Dying and the Virtues

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Matthew Levering
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Eerdmans
    , January
     2018.
     352 pages.
     $45.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780802875488.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Matthew Levering has written another much-needed text in Dying and the Virtues. While there are many works on dying, as the bibliography well illustrates, there are not many that deal with death preparation via virtue strengthening. Because of the breadth of his research—giving voice to biblical, patristic, medieval, and modern authors—Dying and the Virtues would make a great course text to adopt in a class that focuses on Christian dying or eschatology. It could also be quite useful in a course that explores Christianity and secular culture, or in a senior seminar humanities course. Anyone familiar with his publications knows that Levering writes in a uniquely collegial way, allowing his interlocutors to speak without interruption before he takes up his criticisms. Thus the text would be especially pertinent for use in a class with students of varying backgrounds and would generate plenty of discussion. As Levering asserts in the introduction, one should cultivate virtues in preparation for death because these virtues cannot simply be summoned at the critical moment: living well is dying well.

The virtues he selects for the work, in this order, are: love, hope, faith, penitence, gratitude, solidarity, humility, surrender, and courage. These virtues are well-chosen and the ordering serves the purpose of the text. Levering begins by taking up the fear of annihilation (the chapter on love), then the process of dying (on hope and faith), the act of looking back (on penitence and gratitude), existential questions about the good of dying (on solidarity and humility), the sacramental healing of the rebellion in the final days (on surrender), and finally looking forward to the promise on the other side of death (on courage). 

One of the more marvelous treatments in the book is Levering’s exegesis of the book of Job, which confronts the primordial human fear of annihilation among the dying. Much like Job, who complains to God that death is particularly unbefitting, Levering takes up Job’s challenge. Though he builds much tension in this chapter, he scarcely relieves it—again, like the book of Job. But God’s answer satisfies Job, and Levering draws out the key point by implication: “God does not unveil the mystery of human death, but God gives Job enough hope to reassure him that death does not negate love” (26). The treatment of Job takes on new light in Levering’s approach to Christ’s death in solidarity with sinners and Maria Faustina Kowalska’s interior suffering at the sense of being rejected by God (109–18).

The range of scholars and perspectives he engages on death and dying brings Levering into many ongoing conversations, both practical, such as whether to give sacramental anointing to the dying (137–44), and speculative, such as whether there is plant and animal resurrection (158–61). With a book’s worth of endnotes (170–305), the scholar can plunge into the greater depths of Levering’s insights into the literature on death and dying. Levering provides helpful commentary and criticism. His endnotes are so profuse that it can at times challenge the reader’s virtue—I speak of patience here—keeping up with two books within one. Why not place them at the end of each chapter? The reader who skips the endnotes spares himself the difficulty, but then again, such a reader misses out, for example, on endnote 33 from chapter 5, in which Levering weighs contemporary literary criticism of the life of Macrina. While I personally would have preferred Levering to have incorporated more of his academic commentary into the text, that might have made the text less accessible to younger audiences. 

On the one hand, I think the text would have benefitted from a greater explicit consideration of how the Christian doctrine of the final resurrection of the transformed human body affects the dying person. Yet on the other hand, the profundity and totality with which Levering treats the experience of dying leaves the reader truly grateful for his efforts. He concludes that the transformation of the cosmos in the next life necessitates a true goodbye to the world as we know it. That is a thought at once sobering and consoling. Since there is both continuity and discontinuity from death to the afterlife, Levering argues that one ought not neglect the “strange” biblical texts and suggest that all will be the same in the next life (161–63). However one uses this text, whether in the classroom or for personal study, the reader will find much food for thought. Dying and the Virtues is one of those texts that it might be good to skim through every five years or so—supposing that one has another five years. Nothing seems quite as personal as anticipating that final moment of ultimate human vulnerability before one’s passing. It can be an arresting experience for someone who has not begun to prepare, and Levering’s Dying and the Virtues will leave the reader vigilant. Memento mori!

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kevin M. Clarke is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, MO.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Levering holds the James N. and Mary D. Perry Jr. Chair of Theology at Mundelein Seminary and is a longtime participant in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Among his many other books are Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit: Love and Gift in the Trinity and the Church and Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth.

Keywords: 

Add New Comment

Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.

Log in to post comments