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Chapter 34: Christian Life Animated with Hope of Everlasting Life

Question A: What difficulties are generated by the view that Christian life in this world is only a means to be used to reach heaven?

1. While no orthodox Christian may ever have held, entirely without qualification, that life in this world is nothing but a means to reach heaven, much Christian theology and popular piety have come close to saying this.1 According to such a view, nothing one does in this life contributes directly to human fulfillment; the only human fulfillment is in enjoyment of God in heaven. Since the purpose of the present work is theological clarification, not a history of theology and spirituality, this unqualified position will be criticized here without considering its nuanced historical expressions.

2. Among those who contributed to this view was St. Augustine.2 It is a question for historians exactly what Augustine had in mind, but he has been widely taken as saying that life in this world is only a means to reach heaven, and that heaven is an entirely other-worldly goal. According to this position, which became classic, only one human fulfillment should be sought for its own sake, namely, the enjoyment of God in heaven. Since God alone is infinitely good, everything else is to be loved only as a means to heavenly peace in the beatific vision.3 In outline, the argument is that human beings were made for perfect happiness, yet they will not find it in this life but only in the heavenly vision of God; any enjoyment short of this is no more than a distracting imitation of it; therefore, nothing in this life is to be enjoyed, and everything short of heavenly happiness should be used as a means to that end.4

3. Those who hold this view attach a special significance to certain specifically religious acts, of which mystical, contemplative prayer is the prime example.5 These are not altogether extrinsic means to heaven but provide a foretaste of it—somehow they anticipate the beatific vision.6 Such acts are thought to be best when human action ceases and divine action is passively experienced.

4. Other acts of a secular character are unlike the beatific vision. Insofar as they involve finite goods which have an immediate appeal and could be enjoyed, their chief significance is in being a source of temptation. One is in danger of sinful conversion from the supreme Good toward a finite good, in whose enjoyment one might wrongly and vainly try to rest content.

5. The classical view leads to a sharp division within Christian life between religious and secular, supernatural and merely natural. Life in a cloister is the way to holiness; life in the world is at best a more or less perilous compromise suited to those who are less generous. Saints are found almost exclusively among the religious and the clergy, not in ordinary families.7

6. This sharp division has been harmful even to the religious dimension of Christian life. The beatific vision was thought of as if it were a particular, created, human act of intellectual knowledge (see S.t., 1, q. 12, aa. 1–2; 1–2, q. 3, aa. 1–2, 4–5, 8). But such an act would be an inherently individualistic and incommunicable experience. Moreover, hope for the enjoyment of this act does not of itself include hope for resurrection.8 Hence, the latter, while never denied, lost much of its relevance in a piety directed toward saving one’s soul. Heaven thus conceived had a certain appeal for intellectuals but seemed a boring prospect to many other Christians. They sought heaven more out of a desire to escape suffering, in this life and in hell, than out of any positive enthusiasm for disembodied, intellectual bliss.

7. The sharp division in Christian life into religious and secular also tended to depreciate human goods other than religion. Religion was confused with the divine life in which Christians share by adoption. As a result, the Christian religion was seen not as one good among others, but as a more than human fulfillment which radically devalues all merely human goods. This gave rise to false conceptions of self-denial and renunciation of the world, which at their worst threatened the Christian belief in the inherent goodness of creation and the dignity of human persons as human. Religion also tended to become totalitarian—a tendency expressed in the burning of heretics, the suppression of liberty for the sake of the security of religious institutions, and the hegemony of clerics in the Christian lives of the faithful.

8. Indeed, according to the classical view, it is hard to understand the value of nonreligious acts for the natural goods of human beings even as means to be used to reach heaven (see S.t., 2–2, q. 181, a. 4; q. 182, aa. 1–2). Plainly, they do not bring about the beatific vision, and secular life is not a participation in heavenly glory. Nonreligious acts for human goods seemed necessary only insofar as Christian morality commands them. But if this were so, then Christian moral norms would not be based on human goods, as St. Thomas and other sound Christian thinkers affirmed (see, e.g., S.c.g., 3, 121–22, 129). Rather, these norms would be—and were increasingly perceived as—arbitrary divine commandments constituting a kind of test, with heaven the reward for obedience and hell the punishment for disobedience.9

9. When someone requires others to do something to attain their end which nevertheless is not inherently necessary for attaining it, the requirement is an imposition. When moral norms are regarded as impositions, however, morality is reduced to legalism. Thus, given the tendency to perceive God’s commandments voluntaristically, Christian morality became legalistic (1‑D). Legalism fostered moral minimalism, the idea that it is not doing good which is most important but avoiding evil. It also generated resentment of God, inasmuch as morality seemed unreasonable. In these circumstances, anyone who set aside strict obedience was likely also to set aside the supposedly arbitrary principle of God’s will in favor of the truly arbitrary principle of self-will.

