TOC Previous Next A+A-Print


Chapter 34: Christian Life Animated with Hope of Everlasting Life

Question C: What are the implications of the view that heaven will inevitably follow this life, but that the positive meaning of this life is found entirely within it?

1. The unsatisfactoriness of both the preceding views has led to efforts at a synthesis in some form of liberalized Christianity.16 Since Vatican II, certain products of this effort have become quite widely accepted among Catholics.17 Teilhard de Chardin was one—and perhaps the single most important—precursor of this movement and contributed greatly to it.18 More important than any Catholic thinker as the precursor of liberalizing Christianity among Catholics, however, were liberal Protestant theologians in the immense movement stemming from Schleiermacher and Hegel.19 In wealthy countries, individualistic versions of secularized Christianity have had wide appeal, while in the less developed countries socialistic versions, promoted by various liberation theologians, have captured many people’s imaginations. Proponents of liberalized Christianity often qualify their views sufficiently to avoid making obviously unorthodox assertions, but they cannot avoid giving a selective and exclusive emphasis to certain parts of Catholic truth while neglecting others.20

2. Certain features are common to all forms of liberalized Christianity. They rightly affirm the importance of both human fulfillment in this life and heavenly fulfillment. They also rightly reject a merely instrumental relationship of the former to the latter. They fail, however, to give any other explanation of how hope for heaven positively affects the pursuit of human goods in this life. Partly to eliminate instrumentalism, heaven is considered inevitable while hell is ignored or denied. Life in this world thus becomes an early stage of eternal life, which will emerge by a homogeneous process of development. Admittedly, there is a great deal about the present life which is unpleasant and painful, but it is a matter of optimistic conviction that these unsatisfactory aspects will gradually and inevitably be overcome.21

3. No one can live with two ultimate orientations. One practical implication of liberalized Christianity’s orientation to this world is that its adherents generally ignore heaven. Hope for heaven plays a certain role at the emotional level, namely, in mitigating inevitable suffering, especially in the face of death. Since its role is only emotional and has no practical relevance for morality, eternal life eventually comes to function only as a symbol, not as a reality. Thus, liberalized Christianity often psychologizes heaven, taking it as a way of regarding life in this world, suggesting that it does not matter whether or not the myth is really true, and so on. (Those who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus must also deny it for Christians, and vice versa; generally, however, they claim only to be engaged in reinterpreting the “resurrection experience” and “resurrection hope” in terms of their “existential” meaning.)

4. Views of this sort empty Christian life of moral seriousness. Classical piety’s challenge is rejected as legalism; what really matters is the challenge of promoting human welfare in this world. As for human goods, they need not be treated as inviolable, as received Christian teaching demands; one can instead conform in good conscience to the moral norms of the secular humanists among whom one lives. But because this world is not ultimate, there is no need to strive for excellence in it and so no need to treat human goods with the ultimate seriousness assigned them by secular humanists.

5. Logically, at least, the outcome of this compromise between classical piety and secular humanism is a style of life which embraces all the vices of the latter, without the cultural energy and individual ambition nurtured by its this-worldliness. Whatever the good intentions of its authors and however correct they may be on some points, much current work by Catholics in the moral and spiritual fields is blemished by the compromise of liberalized Christianity, including its tendency to empty life of moral seriousness.

16. For a helpful analysis of the process of liberalization from the point of view of cultural history and sociology of religion: Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1969), esp. 155–71. For an analysis of recent liberalizing trends within a broader historical perspective: Hitchcock, op. cit., 115–38. For a closer view of tensions in the Catholic Church related to Vatican II: Jeremiah Newman, Change and the Catholic Church: An Essay in Sociological Ecclesiology (Baltimore: Helicon, 1965), 13–79 and 311–42. For a good summary view of the social and ideological environments of the modern world for Christian faith: Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1980), 467–540, bibliography 672–73.

17. An effort has been made to find in the Fathers schemas to work out a theology along these lines: J. Patout Burns, S.J., “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Traditions,” Theological Studies, 37 (1976), 598–619. For a helpful survey of some of the literature: James J. Megivern, C.M., “A Theology of Incarnationalism,” in The Paradox of Religious Secularity, ed. Katherine T. Hargrove, R.S.C.J. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 145–59.

18. There is a vast literature on Teilhard. A brilliant analysis of his thought in comparison with that of Marx and Engels, which reveals the fundamental similarity between them and the divergence of both visions from orthodox Christianity: R. C. Zaehner, Dialectical Christianity and Christian Materialism, The Riddell Memorial Lectures, 40th ser. (London: Oxford University Press, 1971). An impressionistic but insightful critique of Teilhard, with references to other critical studies: Jacques Maritain, The Peasant of the Garonne: An Old Layman Questions Himself about the Present Time, trans. Michael Cuddihy and Elizabeth Hughes (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1968), 112–26, 154–59, and 264–69. A careful and sympathetic—and for that reason all the more devastating—critique of Teilhard’s Christology: Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., Christ for the World: The Heart of the Lamb: A Treatise on Christology, trans. Malachy Carroll (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973), 68–120.

19. A very brief introduction: M. B. Schepers, “Liberalism, Theological,” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:711–12. For introductions to many of the key figures, with helpful bibliographies, and treatments of other movements in modern theology: James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Vatican II (New York: Macmillan, 1971).

20. For a survey of this process, see Ralph Martin, A Crisis of Truth: The Attack on Faith, Morality, and Mission in the Catholic Church (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant Books, 1982), 87–142. The magisterium has reacted to such trends; for some examples and references, see Candido Pozo, S.J., The Credo of the People of God: A Theological Commentary, trans. Mark A. Pilon (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1980), 155–66.

21. A helpful, brief theological articulation of the dialectic which leads to such a view: Christian Duquoc, “Heaven on Earth?” in Heaven, Concilium, 123, ed. Bas van Iersel and Edward Schillebeeckx (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 82–91. Duquoc does not discuss hell and so takes no position on the question whether heaven is inevitable. His view, as expressed in this article, need not be read as contrary to Catholic faith. However, otherwise he clearly articulates a liberal position, which leaves unclear how hope of heaven affects life on earth. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), argues (800) that hope of resurrection gives Christians boldness and liberty of action, but otherwise develops a liberalized eschatology, with an approving summary (756–57) of H. Kuitert’s position on salvation in this world, and his own exposition (790–804) of a theory of final salvation. This is guardedly suggested (793) to be universalist. It is worth noticing that Schillebeeckx absolutely reduces (792) the divinization of man through grace to “God is the salvation of man,” in this way apparently denying the truth of faith that the love of God poured forth into human hearts by the Holy Spirit inheres in them (DS 1530/800, 1561/821). At any rate, pervasive commingling in his view of the Christian makes it impossible for Schillebeeckx to distinguish the divine and human aspects of the Christian and Christian life, and hence blocks an adequate solution to the problem of the relationship between this life and heaven.