Fate Magazine Book Review

Eternal Life? by Hans Kung
Doubleday & Company Inc., New York, NY, 1984, 271 pgs., $15.95

In Eternal Life?, the logical successor to Hans Kung's earlier books On Being a Christian and Does God Exist, the distinguished yet controversial Catholic theologian deals with life after death as a medical, philosophical and theological problem. Based upon nine lectures given at the University of Tubingen in the summer of 1981 (and later presented in English at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1983), Eternal Life? is intended not to answer the many perplexing questions surrounding death and dying but to raise them in an appropriate and sustained fashion. Kung hopes to encourage Christians to approach the universe with commitment and trust.

Kung opens his study with an examination of near-death experiences. His primary source is Raymond Moody's ground-breaking overview Life After Life. He concludes, unconvincingly, that these NDE phenomena do not provide evidence for life after death. Hence they should not be used as the basis for a theological argument.

It is right at this point, not even 25 pages into the book, that serious flaws in Kung's approach start to appear. His examination of NDEs, for example, suffers from his limited knowledge of the subject. Kung does not cite --and apparently is not aware of-- the work of Kenneth Ring, Michael Sabom and Stanislav Grof, nor does he show any familiarity with the great advances being made in transpersonal psychology by Ken Wilber, John Welwood and others.

These kinds of shortcomings subvert Kung's effort to argue rationally for faith in eternal life and God's promise of fulfillment. Perhaps, given the findings of out-of-body researchers, NDE percepients and the whole mystical tradition, there is reason to ask for experiential proof of the possible dimensions beyond death; perhaps mere faith and trust in God's mercy need no longer suffice.

Although Kung is not entirely insensitive to this point, he does not give it the serious attention it deserves. Even his notion of "eternal" (which ranges from absolute finality, a resolution beyond time, to perfect power over time, namely God) appears to be confused, lacking the clear simplicity of the concept as delineated in Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta (for example, "eternity as the present moment, which, neither past nor future, encompasses/transcends both aspects through infinity").

Readers of Eternal Life? would do well to turn to Da Free John's Easy Death which, unlike Kung's effort, attacks the central issue of death head-on and without evasion. But whatever the defects in Kung's theological presentation, Eternal Life? is an important and intriguing work, necessary reading for anyone interested in the multi-faceted problem of death and dying.
--David Christopher Lane