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By ROGER FERLO
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2007 Roger Ferlo
All rights reserved.
MAYBE NOT, MAYBE SO
Not long ago the television personality Barbara Walters aired a Christmas special on the topic of heaven, during which she asked an assortment of theologians, religious figures, and (perhaps inevitably in America) Hollywood celebrities about their hopes and expectations when challenged to imagine a heavenly Beverly Hills.
The responses she drew from people ranged all over the celestial map. The Dalai Lama, interviewed on location in the Himalayas, told Walters that the purpose of life is to be happy, and that you can accomplish that by "warmheartedness." A Muslim terrorist whom she interviewed in a high security Israeli prison assured her that "everything that is good is in the garden in paradise," and that "the Lord promised the martyr who lost his life and lost the world on earth, that he promised him these seventy-two women in paradise as honor, as respect for him." A Roman Catholic archbishop told her that "we're made for heaven." Asked about near-death experiences, after which many otherwise sensible people testify that they have had a glimpse of the heavenly landscape, one scientist speculated that the drop in oxygen level creates massive overactivity in the brain: "I think there is a true transformation, but not because you've been to heaven." But in response, another scientist testified that "my near-death experience changed everything about me.... There is not a single experience on earth that could ever be as good as being dead."
What is it about heaven that prompts even the least religious people to speculate about the life to come?
The enormous popular response to Mitch Albom's Five People You Meet In Heaven and Alice Sebold's novel The Lovely Bones, about a murdered girl watching her family's story unfold from her vantage point in the afterlife, shows us how compelling, anguished, and yet hopeful a topic this can be. It furnishes rich material for television shows like Touched By An Angel, Six Feet Under, and Dead Like Me, but ironically not for sermons or serious theological comment, except in the most conservative of our pulpits. In spite of what the preachers say or refuse to say, thoughts of heaven in America seem to be overwhelmingly ecumenical, or at least more ecumenical than the churches where American Christians prepare themselves for the final transit. A Newsweek/Beliefnet poll, conducted about the same time as the Walters interviews aired, asked people whether or not a good person who doesn't happen to share their own religious faith could go to heaven. A whopping sixty-nine percent of respondents (including a surprising number of evangelical Christians) thought it could happen—that heaven was open to all comers, regardless of what church they belonged to, and even if they belonged to no church at all.
As compelling a topic as it is for ordinary people, heaven is largely ignored by our more serious religious thinkers. Liberal Christians especially tend to stress the "this-worldli-ness" of religious faith, seeking to downplay the invidious theology of punishment and reward that so often bedevils Christianity in America—the separation of sheep from goats and wheat from weeds, of who's in from who's out. This pastoral emphasis on matters of this world rather than of the world to come is understandable perhaps, considering the social injustices that surround us, and the emotional injuries so often inflicted by fiery preaching about heaven and hell. As the old spiritual wisely says, "Ev'rybody talkin' 'bout heav'n ain't goin' there." But theologians and preachers who, fearing the worst, avoid the topic of the afterlife end up marginalizing the subject of eternity, leaving thoughts of heaven to popular fiction and the talk shows—or to the punishing rhetoric of pulpit-pounding evangelists.
This book is a small attempt to break the silence—to imagine heaven anew. When we approached this group of writers—pastors, artists, historians, poets, teachers, therapists, novelists, spiritual guides—and asked them to write short, personal essays on the subject of heaven, we weren't sure what we would get, although we assumed there wouldn't be a lot of talk about angels and harps. One thing we discovered was that thoughts of heaven bring out the inner agnostic, even among the strongest believers. When it comes to traditional images of heaven, that mysterious place Up There, the typical reaction in these pieces is Maybe, Maybe Not. On reflection, this attitude is no surprise. How can you imagine or describe a place that is not-place, a time that is not-time? There's a huge risk in trying to talk about heaven with any integrity, especially in these credulous times, and it is not as if this were fresh new territory. To quote William James, that great American master of the Maybe in religious experience, "Much that commonly passes for spiritual self-seeking is only material and social self-seeking beyond the grave." Siding with James, one thing these writers make clear is that religious dogmas, baldly stated, cannot do heaven justice. And yet, in spite of their skepticism toward traditional views, in spite of their ambivalent stance of Maybe, Maybe Not, when faced with the prospect of heaven these writers share the strong desire to explore and pursue the Maybe So.
