John E. Thiel is professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. He currently serves as president of the American Theological Society and is the author of six books, including the award-winning Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Now and Forever: A Theological Aesthetics of Time (April 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
My previous book with the University of Notre Dame Press, Icons of Hope, was the subject of a panel discussion at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. As the discussion came to a close, a couple of colleagues observed that implicit in the argument of this book on eschatology was a theology of time. Around the same time, a review of the book appeared in Commonweal and the reviewer there made the same point. Time was not my concern in Icons of Hope, but in that work I argued for an eschatology that imagined the communion of saints into its heavenly dimensions, and even to the point that in such imagining theologians should be willing to speculate about how the blessed dead live into their redemption in heavenly life. That argument reminded the reader that whatever the Christian doctrine of bodily resurrection means, it affirms that the integrity of personal character abides even in heavenly life—a character formed in actions that can only unfold in time. Colleagues who noted the theology of time implicit in Icons of Hope were calling attention to an interesting, undeveloped point that was so rich that it could be the subject of its own monograph. I spent some time thinking about this and concluded that this would be an interesting topic to pursue.
In this book, Now and Forever, I argue that time is a created medium of grace, itself the self-communication of God’s own eternal life that believers encounter as their redemption. More specifically, I argue that the eventfulness of time possesses a sacramental quality that wraps creation in the divine presence, and that the continuity of time’s sacramental power extends from time “now” to time “forever,” from the communion of the saints in its earthly dimensions to the communion of the saints in its heavenly dimensions in which graceful time continues to mediate eternal life to the saints without end. I propose that this sacramental analogy pushes further the insight of the twentieth-century ressourcement theology that grace is everywhere, while rescuing created time from the negative resonance of its Platonic assumptions, embraced in the Christian tradition as the history of sin and death.
Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?
Although I worry constantly about America’s lack of commitment to a common national good and, worse, its apparent lack of commitment to a common sense of reality, and worry constantly too about the seemingly unbounded dimensions of global suffering, I have no special wisdom to offer in this book to address these matters in a practical way. Arguing in this book as I do, though, that eventful time beautifully mediates God’s grace to creation inescapably raises the question of the place of tragic events transpiring in times of uncountable forms of suffering in such an imaginary. How can the eventfulness of time be the medium of grace, and even, as I argue, a reflection of the eventfulness of the divine life of the Trinitarian God, if so many events in time are anything but beautiful and encountered as terrible physical and emotional suffering? I do address this difficult question in line with the claims of Christian faith, which at least means without offering a theodicy that attempts to solve the problem of evil through some universal, reasonable explanation.
How did you research this book?
I’m tempted to answer your question by saying I didn’t. That would be true in one respect but not in another, more important, respect. The activity of researching a book in the humanities typically follows on the scholar’s decision to pursue a topic that one has not explored before and so one must study the new area through extensive reading in the primary and secondary literature. In my previous book I wrote a long chapter on the doctrine of purgatory that required such research, especially in the voluminous French scholarship on this topic. I did new reading for this book, of course, but not of the sort that I would call research along the lines I’ve just described. Considered in another respect, though, I’ve now been studying theology for 50 years, and in writing this book I drew on this life-time of researching in order to construct my argument.
What did you learn while writing it?
I re-learned that writing is not an easy task. The blank page is an intimidating prospect and filling the page with words that are faithful to the ideas one pursues and the argument one wishes to advance is a challenge one faces again and again on every line.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
There are so many academic influences on my work and these influences flow into each other in ways that make distinguishing them difficult. But the preponderant influence is the work of Hans Frei. This may seem odd to say because Frei did not leave a body of scholarship that approached at all the writings of peer contemporaries. But Frei’s approach to the task of theology has influenced my own work greatly, and his little book on Christology is a text about which I think often. Hans Frei was a remarkable person, whose character and generosity could not help but influence his students, colleagues, and friends. I remain grateful for our friendship in the last ten years of his life.
What is your writing schedule like?
I’ve taught undergraduates for 46 years at a relatively small liberal arts college. I’ve found writing to be next to impossible while teaching in the fall and spring semesters. Teaching, meeting the needs of my students, administration, and committee work fill the time. I’ve required the uninterrupted times of holiday breaks, summers, and sabbaticals to write seriously. This book was largely written during the first year of the pandemic. I was scheduled to be on sabbatical in fall 2020 and so spent nearly every day writing from the middle of May until the middle of December. The threat of the pandemic before vaccines only bolstered the focus of what is my typical schedule when writing a book. Each day, I sit at the computer for 8 hours and produce one single-spaced page. Overall, that time is spent fleshing out a hunch that has me carry my argument forward as I imagine the voices of objectors, and nuance and adjust my argument accordingly to address their concerns. When the writing is going well—which never means quickly—I’m left with the feeling that the good hunch that I’m fashioning into an argument is like a cresting wave that I’m riding, and finally that in this process the good hunch is writing itself. Clearly, the important element in all of this is having a good enough hunch.
What advice would you give to a junior scholar who wants to start a book?
Every writer has her or his own process and so I have no specific practical advice to offer about process. I’ve noticed that junior scholars and not a few mid-career scholars are always looking over their shoulders in their scholarly endeavors, as though they’re still trying to please a doctoral supervisor and are deathly afraid that their writing might be criticized. The consequence is a literary paralysis caused by the thought that there’s always another book or article to read before one can advance their project and get it right. My advice would be not to do this, and to realize that criticism is an important part of the process. Everyone errs by commission or omission, and there will always be plenty of people willing to point out your errors. Nobody gets to have the last word!
Who would you like to read Now and Forever and why?
Everyone, of course. But short of everyone, theologians and students of theology will find this interesting for its unique approach to the doctrine of grace and to the doctrine of creation. Christians of all denominations will find in these pages a proposal for imagining God’s relation to the world, and for imagining the relationship between this world and the next, centered on the beauty of time, perhaps the most astonishing dimension of God’s creation.
What books are you currently reading?
I begin every day reading Italian novels. I’ve just completed what many regard as a masterpiece of Italian literature, Manzoni’s I promessi sposi. I’m also a fan of Andrea Camilleri, who writes detective novels in Sicilian-Italian. As for theology, right now I’m reading David Bentley Hart’s Tradition and Apocalypse. A curious book.
What book or project are you working on next?
I’m working on an article on theological method having to do with the role of aporias, logical dead-ends, in theological reasoning.