One of the more difficult to remember theological terms is eschatology. Essentially it is simply the ideas of how things finally work out. They are not all the same. There are many eschatologies. Some are pessimistic, some optimistic, some the inevitable result of inexorable history, evolution, and natural process, some desired ends to be achieved. Whether it be an inevitable end or an achieved one, however, from the religious point of view one’s eschatology is the outcome which gives meaning to life’s struggle, the final reconciliation with transcendent value.
Some while ago I was enjoying one of my usual arguments with a colleague about the topic which obsesses many of us at the moment, which is whether or not the people in the churches which are members of the Unitarian Universalist Association actually share a religion — whether we can be said to practice the same religion — a religion which many of us have been calling Unitarian Universalism. Although the question of Unitarian Universalist identity has been at the forefront of discussions on both sides of the merged organization since before the association existed, it has not until recently seemed to have become so urgent. There was an attempt to find a statement that would include everyone twenty-five or so years ago, but it was given up, probably because it would seem rather like establishing a creed, and because the concentration of those concerned with the question passed to the effort to write a set of principles to which we could nearly all more or less agree. They were so successful that they nearly created a creed themselves. That our association did have an identity was pretty much taken for granted until recently. Now there are many who will argue that we are simply an association of independent churches who join for mutual support, and agree merely to be in dialogue with one another. Even if that is true — and I hope it is not entirely so — I think that you still have to have some kind of shared identity which allows you to be in dialogue. You have to have something in common which makes you desire to live in support of one another. We are not, for example, in association with Roman Catholics, Muslims or even Jews, unless those self-identified religionists are members of some of our congregations. That question of what we have in common, therefore, is the center of most of the conversations I have with colleagues, and this particular colleague had, he thought, an answer. The bond that keeps a religious movement together, he said, is a shared eschatology, and he had identified ours. If I understood him correctly, he said that the one thing that we agree on is that the truth is too big to belong to a single way of thinking, which would probably also be unacceptably monotonous, so whatever else an acceptable outcome might include, it would have to include diversity of culture, of mores and of beliefs. I think that we both assumed without checking that this description included a human race living in peace and plenty.
It was an interesting idea, but I’m not sure that either half of my friend’s assertion was necessarily the case. First there is the issue of whether a religious movement must find its bond in a shared eschatology, or even whether such shared eschatology is binding. When we were still approaching the second millennium, various media commentators and social observers expected a meteoric rise in sects proclaiming the apocalypse. This occurred, we are told at the end of the first millennium. Although some such sects did appear, that happens whether the millennium is about to arrive or not. We always have apocalyptic sects about. Perhaps, as seems reasonable, sane people suggest to themselves that if nothing spectacular happened in the year 1001 it is even less likely to occur in 2001. Nevertheless, as I say, there are always apocalyptic sects around which may or may not be associated with any particular date (except their own calculation), who have little to say to one another, and not just within Christianity. It is hard to tell the difference in eschatology among apocalyptic Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Of course, they all got their ideas of it originally from Zoroastrianism. It is the idea of Judgment Day, when God comes in glory to raise the dead and judge them, sending some to eternal destruction and others to eternal bliss. In that day God takes complete rule and all evil and suffering are banished from human experience, justice is done, and all human beings are either reconciled to God or utterly destroyed (or eternally punished, whichever, even the sects themselves don’t seem always to distinguish those ends). This shared eschatology does not bind Apocalyptic Christians to their counterparts in Islam or Judaism or vice versa, nor does it expel them from the communion of their own faith, even though others in that faith may have a different vision. Therefore, although it may be the glue that holds different identifiable sects together within the confines of a larger movement, it is not necessarily the defining characteristic of the movement.
For example, within Christianity you will find many eschatologies. Besides those who look forward to the “rapture” as many apocalyptic sects call Judgment Day, there are those who look to a more gentle second coming of Christ, not for judgment but for redemption, and even those who feel that it is they themselves who must create the Kingdom of God on earth, that they create the second coming. There are also those, I believe, who don’t think about the end of the world at all — I use end there to mean both or either goal and finality — but rather a personal eschatology, their own salvation or reconciliation at their death. Nevertheless, they are all Christians and would admit that the others with different eschatologies are Christians, too.
It is true, though, that a clearly defined shared eschatology does often act as the glue that holds certain sects within a larger religion together and in some ways separates them from the parent body and gives them a somewhat separate identity. We might look at the idea, then, since Christianity is certainly our historical origin, of whether we are simply a sect within it with our own separate shared eschatology — the eschatology that my friend described of a time of mutually agreeable diversity. Upon reflection it has seemed to me either that our religion, too, can harbor more than one eschatology or that he and I do not belong to the same one, because his eschatology is not necessarily mine.