The teaching of Vatican II, including virtually the whole of Gaudium et spes (see especially 21, 34, 39), liberates Catholics from the limitations and defects of the classic way of thinking. Life here and now is not merely instrumental. It is by no means extrinsic to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus.

Observing that the end (purpose) of a knife is to cut and the end of an eye is to see, Aristotle asked what the end of man is. His answer: To think about the best and highest things, the principles and the order of the universe, and to shape human life and society as reasonably as possible. St. Augustine later stated a great Christian truth in an immortal formula: Our hearts are made for God and never will rest except in him. That is true precisely in this sense: God knew what he was doing when he fashioned humankind; he knew we were to be his adopted children; and, in fact, human persons cannot live good human lives without redeeming grace, which also is deifying grace.10 But St. Thomas Aquinas synthesized Aristotle’s concern about the end of man with St. Augustine’s articulation of our hunger for the destiny for which God created us. He concluded that human persons naturally desire the beatific vision and described heaven primarily in terms of intellectual knowledge of what God is.11

It seems to me that this conclusion and description contributed to many of the difficulties I am trying to surmount in this work. My contention is that the human heart is not naturally oriented toward adoption as a child of God and the heavenly inheritance which goes with this status. It is naturally oriented toward human fulfillment, which is found in human goods in which one naturally can participate more and more. No single complete good is naturally available to human persons as their determinate, ultimate end.

Of course, in choosing, one seeks a good loved for itself. In this sense, one always acts for an ultimate end—that is, an end not pursued as a means to some ulterior end. But an end ultimate in this sense need not be the complete good of the human person, as Thomas assumed when he tried to prove that one’s will cannot be directed simultaneously to two or more ultimate ends (S.t., 1–2, q. 1, a. 5). Rather, in loving various human goods for their own sake, human persons remain upright insofar as they remain open to integral human fulfillment. This fulfillment is naturally only an ideal, not a determinate goal to which all the acts of a good life contribute. Thus, on the theory of human fulfillment proposed in chapters five and seven, the view that the human heart is naturally restless is based on a mistaken theory of human goal-directedness.

The Church firmly teaches that human persons’ calling to share in divine life is entirely gratuitous and supernatural (see DS 1921/1021, 1923/1023). Vatican I solemnly teaches that revelation is absolutely necessary only because God has called human persons to a supernatural end (see DS 3005/1786). Pius XII again rejects the theological opinion that God cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision (see DS 3891/2318). From this teaching it follows that God could have created human beings without such a calling, and, since God creates nothing by its nature destined to evil, that such human beings could have lived good lives.

We need not suppose that this possibility ever is anything more than a mere possibility. God knew what he planned when he created angels and human beings. But one can draw an important conclusion from the possibility, considering it as a pure hypothesis: If God had created human persons without calling them to adoption, and if human persons had lived good lives in such a condition, then human hearts would have been no more restless than they would need to be to keep humankind growing and progressing endlessly. But having been called to be adopted children of God and having fallen into the condition of prodigal children, human persons now have restless hearts which cannot rest except in God.

Therefore, rest in God is not an alternative, as Augustine perhaps thought (and as many who followed him certainly thought), to the effort to bring about and share in a full and rich human life in this world. The beatific vision which Scripture promises and the Church teaches us about is a mysterious and indescribable blessing which transcends merely human fulfillment. The beatific vision ought to remain mysterious to us, because it is utterly beyond human capacities. Moreover, the mysteriousness of what is essentially supernatural is important even humanly speaking, because it makes heaven intriguing to people of every taste and temperament, and prevents it from becoming an alternative to the love of human goods.

Heavenly fulfillment requires not only respect for human goods—which Augustine clearly realized—but dedication to them. Respect for human goods can be maintained merely by not attacking them; one respects life when one refrains from killing. Dedication demands positive service to human goods, a determined effort to promote them, and a great concern for human well-being in this world.

