When sound eschatology is denied, rather than evaporating, it spills. The Church has had long experience with diverted spiritual longings and spilled eschatology. The older forms have included worship of the ruler, adoration of the nation or race, and ecstatic devotion to the power of government. But newer and stranger manifestations of spilled eschatology are even now appearing on the horizon.
Perhaps the most bizarre example is the argument of Tulane University physicist Frank J. Tipler that through the advance of science, intelligent species will literally evolve into God. The idea that dependent being could turn into absolute Being is so muddled that one hardly knows how to argue with it, yet arguments of this sort are taken seriously by serious people.
If we are searching for common moral ground with people, it may seem impudent to drag in something so plainly not common ground as eschatology. Aren’t things like that better left unmentioned? Don’t they lie beyond the province of natural reason? Yes, but that doesn’t mean we can avoid it.
To see why we can’t, consider the contrast between two impulses embedded in human nature, the mere love of self and the impulse toward transcendence. Those who do not know what their nature is cannot love themselves properly; those who do not know what the object of transcendence is cannot hope properly. Yet there is a difference, for the knowledge of human nature is accessible apart from revelation, but the knowledge of the object of transcendence is not accessible apart from revelation; the longing we harbor is a ghostly natural preparation for the supernatural virtue of hope.
Unfulfilled longing for transcendence drives otherwise reasonable people either to despair or to false objects of transcendence, bewitching sirens that lure them to destruction. When the craving grows desperate enough, people lose interest in merely natural things. Their ears are full of the rush of their blood. They cannot hear us.
The paradox, then, is that not all of the questions that vex dialogue about natural law are contained within natural law. On one hand, the reality of natural law can be grasped by every person of good will; on the other hand, apart from grace its contours seem cloudy, and the stirrings it awakens may madden us. Natural lawyers have scarcely begun to think about problems like this.
Tomorrow: What Self-Deception Is and Isn’t