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54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2009
This is not a theological book, but a history book by a beautiful, dare I say heavenly, writer who happens to be a brilliant historian as well.
Professor Eire presents information about how people defined eternity throughout history to help them cope with the awful thought that everyone must die. For a subject we often prefer to avoid thinking about nowadays, we learn even as we occasionally smile at some lovely phrases or personal insights and I even laughed out loud at some ideas. Professor Eire is that rare educator who is kind to his readers. I highly recommend this book both for its information and its pleasant to read style.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2010
This book is brilliantly written in an easy-to-read but amazingly erudite fashion. The author captures profound insights of religious figures, mostly Christian, and explains them in language that is very easy to read and understand. I have studied my Christian faith all my life but this book is the best I've read at pulling all the disparate views of this core doctrine into one coherent explanation of its historical development. It was hard to put this book down, not a comment often heard about a book on this topic.

No matter your faith or lack of one, this book will help you to better understand how the notion of eternal life has profoundly affected human societies around the world.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2010
This book is a good presentation of the history of the idea of eternity. An exposition about the ancient belief systems of Plato, Aristotle, and the Israelites follows the introduction. (This chapter is the most technical). From there the idea of eternity is followed as it passes though Catholic Europe, the Reformation, and into the present modern/postmodern world. The work is informative throughout, but in the later chapters, the author's humor and personality comes through with much more strength. The final two chapters become rather gloomy, but humor keeps them very readable. I enjoyed reading this book.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2010
Though many of us not shut-in by incarceration or incapacity spend little time in contemplation of it, eternity has profound influence in our thinking and planning. Yale professor Carlos Eire offers a scholarly overview of the circumstances surrounding the infinitudes that surround the present, namely the endless time before and after now. Thinkers throughout the ages have wrestled this persistent tormentor, and the progress of high science has only further muddied the already murky waters of the nature of being. We know ourselves as subject to time, and we know from what we have witnessed, that we each have the most paltry share of it, yet we, along with the professor, cannot truly imagine anything but our own existence.

Eire goes to some length in this short but dense work to elaborate the historical apprehension by (Western) humanity of eternity, the various ways in which this naturally-occurring concept was co-opted for profit by the great belief consolidators (in particular medieval Christianity, but notoriously in modern times by Madrasas that gestate Islamic suicide bombers), and finally the ultimate rejection of it by post-modernists (not so much the rejection of eternity itself, but the rejection of any notion of our claim to a lasting place in it). An extremely abbreviated treatment of the implications of certain conjectures of modern physics is presented as well, with the somewhat unconvincing case for the illusory nature of time as the issue. When we imagine time, we have put the "not now" into an absolute-value distance from us, and no matter how small the increments of time we might postulate, the past and the future are inaccessible but through memory and anticipation, both unique products of our consciousnesses.

Professor Eire, as pathetically human as the rest of us, admits to his outrage at the potential for injustice in a world of scientifically enforced randomness and for humans, all but inconsequentiality, when gauged against the unfathomable, undimensionable incoherence of eternity. He does not say it, but it is implicit why we tend to gather as tribes to bear local witness to transcendence, even while we cannot even contemplate its absence: we are all we've really got. A+ for thought-provoking reading.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 28, 2010
I loved, loved, loved this book! I just finished it and have decided to go back and re-read it. There is so much to absorb (thank goodness for my Kindle with its dictionary). My book club read Waiting for Snow in Havana and that is when I knew I would read everything by Mr. Eire. I would recommend this book for anyone who has ever considered the question where did we come from and where are we going? Mr. Eire does not attempt to answer as much as provide the means to examine the question. And this he does by providing the history of the ever evolving concept of eternity in Western Civilization. This book is an easy read for such a ponderous topic--filled with references to art, religion, poetry, philosophy and above all humor. You cannot read it without laughing out loud. Who would imagine that this topic could be so enjoyable. Read it, you won't be disappointed.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 2011
I often judge a book by its' cover. Picked up A Brief History of Eternity thinking it probably was a physics/cosmology and/or a philosophy book. Was pleased to find that it is more a history of Western Christianity. Since I'm very interested in the history of Christianity (I've even been on pilgrimage in Europe several times) I found this history of Western thought on eternity fascinating. What I liked the most though was how intelligent yet humble the author was in his presentation. Authors who think they have all the answers to subjects that humans can never completely understand, like eternity and the purpose of life, are silly. Professor Eire presentation is not only reasonable, his writing style is witty and not academic, thank God.

