At the end of “Experiences of a Catholic Theologian,” Karl Rahner’s last public lecture, delivered not long before his death, he suggested that contemporary theology needs to find a way to speak more meaningfully of eternal life. “But how, but how?” he added, in a markedly plaintive tone.
In Icons of Hope: The ‘Last Things’ in Catholic Imagination, the distinguished American theologian John E. Thiel has brought his impressive scholarship and theological sensitivity to bear on the question. Thiel, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, is known for his fine work on tradition and on the problem of innocent suffering, and for his steady service as a leader of the Catholic Theological Society of America (he was its president from 2011 to 2012). His theological writing has always combined poise and a sense of urgency, and this intricately argued treatise on eternal life is no exception.
Thiel begins by distinguishing between fundamentalist and modern critical approaches to eschatology. The latter, he argues, suffer from an “imaginative reductionism” traceable to the Kantian critique of claims about imperceptible realities. Thiel agrees with Rahner that eschatological hope arises from our present experience of grace, but he thinks both Rahner and Karl Barth were too modest in their speculation about the “last things.” Their awareness of God’s mystery, and perhaps a fear of idolatry, inhibited their theological imagination. Thiel’s project is to retrieve “a premodern style of theological interpretation” that will allow a “thicker” understanding of eschatology.
As he tries to imagine the life of the blessed dead, Thiel first contrasts Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of heaven—where the Beatific Vision, a kind of passive contemplation, fulfills all desire—with Jonathan Edwards’s view that the life of the saints will also involve an active, loving relationship in community. Thiel himself proposes “forgiveness as an ongoing moral endeavor of the blessed dead.” Active discipleship will continue in heaven, as the saints, in imitation of their risen Lord, contribute to the work of reconciliation, thereby becoming ever more truly who they are. “We may hope,” he writes, “to be busy in heavenly life at the work of redemption, whose gift we have received.”
In a long chapter on the doctrine of purgatory, Thiel examines its relatively late development in the twelve century, its prominence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and its prevalence until Vatican II—after which, as Avery Dul-les, SJ, once remarked, the doctrine was closed for repairs. The French historian Jacques Le Goff argued that medieval interest in the “third place” was shaped largely by social and historical conditions. In Thiel’s reading, ideas about Purgatory were largely dependent on a deed-oriented “Matthean spirituality,” as contrasted with a Pauline spirituality of grace as utter gift—a distinction he tends to overdraw. Haunted first by the incomparable example of the early martyrs and then by the ascetic witness of great saints such as Antony of Egypt and Francis of Assisi, medieval Christians accepted “a hierarchy of discipleship,” and were burdened by uncertainty about their own worthiness. The suffering of Purgatory offered a way to bridge the worrying gap between the flaws of the ordinary believer and the heroic sanctity of canonized saints. Faith became a competition, a kind of race. Saints were the winners. The damned never crossed the finish line. Everyone else got honorable mention, and could, after an interval of further training, be received into the company of the victorious.
How might a “noncompetitive” faith, one based more on a Pauline sense of the utter gratuity of grace, recast traditional belief in the Last Judgment and the communal reality of salvation? In answer to this question, Thiel proposes a contemporary appreciation of the Last Judgment. For Luther it was “the anticlimactic manifestation of God’s predestinating will.” By restoring a sense of existential suspense to the drama of salvation, Thiel conceives of the Last Judgment as climactic, not anticlimactic. And he makes a clear distinction between God’s final and all-encompassing judgment—not just on individual lives but on humanity as a whole—and God’s entirely gratuitous gift of eternal life. There is suspense because we do not yet know how each of us and all of us together will be judged, but also because we do not yet know if God’s grace and mercy will finally lead to universal salvation—although we may hope for that, à la Rahner, von Balthasar, and Moltmann.
Pursuing this distinction between God’s judgment and God’s grace, Thiel turns finally to the traditional doctrine of the communion of saints. Here, in dialogue with Jacques Derrida and John Milbank, and drawing as well on the Council of Trent’s doctrine of grace, Thiel deepens his theme of forgiveness and argues that genuine forgiveness requires a reciprocity between the one forgiving and the one forgiven and, thus, a true restoration of community. In this way, the communion of saints cooperates with God’s redemption by extending its reconciling effects through all eternity—and with the increasing joy that comes from its practice. By overcoming the remaining traces of alienation from their earthly life, the saints constitute more truly their “communion,” or shared life in the Spirit.
Avowedly speculative, Thiel’s study may be as valuable for the questions it raises as for the answers it proposes. Its relatively brief defense of purgatorial and heavenly time, which is in basic agreement with a 1992 text of the International Theological Commission, begs for development. Thiel’s book highlights the need for a contemporary theology of time. Do heaven, hell, and purgatory exist outside of time, or is there more than one kind of time—historical time, which will end at the Last Judgment, and what we might call eschatological time? If time itself will end, how can a genuinely successive duration be predicated of purgatory and heaven?
Thiel’s book also raises questions about the role of the imagination in theology, and especially in eschatology. His emphasis throughout is on “imagining” the last things. But he ends up proposing ways to “think” or “speak” about these things as often as he proposes ways to imagine them. To say that the saints in heaven continue Christ’s work of reconciliation is not yet to imagine how that happens. Of course, if it is not impossible to imagine heaven or purgatory, it is at least hard. Most of our language about the afterlife, like our language about God himself, is either figurative or analogical. More engagement with art might have helped here. While the book is enriched by handsome plates of late medieval and Renaissance art analyzed in the text, a contemporary eschatology would be all the more persuasive if it considered more recent art, such as the religious paintings of Stanley Spencer, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, or the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet) or Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life). The famous last sequence in Malick’s film “imagines” an apparently reconstituted community on the shore of a sea—but without any detectable narrative. The scene shows us reunion. Does it imply reconciliation?
In the end, though, one can only be grateful to Thiel for a book that stirs us from our dogmatic slumbers about the world to come, a book that tries to put some flesh on the bones of our hope.