Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Book Review: "Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy" by Jerry Walls

A Review of “Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy” (2002, Oxford University Press)

          There are those in the 20th century that have theologically dispensed with both hell and heaven, but Jerry Walls, both with the first book Hell (reviewed here) and Heaven, has revisited the theology of future bliss, both from a theocentric and an anthropological perspective. If we are to hold to our beliefs in a perfectly good God, the theology of heaven is vital to both out philosophy and psychology: not merely our eschatology.
          In the second of a trilogy, Walls writes from the perspective of humanity having libertarian free will and that God is perfectly good, and managed to reconcile the two even with the obvious amounts of horrendous evil in this world.
          In this book, we can dispense with visions of puffy clouds and idle harp playing; Walls presents a theology of heaven from both the God-centered view, or the beatific vision, and the human centered theory of finally reaching our own potential, perfected, made whole and at peace in the presence of God. This book clearly can give all of us some well needed philosophical hope.
          The start of Heaven,  is a familiar one to any of you who have studied David Hume; you will be familiar with Hume's cleverly written Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; remember that at the end of Chapter XI, Hume's conclusion, in the voice of Philo, is that the first cause of the universe, must be indifferent when he writes “…it will be thought that we have still greater cause to exclude from him [the Supreme Being] moral sentiments…” for Hume had just concluded that the first cause “…[has] neither goodness nor malice…” so his probable conclusion is that God is amoral or indifferent.
 But Walls, arguing from our human moral nature, concludes that based on God omnipotence and omniscience he is either perfectly good, or perfectly evil, not as David Hume concludes, amoral, or indifferent.
          Walls supports this by the argument that we have been made by God to feel approval for those things that promote human happiness. In his words “If God has made us in such a way that we have strong convictions that human happiness should be promoted, it is natural to believe he also cares about human happiness.” (p. 23) This statement is key to understanding the main thesis of this book. At this point in his writing, Walls  does a quite nice reductio on the idea that God has to either perfectly good or an evil genius, reminiscent of Descartes thesis to counter the evil genius.
          There is no one who is aware of the evil in the world around us, that hasn’t wondered at the horrors of both natural and man-made death and destruction and how God could be perfectly good. The problem of evil is a perennial problem in philosophy, and a heart-wrenching problem when one has to come to grips with horrendous suffering, both from personal trials and tragedies, and those of neighbors and friends; we all know those who have faced this question of God’s goodness. I find in Jerry Walls book Heaven, words that can help me reach out others as both an apologist and as a philosopher.
          Walls discusses in the next chapter the question which is still contested, as to how we get to heaven, or how we are saved. Using the starting point of the Augustine-Pelagius debate, Walls make the thesis statement for this chapter as “…one’s views about how to get to heaven may have implications about the very nature of heaven,” so with this in mind, he unpacks the idea how we comprehend our own salvation, and the effect that has on our understanding of the theology of heaven.
          Using examples from Immanuel Kant, Walls explains a crucial point of the innovation of Kant’s thinking was that God, as construed by orthodox believers of his day, was a deity that was easy to please, who would “…accept various religious practices as substitutes for genuine moral transformation.” (p. 35) Yet, as Walls explains, those very creeds of orthodoxy were and are critical beliefs for the Christian faith, traceable back to the written record of Jesus’ very words. While it is likely Kant did observe those who were going through the motions of faith to be absolved on Sunday, and go back to sinning on Monday,  these charges brought by other philosophers over the years can be shown to be “…wide of the mark, [and] that the dominant account of faith supports our best moral sensibilities.” (p. 36)
          Walls takes care to build his case in support for the importance of moral transformation in the lives of all believers to be a key to the theological possibility of there being transformation that continues after our death; all part and parcel of his thesis regarding the possibility of hope for the lost postmortem.
          This problem is both complex and for some, a theological red-flag; but with care and tact, Walls negotiates the tulip strewn field with grace. This book helps tackle some of the thornier issues facing Christian philosophers who hold to an Anselmian conception of God.
          In each chapter of this book, you will find carefully written arguments which support the general thesis of what we can use as a theology of heaven, and its importance for our view of a perfectly good God, while making some sense of the amount and types of evil in the world. Walls also devotes most of a chapter on the reports of near-death experiences, and how these reports can be reconciled with our views of heaven within an orthodox view of Christianity.
           In Walls' estimation, a clear understanding of heaven is “...an essential resource to relieve us of the strangely cramped feeling produced by swallowing modern moral philosophy and to make us morally articulate again.” (pp. 164-5) I agree with Walls' main theme of this whole book, that as we have to explain great moral evils in the world and our own lives, only a robust view of heaven can bring comfort, joy and a future hope of God’s redeeming love.
          I can see areas where I can make counter-examples, and that there are issues I see as potential problems, but the arguments are so well crafted, I will have to really do more “home-work” before taking them on...that's for another time, down my philosophical journey, but some great fodder for future papers!
          Again, my recommendation for readership would be for someone who has studied philosophy of religion or theology, and understands the issues surrounding the attributes of God, and has some biblical studies under their belt. This is a text that someone without some advanced study could read, but they might miss some of the more important points that are trying to be advanced.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Excerpt from Jerry Walls' book "Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy"