Since I'm in my 60's and went to Catholic school before the Vatican II changes to the faith, I grew up experiencing the remnants of Medieval Catholicism. We learned the old ways back then. This book is a reminder of how it used to be and how different it is now. If you are at all interested in European Medieval history and you have a chance to go on pilgrimage in Europe, choose a pilgrimage that goes to old monasteries and medieval holy sites. You'll be glad you did. Read this book first though to get a feel for medieval thought.
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30 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2010
I cannot be quite as generous as some of the other reviewers. Four stars for the church history, minus 2 for the gimmickry. I'll speak to that first, then follow with a couple of more substantive (if not deal-breaking) criticisms.

This is a great book on church history. But it's packaged as a book about "eternity." It's like a present wrapped for the wrong occasion. Frankly it seemed to me that the author went in search of a new twist on an old topic--that would sell. Indeed the title, "A Very Brief History of Eternity," does sound more exciting than "A Very Brief History of the Church" or of Christianity.

To pull off this rather gimmicky approach, the author repositions "eternity" as the main theme of Christianity, repeatedly harking back to his title by plugging in the word "eternity" at every possible opportunity, even where other words (such as "religion" or "afterlife") would have rung more true.

Christianity is no more all about eternity than an automobile is all about the steering wheel. Just as there are many necessary parts to a car, eternity may be considered a necessary part to our rescue (salvation wouldn't amount to much if it didn't last). But like the steering wheel, eternity is just one of the details. It's no more the central theme of Christianity than, say, resurrection. This is evidenced in part by the fact that humans would no doubt pine as much for just a mere couple of hundred extra years, if that were the promise, as they do for a trillion and more. Eternity is like: "But wait! There's more! Take salvation and we'll throw in eternity for free!"

Of course the details do more than just tag along--they are where the blood is drawn. But all those centuries of doctrinal fussing have been in service to the main theme, and any concept about "eternity" is conditioned on whether our promised salvation is real--which depends on our belief (or not) in the veracity of the biblical revelation, not on the reality of, or the nature of, eternity itself. It is far more likely that eternity can and will go on, than it is likely that we can somehow manage to be in it. Christianity is more about the process of achieving it, than it is about the reward. That's what the church has always been about, and that's what this record of its history is all about. So this strong focus on the nature and reality of eternity, per se, is distracting.

But if the devil is in the details, can't a book be about just one of those details in particular? Sure, if it doesn't seem contrived. But my copy of this book now sports an "Arrrgh!" in the margin everywhere it seemed the author inserted the word "eternity" gratuitously. Seriously, was the Reformation really a "reconfiguration of the eternal," for example? No, not in particular. It was a reconfiguration of **the path to salvation,** the mechanism of it (namely faith vs. works) and of **the role of the clergy.**

The author seems to be aware of the shakiness of this gimmicky repackaging for the purpose of sales appeal, for it seems, from the first pages, that he "doth protest too much" in pre-answering any criticism about that. It's like an apology in advance.

Nevertheless, it's still an excellent primer on church history and the church's approach to its primary theme, salvation--I loved this book for that. Church history was by far the most interesting part of the degree and graduate studies I took in religion 40 years ago. It was a pleasure getting reacquainted with Polycarp in this book, for example, an aging bishop in 156 A.D. who acquiesced to death by fire rather than accept any of the several opportunities offered him to reject his faith. Indeed the central 4 chapters of this book constitute a great introduction to the truly fascinating, unbelievable deeds and doctrines of the church over the centuries, including the mega-split resulting from the Reformation. If you've never sampled this slice of history, don't hesitate to treat yourself to this book or any of the other fine choices out there, such as the very readable ones by Roland Bainton.

I did appreciate the author's contemplation of eternity (wherever it didn't seem contrived). His report, for example, in layman's terms, on recent esoteric studies of eternity by astrophysicists was great--even if it was included only in support of the packaging twist. I was surprised to learn about the attosecond--and just when I thought nanoseconds were all the rage.

More on substance, one thing I couldn't relate to at all, which threatened to derail me from this book at the beginning, was the author's unwillingness to acknowledge that many do not share his horror and sense of meaninglessness at the thought of no life after death. Many, I among them, find life far more joyful and meaningful since coming to a personal realization that this life is almost certainly all there is. Unlike the author, my own behavior is not "determined in large measure by how I think about my eternal fate, day in and day out." For that to be the case, one would have to believe there is at least a reasonable chance of ever seeing life after death--which, given the lack of evidence, many do not. You can't love or hate or dread something that you cannot bring yourself to believe exists.