In a way, the theologians and preachers who avoid too much heavenly talk get it right. Talk of heaven needs to be talk of this world, but only if focusing on things as they are leads us to probe the outermost edges of the here-and-now. Only by considering closely the things of this world can we have any clue about the things of the next. This is an ancient insight, what the medieval theologians called the analogy of being. It is the conviction that in the warp and woof of God's creation we discern, if only by analogy or metaphor or indirection, a glimpse of the divine beauty and the divine splendor, what the poet T. S. Eliot called "a tremor of bliss, a wink of heaven" (Murder in the Cathedral). So you will find much talk in these essays of the world's beauties—of gardens and banquets, of sculptures and wines, of erotic touch and earthly loving. The sensuous spirit of the Song of Songs animates many of these pages, where analogies of heavenly beauty can be discerned in works of art as diverse as Dante's Purgatorio and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."
But you will also find talk here of devastating loss: the death of a parent or a child, the aging of the body, a stint in jail, the break-up of a marriage, a cancer diagnosis, a near-death experience. Considering heaven afresh seems to chasten our deeply-held fantasies of survival, and gives us courage to brave the shadowlands of our own impending and inevitable losses. It looks like we put off thinking of heaven until we absolutely have to, until we halt before a perilous threshold that we have no choice but to cross. It is no accident that the one writer mentioned most often in these essays is Dante, that master of shadowlands and thresholds and stairways to heaven. In the face of loss, like Dante we try to imagine heaven as a region of redeemed unlikeness, a vast reunion tent, a many-roomed house where perilous thresholds no longer separate us from our better selves, and our better selves from God and our neighbor. It is a crowded place, packed with relatives and co-workers whom, by some mysterious act of grace, we no longer need either to hate or to mourn. To imagine such a heaven is to imagine a place free of the disorder and disillusions that mar our feeble attempts at loving—loving not only our enemies, as Jesus so famously demanded, but also loving our sorry selves, our troubled souls and aching bodies.
You will find that most of these writers possess strong religious commitments, and many of them display a deep love of ritual. You will not find much talk of heavenly judgment—sheep and goats mingle pretty freely in the heavenly pastures imagined here. Eternal punishment for sin and eternal reward for the righteous do not seem to fire these writers' imaginations, perhaps because that brand of theology has set so many destructive fires in the past, and no doubt will continue to do so, needing no encouragement from any of us. Nonetheless, you will find hints and shadowings here of powerful scriptural visions—of Ezekiel's fiery chariot and the ancient Temple rebuilt, of gardens and vineyards restored, of what Peter Hawkins calls, with John's Revelation in mind, the jewel box of the Heavenly City in which every tear is washed away. Liturgies and rituals of passage emerge in these writers' religious practices as dress rehearsals for the real thing, celebrating the analogy of being by way of our own earthly senses—with graceful movement, sweet smells, lavish color, deep-toned sound, and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the bread and wine even of a simple communion service. In imagining heaven, we do the best we can with what we have, in the strong conviction that the things of this world carry within them the sacred lineaments of the things of the world to come.
As we talk of heaven this way, this book begins to describe what might be seen as the re-traditioning of religious life in America. What you are about to read is a foray into a post-modern way of approaching heaven. As is often the case, post-modernity begins to look a lot like pre-modernity—a restoration of ancient images and liturgical practices that had once been thought outmoded by the empirical certainties of the modern age. All this is a fancy way of saying that, in talking of heaven, there are not a lot of certainties. In the end, we don't know anything. We would be greater fools than we already are if we thought we did. So we pool our guesses. That heaven is is for many of us a deep and haunting conviction. What heaven is, and how it is what it is, not even the mystics can tell us. When it comes to heaven, we are grasping at straws.
But we are not on our own. Others have been there before us, and the promise of heaven, however much shadowed by our own fears and fallings off, remains a promise worth remembering, if only for the sake of those who have gone before. It takes some measure of courage in these contentious days to clear the old paths and sweep the stairways clean. What counts most in the end is a holy paradox. In directing our thoughts toward matters heavenly, we find ourselves grounded more firmly in the essential matters of earth.
LEAVING MYSELF BEHIND
Barbara Brown Taylor
A couple of weeks ago on my way to school, I saw a stunned cardinal clinging to the shoulder of the road. I pass so much roadkill on this stretch of highway that I often avert my eyes, but the flash of red was impossible to miss. I knew the cardinal was alive because he was still crouching upright instead of lying on his side. Pulling over as soon as I could, I turned on my emergency flashers and walked back to where he was sitting dazed as a drunk who knew better than to try and walk. His eyes were open, but he did not even blink as I leaned down to pick him up. Trying not to frighten him, I laid him in the little hammock I made for him in the hem of my blouse.
