A Brusque History of Eternity
November 6, 7 8, 2007 – 8:00 p.m. Spencer Trask Lecture, cosponsored by Princeton University Press
Until fairly recently eternity was no mere abstraction or metaphor in the Christian tradition, but rather the ultimate destination for humankind, a metaphysical conceit with practical implications as inescapable as legal obligations, or taxes, or death. Eternity was an ineffable mystery, to be sure, but of no less value in human interaction than money itself, or crowns and thrones. In our own day, however, eternity seems a purely abstract concept best left in the hands of astrophysicists, a frightfully uncertain horizon divorced from daily life. How was it that eternity emerged in the West as something more than a mere concept? How was it that it ceased to function as an
organizing principle for daily life? What difference does this history make? That is the subject of these lectures. More specifically, these lectures will explore how a transcendent higher reality has been conceived in the West, and how such conceptions relate to social, political, and economic realities.
Lecture 1: “The Birth of Eternity” will trace the development of the concept of eternity in the first 15 centuries of Christian history, focusing on four of the principal ways in which eternity was made manifest in concrete ways, investing daily life with an otherworldly character: ritual, monasticism, mysticism, and church-state relations.
Lecture 2: “Protestantism and the Reformation of Eternity” will analyze how Protestants transformed Western conceptions of eternity, shifting attention from otherworldly concerns to earthly realities, reordering society and the European economy in radical ways that we now consider “modern.”
Lecture 3: “From Eternity to Five-Year Plans” will focus on the ways in which the Christian West came to rid itself of eternity, and on the social, political, and economic effects of this reordering of the cosmos. In closing, some meditations will be offered on highly ironic parallels between what has been discarded and current scientific theories of time and eternity.