This short book has been nearly half a long lifetime in its making. It all began with a question from an elderly neighbor, a devout Episcopalian whose own son was a priest of that denomination, and whose crusty Presbyterian husband, I, as a Catholic priest, had ministered to on his deathbed while their son was engaged in his own ministry in another state. Her question was simply, “Do you really think there is something we can look forward to after death?”
My own father, a sincere convert to Catholicism, had recently asked me much the same question. At that time, I was living with him while my mother lay dying in a near-by nursing home, the victim of a stroke that had left her unable to speak or to even feed herself unassisted, yet with an awareness of all that was going on around her.
My response to these questions was twofold. The first was to begin to write a book that was eventually published under the title Evil and Evolution: a Theodicy—the latter word a technical or philosophical term for the problem posed, at least for us humans, by the existence of so much of what we consider to be evils, especially suffering and death, in this world.
The second part of my response, at that time, was to write, as clearly and as succinctly as possible, my own answer to my neighbor’s (and my father’s) question. It was less than one page in length, and I do remember writing that, suspecting what we then knew about the structure of the universe, and given what we already knew about the evolution of life within it, I could simply make no sense of anything unless, when it is all over, there is the possibility that humans, or at least some of them, will continue to live on in some way still unknown to us. Otherwise, in the end, nothing makes much sense, if not in terms of scientific reasoning, at least in the existential meaning of that word. If you want to know the overall thesis of this book—or sum it up in a few sentences—it remains simply that. All the rest is simply exploring the implications of this in our lives and whatever is to come.
So why have I waited until now, over thirty years later, to finally write this same thesis in more detail? There are two reasons for this: one is that the major difference between then and now is that the implications of what was then still called “the Big Bang theory”, especially regarding the future of the universe, are now virtually certain, in contrast to back in the 1970s, when all this was still being hotly debated among scientists. One of my goals back then was to live long enough to see whether or not these speculations turned out to be fact, so much so that toward the end of the 1990s, when the first scientific indications that the Big Bang is accelerating rather than slowing down, a finding made possible by the latest generation of astronomical telescopes began to accumulate, I began to sketch out the core layout or outline of this book. But for some reason or another, probably due to more specifically Christian theological issues that I was busy addressing at the time, I put the project aside.
Again, after all this postponement, why finally now?
It—and this is the second reason for it being now—is that it probably is now or
never. In the late 1970s, when those first questions were asked of me, I was
still busy teaching, and even if that was only part-time, it was frequently at
several institutions at once. After both my parents died, I sold their home and
in 1981 retired to the woods of northern
Then, in the first decade of the new millennium, another part of reality began to impress itself upon me, mostly the limitations of my increasing age, among them not being able to spend much time outside under the cold and dark night sky searching for other “island universes” suspended in the black vastness above. It was then, about the time of my eightieth birthday that an acquaintance of mine, a physicist who works and teaches downstate, sent me his question or the questions found in Chapter 1 and which finally spurred me to getting on with this book.
As a theologian who has specialized in contemporary science, I have written this book with two audiences primarily in mind. In the first group are those, like my physicist friend—who is a believer in his own way—are rather skeptical about the whole subject of eternal life. For them I have tried to give the principal reasons why we should still take very seriously the possibility of life after death, even while confining ourselves as closely to the scientific evidence as we possibly can. For this reason I will be particularly stressing, in Chapter 1, the importance of evolution in our understanding of life, as well as death, and in Chapter 2, the psychological and philosophical implications of what we now know about the universe.
In the second group are those who claim to be more traditional believers, but who often harbor real doubts or difficulties in squaring their religious beliefs, not just with the scientific world‑view, but with the doubts that so often assail people who want to believe more firmly, yet whose faith is inevitably tested, very often by confused notions regarding what they have taken to be Christian beliefs on the subject. So while those in the first group may not think need to bother themselves with these details, it just may be that they might still get a fresh look, especially when viewed from an evolutionary perspective in chapters 3 and 4, at what they may have thought were the foundations of religious faith. In Chapter 5 we will taking a look, at least from a more catholic—that is, all-inclusive—perspective, of what our possibilities are for what religion has called “salvation” and in Chapter 6, at the generally recognized laws of spiritual growth.
Next, realizing that all that has been said previously is, as unbelievers in evolution say, “only a theory”, we will take a new look, in Chapter 7, at the odds proposed by Pascal in his famous “wager” and how, in the light of evolution, they may have changed in our favor. In Chapter 8, we will consider the kind of commitment or decision-making demanded by a life which is not merely another “life after death” but is totally beyond the limitations of this life as we experience it.
