I recently finished a wonderful, little book by Yale historian Carlos Eire. The book lives up to its name: it manages to cover in relative brevity the breathtaking expanse of “eternity” from its very first beginnings in antiquity to its life (or lack thereof) in the present. As the offspring of Eire’s involvement in a round table at the University of Virginia on “lived theology,” the book traces the impact of eternity as a concept on how people throughout history actually lived their lives.
And I must confess that from his very first lines, Eire captures his reader’s attention: ”Why dawdle?,” he begins. ”Let’s stare the monster in the eye, close up, right away: this book amounts to nothing, and so do you and I, and the whole world. Less than zero.”
What proceeds is a sobering description of the fate of our universe- from the sun’s incineration of all living things on earth some one billion years from now, to some four billion years later, the total annihilation of both the sun and planet Earth. Eire concludes, in referencing the various scientific prophecies out there, that “our universe is in for a very rough and tragic ride.” Even so, this cosmic gloom and doom belongs to a long, unfathomable stretch of road called “eternity” that human beings for centuries have been trying to make sense of.
Only more recently (relatively speaking, of course) has the subject of eternity largely made a noticeable exit from our public discourse, and Eire, a Catholic, blames this severing of ties between the here and now and the world beyond, on my stock, the Reformers. Eire’s argument here is convincing, too. Knowingly or unknowingly, when sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers did away with, for example, masses for the dead, they chipped away at this permeable boundary between earthly and heavenly existence. We have been feeling the impact both for the better and the worse ever since. One might say that our current time’s all-encompassing focus on the material reality of our earthly existence, not to mention secularism itself, is an outgrowth of these earlier efforts to “let the dead take care of the dead,” so to speak.
The book is worth a read and I commend it to you. It is an engaging, thoughtful and sympathetic treatment of the enduring human hope that there is life beyond our earthly expiration date. I could not help but put it down and feel some of the same sentiments that led the mystic St. John of the Cross (whom Eire quotes) to exclaim, “That eternal wellspring hides though well I know where it abides, in spite of the night.”