When I was a small child, every spring my parents bought each of the bigger children a kite to fly. The first time I received one for myself, I took it at once and eagerly unwrapped it, only to discover that when I had torn away the wrapping, only the sticks remained. I learned then that it can be a mistake to think that something is a mere means, when it might be an important part of the good one loves.

Human actions done in this life are destined to be an important constituent part of eternal life. Every human effort and success of those who love God will last forever. If everlasting life excluded human fulfillment or limited it to a single good—the good of the intellect—then love of God would be dehumanizing, and Christians would be immoral to hold and live their faith, and irresponsible and antihuman to propagate it. All our thinking about Christian life needs to be examined and perfected in the light of an inclusive conception of the destiny of creation: namely, the scriptural conception of everlasting life as fulfillment in the Lord Jesus rather than the theological conception of heavenly bliss as the end of man.12

1. See Louis Bouyer et al., History of Christian Spirituality, vol. 1, The Spirituality of the New Testament and the Fathers (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), 449–54. Frequently, the excesses of Christian spirituality have been in reaction against a false optimism of nonbelieving humanism. This appears to have been the case with the French school of spirituality: Emile Mersch, S.J., The Whole Christ: The Historical Development of the Doctrine of the Mystical Body in Scripture and Tradition, trans. John R. Kelly, S.J. (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1938), 542–54; Henri Bremond, A Literary History of Religious Thought in France, vol. 3, The Triumph of Mysticism, trans. K. L. Montgomery (London: S.P.C.K., 1936), esp. 294–358. The centrality of sacrifice in the spirituality of the French school easily led to a false opposition between human fulfillment and holiness; despite its undoubted contributions to Christian life, the imperfections of this type of spirituality inhibited development of an authentic Christian humanism.

2. For a good, brief treatment with references to the most relevant passages: Eugène Portalié, S.J., A Guide to the Thought of Saint Augustine, trans. Ralph J. Bastian, S.J. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1960), 271–73; also Etienne Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine, trans. L. E. M. Lynch (New York: Random House, 1960), 3–10.

3. See St. Augustine, The City of God, x, 2–3; xix, 10–11 and 25–28. For a detailed and sympathetic study: Ragnar Holte, Béatitude et Sagesse: Saint Augustin et le problème de la fin de l’homme dans la philosophie ancienne (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1962), 207–81. Only God is to be enjoyed; all else is to be used: De doctrina christiana, 1, 3–4. True, as Bouyer et al., op. cit., 487, point out, Augustine himself is the first to sense the inadequacy of this distinction; he is too good a Christian to deny the inherent goodness of the fulfillments proper to human persons as such. However, a system which must stretch its own categories to accomodate the minimal requirements of Christian humanism leaves something to be desired.

4. An alternative account of the ultimate end of human persons was given above (19‑B); it puts the end in divine-human communion as the fulfillment of God’s plan, which Christians enter even in this life, and this alternative is strongly rooted in Scripture: Bonaventura Mariani, O.F.M., “Il Nuovo Testamento e il Fine Ultimo dell’Uomo sulla Terra,” Divinitas, 20 (1976), 282–312; Aelred Cody, “The New Testament,” in Heaven, Concilium, 123, ed. Bas van Iersel and Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 34–42. A question historical inquiry must answer is: How did the theology of St. Augustine and other Fathers—in some ways dangerously influenced by Neoplatonism but still more balanced than its popularizations—come to have so strong a hold on Christian thought? I suspect the answer would be found at least partly in the great emphasis on the divinity of Jesus necessary to combat Arianism. With this emphasis, the humanistic implications of Christian faith tended to be obscured.

5. On St. Augustine’s mystical theology, see Portalié, op. cit., 285–88; Bouyer et al., op. cit., 468–82; Vernon J. Bourke, “Augustine of Hippo: The Approach of the Soul to God,” in The Spirituality of Western Christendom, ed. E. Rozanne Elder (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1976), 1–12.

6. In his early works, Augustine followed Neoplatonism in thinking that the vision of God is possible in the present life, but in his later works, guided by Scripture, he abandoned this view: Frederick van Fleteren, O.S.A., “Augustine and the Possibility of the Vision of God in This Life,” Studies in Medieval Culture, 11 (1977), 9–16.

