Agamben’s Messianism

| May 13, 2012

“[T]he term ‘sojourn’ does not refer here to a fixed period of time: …it does not designate chronological duration.  The sojourning of the Church on earth can last -and indeed has lasted- not only centuries but millennia without altering its messianic experience of time.  This point requires special emphasis as it is opposed to what is often called a ‘delay of the parousia’.  According to this position -which has always seemed blasphemous to me- the initial Christial community, expecting as it did the imminent arrival of the messiah and thus the end of time, found itself confronted with an inexplicable delay.  In response to this delay there was a reorientation to stabilize the institutional and juridical organization of the early Church.  The consequence of this position is that the Christian community has ceased to paroikein, to sojourn as a foreigner, so as to begin to katoikein, to live as a citizen and thus function like any other worldly institution.

If this is the case, the Church has lost the messianic experience of time that defines it and is one with it.  The time of the messiah cannot designate a chronological period or duration but, instead, must represent nothing less than a qualitative change in how time is experienced.  For this reason it is inconceivable to speak of a chronological delay in this context as though one were speaking of a train being delayed.  Because there is no place in messianic time for a fixed and final habitation, there is no time for delay.  It is with this in mind that Paul reminds the Thessalonians, ‘About dates and times, my friends, we need not write to you, for you know perfectly well that the Day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night’ (1 Thess 5.1-2).  In This passage ‘comes [erchetai]’ is in the present tense, just as in the Gospels the messiah is called ho erchemenos, ‘he who comes’ -that is, he who never ceases to come.  Having perfectly understood Paul’s meaning, Walter Benjamin once wrote that, ‘every day, every instant, is the small gate through which the messiah enters.’

I would like thus to speak to you about the structure of this time -that is, of the time that Paul describes in his letters.  In this regard, care must be taken to avoid the confusion between messianic time and apocalyptic time.  The apocalyptic thinker is found on the last day, Judgement Day.  He or she sees the end of time and describes what is seen.  If I were to resume [sic.?] in a single phrase the difference between messianic time and apocalyptic time, I would say that the messianic is not the end of time but the time of the end.  What is messianic is not the end of time but the relation of every moment, every kairos, to the end of time and to eternity.  Consequently, what interests Paul is not the final day, the moment at which time ends, but the time that contracts and begins to end.  Or, one might say, the time that remains between time and its end.

In the Judaic tradition there is a distinction between two times and two worlds: the olam hazzeh, the time stretching from the creation of the world to its end, and the olam habba, the time that begins after the end of time.  Both terms are present, in their Greek translations, in Paul’s letters.  Messianic time, however -the time in which the apostle lives and the only one that interests him- is neither that of the olam hazzeh nor that of the olam habba.  It is, instead, the time between those two times, when time is divided by the messianic event (which is for Paul the Resurrection).”

Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom. New York: Seagull Books, 2012, p.2-9.