I have never before actually tried to articulate what my personal eschatology is, I think because it is a little problematic to separate desired ends from expected ones. In the light of eternity, it has always seemed to me that we don’t have too many options on the physical plane. Ultimately, of course, there seems no doubt that the earth itself will die, either by falling into the sun or by burning or freezing when the sun either goes nova or burns itself out. We can go with the science fiction writers who expect us to look to space as the next frontier. If scientists can ever get over the barrier of faster-than-light travel, that will be fine with me, but only if we can find planets which will support life and upon which we would be the only sentient species or welcome to the ones already there, but even should that work, and I have some doubts about our ability to survive as a species long enough to manage it, the universe itself seems to be finite. Although no one has ever been able entirely to satisfy me that the continuing organization of the universe is compatible with the idea of entropy, I am willing to accept the implied consensus that the physical universe will not last forever. What is more, given the directions in which the human race is going, with its pollution of air and water, its consumption of non-renewable resources, and its tendency toward tribalism and a belligerent nationalism at the same time its technical ability to destroy grows ever greater, it has seemed quite possible to me that it will turn out that the human animal is perhaps not quite such a successful product of evolution as we may presently feel and may follow other species into extinction before any of the other physical endings are imminent. Given such likely or inevitable material outcomes, it has occasionally seemed to me to render spiritual ones irrelevant, since for the human race to achieve them it might have to survive for longer than the probabilities would allow. In the book, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him, one of the appendices is what the author, Sheldon Kopp, calls an eschatological laundry list, a list of various attitudes regarding ultimate outcomes. The one that always seemed to fit me best was, “Nothing lasts forever,” a concept both comforting and discomforting, given the pleasantness or unpleasantness of one’s particular situation, but still true. Nevertheless, to reflect upon and articulate my own vision of reconciliation seems an appropriate exercise of faith, however separate it may be from hope, giving shape to the living of a life not merely material but with a commitment to the spiritual and the creation of meaning.
Besides, I realized that given an ideal outcome, I didn’t care if it was diverse or not, and that realization made it important to think about it in relation to the idea of the identity of the religion which this friend and colleague and I think we share. It’s not, mind you, that I have anything against diversity, indeed, I approve of it. I just don’t include it as a necessary aspect of my eschatological vision. What is necessary to it is a world of peace, plenty, beauty and safety with human beings living lives of fulfillment, love, creativity and joy, which they have achieved freely without coercion or even undue influence. “Fear will fall from our dwellings, and the night will be safe, with open doors.” (Rollo Russell) Should, therefore, some transcendent truth become apparent to the whole human race which would convince them freely to choose the same culture, mores, opinions, lifestyle, etc., it would be okay with me. It seems highly unlikely that such a transformation would occur, but if it did, I wouldn’t argue with it on the grounds that you can’t achieve perfection without diversity. The point is, however, that this transcendent truth must be universally persuasive so that people choose perfection freely. The result and even the process that reaches the desired outcome, the eschatological vision, might be exactly the same. His perfect world and mine might or might not look identical, as the transcendent values referred to in order to achieve it are significantly different: his is diversity, mine is freedom — a freedom to seek and act upon the truth, which implies, as true freedom always does, the responsibility to seek and recognize and test such truths as we can find. I’m willing to let him have diversity, if that’s what freedom in the search for truth and self-determination produce. My question is, will he let me have unity, if that’s what the human race freely chooses?
This may, in fact, be a deeper rift than either of us would wish to admit, and that is the real topic when we, again and again, discuss what the identity, if any, of Unitarian Universalism is. Are these two eschatologies able to be within the same religion, as apocalyptic Christianity and social gospel Christianity can both be Christian, or is it the kind of deep divide that separates Christian from Jewish social gospel, and apocalyptic Judaism from apocalyptic Islam? What gives religions their identity, whatever the different eschatologies they include, is their source of authority for the understanding of truth, whether it be a book, tradition, the sayings of a prophet or something else. It has been my contention that the source of authority for the faith which I have called Unitarian Universalism is personal experience, refined through the reason and the free church tradition and tested in the gathered community. That implies the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which may well, indeed probably will, mean diversity in belief and culture. The requirement of diversity in ultimate outcome, however, seems to me to limit the freedom of the search as any requirement of any particular outcome would do. That is, I suspect, the real reason that I have not bothered to articulate my personal eschatology before — because it is my own, rather than being one necessitated by our free faith which cannot require any uniformity of outcome, even the uniformity of mandated diversity.