Being for eternity

Q. 3.1 of Bonaventure’s Commentary on Ecclesiastes asks what Solomon means when he says that all human labor under the sun is vain, when this would seem to include even those labors done in the service of God (an “heretical opinion”). Bonaventure’s answer is to proffer yet another distinction, one that nevertheless adds an important and helpful perspective or qualification to Bonaventure’s remarks in general about the “vanity of changeability.” Amongst created things, Bonaventure says, there are those things which come into being concurrently or “with time” (angels and matter) and those things which come into being “in time” (they have their being within time and thus “after” time itself had started). Of these latter beings, some exist “in and under time” (i.e., they have both their beginning and ending in time). Of these, finally, he further distinguishes between those things which exist “for and under time” (they both “cease work and bearing fruit” in time) and those which are “for eternity” (they “cease work” in time, but they “continue to bear fruit” after time). They are the works of the former camp (those that exist only “for and under time”) that Solomon has in mind when he refers to the work of men done under the sun (i.e., “under the sun” means “under time”), and which are therefore done in vain. And although Bonaventure does not make the point expressly, he would presumably have us place those aforementioned works, for example, done in the service of God in the latter category, of those things that are done “for eternity” and which therefore “cease work” in time while nevertheless continuing to “bear fruit” into eternity. For Bonaventure, in short, then, there are two kinds of works: those that are done “under sun,” which therefore not only terminate in time, but also have their “fruit” terminate there as well; and those that are done in time (and thus, in this sense, are “under the sun”), but which are nonetheless “for eternity”: like all human labors they will cease in time, but their “fruit” or consequences will continue to reverberate throughout eternity.

As I mentioned above, this distinction amongst things which have their beginning and ending in time, by dividing them into those which, ceasing to work in time, either continue or fail to continue to bear fruit into eternity, would seem to soften or qualify Bonaventure’s general indictment of all mutable or changeable being with a kind of “vanity.” In this way Bonaventure might be seen to redeem creaturely mutability through Christian eschatology. A dominant trend in much Greek thinking, after all, was to distinguish between changeable becoming and unchanging being and to denigrate the vagaries of the former in light of the stability of the latter. Here Bonaventure may be seen to bridge the difference through the distinction between what which begins and ends “under the sun” (i.e., the temporal) and that which may have its beginning “under the sun” but which nevertheless will continue, or at least have its “fruit” continue, on into eternity. In this way there is an aspect of changeable being, we might say, which is allowed to escape or be “rescued from” the vanity that otherwise characterizes the changeable realm, by allowing it to participate and endure in that which is eternal. Put differently, viewed from this vantage point, the central distinction is perhaps no longer to be placed between the vanity of changeability and the permanence of the unchangeable, but between that which is not only changeable, but unlasting, and that which, while changeable, will nevertheless be blessed with an endless and enduring legacy. The answer to the ancient philosophical problem of change or mutability, therefore, is not a present transcending (which is to say, escaping) of time through contemplation or intellection into the eternal, unchanging realm of being, but is a present, eschatological hope that in the future we will see even our deeds done here on earth taken up and, as it were, memorialized for all eternity.

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