As for those who do not identify themselves with either of the two groups described above, and who are not skeptical or who have no doubts about where they are headed, I should stress that this book was not written with them in mind. It contains a radical reassessment of certain views, like the existence of a naturally immortal “soul”, as being neither scientifically plausible nor scripturally consistent. Instead, I will suggest that what we think of as our soul or spirit is a product of our own personal growth, which, if we properly develop or cultivate it, results in something of a capacity or a potential for life beyond this life. In this I am following both the logic of Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of evolution, as well as the thought of Karl Rahner, who had an immense influence on the theological thinking that was evidenced in the Second Vatican Council, especially as to who might qualify for God’s gift of eternal life. Nevertheless, should such persons be willing to run the risk of rethinking their beliefs, they may emerge with deepened understanding of the reasons for the hope that is within them.
Finally, a few words about the subtitle of this book. Originally, Chapter 3 was the first chapter. When some friends, after reading it, suggested that instead of the word quest in the subtitle that the word hope would be more appropriate, I resisted that idea, feeling that hope alone was too passive, and even suggestive of Freud’s accusation of it all being merely so much “wishful thinking”. Perhaps it is, but the whole point of this book is that this hope of eternal life is a great deal more than simply that. It is a quest, an active effort or even a struggle to overcome the limitations of our existence.
However, this determination to stress the necessity of our own efforts in this regard, in turn, led me to rethink the initial order of presentation. I began to realize that what I was engaged in is a kind of classical dialectic, one in which the whole evolutionary outlook on reality forms the thesis, thus the necessity of taking up this most fundamental topic first. But then we run into the opposing antithesis, which in this case is the limitation to biological evolution imposed by contemporary cosmology. Hence the question, what happens when the whole universe dies?
Toward the conclusion of his massive study, A Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor came to the conclusion that modern secularity—a worldview that permeates society without any dimension of the transcendent—has actually developed in two forms. One is basically humanistic and optimistic, trusting the best in human nature will prevail over all contrary tendencies, even without any appeal to a divinity or vision of an afterlife. The other, its opposite, is pessimistic, indeed, even nihilistic, a philosophy that focuses on the worst in human nature, and even would capitalize on that element in a cynical strategy of domination, implemented by a policy of “might makes right.”
Ideally, of course, in classical dialectic, the impasse or conflict is resolved in a synthesis, one which is not merely a compromise. After all, what kind of a comprise is possible between the evolution of life and the destruction of the universe in which it takes place? Instead, we see a synthesis which represents an advancement to a whole new state of being, one that transcends existence as we know it. Hence my decision to stress, in the remainder of the book, the idea of not just another “life after death”, but instead a life totally beyond life as we experience it within the confines of space and time. In the few pages to follow, I hope to give the reader a glimpse of what may lie, not merely after, but totally beyond this life and the death that inevitably brings it to a close.
Accordingly, I first want to give my thanks to Jozef Bicerano, who is the person who provoked the questions asked in the first chapter of this book, and whose input, both as a scientist and as interested friend, has contributed immensely to its completion.
I also owe a special word of thanks to Anthony J. Morse, who introduced me to the works of his teacher Walter Kaufmann, loaned me the massive study by Charles Taylor, as well as gave me a copy of the thick volume by Lakoff and Johnson—a book which mostly confirmed what I had been thinking for years—and whose own questioning and suggestions prompted me to return to this project.
Thanks are also due to Patrick Stonehouse, a fellow star-gazer and lover of the cosmos, who after reading the first draft, urged me to share more of my store of knowledge of the life, work, and vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Thanks also to William Stoeger, S.J., of the Vatican Observatory and University of Arizona for his checking and making corrections on the latest cosmological data in Chapter 2, and to Joseph Provenzano for his exacting attention to the first draft and his helpful suggestions, to Bruce Gotts and Mary Flinn for their detailed editing, to Robert Schuster for helping me pick the right title, to Charlene Ford for her help with the book description, and to my old schoolmates James Hopewell, Harold Wessell, and Leroy White for their critiques, and to Dr. Rudolf Goetz for his continued interest in my writings and for sending me his translation of Karl Rahner’s final address, which I think form a fitting conclusion.
but not least, I wish to thank Marisa Ross for the permission to use her dramatic
sunrise photograph taken from the World Historical Heritage site of
All biblical quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Translation unless expressly noted otherwise. Quotations from Pascal’s Pensées are from the Kindle edition published by E. P. Dutton, and from The Beginning of All Things by Hans Küng, as published by William B. Eerdmans, Publishers. Quotations from the works of Teilhard de Chardin are from translations published by Harper and Row, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Harcourt Brace, and William B. Collins and Sons Co., Ltd.
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