Dedicated to my friend TomAfter looking up at his students to see whether they seemed to be listening [most of them did], Bernard (in David Lodge's novel Paradise News) concludes the term's opening lecture:
"Modern theology therefore finds itself in a classic double bind: on the one hand the idea of a personal God responsible for creating a world with so much evil and suffering in it logically requires the idea of an afterlife in which these things are rectified and compensated for; on the other hand, traditional concepts of the afterlife no longer command intelligent belief, and new ones, like Rahner's, do not capture the popular imagination—indeed, they are incomprehensible to ordinary laypeople. It is not surprising that the focus of modern theology has turned more and more upon the Christian transformation of this life, whether in the form of Bonhoeffer's 'religionless Christianity,' or Tillich's Christian existentialism, or various types of Liberation Theology.__________________
"But if you purge Christianity of the promise of eternal life (and, let us be honest, the threat of eternal punishment) which traditionally underpinned it, are you left with anything that is distinguishable from secular humanism? One answer is to turn that question around and ask what secular humanism has got that isn't derived from Christianity.
"There is a passage in Matthew, Chapter 25, which seems particularly relevant here. Matthew is the most explicitly apocalyptic of the synoptic gospels, and this section of it is sometimes referred to by scholars as the Sermon on the End. It concludes with the well-known description of the Second Coming and the Last Judgment:When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on the throne of glory. All the nations will be assembled before him and he will separate men one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.Pure myth. But on what grounds does Christ the King separate the sheep from the goats? Not, as you might expect, fervency of religious faith, or orthodoxy of religious doctrine, or regularity of worship, or observance of the Commandments, or indeed anything 'religious' at all.Then the King will say to those on his right hand, 'Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.' Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and go to see you?' And the King will answer, 'I tell you solemnly, insofar as you did this to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.'The virtuous seem quite surprised to be saved, or to be saved for this reason, doing good in an unselfish but pragmatic and essentially this-worldly sort of way. It's as if Jesus left this essentially humanist message knowing that one day all the supernatural mythology in which it was wrapped would have to be discarded."
Bernard caught the eye of one of the nuns, and essayed an impromptu joke: "It's almost as if someone tipped him off." The nun reddened, and dropped her eyes. [pp. 282-283]
Disclaimer: I acknowledge that I don't have the right to publish long excerpts from copyrighted work (such as the novels of David Lodge). I console myself with the thought that I have so few readers—a few friends—I can hardly be said to be "publishing" anything. It's more like calling the friend over to my reading chair and saying, "Come here, look over my shoulder. What do you think of this?"