delayed.”
So what is the qualitative experience of the time of the messiah? “…Peter’s First Letter (1 Peter 1.17) defines the experience of time proper to the Church as ho chronos te paroikias, and which can be translated as ‘parochial time’ on the condition that we recall that parish originally meant ‘the sojourn of a foreigner.’” To be a Christian in this pre-Constantine church meant to be without a fixed home, to sojourn, to be in the world but not of it. Here it is critical to bear in mind that “the world” in this context does not mean the physical world—nature or the cosmos as the local or complete totality of organic, bodily existence—but the empire, the imperial way of life spanning the whole world in the false peace of conquest and resource accumulation (Pax Romana).
For example, it says in 1 John 2:15-16: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.” Here we see the world means the common habit of jealously arrogating possessions and achievements unto oneself, a habit writ large and ratified in imperial conquest and colonialism. The world’s way of power is, as J. Richard Middleton puts it, power over instead of power with. Reading it together with Luke 12:15, where Jesus says, “a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” we can see that sin is the futile attempt to own one’s way into fullness of life. As this pseudo-life—this death—of sinfulness has institutional sanction to the point that it comes to define sanctity itself, the Christian must redefine fullness of life in a way radically contrary to what the world calls wise and true (John 10:10).
Thus the Christian rejection of the world is not—or at least in its original and frequently marginalized practice, has not been—the ecological ingratitude or hatred of the body Nietzsche rightly repulsed, as ecotheology is keen to explain. Indeed, “the boasting of what [one] has and does” that defines the world is of a piece with social and environmental exploitation, and the bodily mortification of the ascetic can be just as much a stratagem for pride (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). As Agamben points out, the verb for “sojourning” is often contrasted with “katoikein, which designates how a citizen of a city, state, kingdom or empire dwells.” Christian sojourn therefore has something of the ring that cosmopolitan originally had as the Cynics and Stoics used it: to be a citizen of the world (according to Diogenes) meant to not identify oneself with one polis, one place, but to be open to all, to be without or beyond borders. To sojourn is perhaps to be in flight from identifying with any one polis, but not necessarily in flight from politics, if by that we understand the extraordinary political activity of participating in communities that do not function the way empires do (Acts 4:32-34).
Within this sojourning way of life—let us not forget that before the label “Christian” began as an insult in Antioch, they did not call it “Christianity” but simply “the way”—one does not simply devote one’s energies to Christ-like generosity and inclusivity with whatever time is leftover from one’s adherence to state-sanctioned customs and institutions. Instead of following Christ in one’s free time, following Christ is taken to free time itself, such that the communal sharing of resources for material security fits alongside the spiritual liberation of the majority of one’s time from anxiety and productivism (Luke 12:27-31), freeing time for life lived not as a means to some other end (which one has or does) but as an end in itself, as an end which can be endless: eternal life as the temporal dimension of fullness of life through participation in a divine way of life, a divinity who is the Way (John 14:6). The liberating time in which this divinity comes is not delayed, but already here for those who choose to let themselves be liberated by it:
…Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “About dates and times, my friends, we need not write to you, for you know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night” (1 Thess 5.1-2). In this passage “comes [erchetai]” is in the present tense, just as in the Gospels the messiah is called ho erchomenos, “he who comes”—that is, he who never ceases to come.
When we discussed this passage in class, one of my Muslim students shared a powerful insight I’d never heard before: for Jesus to come like a thief in the night does not merely imply that he comes suddenly or unexpectedly (as is in keeping with the vague forecasting that is typical in churches), but more precisely you do not see a thief in the night even while they’re in your house. Together with Agamben’s reading of the original Greek of the scripture, I take my student’s insight to mean that God is already here, unrecognized by most of us, not visible in any evidence we can handle in the light of day.
The students agreed that priests and religious leaders get the masses to procrastinate on overturning unjust social hierarchies by getting them to equate the Second Coming with a delayed future event, bringing up as their example Joel Osteen. They described the planes such hucksters have, the mansions, the swimming pools, the tax exemptions. Above all they described the egoism involved in allocating power through religion, and sharply demarcated it from the sincere spirituality many of them found in their own highly syncretistic and idiosyncratic paths. They saw this duality between power and spirituality playing out throughout many points of history and many faiths. For many of them, their spirituality has been honed by an acute sensitivity to the issue of waiting, and so their insights about eschatology are unusually perceptive in this regard, as I’ll explain at greater length tomorrow.
Part 1: Free Time for All Time
 Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. Leland de La Durantaye. London/New York/Calcutta: Seagull Books. 2012. Pp. 4-5
 Agamben p. 2
 J. Richard Middleton. The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press. 2005. P. 297
 Agamben, p. 1
 A longer reflection would weigh whether Augustine’s City of God is entirely faithful to how the kingdom of God brooks no king but God.
 Agamben, p. 5