John THIEL. Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013. pp. 223. $35.00. ISBN 978-90268-04239-4. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, DC 20057

                      In this book John Thiel, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, seeks to carve a narrow terrain in eschatology between the two basic tendencies in contemporary theology of the “Last Things.”  On the one hand, there are fundamentalist, both Catholic and Protestant, interpretations that take biblical texts literalistically, a feverish activity much in vogue at the approach of the end of the second Christian millennium more than a decade ago. On the other hand, there are historical-critical readings of the same, which Thiel labels “modern, critical, apologetical” approaches (189) and which enjoin silence over the “Last Things” out of deference for the Kantian rejection of the possibility of knowledge and discourse about things that lie beyond sensible perception (which eschatological realities are by nature). Over against these two tendencies Thiel argues for the possibility and necessity of using what he calls the “eschatological imagination” to elaborate “speculative accounts of the afterlife for such accounts can be powerful expressions of faith and hope” (6).

            Using Karl Rahner’s eschatology as a foil, Thiel elaborates his own eschatological position. In Thiel’s view, Rahner gets“half right” on eschatological assertions (7). The German theologian is right in the first part of his eschatological hermeneutics which insists that experience and talk of the eschata grow out of the present and that only in this way can they be represented. However, Rahner is wrong, Thiel argues, in his second hermeneutical principle which enjoins silence on the life of the dead. The reason for this alleged silence is, according to Thiel, twofold: Rahner’s theology of God as “the nameless, the indefinable, the unattainable” and “the Absolute Mystery” and Rahner’s understanding of the life of the dead as enfolded in this Absolute Mystery. Thiel detects the Kantian ghost whispering to Rahner not to trespass the limits of the sensible in his theology of God and the Last Thing. Whether Thiel’s representation of Rahner’s eschatology is accurate will be discussed below.

            Rejecting Rahner’s rule of silence which would produce a “thin” eschatology, Thiel proceeds to elaborate his own “thick” eschatology. He begins by proposing the doctrine of bodily resurrection as the “interpretive rule of faith” serving as “a hermeneutical principle for representing the last things” (20). In this way, and opting for “inaugurated eschatology,” Thiel hopes to offer a “speculative account of the eschatological future” that will “offer important resources for imagining the existential configuration of God’s grace” (20). Thiel proceeds to imagine the life of the dead by examining how Thomas Aquinas and Jonathan Edwards have imagined it, and finding their imaginative construals of the life of the dead in heaven inadequate, he proposes a vision of the blessed in heaven as busily engaged in the work of forgiveness. Following his hermeneutical principle, he applies to the dead the four activities he discerns in the risen Christ: keeping his promises, bearing the pains of his life without reproach, reconciling failures, and showing himself to be who he is (43). The remaining three chapters explore the key eschatological doctrines, namely, purgatory, the last judgment, and the communion of saints.
One exciting feature of Thiel’s speculative construal of these three realities is his use of artworks as theological sources, which are beautifully reproduced in the book: the Last Judgment mosaic in the baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence; the Last Judgment fresco by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence; the Last Judgment mosaic in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello; the Last Judgment fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua; the Last Judgment fresco by Michelangelo Buonarrotti in the Sistine Chapel; two woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Younger; and the Adoration of the Trinity painting by Albrecht Dürer.