7. For a candid, balanced account: Yves M.‑J. Congar, O.P., Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of Laity, trans. Donald Attwater (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1957), 379–99. A new form of Christian life, that of the secular institutes, has arisen from the more profound understanding of the religious significance of the secular: José F. Castaño, O.P., “Il carisma della secolarità consacrata,” Angelicum, 53 (1976), 319–61.

8. Robert J. O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man, A.D. 386–391 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968), 204, points out the difficulty Augustine, influenced by Neoplatonism, had with resurrection of the body; he shows (217–18) that in the Confessions, 4, 1, Augustine follows Plotinus to the extent of holding that human fulfillment by possession of God requires man to cease being human; later (284) he observes: “The doctrine of the body’s resurrection forces a more sympathetic view of the bodily and the human.” More influenced by Platonism than the other Fathers, Origen taught that souls were first created without bodies and became embodied as punishment for sin; for a summary, see J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), 180–83. A case can be made out that Augustine held a similar view in his early works: Robert J. O’Connell, S.J., “Augustine’s Rejection of the Fall of the Soul,” Augustinian Studies, 4 (1973), 1–32. Most Greek Fathers avoided Origen’s excess, but their anthropology is marked by a tension between Platonizing spirituality, and Christian doctrines of the material as part of the good creation and of the resurrection of the body. For one example, see Gerhart B. Ladner, “The Philosophical Anthropology of Saint Gregory of Nyssa,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 12 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958), 59–94.

9. John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 73 AAS (1981) 589–92; The Papal Encyclicals, 280.22–27, articulates a true Christian conception of work as inherently fulfilling of persons and, building on Vatican II (644–47; 125–30), shows perspicuously how the activity of Christian life is inherently related to heavenly fulfillment. On the moral theology of work: Jean-Marie Aubert, “La Santificación en el Trabajo,” in Mons. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y el Opus Dei: En el 50 Aniversario de su Fundación, ed. Pedro Rodríguez et al. (Pamplona, Spain: EUNSA, 201–13; J. M. Casciaro, “La Santificación del Cristiano en Medio del Mundo,” in the same volume, 101–59; José Luis Illanes Maestre, La santificación del trabajo, 6th ed. (Madrid: Palabra, 1980).

10. The theological tradition, stemming from Augustine, which imposes on the data of faith a commingling, Neoplatonic metaphysics is currently most often formulated by means of the concept of a “supernatural existential”: Karl Rahner, S.J., Theological Investigations, vol. 1, God, Christ, Mary and Grace, trans. Cornelius Ernst, O.P. (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), 297–317. In an essay reflecting upon the significance of Augustine’s Neoplatonism, O’Connell, St. Augustine’s Early Theory of Man, 279–89, brilliantly suggests some of the weaknesses of this theological tradition. For those who find it difficult to distinguish Augustine’s theology from the essential truth of Catholic faith, this entire work, especially the chapter on “Vision” (203–26), will be helpful. For a telling critique of Rahner’s philosophy of man: Cornelio Fabro, La svolta antropologica di Karl Rahner (Milan: Rusconi, 1974). For a treatment by a faithful theologian of Vatican II’s revolutionary teaching on earthly life in relation to heavenly life: Ermenegildo Lio, Morale e beni terreni: La destinazione universale dei beni terreni nella “Gaudium et spes” (Rome: Città Nuova, 1976).

11. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa contra gentiles, 3, 25 and 50–63; Summa theologiae, vol. 16, Purpose and Happiness, ed. Thomas Gilby, O.P. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), q. 3, a. 8, and the editor’s discussion, 153–55. For further discussion of the historical issue: Germain Grisez, “Man, the Natural End of,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 9:132–38. Even so, St. Thomas was careful to include in his description of heavenly beatitude, as constitutive of its perfection, elements of human fulfillment other than the intellectual vision of God: S.t., 1–2, q. 4.

12. The present work is an attempt to begin to meet the need for such reexamination and perfecting of our thinking about this very important subject. The present effort is by no means a beginning without antecedents. Vatican II was preceded by a century and more of Catholic thought developing an integral Christian humanism. Much of this work contributed to the unfolding of theological reflection on history. A useful introduction to this area: James N. Connolly, Human History and the Word of God: The Christian Meaning of History in Contemporary Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1965). The work of Jacques Maritain deserves special mention; he did much to bring the revival of St. Thomas’ thought toward fruition.