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Don't Immanentize the Eschaton, Bro

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The problem with groups like Take Back NYU! and OccupyNYU is not that their criticism of John Sexton is inane and childish -- it is -- the problem is they've lowered the bar of discourse at NYU so low it's embarrassing to look at. Sexton is not a Gaza-oppressing, union-busting strongman yearning for money and power. And framing him as such shifts the terms of the debate so that the middle ground falsely casts him as a typical college president, a real politician, albeit with worthy goals. But Sexton is not a typical college president. He's an eschaton immanentizer.

Yes, it's both a lame and pretentious phrase -- but it's also a useful one.

Eschatology is the study of end times. The eschaton is basically the final stage of human history where the lion lies with the lamb and Justin Bieber is spoken of no more. It occurs after Armageddon when the Kingdom of God gets established here on Earth. But according to philosopher Eric Voegelin, who the term comes from, only God can establish this Kingdom. Popularized by conservatives like William F. Buckley, "immanentizing the eschaton" is Voegelin's pejorative phrase for utopians who try to take the place of God in bringing about this final stage. Buckley's critique is that these do-gooders usually use the force of government to ram down their vision of the ideal society without respecting the natural order and traditions that cause societies to evolve on their own.

So what does this have to do with John Sexton?

When he is not secretly funding the U.S. imperial war machine and attending Zionist World Conspiracy meetings, Sexton is working hard to immanentize the eschaton. To little fanfare or criticism, he recently published an address of over 17,000 words reflecting on the "Global Network University." In the piece, available on NYU's website, Sexton builds on Karl Jaspers who refers to the Axial Period between 800 B.C. and 200 B.C. where people like Aristotle, Confucius and Elijah permanently change our consciousness. But Sexton goes a step further and claims, "As we begin a new millennium, a Second Axial Period has begun. Though first described by theologians like the Jesuits' Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I believe it also has a secular, progressive dimension (quite separable, for those who prefer, from religiosity) which is useful in understanding what we see unfolding in our time." And he is getting ready for this eschaton, "As humankind approaches this critical threshold, so do its universities ...Center-to-center contact between cultures offers the promise that each may discover what is authentic and vital not only about the other but also about itself. The influential ecumenist Raimundo Panikkar, echoing voices as different as Ibn al'Arabī and Martin Buber, has called it 'dialogic dialogue.'"

This is heady stuff from a college president. It certainly goes beyond the noble, but predictable fundraising pitches we hear from other universities.

And it's not just empty talk. Sexton has partnered with the United Arab Emirates, which is fully funding the development of NYU Abu Dhabi. The Global Network University isn't some empty philosophical musing -- it's our new reality.

It is beyond the scope of this article to condemn or praise this reality. But it is a call to take up the task of considered thinking. To move beyond the childish dialogue of those lamenting the loss of Asian Pub. Complexity and nuance are not to be feared, but embraced.