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Jesus and the Demise of Death: Read An Excerpt
the Council of Trent, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Are there biblical grounds for understanding our meritorious actions as our participation through the Holy Spirit in Christ's saving work, so that his passage from death to life remains always the source of ours?
The difficulty is equally acute for the doctrine of the spiritual soul. Here the Catechism does pause explicitly to reflect on the relationship of this doctrine to biblical revelation. In two highly compressed sentences, citing (in footnotes) three texts from Matthew, two from John, and one from Acts, the Catechism argues, "In Sacred Scripture the term 'soul' often refers to human life or the entire human person. But 'soul' also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God's image: 'soul' signifies the spiritual principle in man" (§363). After a brief discussion of body-soul unity, drawing on the Aristotelian doctrine of the soul as the form of the body, the Catechism repeats the teachings of the fourteenth-century Council of Vienna and the sixteenth-century Fifth Lateran Council to the effect that God creates each soul immediately (the parents do not produce the soul) and that the soul is immortal. Neither of these teachings, however, is easily found in the New Testament. Nor is it clear how these teachings ensure the connection between our passage from death to life and Jesus' resurrection and ascension. If we have an immortal soul, isn't our passage automatic, arising from our own spiritual potencies?
Lastly, the doctrine of the spiritual soul undergirds the Catechism's understanding of an eternal life as marked above all by beatific vision. But Jesus himself does not refer to the beatific vision, preferring instead to describe the world to come in terms of images of banqueting, the many rooms of his Father's house, sitting on thrones judging and reigning, and the hundredfold replacement of goods that believers have sacrificed for Jesus' sake in this life. Arguing that the "mystery of blessed communion with God and all who are in Christ is beyond all understanding and description" (§1027), the Catechism interprets these biblical images as metaphorical expressions of a transcendent reality. Without referring to Scripture, the Catechism states, "Because of his transcendence, God cannot be seen as he is, unless he himself opens up his mystery to man's immediate contemplation and gives him the capacity for it. The Church calls this contemplation of God in his heavenly glory 'the beatific vision'" (§1028). But if Scripture is "the soul of theological
studies," as both the Second Vatican Council and Pope Benedict XVI say must be the case, then where does the Church get this understanding of the "beatific vision"?
One likely candidate, of course, is the philosophy of Plato. In Plato's Symposium, Socrates is led by his teacher Diotima to ascend from contemplation of physical beauty to contemplation of the eternal spiritual form of beauty. Diotima asks Socrates whether if "it were given to man to see the heavenly beauty face to face, would you call his . . . an unenviable life, whose eyes had been opened to the vision, and who had gazed upon it in true contemplation until it had become his own forever?"21 If one finds Plato here at the pinnacle of the Church's eschatology, it can easily come to seem that Plato is the driving force behind the whole of the Church's eschatology. Thus the account of Christ's descent into hell relies upon Christ's separated soul and a community of conscious souls waiting for the resurrection of the body: where did all these active separated souls come from, if not from Platonic imaginations? Theological reflection on Jesus' resurrection, too, draws upon philosophy and has in the past crowded out the study of Jesus' resurrection by historians and biblical scholars. Similarly, in accounting for where Jesus is now, theological reflection on Jesus' ascension to the right hand of the Father makes distinctions between spirit and matter that derive from Platonic philosophy. The Church too can seem less an eschatological community and more a community shaped by Platonic care of the soul through interactions with the souls of the saints. The notion of merit has roots in the virtue of justice that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought for themselves and their hierarchically ordered cities. Most troubling of all, the doctrine of the beatific vision can seem to relativize the biblical promises of bodily resurrection, last judgment, and new creation.