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Problems of the summum bonum

17 January 2014

John Saxbee considers the idea of eternal life

The Emergence of Eternal Life
William J. Hoye
CUP £65
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code CT261 )

ANGLICANS have an ambivalent relationship with medieval scholasticism. To embrace it as a fundamental building-block for our theology could put at risk our Reformation credentials. On the other hand, to sideline it would be a threat to our sense of continuity with Catholic Christendom.

Perhaps the best way to deal with this kind of ambivalence is to study what contemporary Roman Catholic scholars are doing with this key component in their traditional teaching in the light of both reformed theology and modern philosophy. That way, we may arrive at an appropriatemodus vivendi with, for example, Thomist metaphysics without compromising our Protestant principles.

That is the spirit in which this book can be commended to Anglican students of philosophical theology with a special interest in eschatology and the nature of eternal life.

William J. Hoye is Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Münster, and the clue to his approach is in the book's title. Eternal Life "emerges" from our present life, our human longing for fulfilment and our striving for knowledge of reality. The medieval schoolmen, led by St Thomas Aquinas, furnish the foundation texts, and the more recent writings of Karl Rahner feature prominently. While this is essentially an exposition of RC theology, it is good to see the contributions made by John A. T. Robinson, C. S. Lewis, and Bishop Tom Wright duly acknowledged.

After a clear introduction to his main themes, Hoye devotes an extended chapter to the "difficulties" presented by modernity to the intelligibility, morality, and coherence of belief in eternal life. Logical positivism, practical theology, and Enlightenment scepticism about Christian claims are subjected in turn to Hoye's Thomist critique. He trenchantly resists a retreat into faith as a response to such challenges. Eternal life must be capable of being validated by reason if it is to have any conceptual validity at all.

Hoye's premise that reality is essentially metaphysical enables him to sidestep some of the more pertinent questions regarding consciousness, personhood, and individual identity. So, whether he has dealt with all the philosophical difficulties associated with ideas of life after death is rather doubtful.

The rest of the book develops his case and its implications in five closely argued chapters, beginning with a justification of traditional Catholic belief in eternal life. To summarise: the phenomenon of emergence entails higher forms of existence arising from a collection of simpler interactions. Human longing for fulfilment and happiness derives from nature, and no reality in God's creation can be in vain. So, such longing must be ultimately satisfied as eternal life, which, therefore, emerges from the reality of life as lived in the here and now, and issues in the unmediated vision of God which, from the 14th century, has been seen as the essence of eternal life.

Clearly, this approach entails significant preconceptions about the nature of reality and the inevitability of human longings' being ultimately fulfilled. The fact that such preconceptions derive from scholastic treatises, and are rehearsed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not justify their mere assertion.

Furthermore, the contention that unjust suffering can be justified by its capacity to increase longing for something better, i.e. eternal life, does suggest that the Thomist tail is wagging the theodicy dog. Nevertheless, his treatment ofthe pre-mortem relevance of morality to how eternal life is experienced, and how a resurrected spiritual body might be understood, will prove less contentious fromthe point of view of readers whoare less wedded to scholastic categories.

As philosophy of religion goes, this is a relatively accessible and occasionally very insightful account of the provenance and character of eternal life, notwithstanding its dogmatic limitations.

Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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