Back in the car, he lay perfectly still as I cranked the engine and pulled into traffic again. For the next two miles I could feel him in my lap, light as a leaf. I wondered where he thought he was. I wondered if my smell distressed him more than his encounter with the windshield that had ruined his day. Then, just as I was turning into the parking lot, he gave a loud squawk and burst back to life. I put one hand on him to keep him from flying in my face. He yelled as if I were strangling him, as if I were pulling out his toe-nails one by one. I parked as quickly as I could and found a suitable bush. The moment I opened my hand, he scuttled away from me, heading so deep into the bush that all I could see was a patch of red. When I went back later to check on him, he was gone.
I do this all the time. Once I picked up an odd little turtle that was stranded on the yellow centerline. When I got it back into the car, I realized it was a baby snapper. A couple of minutes later, it too burst back to life, racing over the front seat of my car looking for something to latch onto with its strong little jaws. I managed to reach Lake Demorest without losing any chunks of flesh, cupped the turtle between my two empty shoes, and released it into the water with an apology to the ducks whose ducklings the snapping turtle would one day eat.
In my life so far, I have rescued more creatures than I can count. From smallest to largest, they have included red-bellied spiders, Monarch caterpillars, hummingbirds, garter snakes, field mice, voles, lab rats, chipmunks, screech owls, squirrels, chickens that have fallen off chicken trucks, injured raccoons, orphaned opossums, stray cats, dogs, llamas headed to the slaughterhouse, and horses too lame to ride. None of them ever asked to be rescued, and none of them ever said thank you. It is entirely possible that they were never meant to be rescued, and that I thwarted the divine plan by subverting their fate.
Once they recovered, I never saw most of them again, but one of my favorite fantasies of heaven includes a reunion with them. In this dream, they are all fat and happy. They are furthermore all getting along. The birds are no longer eating the caterpillars. The dogs are no longer savaging the raccoons. I do not know what they eat in heaven, but they are not eating one another, any more than I am eating them. Having made it to the peaceable kingdom, we are healed of the appetites that once made us "natural" enemies. We are no longer smart animals or dumb, separated from one another by the number of our legs or the kinds of songs we sing. We are all God's creatures, enjoying our full communion with one another at last.
All in all, I do not spend much time thinking about heaven. In the first place, my mortal mind is not fitted to contemplate eternity. In the second place, I know too many believers whose investment in heaven has cheapened their commitment to earth. In the third place, it seems presumptuous of me to speculate on what scripture has left vague. And yet I am also aware that I do not spend much time thinking about heaven because my life on earth is very good. If I were living in a small cell at Guantanamo, or trying to feed children in a Sudanese refugee camp, I imagine that I would spend a great deal more time thinking about heaven, since my life on earth would more closely resemble hell.
Most people I know seem to think of heaven as compensatory. Whatever is missing here will be present there. Those who have endured war will know peace. Those who have suffered want will have plenty. Those who have been broken will be made whole. In this sense, heaven is essential both for divine justice and compassion, for heaven is where God's purpose will be fulfilled, and all people shall see it together. This is more or less what scripture promises, and what my Episcopal tradition teaches as well, yet it does not exhaust my curiosity about what comes next.
That something comes next seems likely to me, although I would gladly admit that I have no certainty about what it is. People I trust speak of seeing through the veil to the life beyond death. I have sat with dying people often enough to watch them become translucent toward the end. Plus, my sense of the communion of the saints is so strong that I have never in my life been lonely. Even when I cannot hear them speaking any language I understand, the very air is thick with their presence. This could be my imagination. What if God's imagination is where heaven exists?
I suppose my greatest curiosity about the afterlife is whether I will continue to be me. I want to continue being me, of course. I want not only to see all of those creatures that I have rescued through the years; I also want to see the loved ones whom I have lost. I want to lay my head on Grandma Lucy's lap again. I want to shell field peas with Fannie Belle and listen to Schubert with Earl. The problem with this scenario is that it turns heaven into my perfect version of earth, with a perfect me in the middle of it. As appealing as this is, it strikes me as an underutilization of God's gifts.
Since ecstatic union with God is my best idea of heaven, I think I have to be ready to let myself go—literally, I mean. I think I have to entertain the possibility that joining God in heaven may mean surrendering everything I hold dear on earth, including my me-ness, in order to be made entirely new. In Christian terms, I think I really do have to die, and be willing to leave the rest to God.
Excerpted from HEAVEN by ROGER FERLO. Copyright © 2007 Roger Ferlo. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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