Wednesday, November 02, 2005

For All the Saints?

For All the Saints?Providentially, I received an early birthday present on yesterday, All Saints Day: Allison's parents had sent me a copy of For All the Saints?: Remembering the Christian Departed by N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham. Overwhelmed by the timeliness, I bumped it to the top of my ever-growing pile of books-to-read. The combination of the book's short length and Wright's characteristically-stimulating writing made it a quick and pleasant read. Wright specifically addresses issues related to Christian death from an Anglican perspective, often focusing on specific liturgical problems within that framework. (For instance, the question mark in the title refers to Wright's concern that having an All Souls' Day separate from All Saints' Day creates an unnecessary hierarchy among the Christian dead.) However, the material (much of it condensed from more full treatments in books such as The Resurrection of the Son of God) is beneficial for Christians of all traditions.

Critics of Wright's "ecumenical tendencies" will be interested to read the Bishop's straightforward rejections of distinctively Roman Catholic beliefs such as Purgatory, the exalted status of Saints (and Mary), and the practice of petitioning the Saints in prayer. He argues that the Biblical teaching on the finality of Christ's death and the impact of the believer's incorporation into Christ rule out any notion that additional cleansing/punishment is required or that certain believers receive a higher "status" after death (i.e., because of their piety, martyrdom, etc). All those "in Christ" are there on equal footing.

Wright also discusses the prevalent misconceptions about "heaven" as a disembodied state beyond death; rather, he argues, the true Christian hope is found in resurrection, when Christ returns to complete the New Creation already begun on the cross. There is a restful state of existence after death for the Christian ("life after death"), but it is merely an intermediate state prior to the resurrection ("life after life after death"). As Wright frequently argues, Christian teaching and liturgy need revision to correct mistaken concepts of death and "heaven."

Being so short, the book raises some questions without answering them completely. Very early on, Wright states that the fate of the non-Christian dead is outside the scope of the book. He briefly touches on the subject of hell, both in the traditional understanding as well as various re-thinkings of it. He adamantly denies any form of universalism, stating that such views fail to account for the very severe Biblical warnings against sin and God's wrath. Yet he also indicates that the traditional view of eternal conscious torment leaves much to be desired. His own view remains unspecified. On a more interesting note, Wright indicates that he sees no problem with Christians praying for the departed faithful. He reminds the reader that these prayers cannot be to lessen their punishment (since he has previously rejected purgatory) nor to gain an advocate with the Father (since he has already stated that all believers have intimate access through Christ). However, he notes that prayer is a natural outworking of love. If our love for persons does not end at the grave, he asks, why should our prayers? Could not our prayers for the rest and peace of the departed simply be an outflow of our love for them? Admittedly, I have never thought about it this way, and will need to do some more thinking. But at first glance, I can't really find anything objectionable about this line of thought.

All in all, For All the Saints? is a fine little book, and as with so much of Wright's work, manages to teach while also delivering a great deal of food for thought.

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