Henri de Lubac’s Incarnational Time

Christianity, Temporality & History

Henri de Lubac, in his book Catholicism, contrasts the role of time in pre-Christian religious history with that of early Christianity, denoted by the Fathers of the Church. For de Lubac, religious movements until and even following the birth of Christianity have often been characterized by “individualist doctrines of escape.” Following the advent of Christianity, a radically new understanding of time was introduced that allowed for the meaningfulness of history.

For de Lubac, the “individualist doctrines of escape” always presuppose the cyclical nature of time (think of the Buddhist doctrine of Samsara and Nirvana, in which the soul is trapped in a cycle of rebirth and death until a final escape into extinguishment). The seasons recur in a cycle of degeneration and recreation, but time itself is never moving toward anything. For these religions, there is no transcendent end. There is no eschaton.

Temporality finds no fulfillment. Time has no meaning.

On the other hand, de Lubac suggests that Christianity alone offers an eschatology which asserts a common destiny of all mankind—one for which “the whole history of the world is a preparation” A history that contains both meaning and purpose. A history that culminates in Christ. A history understood as the “penetration of the human race” by Christ. For de Lubac- leaning heavily on the doctrine espoused by the rich history of the Church- the salvation of the world is necessarily something that takes place in and develops through history: the history of all preceding cultures, the history of Israel and her Messiah, and the history of the Church; all of history hinges on the Incarnation of Christ.

In other words, de Lubac believes that it is because of Christianity that we have any understanding of time as moving toward any kind of “end” at all.

C.C. Pecknold, utilizing the language of Augustine, points out that this distinctly Christian understanding of history constitutes a future that is characterized by hope for the City of God—hope which is only intelligible within a history that is moving toward fulfillment in Christ. Because the Christian vision of time was seen as arriving at a terminus, “the Christian life was a vision of gathering up the world through time on an epic journey towards the heavenly city”.

This notion of history and of an eschatological hope has been deeply steeped into the Western political imagination. In fact, the repercussions of the Christian understanding of history can easily be seen in our late modern world. Perhaps we modern progressives, in our quest for equality and liberty, at once inherited and altered Christianity’s claim of an eschatological history. Instead of the end of our pilgrimage being the transcendent City of God, we have chosen a materialistic eschaton in which we seek to improve the human condition by means of the market and industrialization.

Such a secular eschatology is embodied in terms of the modern political arrangement; a political arrangement that imitates the true polis, the Body of Christ.

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