While Thiel’s speculative account of the eschatological realities is attractively presented and well argued, there are two issues that may dissuade readers from following his leads. First, his interpretation of Rahner’s eschatological hermeneutics. Detecting the omnipresence of Kantian epistemology in modern theology, Thiel reads Rahner as enjoining total silence on the afterlife. But Rahner does no such thing. Thiel gives a long quotation from Rahner’s essay “The Life of the Dead” (10) as evidence. But the text, when read carefully, does not prescribe silence but rather urges us “to open our hearts to the silent calm of God himself, in which they [the dead] live ... by descending into the silent eternity of our hearts.” It is from this silence we may and must speak of the afterlife; and does Rahner speak! By my counting, beside the two essays Thiel mentions, on hermeneutics of eschatology and the life of the dead, and not counting the book-length manuscript on dying (which is no less mysterious than the other three Last Things, of which Thiel says nothing!), there are at least 73 essays in Theological Investigations alone that have to do, directly or indirectly, with eschatology. Rahner is no Wittgenstein with his “Whereof one cannot speak one must be silent”! In this respect Rahner is not unlike Lao Tsu who after declaring in six characters that “the Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao” (dao ke dao fei chang dao) promptly spends 5,000 characters speaking about it! Indeed, there are numerous dissertations on Rahner’s eschatology which examine his teachings on specific topics such as the intermediate state, purgatory, heaven, hell, the resurrection of the dead, and the end of the world.

What Rahner does enjoin is epistemological modesty, which however is not indebted to Kant but to his deep sense of God as the Absolute and Holy Mystery. This modesty does not forbid speech about God and the dead but precludes speculations such as those about whether the risen dead eat, drink, and have sex. Thomas argues against this possibility, because the risen bodies cannot defecate, urinate, and reproduce. (One wonders what happened to the risen Jesus after he ate and drank with his disciples, at least twice.) That a theologian of Thomas’s stature would employ all his mental acuity to argue this point confirms the need for Rahner’s epistemological reticence.

            Secondly, as to Thiel’s own “thick” description or rather speculation about the life of the dead, one cannot but applaud his use of the doctrine of the resurrection of Christ as the “interpretive rule of faith.” Indeed, Rahner has done the same, even with greater force. But one wonders whether his transference of Jesus’ fourfold acts in his historical existence into the life of the post-resurrected Christ is biblically sound. Surely, according to the biblical account, these four acts have been accomplished before the resurrection, and the work of the risen Christ consists in, to use the expression of Hebrews, being the High Priest who applies the benefits of his already accomplished work of redemption to all humanity, a function curiously absent in Thiel’s thick description of Christ’s glorious life. The theological problem gets more intractable when these four acts are applied to the dead, either in purgatory or in heaven. For example, how can they in their post-mortem existence fulfill the unkept promises they have made to others? Suppose I have promised to buy a diamond for my wife as a sign of my love and devotion to her but did not or could not fulfill this promise while still alive. Where in purgatory or heaven can I buy this diamond to fulfill my promise? Will my wife consider my promise fulfilled if instead of giving the diamond I perform the other three acts, namely, bear the pain of my life without reproach (against her), reconcile failure (in my life with her), and show myself to be who I am (a loving husband)? My example may sound silly, but it does so only because fulfillment of promise is made into an essential duty for the dead (“A promise kept is the fulfillment of personal character as it stands in relation to others, and that fulfillment is achieved in the struggles that keeping a meaningful promise entails” [44].)  Surely a wife may be forgiven for considering the husband’s promise to give her a diamond ring “a meaningful promise” that must be kept.

             Finally, the book’s title Icons of Hope raises my hope that it will draw on the Orthodox icons—icons par excellence—to develop its eschatology. Of course, this is not what Thiel sets out to do, and it is unfair to complain that he did not do it. Indeed, his discussions of the artworks mentioned above are very informative and insightful. I wonder however whether a different sort of eschatological “thick” description will not emerge if recourse is made to icons such as Andrew Rublev’s The Trinity, Vladimir’s  Mother of God, Theophanius the Greek’s Transfiguration, the anonymous Resurrection in the Holy Savior of Chora Church in Istanbul, the anonymous, Rublevian-school Ascension in the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, and Holy Wisdom in Novgorod. This is a mere suggestion and detracts nothing from Thiel’s scholarly work. 

            The theological community owes Thiel a debt of gratitude for bringing eschatology back into our consciousness. His ‘thick” description of the afterlife will surely provoke a lively discussion. I recommend it to graduate seminars in eschatology and contemporary Catholic theology.