But the author has a personal, first-to-last-page "pervasive dread" of no afterlife, an "outrage," a something to "get angry thinking about." Millions of us don't carry that baggage. Frankly, when I see our brief time here called an "insult" or an "injustice," it strikes me as arrogant. It's like somebody gives you ten bucks and you feel insulted and angry because they didn't give you a trillion. Being angry over not having more--especially when there's nothing we can change about it--seems like a cruel, self-defeating displacement of joy. Are we not adjustable to new understandings? Surely the lack of this kind of handwringing by atheists, humanists and many agnostics deserved at least a nod in this book; but that would have conflicted with the notion that we're all living in constant consternation over whether we'll magically come back to life and live forever--which seems to be the setup for this book's approach.

Then there's Darwin.

What an odd omission that so little was mentioned of the single most important impact on Christian thought in modern times. Before Darwin, humans were made and put here. Created. Just as we are, essentially. Purpose, meaning and "soul" were easy concepts when that was all there was. A literal Genesis story and all it implied (eternity) could seem reasonable. But then, suddenly Darwin. Quite abruptly, we were no longer made and put here as is. Purpose, meaning and soul became, for the first time, subject to almost universal doubt of varying degree. Does a gnat have an eternal soul? Does a chimp? Did the Neanderthals? Where and how is the line drawn? If there's a God who went to the trouble of defining exactly who, in the continuum of specie development, gets a "soul," then why didn't he just create those people from scratch in the first place, as the biblical lore suggests?

Back to the to the automobile analogy: if a car no longer runs, what's the point in lamenting the loss of the steering wheel, in particular? Author Eire is the scholar, not me; so maybe he had a reason for not emphasizing evolution as a major turning point in the history of thought on... uh... "eternity," and giving it more attention.

Finally, some minutiae. (a) There were too many foreign words and phrases employed, mostly in the first parts of the book, which regular people can't understand from context with any precision. (b) I think Seventh-day Adventists are a better example than Jehovah's Witnesses, of a direct remnant of the Millerite movement; and they are more than twice the size in membership. (c) As a fan of Thomas Paine, I wish the author had specifically noted that he was not an atheist by any stretch (contrary to what Christians often suggest), but a Deist--a staunch believer in God without buying into any of the sacred texts or any religion. Payne barely preceded Darwin, and it is interesting to wonder whether Payne would have continued in his religionless belief in God as creator, after Darwin. It is similarly interesting to wonder whether the "new atheists" (Dawkins, Harris, et. al.), if writing PRE-Darwin, would have made their renunciation of the biblical record in defense of God's character (like Payne), rather than in support of atheism.

In summary, buy this book for the great substantive middle chapters that cover the church history. As a bonus, appreciate the author's frequent discussion of "eternity"--if you don't mind being distracted by it's frequent gratuitous insertion.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2012
That is what impressed me about this book. It is the story of how human beings moved from central players in an eternal cosmic drama to an almost inconceivable insignificance facing "eternal" annihilation, with no trace left and no "memory" of us ever having been here at all. It is the story of the author's vigorous but ultimately impotent objection. In that sense, it is only tangentially about Church history, as exceedingly competent as that clearly is. This is a book that seeks to raise the question, for those interested to entertain it, of what grounds remain for doing theology at all. To me, that is an important question. If it's important to you, then you'll find this book well worth the read. I gave it 4 stars because, as another reviewer complains, no mention was made of Darwin, and this is an important omission. But frankly, such mention was not necessary, because there is already so much written about the impact of evolution on Christian thinking. This is a wholly different and I think far more riveting perspective on the impact of another branch of the sciences.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2010
As a "very brief review," all I can say is I enjoyed the content and style of the book very much. I loved the self-deprecating humor. Somehow I hoped the author would have an answer to my curiosity about an afterlife. But, not all questions have answers, do they?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2011
MR Erie usted es un INTELECTUAL de grandes quilates, pero a usted se le olvido incluir en la primera pagina de su libro, "A VERY BRIEF HISTORY OF ETERTNITY", la siguiente dedicatoria: LA MUERTE ESTA TAN SEGURA DE SU VICTORIA QUE NOS DA TODA LA VIDA DE VENTAJA.
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