Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Death, judgment, heaven, hell: why don't we like to talk about eschatology?

Over at the always interesting Creative Minority Report, Patrick Archbold has raised an interesting question: in a blogdom that drills down to every topic imaginable (and some that frankly don't spring readily to my imagination, like seventeenth century Ambrosian footwear), why aren't there any Catholic blogs talking about eschatology?

He hastens to add that he doesn't mean the endless stream of prophecies around the imminence of the Last Judgment that flood many of our email boxes, but serious discussion of the theology of the subject as articulated by the Fathers and great theologians over the centuries.

It is a good question, and I thought I might expand here on some comments I've made over at CMR.

Not just a silence in blogs

The first point is that it isn't just blogs that don't discuss eschatology, its catholic discourse in general. A few years ago at a retreat I heard Fr Rizzo FSSP give a conference on the nature of our resurrected bodies. It was the first time I'd ever heard anyone talk on this topic, which I discovered is all laid out in the Summa. Similarly, one almost never hears about our reward in heaven being based on merit attained now. And my Master's theology courses skimmed past eschatology whenever it reared its head at rocket speed.

So why is this?

My own theory is that it reflects the extent of our secularisation, protestantisation, and some erroneous directions fostered by the 'new theology'.


First, I suspect that part of the problem is that because the prevailing culture denies that there is anything after death, it becomes very hard for the rest of us to talk about anything except things pertaining to the here and now. It is hard enough to get anyone to focus on the idea that there is a God, let alone on a life beyond this one.

And while the existence of God is ultimately a matter of reason, as well as revelation, the nature and existence of heaven is really much more in the realm of revelation, so if you can't get to first base, the question never comes up.

Secondly, when you do start talking about death and judgment, heaven and hell, the implicit egalitarianism we have all absorbed becomes impossible to sustain. I suspect we instinctively shy away from something that might shatter our worldview if we think about it too hard.


Another reason for not talking much about eschatology is the influence of protestantism, and the attempt to accommodate Catholicism to it for ecumenical reasons.

It is true that the Church has continued to refute loonie ideas such as 'the rapture' and some of the wilder interpretations of the Book of Revelation.

But we've also seen a systematic attempt over the last several decades to present Catholicism in ways that minimises the differences with our separated brethren - no wonder then that doctrines such as the communion of saints and the suffering souls in purgatory have been barely taught. In this light, it is good to see the revival of indulgences being promoted as a way of helping the souls in purgatory. But I haven't seen much evidence as yet that the modern catholic funeral that typically canonises the dearly departed is on its way out ...

La nouvelle théologie

Another problem, closely related to those outlined above, has been the pernicious influence of some ideas propagated under the banner of La nouvelle théologie (I should note that I'm not opposed to everything said within this broad school, but I do think a much more critical assessment process of some of its ideas is needed than has attained hitherto). Three (in my view erroneous) ideas in particular have been very destructive - Rahner's 'anonymous Christian', von Baltasar's empty hell, and Congar's views on the 'age of the laity'.

The anonymous Christian idea deals with the extent that salvation is possible outside the visible boundaries of the Church - the idea of baptism of desire. Interpreted overly broadly, it has tended to undermine the imperative to evangelise - after all, if everyone can get to heaven without explicit knowledge of Christ, why baptise people? In fact, why practice Catholicism actively at all and worry about things like hell, because all that is needed is a very narrow slither of faith and the right disposition...

The idea that hell is (or might be) empty, propagated by von Baltasar and more recently advanced by Fr Neuhaus of First Things, is even more insidious. Fortunately, Catherine Pitstock has recently published a nice demolition of von Baltasar's methodology and theology around this and related topics.

The third influence has been, in my view, the collapse of religious life, for monasticism - particularly contemplative monasticism - is above all a witness to our eschatological beliefs. Eschewing this world for the next, and devoting oneself totally to a life of worship and intercession is a powerful statement.

Most of the collapse of religious life has been blamed on secularisation and the poor anthropology that permeated Vatican II through some of the prominent new theology proponents of the time, and I agree with that.

But I think another factor has been Congar's arguments on the irrelevance or even positive dangers of the influence of monastic spirituality for the laity. The idea that 'contempt for the world' (properly understood) is wrong headed, and we should in fact focus on the here and now as the primary way of working out our salvation can lead to some very peculiar distortions in our faith.

Where do we go from here?

The combination of these influences has been, I think, led to mainstream catholics to largely vacate the debate on eschatology, leaving it to the loonie fringe. I'm not saying of course that all of the private revelations around this topic are necessarily false. But I do think that we wouldn't need them if we had a healthily balanced Catholicism that lived in an awareness of our true end.

So, someone needs to start an eschatology blog....


Louise said...

Oh wonderful! I love thinking about The Last Things! I'm sure I've blogged about them...

Louise said...

Here's a good one

Peter said...

I would have a note of caution if it is the 'trads' who do the blogging - hell, death and judgement might get too much of the time, while heaven might go unremarked.
Sometimes a tendency to dwell on the bleak, instead of the hope. Perhaps my comments proves me a trad already ?

Jeff said...

Fr. Finigan at Hermeneutic of Continuity quotes St. Anselm and suggests that theology students should find a way to work the passage into papers on ontology:

"Fling thyself, miserable mortal, down into the black abyss of a woe unmedicined, thou that didst choose to fling thyself into the pit of a horrible iniquity. Wrap thee about, poor wretch, in guise of terrible grief, thou that didst all willingly launch into the slime of hellish filth. And thou, steeped in crime, muffle thyself round with horrid glooms of inconsolable wailing, thou that didst wanton wilfully in the quagmire of so grovelling indulgence."

Joshua said...

Well, I most certainly recommend for a well-written, lucid, devout and learned read on this topic Fr John Saward's recent book "Sweet and Blessed Country: The Christian Hope for Heaven" (OUP, 2005; paperback 2008) - get a taste at: