In his balanced, ecumenical, and Scripturally informed new book, Thomas Rausch argues for the recovery of Christianity’s eschatological dimension in relation to contemporary questions concerning liturgy and Christology. In sum, Rausch argues that questions of eschatology (from the Greek eschaton, the “end” or “last”) are questions of what Christians should hope for from God. They are thus central to Christian confession and praxis. The right kind of eschatology will entail, on the one hand, rediscovering the proper place of the social (as opposite to individual) and this-worldly (as opposed to other-worldly) aspects of God’s ultimate transformation of creation. But, on the other hand, Christians must avoid reducing the eschaton to an a-theological project of utopian fulfillment entirely achievable by human action within history. Navigating these tensions will spark good liturgical practice and Christological reflection.
This ideal eschatological focus existed at the origins of the Christian tradition but has waned for various reasons throughout history. In the first chapter, his most complicated, Rausch argues that the early Christians exhibited a richly eschatological imagination, especially during the Eucharist: they remembered Christ’s paschal mystery, anticipated the future ushering in of his heavenly kingdom, and viewed the Eucharist as a foretaste of the kingdom’s inbreaking in the present. However, this impulse was weakened from the seventh century onward as the theme of the Final Judgment became more prominent and pushed eschatology into an individualistic, other-worldly paradigm. The Second Vatican Council recovered the insights of early Christian eschatology and liturgy, but the religious indifference among many Christians after the council has suppressed the eschatological dimensions of worship and heightened this individualistic, other-worldly understanding of the eschaton.
In Chapters Two and Three Rausch deftly mines the Old and New Testaments to track the development of certain concepts such as Sheol and the resurrection over time. He accents how early Christians understood themselves as called to participate in Christ’s paschal mystery in their lives, and how this self-understanding gradually diminished in the late medieval and early modern period as a sense of the eschaton in its fullness was eclipsed by a narrow, individualistic, and apolitical fixation on the eschata, the “last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
In Chapter Four, Rausch highlights the significance of Jesus’ resurrection as an eschatological event and promise for the rest of humanity and creation, and he navigates between understandings of the resurrection articulated by Ratzinger, Robinette, and Lane. He thus revisits certain classic eschatological concepts such as the intermediate state and the relationship between the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.
Chapter Five fleshes out many of these points and offers a creative rereading of the eschata, thus making heaven, hell, death, and judgment intelligible within for contemporary Christian theology. In Chapter Six, he connects the preceding chapters to a rethinking of the liturgy, which is neither a solemn escape from the world nor a watered down social gathering, but is, instead, the inbreaking of the kingdom through Christ, and it has political ramifications for Christian praxis in the world. Chapter Seven explores what these claims mean for the church in the midst of religious pluralism and mission.
Given the complexity of these concepts, Rausch’s generally helpful treatment could be more focused. Because the topic of eschatology encompasses much, Rausch sometimes weighs in too quickly on various side debates concerning, for example, evolution and creation as well as the relation between image and meaning for doctrine. Though relevant, these brief digressions in their current form distract from his central point.
At the same time, certain aspects of his argument, particularly his genealogy chronicling the collapse of the eschatological imagination, merit more nuance. For example, Charles Taylor argues in Sources of the Self that some of the roots of the individual self can be found not only in the early modernity but also in ancient philosophical and Christian thought. This point would fruitfully complicate Rausch’s largely declinist narrative, especially since he invokes Taylor at various points already. Furthermore, some reference to the neo-scholastic manuals as contributing to a narrowing focus on the eschata would add texture to his account.
Nevertheless, Rausch’s book is a refreshing and well-informed intervention in contemporary theology. Especially welcome is his employment of a plurality of voices, historical and contemporary, including Augustine, Aquinas, Johann Baptist Metz, Dermot Lane, Brian Robinette, Terrence Tilley, Bruce Morrill, Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Jon Sobrino, Elizabeth Johnson, and Peter Phan. I would therefore employ his book in classes for advanced undergraduates and beginning master’s students as an insightful introduction to the problems and possibilities of renewing the Christian eschatological imagination today.