Joseph C. Hurtuk
Adjunct Professor, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul
Even though Peter Phan, one of my past and most favorite theology professors, always encouraged me to read theology critically, I approach the task of reviewing one of the master’s works with a certain amount of fear and trepidation. Nonetheless, knowing that the good professor might otherwise charge me with not sufficiently practicing my theological trade, I shall now embark on this perilous journey.
In general I find Phan’s small work on the “Last Things” to be altogether informative, engaging and inspiring. Permit me to elaborate with some detail on each of the above-cited adjectives.
The work is informative for several reasons. First, Phan develops the topic in a systematic manner, beginning with a discussion of reality and imagination as ways of talking about the afterlife, moving into whether death and dying is an end or a beginning, the afterlife understood as the immortality of the soul and/or eternal life, the reign of God as Jesus’ raison d’etre and the intermediate period between death and resurrection, then to heaven as the only choice, hell as a contradiction to God’s love and the resurrection of the dead as transformed life, and finally to Jesus’ return in glory, the Eucharist as both presence and absence, hope contrasted with wishful thinking, and the end of the world as a new heaven and earth. This logical presentation is reflected in literally every chapter and most clearly in chapter one on scriptural interpretation and chapter eleven on various ways to conceive of hope. Second, in this systematic development Phan, in almost every chapter, combines the results of both traditional and contemporary interpretations of the essential eschatological data contained in the deposit of faith and related dogmatic teachings. Perhaps the clearest though not only example of this feature is in his chapter ten on the Eucharist. Here Phan positions the communal celebration as the vortex of an already and not yet eschatology, and artfully relates the traditional understanding of the real presence and transubstantiation to a contemporary theology of transsignification and transfinalization. Third, although Phan issues a disclaimer at the outset of wishing to refrain from bogging the work down with numerous footnotes, he does offer helpful in-text references at significant junctures. Perhaps the most salient example of these references is Phan’s chapter twelve presentation of various scientific views on the end of the world.
In addition to its factual value, the work is also engaging in that the author’s personal dimension in the chapters, precisely when he on numerous occasions reminds the reader that he is not only discussing death and life in the abstract but also as it affects his life and hopefully the lives of those following his words, makes for a presentation which seeks to draw one more existentially into the entire scenario. Phan refers to this personal dimension and journey of “living into death” and ultimately “dying into life” as early as the second page of his Preface, and goes on later to suggest that the serious reader do the same as she/he traverse through the chapters.
Finally, the book is inspiring in that its ultimate purpose seeks to address the spirituality of the reader as he/she confront the numerous biblical passages on eschatology that are cited throughout. This is most noticeable in the pages on death and dying of chapter two with Phan’s discussion on dying with Christ and a holy death, as well as the communitarian notion of the afterlife which he offers in the chapter six thoughts on the reality and meaning of heaven. In this sense the work reflects not only “faith seeking understanding” but also “understanding seeking faith.”
Since no review would be complete without a suggestion or two, perhaps a more detailed and critical evaluation of the scriptural texts on the resurrection of chapter eight and a clearer interrelationship on the real presence with transubstantiation, transsignification and transfinalization regarding the Eucharist in chapter ten could round out the study. Overall, however, the work merits a place on the bookshelf of both the scholar and the student, as well as the interested lay person.