Welcome back to The Philosopher’s Lexicon. My primary goal in this series is to explore common philosophical vocabulary, hopefully transforming these words from useless jargon into meaningful terms. My secondary goal is to highlight how contentious some of these terms can be – especially those which seem obvious. These definitions will not be comprehensive by any means, so please feel free to add your own understanding of each term as we go. This week’s edition kicks off a sub-series on theological terminology, which will continue for a few weeks.
This week’s definition is a fairly brief one, and kicks off a sub-series. For the next few weeks I will be focusing on theological terms. Today we are starting with a brief, but important entry: eschatology.
In short, an eschatological philosophy or theology is one that organizes itself in reference to the very end of things, be it the end of the life or the end of time. For Christian theology, this refers to the individual soul finding union with God in death, or in the Second Coming of Christ. For Islam and Judaism, this also comes in the form of Abrahamic messianism, which is the orientation not simply to an end point in general, but to a coming savior (or rather, messiah). While this view bears structural similarities to teleology in its orientation to an ultimate culminating point, eschatology puts the onus less on achieving a goal and more on what it means to live in the interim period between now and the end. For a messianic eschatology (either for the first or second coming of the messiah), this means that the interim period is hopelessly flawed, and that the end will come with the perfection of all things. In comparison with this infinitely distant ideal, our here and now can bear only inferior likeness, leaving us dependent upon God for salvation, whatever that might look like for each.
In all cases, it refers to an inevitable end point. There are non-religious visions of eschatology that seek to understand how we live in terms of a future where humans cease to exist. These theories range from the scientific (the sun will burn out and unless humans find a new place to live, it will be end for us) to the metaphysical (that we will achieve some kind of perfection in the singularity of time) and more.
Different philosophers and theologians take up this structural orientation in different ways, but generally speaking the big question of eschatology is what should we do with the time that is given to us, knowing that it is going to end? Do we keep plugging, knowing that all of our effort will come to naught in that end? Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a fantastic example of fighting “the long defeat” and facing the decline of the world, following the Medieval assumption that the world was at its most perfect at the dawn of creation and that it is slowly deprecating over time. However, being Catholic, Tolkien’s eschatology is messianic, tinged with hope. It acknowledges its own futility, and orients itself toward the Good in order to make the best of the time that is given, holding out hope for an impossible savior. As Gandalf says in Fellowship of the Ring, no matter what cards have been dealt to us,
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.
In essence, it’s a way of thinking that prioritizes our mortality, as individuals, and potentially as a species. What are we living for if we know we are going to die? How do we understand ourselves as finite beings?
Tune in next week for the next installment of this sub-series of The Philosopher’s Lexicon on theological terminology, where I will tackle apophasis.