The Afterlife as Escape and as Engagement
Posted on July 28, 2016
My recent interest in liberation theology comes out of an attempt to think the radical social critique of Marcuse together with the neglected potential of Christian eschatology to holistically envision and humanely enact the kingdom of heaven. Like most Marxists, Marcuse accepts the commonplace Protestant binary between God’s activity and human activity, such that we either are politically complaisant as we await Godot, or we are crypto-humanists who think God takes no part in what goes in the world we and only we transform. The idea that God could be at work in the world alongside us—or a synergistic conception of grace—is totally absent in the dichotomy Marcuse presents:
The ideology of death is not yet an indispensible instrument of domination [at the time Plato wrote the Republic]. It came to assume this function when the Christian doctrine of the freedom and equality of man as man had merged with the continuing institutions of unfreedom and injustice. The contradiction between the humanistic gospel and the inhumane reality required an effective solution. The death and resurrection of the god-hero, once the symbol of periodic renewal and of a rational sacrifice, now directs all hope to the transnatural life hereafter. The supreme penalty must be suffered so that man may find supreme fulfillment after his natural life has ended. How can one protest against death, fight for its delay and conquest, when Christ died willingly on the cross so that mankind might be redeemed from sin? The death of the son of God bestows final sanction on the death of the son of man.
I find this passage to be something of a head-scratcher, particularly in its penultimate sentence: the exultation at Christ’s victory over death in I Corinthians 15:55 (which echoes Hosea 13:14) does not imply or necessitate gleefulness about death as an escape hatch to eternal life, so much as it implies that death in both material and spiritual forms is to be overcome. Given that Christians are enjoined to imitate the behavior of Christ, they are encouraged to not let fear of death (in this historical context, death at the hands of those who perhaps not inaccurately brand Christians enemies of the Roman empire) get in the way of doing God’s work in the world. The awkwardness of Marcuse’s interpretation suggests he is trying to shoehorn his reading of Christ’s victory over death into a larger Marxist narrative about Christians as benighted sell-outs who buy heavenly bliss at the price of earthly suffering.
The hinge on which Marcuse’s reading turns is whether Christianity “directs all hope to the transnatural life herafter.” More precisely, much depends on whether it is all hope that is transferred, or just some hope or chief hope; likewise, much depends on whether “the transnatural life” is a discontinuous break with the natural world, or lies in continuity with the natural world as a glorification or radically transfigurative realization of its latent possibilities. Indeed, it may be the case that 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 to say, transcendent) context of an endlessly dynamic and all-encompassing Spirit. In other words, within the panentheist framework, and within the version of the apokatastasis where all natural beings are restored to life in heaven, Christianity is playing at something different than Marcuse’s Nietzschean, zero-sum game where love for “the lily and the rose” is inversely proportional to love for the kingdom of God.
In the panentheist view God is both immanent and transcendent, nature itself is divine, and so life with God is not “transnatural” per se: the kingdom of God includes all since there is nothing the Absolute cannot contain while remaining absolute. Within this heterodox Christian understanding, hope for immortality is not a form of escapism but engagement, since the kingdom of heaven will be an evolution (glorification) of the world we were charged to steward. The modern worldview in particular, where the fallenness and despicability of nature is supposed to make people yearn for God’s grace in order to leave this godforsaken existence, has for many come to define not just mainline Christianity but all “real” Christianity, even all secular modernity (mutatis mutandis). Instead of this negative definition of the afterlife as escape into God’s arms from a godforsaken world, the sacramental view of panentheism—where God is not absent from the world—better fits with a positive definition of the afterlife as engagement with God’s creation, where nature is a sacred garden that God’s grace provides and will gradually perfect alongside our comparatively small yet ethically urgent care. The world is not disposable in the panentheist’s afterlife, hence we cannot dispose of it or dispose ourselves however we please, as though either is a separate sphere from spirituality. We are less liable to let the world go to hell if we see it as proto-heaven. If we can be motivated not by the threat of good things running out (mortality) but by the promise of good things lasting forever (immortality), then heaven is not a pretext for procrastination but an appeal for applying ourselves.
