As you know, dear Reader, I am experiencing something like a fixation with the wrightings (sorry, that should be “writings” – see the depth of my problem?) of N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham.
His scholarship is first class, and there is much that he has to say that extremely good. His skill is to get us to take a “fresh look” at scriptural passages we thought we knew well, by placing them in the context of the 1st Century Judeo-Christian and Graeco-Roman worlds.
But there are some things… Well, I am not prepared to go as far as American Baptist Mark Seifred who says that when Wright is “good he is very, very good, but when he is bad, he is horrid”, but it is true that he proffers a good many opinions on the meaning of Scripture that would need to be put through the filter of Catholic tradition before we could truly embrace them.
One such area is Wright’s take on personal eschatology, or what is commonly known as “the afterlife”. He wrote a book a few years ago called “Surprised by Hope” on this subject, and many (for instance, Richard John Neuhaus of blessed memory) had that “good/bad” reaction that readers of Wright commonly experience. Here is Neuhaus’ opening summation:
The first part of the book is a reprise of his argument for the historicity of the resurrection, which will be helpful for those not prepared to take on his more comprehensive Resurrection of the Son of God. Most of the book is devoted to making the case for a greater accent in Christian piety and liturgy on the final resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Wright likes to put it, we need to recover the biblical focus on “life after life after death.” I believe Wright is right about that. As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection “is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning.” But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of “going to heaven,” and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right.
Wright’s argument is repeated in miniature in his new book “Simply Christian”. I actually like this book very much – it achieves much more successfully, I believe, what C.S. Lewis set out to do with “Mere Christianity”. An alternative title, however, could have been “Simply Tom Wright”, as it offers a short potted account of Wright’s own view of the Christian meta-narrative.
In the second to last chapter of this book, he writes
Despite what many people think…the point of it all is not ‘to go to heaven when you die. …
Paul and John, Jesus himself, and pretty well all the great Christain teachers of the first two centuries, stress their belief in resurrection. ‘Resurrection’ does not mean ‘going to heaven when you die’. It isn’t about ‘life after death’. It’s about ‘life after life after death’. You die; you go to be ‘with Christ’ (‘life after death’), but your body remains dead. Describing where and what you are in that interim period is difficult, and the New Testament writers mostly don’t try. Call it ‘heaven’ if you like, but don’t imagine it’s the end of all things. What is promised after that interim period is a new bodily life within God’s new world (‘life after life after death’).
That’s his position in a nutshell. All that needs to be added is that the “new world” that Christianity (in Wright’s perspective) is looking forward to after resurrection and the general judgement (what we traditionally call ‘heaven’), is in fact the continuous with this world in much the same way that our resurrected bodies are continuous with our current bodies. The old heaven and the old earth will pass away and be replaced with a renewed (note that) creation consisting of a united heaven and earth.
God’s plan is not to abandon this world, the world of which he said that it was ‘very good’. He intends to remake it. And when he does, he will raise all his people to new bodily life to live in it. …In God’s new world, of course, Jesus himself will be the central figure. …He is, at the moment, present with us, but hidden behind that invisible viel that keeps heaven and earth apart, and which we pierce in those moments, such as prayer, the sacraments, the reading of scripture and our work with the poor, where the view seems particularly thin. But one day the veil will be lifted, earth and heaven will be one; Jesus will be personally present, and every knee shall bow at his name; creation will be renewed; the dead will be raised; and God’s new world will at last be in place, full of new prospects and possibilities. This is what the Christian vision of salvation…is all about.
Okay. So much for Wright. But is he, according to the Catholic faith, right?
For the moment, a quick scan of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will have to do. We find a good deal there on “life after death”, and a surprisingly small amount on what Wright calls “life after life after death”. But, and this is a surprising but, I think that if we take away what Neuhaus rightly calls Wright’s “scorn” for “centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of ‘going to heaven’”, we find that Wright is, in fact, right.
First, the corrective. As cited by CCC §1023, Pope Benedict XII issued the following definition in 1336 (retrospectively, perhaps, we could include this on the list of infallible papal definitions?):
By virtue of our apostolic authority, we define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints … and other faithful who died after receiving Christ’s holy Baptism (provided they were not in need of purification when they died, … or, if they then did need or will need some purification, when they have been purified after death, …) already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment – and this since the Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into heaven – have been, are and will be in heaven, in the heavenly Kingdom and celestial paradise with Christ, joined to the company of the holy angels. Since the Passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ, these souls have seen and do see the divine essence with an intuitive vision, and even face to face, without the mediation of any creature. [Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus(1336): DS 1000; cf. LG 49].
In other words, when you die in a state of grace, you DO “go to heaven”. Or at least your soul does, because Papa Benny XII is quite clear about the fact that it is your soul, not your body,that “goes to heaven”. He is also quite clearly talking about what Wright calls the “interim period”, or the “life after death” that comes before “life after life after death”.
Even here though, it is worth asking what we mean by “heaven”. Is it a “place” where we go, or a state of being, or something else? Pope Benedict XII is obviously quite clear that to be “in heaven” is to have “joined the company of the angels”, but also that it is to enjoy the “beatific vision” of God, “face to face, without the mediation of any creature”. The Catechism, immediately after citing the above passage, states in §1024 that
“This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity – this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed – is called “heaven.” Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness.
And yet, while this experience may be the “ultimate end and fulfillment of deepest human longings”, it seems that God has even more planned for us – in the words of Aslan in the final Narnia Chronicles book, it is “further in and further up” (!) – because the Catechism goes on, in §§1042-1050, to describe what comes –in BXII’s words – AFTER “the souls of all the saints…take up their bodies again” and AFTER “the general judgement”:
§1042 At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed…
§1043 Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, “new heavens and a new earth” [I1 Pet 3:13; cf. Rev 21:1]. It will be the definitive realization of God’s plan to bring under a single head “all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” [Eph 1:10].
1044 In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men [cf. Rev 21:5]. …
§1045 For man, this consummation will be the final realization of the unity of the human race, which God willed from creation and of which the pilgrim Church has been “in the nature of sacrament” [cf. LG 1]. …
§1046 For the cosmos, Revelation affirms the profound common destiny of the material world and man… [Rom 8:19-23].
§1047 The visible universe, then, is itself destined to be transformed, “so that the world itself, restored to its original state, facing no further obstacles, should be at the service of the just,” sharing their glorification in the risen Jesus Christ [St. Irenaeus, Adv. haeres. 5:32:1 PG 7/2, 210].
This, then, shows that what Wright calls “life after life after death” has been there in Catholic teaching and tradition all along. Perhaps, he is wright (sorry, “right”) that it has not been sufficiently emphasised as the form of our final hope and salvation. Certainly, I balked to hear prayers offered at the vigil mass last night that the souls of our faithful departed may be “raised up to be in heaven forever”. That is not what “raised up” would mean even in terms of the Catholic Catechism, let alone the writings of Tom Wright.
Of course, for Wright, there is also the fact that he is trying to combat a kind of Christianity which rejects any concern for this world as it is today, because, after all “it is all going to hell in a handbasket” and we are all “going to heaven when we die”. No one could deny that there are Christians out there who believe that sort of thing, but it isn’t Catholic Christianity, as evidenced by this paragraph from Gaudium et Spes (cited by the Catechism §1049)
“Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society” [GS 39# 2].