Excerpt from Jerry Walls' book,  Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy  (2002, Oxford University Press)

“One of the most emotionally appealing promises about heaven is that God will wipe every tear from the eyes of the redeemed. No human tears are beyond the reach of God’s infinite goodness.
           At the heart of my case is the basic Christian notion that our true happiness is found in a relationship with God and nothing that happens to us can separate us from God or destroy this relationship. Moreover, for us to enter this relationship, we must accept the grace of Christ. This requires accepting forgiveness from the only perfect person who ever lived and allowing him to transform us into persons who will eventually be perfect as well.
         These truths provide the framework that makes it possible for us to forgive the things that have been done against us, even things of extreme wickedness or cruelty. We must recognize that the One who forgave us desires also to forgive the worst of sinners and asks us to be willing to do the same. Such willingness to forgive is not a matter of trivializing evil, for true forgiveness requires repentance and final reconciliation is ultimately dependent upon the moral and spiritual transformation that will unite believers in a bond of genuine mutual love. Those who refuse the offer of transforming grace continue to suffer the consequences of their evil choices. In view of this, the doctrine of heaven satisfies our deepest moral convictions about both forgiveness and accountability.
          The doctrine of heaven holds out the hope that all persons can experience the perfect happiness for which we were created, regardless of what they have suffered in this life. Indeed, heaven is the only realistic hope not only for loved ones who have suffered tragically but also for countless anonymous persons whose suffering may have contributed significantly to our very existence. To give up the hope of heaven is to consign such persons to oblivion and to render the verdict that their suffering is irredeemable and finally meaningless in an indifferent universe. To hold on to one’s anger, hatred, and indignation, moreover, destroys one’s happiness. Thus, the only hopeful alternative for both the victims of cruel suffering and for their advocates is forgiveness and redemption.
           The doctrine of heaven, with its resources of eternal transforming grace, offers the only realistic way of restructuring our lives and reinterpreting all our past histories in such a way that there is a truly hopeful future for any of us. Only belief in a God who is powerful enough and good enough to make eternal salvation fully available to all his children can relieve the sharpest barbs of the problem of evil. (p. 131-132)

Friday, August 2, 2013

Augustine of Hippo:A Biography, by Peter Brown

Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a Biography. (2000, Berkeley, University of California Press)

 It is not often that you will see a book review of a college course book, but I enjoyed reading this text so much that is exactly what I am writing; a review of an assigned text for a course I will be studying this fall.  

This book may be intimidating in size at 513 pages, but for any with a love for history, I highly recommend this book. Brown’s scholarship is amazing, but what is even better is his use of prose to tell the story of an amazing pillar of the Christian church, and the development of Augustine’s philosophic mind; forged by his birth, education and finally his faith.

This book is not just for history buffs, but for those who are interested in the growth and development of the early Catholic (read universal) church, the development of certain traditions and teachings, and important doctrines which trace their birth to this time of history.

Brown gives the facts of course, yet still adds the picturesque scenes of North Africa of the late Roman Empire, and describes the beauty of the region through excerpts from Augustine’s sermons and letters.

 In Peter Brown’s writing you can get a taste of the way of life in ancient Africa, and a vision of the people from all walks of life crowding the basilica in Hippo to hear Augustine, the bishop, expound on scripture. 

I have a better sense of the battle-lines drawn between the Manichean debates with Augustine, and then later the protracted maneuvering done between the Donistist bishops, who once in the majority in the region, against the Catholic bishops; and the enforcement of the edicts against the Donitists in the court rooms of the day, upholding Roman law and rules of public honor. These were scenes that would interest anyone who enjoys legal wrangling in modern courtrooms dramas.

I have to admit that learning more about Augustine from this book deepens my knowledge of the Bishop of Hippo, and the effect of Neo-platonic thought in the early church, and the internal sublimation of Roman pagan thought into the body of Christ, still leaving its mark to this day.
It may be late in the summer, but THIS was my idea of “summer reading” par excellence, to borrow a phrase from the author.