I was curious to know what my students at JCI thought of Agamben’s reading of the Second Coming, and if they saw any parallels to their own experience waiting for the day of their release from prison, which can be subject to sudden alterations or seem astronomically far away at times. To a man, they all said that to expect one’s life to instantly correct itself as if by magic once one is released is foolishness; they all stressed the importance of building a mentality of ethical responsibility as soon as possible, right now, even if one’s promised release date is far away or will in all likelihood not come before death. Many of them contrasted their scrupulosity in this regard to the zombie-like, repetitive, and short-sighted materialism of other prisoners who go through the motions, without a sense of purpose or vision.

I do not know if they are right about those other prisoners, but I am inclined to believe them, for in any case I think most of us are going through the motions in the manner they describe. I don’t think they were just humoring me when they said they liked Agamben. One prisoner once said to me, when I proposed teaching the class on time: “If there’s anybody who knows about time, it’s us.” They may not have precise vocabulary for it already, but there is a depth of insight when they speak about time that we should all listen to carefully.

Both in terms of vocabulary and insight, the sharp adage sometimes told in prison—“Do the time, don’t let the time do you”—harmonizes with Agamben on the futurity of the Second Coming: “In the one case, the time in which we believe we live separates us from what we are and transforms us into powerless spectators of our own lives. In the other case, however, the time of the messiah is the time that we ourselves are, the dynamic time where, for the first time, we grasp time, grasp the time that is ours, grasp that we are nothing but that time.”[1] Many of us are not grasping time but grasped by it in a ghostly dislocation from our own lives, going through the motions, doing as the Romans do while in Rome, only half-living in this static kind of dead time.

To grasp time and live dynamically in this Christian eschatology requires that one not put off taking care of those earthly things and persons, and at the same time, being committed to the possibility of taking care of them not just on a temporary basis but forever if need be, and thus the Christian resolutely takes up the ethical demand of now while also anticipating the ethical demand of eternity.[2] Here I want to repeat a formulation I used last time: what Christianity represents is not so much a transfer of hope from this world to another one so much as an expansion of the horizon of hope to include the physical world while also seeing its situation within an inexhaustible (that is, transcendent) context of an endlessly dynamic and all-encompassing Spirit.[3] The Christian sojourns by grasping the now within an expansive vision of the future as no reason for passivity in the present, but every reason for working towards the blossoming of the kingdom of God as soon as possible. (See, for example, how Jesus can be present among the faithful here and now, as in Matthew 18:20, and how love of God is impossible without love of neighbor in Matthew 25:34-40). As Agamben puts it:

Paroika and parousia, the sojourn of the foreigner and the presence of the messiah, have the same structure, expressed in Greek through the preposition para: a presence that distends time, an already that is also a not yet, a delay that does not put off until later but, instead, a disconnection within the present moment that allows us to grasp time.[4]

Agamben occasionally asserts that the time of the messiah cannot be a future time or involve the thought of a future life.[5] In so doing, Agamben emphasizes the already of eschatology and denies its obverse side of not yet—a denial that is understandable given the commonplace misunderstanding we saw in Nietzsche and Marcuse of Christianity as a layaway plan for future rewards. Yet I contend that this not yet has a progressive potential that has yet to be fully thought alongside its potency for the messiah’s presence in the now. For one thing, theologically speaking, Agamben does not square the identity of the messiah as the one who is always coming with this messiah’s promise of eternal life.

But on a philosophical note, Marcuse’s critique of the ideology of death should give Agamben pause, and make him wonder if he retains some crypto-Heideggerian worship of death. If Marcuse is right to hope for death’s defeat and to flourish in an order of eternal beauty and peace, then Agamben should not be so averse to Christians hoping for heaven, if this messianic hope really does contain the rich duality of already and not yet. Marcuse sees how Christian eschatology contains the not yet, but not how it contains the already; Agamben sees how Christian eschatology contains the already, but not how it contains the not yet. Their approaches are therefore complementary. Marcuse needs Agamben to correct his mistaken view of Christianity as politically complaisant, and Agamben needs Marcuse to sharpen his sense that history requires concrete transformation toward a lasting ideal future. Both need a more open stance on the positive possibilities of the idea of immortality—of the universally inclusive sort I’ve previously articulated in my post on the apokatastasis—as the confirmation of the urgency of now rather than its cancellation.

Thus, similar to Nietzsche’s way of grasping the finite through its eternal recurrence, I am proposing that a certain way of seeing immortality grasps the finite through its resurrection to eternal life through an infinite creation in which we are called to cooperate. But whereas Nietzsche accomplishes this by making time circular—with its attendant rationalization of suffering that Marcuse should find problematic—the Christian idea of heaven instead thinks of time as perpetual progress toward an inexhaustibly inviting God. But how can we reconcile the perpetual desire for greater intimacy with God with the legitimacy of fulfillment in the now? In my final posts in this series, I will unpack Gregory of Nyssa’s answer to this riddle in his doctrine of perpetual progress as an endless eros for God, and show its compatibility with Marcuse’s Eros as a principle of self-enhancing desire without restlessness.


Part 1: Free Time for All Time

Part 2: The Afterlife as Escape and as Engagement

Part 3: A Road Leading Away from Rome: Agamben on Messianic Time

Part 4: Already and Not Yet: How to Do Time without Time Doing You

Part 5: B-Flat Eternity: The Restlessness of Modern Progress

Part 6: Up the Endless Mountains of Desire: Perpetually Progressive Love



[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. Leland de La Durantaye. London/New York/Calcutta: Seagull Books. 2012. P. 12

[2] Here I am modifying something I find inspiring in Levinas’ idea of diachrony, where the open-endedness of my relation with and never-ending responsibility for the Other opens up time, and by extension the meaningfulness of God transcending existence (as Plato says the Good is “beyond being” at Republic 509b): “The futuration of the future—not as ‘proof of God’s existence,’ but as ‘the fall of God into meaning.’ This is the singular intrigue of the duration of time, beyond its meaning as presence or its reducibility to presence, as in Saint Augustine himself—time as the to-God [à-Dieu] of theology!” Emmanuel Levinas, “Diachrony and Representation,” in Entre Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other, trans. Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998. P. 173

[3] Using the language of “penultimate things” to stand for earthly things and people, Agamben makes a nice point that confirms my proposal: “…Paul expresses the messianic relation between final and penultimate things with the verb katargein, which does not mean ‘destroy’ but, instead, ‘render inoperative.’ The ultimate reality deactivates, suspends and transforms, the penultimate ones—and yet, it is precisely, and above all, in these penultimate realities that an ultimate reality bears witness and is put to the test.”[3]

[4] Agamben, p. 26

[5] E.g., Agamben, pp. 12-13 and p. 26