Here apokatastasis offers us a helpful reorientation from our usual mercenary attitude toward the project of ethical perfection. If we get it into our heads that our selves or our world are beyond saving—that there is a hell for which we are predestined—then we despair and give up doing what we ought to do because it strikes us as futile. When I presented an atheist friend with the idea of apokatastasis last week, his first reaction was to say: “What is the point of being a Christian if there is no hell?” A bit like asking a gay couple which one of them is the woman, this question is a category mistake that bespeaks an unchristian way of looking at Christianity, for hopefully any Christian who thinks about it would say that Christianity offers them more than fire insurance, and that there is something positive about life with God such that it is intrinsically good and not the anemic attraction of just being better than the alternatives (hellfire or nonexistence after death). If death is not the end, and there is no hell, and heaven is a perpetual progress in godliness, then you are never “off the hook” for becoming a better person. More precisely, apokatastasis means we all have an eternity’s worth of enjoyable progress to make—so why not get started now? Within this kind of hope for eternal life one would not hesitate to engage the world as a better person.
A lot of Marcuse’s argument against Christianity rests on what he means by “hope”: hope can be a quietist affect where one looks forward to outside help when one’s own activity is futile, or hope can mean looking forward to outside assistance alongside one’s activity, as the thing that gets one’s activity past the otherwise insurmountable tipping point of some project. It is pretty clear which connotation of hope Marcuse has in mind here, and it goes hand in hand with a distinctly Lutheran doctrine that we are saved by grace alone (reflecting another false dichotomy, this time between faith and works). Thus Marcuse is singling out one (admittedly large) current of Christianity as though it reflected the entirety of the tradition has been and can ever be. Were Marcuse’s interpretation of Christian hope as escapism correct, we could make no sense out of how some Christian communities such as the Anabaptists, Diggers, or Quakers could use “the humanistic gospel” (as he calls it above) to challenge “the continuing institutions of unfreedom and injustice” (ibid.). To be sure, the vast majority of Christians have denigrated these groups and their experiments in replicating the communism of the early church described in Acts 4:32-34, as they lend hermeneutic priority to the submission to earthly rulers laid out in Romans 13.
Still, it is crucial to see how Marcuse is by and large adopting the terms of Martin Luther’s critique of radical Protestants such as Thomas Müntzer without pausing to consider the potential validity of alternate theological views. (According to Luther, since your soul can be free by faith, it doesn’t matter how unfree your bodily existence is under a tyrant, hence to insist that society uphold or at least not trespass Christian principles of charity is a covert idolatrous insistence upon works as salvific—see James 2:14-25, a book Luther wanted to excise from the Bible as “an epistle of straw.”) It is not for nothing that Nietzsche—the son of a Lutheran pastor—leveled his critique of Christianity as resentful hatred of the body and the physical world. My friend’s impression that Christianity is for fire insurance and political escapism did not come out of nowhere. Examples loom over us in voluminous heaps of Christians who indeed comply with institutions of injustice in the mendaciously mercenary or merely misguided hope that ordinary obedience to earthly rulers will mean eternal reward upon death or Christ’s return.
Yet what if this stalling is theologically in addition to ethically unsound? In my next posts, I will unpack Agamben’s retrieval of the messianic eschatology of the early Christian church, and its implications for Marcuse’s utopianism.
Part 1: Free Time for All Time
 Herbert Marcuse, “The Ideology of Death,” in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis and Emancipation, Collected Papers Vol. 5 Ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce. London and New York: Routledge. 2011. P. 127
 There is a reason why Origen thinks the doctrine of hell is only spiritually useful for the most spiritually immature kind of person.
 Marcuse’s most extensive analysis of Christian texts is found in one chapter of his Study on Authority, where he devotes the majority of his time to the political theology of Luther and Calvin, and Müntzer is relegated to one brief footnote. Herbert Marcuse, A Study on Authority, trans. Joris De Bres. London/New York: Verso Press. 2008. P. 20.
 Martin Luther, On the Freedom of a Christian, in On the Freedom a Christian with Related Texts, ed. and trans. Tryntje Helfferich. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2013. P. 19 and pp. 40-41. See also Martin Luther, Against the Robbing and Murderous Hordes of Peasants, op.cit., p. 120