Political Theology 21.7
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* You can find the full text of this editorial below.
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Modern historical narratives used to depict the future as a human task for arriving at a previously prognosticated state. We find examples in Max Weber’s diagnosis of the rationalization of the world, Spengler’s prediction of Western decadence, Saint-Simon’s vision of a socialist new Christianity, Tocqueville’s account of the world’s democratization, and Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope’s technological utopia. The disruptive character of an un-expected event challenges this way of portraying the future. Has the pandemic been this kind of event?
Human history has already experienced numerous kinds of pandemics: the Justinian Plague of 541, the Black Death in 1348, and the 1918 Flu Pandemic, among others. All of them have had a significant cultural, economic, and environmental impact and affected humankind’s psyche. They have changed the way we experience the world, including historical time. The Black Death was interpreted in the Middle Ages as the fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:1-8). The Horsemen symbolize the evils to come at the end of the world, before the coming of the Kingdom of God.
This current pandemic has not generally been interpreted as a stage before the end of time, but it is a figure of the end of a time. It could be seen as the end of a cycle in which history seemed to be predictable and manageable – one in which the future was our task. A new conception of historical time is implied in the possibility of being visited by an unexpected event that we can only accept and not master. It is also the experience of the incapacity of our own forces: our impotence. The fact that the solution to the pandemic has been the same one (confinement) as that of ancient times is humiliating for a “technological civilization.” The pandemic has been the experience of a present that comes from the future and not from the past, or, what is the same, the experience of a time coming from the future and, because of that, not foreseeable or expected. In the new temporal cycle, the future is the unexpected and the unsayable.
How could we then interpret history and historical time? Is it not the case that historians, in accomplishing their task of verifying a certain account of the passing of time, seem to confront a task that exceeds their ability? Is it not this impossibility to render history a sign of the theo-political character of history itself?
Reimagining the Relationship between Past, Present, and Future
As Gabrielle Spiegel has pointed out, “Postmodernisms of every kind try to blur the rigid distinction between past and present” – usually in favor of the present. In fact, as Francois Hartog argues, presentism is the regime of historicity of our times. This can be seen in theoretical and practical approaches that advocate the construction of the past by the present such as those of Jan Assmann, Jaume Aurell, or Kalle Pihlainen, as different as they are, and in a way inspired by Hayden White. The introduction of the future in this theoretical framework has been due in many ways to Reinhart Koselleck. In his approach, historical time is an interpretation of chronological time that can be made from different “temporal” points of view. Although the events and processes of the past are a certain factum, they only acquire specific “historical reality” when included in a narrative that links the supposed past with a present that at the same time is open to a horizon of expectation. Past, present, and future are relative dimensions of time that interpenetrate.
Koselleck historicizes temporality through two categories: “space of experience,” Erfahrungsraum (the persistence of the past in the present), and “horizon of expectations,” Erwartungshorizont (the pervasive presence of the future in the present). These are not fixed moments but categories of temporal orientation. Hence, he defines the term Zeitsichten, time-layers, as “several layers of time of differing duration and differentiable origin, which are nonetheless present and effectual at the same time.”  Hermeneutics of time emerges herein. But how can the future permeate the present or the past? How can it be active in reorganizing the experience of our historical temporality? The idea of “horizon of expectation” is difficult to conceive without reference to theological imagination. In fact, prophetic time offers one of the most promising alternative temporalities based on an absolute future, which helps us to understand historical time in a new way.
What Does Prophetic Time Mean?
Prophetic time is a kind of historical time that is made effective by means of a narrative in which a certain interpretation of the present is related with the past as well as, crucially, with a future destiny. That future destiny is not imaginable, foreseeable, or calculable, but rather given in the form of a divine trace throughout the course of history.
The prophet is not a diviner who interprets exterior signs; he is not a theologian who interprets a given revelation. The prophet is the voice of God. Prophets tried to decipher the meaning of events for a concrete people, e.g., Israel, and they put all of these events in relationship with the end of history that equates to salvation, first of Israel and then of the new Israel, that is, of humankind. Prophecy happened not only in Israel but also in every ancient civilization.
The uses prophecy makes of the past and the present in order to interpret history are dependent on the uses of the future in a way that makes it impossible to just live in a pure present. Prophecy works with an intermingled temporality. The most original perspective that prophetic time opens up is the idea of the absolute future as an ever-historically-displaced future that is always present in history. In fact, characteristic of the prophetic timeline is that the irruption of the decisive incision, revelation, occurs not at the beginning, not at the end, but in the middle of time. The temporal schema is that of the “already and not yet”: the central meaning of history has already been revealed (it is absolute justice), but it has not yet been historically stablished since its absolute presence would equate to the end of history. To make justice happen here and now in every unexpected event is the only way to bring the Kingdom of God to our times. Absolute future ensures a historical future that is not determined by any imagined or predictable future and, because of that, has, in Derrida’s words, the character of a “visitation.” In fact, various postmodern philosophers (e.g., Benjamin, Derrida, Agamben, and Caputo) reject the modern “politics of time” and try to recover the theological of an absolute future under the rubric of “messianic time.”  The hope inaugurated by this kind of time is that a new quality of time will be achieved without any quantifiable work because we lack an imagined representation of it.
The irruption of the pandemic has made us experience in a way this kind of absolute future. New imaginaries of the passing of time have been opened by way of this unexpected event, confirming the inextricable political-theological character of historical experience.
What are the consequences of this prophetical temporality for our historical representations and political decisions? First, it advises us that we are not the builders of our future. Time comes from the future more than from the past. Second, prophetical time shows that linear representations of time fail in giving an account of historical time. Third, prophetic time instructs us that we have to be prepared to accept the unexpected event that can visit us in every instant. Fourth, from a political perspective, this kind of temporality makes banal a consequentialist politics centered in the efficacy of our own action and in a precise calculus of consequences in order to achieve mandatory progress. Instead, it recommends political action centered in the achievement of a possible justice: conviction instead of efficacy. Finally, it contradicts utopianism, since utopia reclaims political actions and forces to achieve an ideal, but the Kingdom of God is not an ideal. The prophetic calls for a single quality of every action: make justice happen as understood in the very content of the coming Kingdom of God.
 Gabrielle Spiegel, “The Future of the Past: History, Memory and the Ethical Imperatives of Writing History,” Journal of the Philosophy of History 8 (2014), 149-179, 169.
 Francois Hartog, Régimes d’Historicité. Présentisme et experiences du temps (Paris: Seuil, 2003).
 Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Jaume Aurell, “Rethinking History’s Essential Tension: Between Theoretical Reflection and Practical Experimentation,” Rethinking History 22 (2018), 439-458; Kalle Pihlainen, The Work of History: Constructivism and a Politics of the Past (New York: Routledge, 2019).
 Reinhart Koselleck, Zeitschichten. Studien zur Historik (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000), 9.
 George Minois, Histoire de l’avenir: Des prohètes a la prospective (Paris: Fayard, 1996) is a good archive of the theological imagination of the future.
 Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
 See John D. Caputo, “Philosophy and Prophetic Postmodernism: Toward a Catholic Postmodernism” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 74 (2000), 549-567. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 259. Also, Walter Benjamin, “Theologico-Political Fragment,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (New York: Schocken, 1978), 312. Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 112. Derrida and Stiegler, Echography’s of Television (New York: Polity, 2002), 13.