Yesterday, Cathnews ran a “featured website” piece on the author Lisa Miller, whose new book is called “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With The Afterlife”.
Having taught a subject for Anima Education last year on “The Last Things” – which attracted a record number of students (for me anyway) – I am absolutely convinced that Ms Miller is correct to say that we have “an enduring fascination” with the hereafter. It is an area on which there is much speculation (given that only one person we know of has come back from the grave to reliably report on the situation after death) but on which the Church has quite definite teachings (based on the same evidence just referred to). Unfortunately, very little catechesis actually focuses on this area – meaning that there is a gap between the “enduring fascination” and our response in providing clear teaching about it.
Here is what Ms Miller’s website says about the book:
What is heaven? Eighty percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, yet very few of them can articulate anything specific about their belief. Numerous questions surrounding the concept of heaven have existed for ages, and Americans continue to grapple with these ideas. In her new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife (Harper; March 23, 2010; Hardcover; $25.99), Newsweek Religion editor Lisa Miller provides a groundbreaking history of the afterlife and offers a new understanding of this cherished spiritual ideal.
Notions of what heaven is vary widely, but the desire for afterlife has remained universal across all religious traditions throughout history. In Heaven, Miller journeys back over 2000 years to explore the roots of different beliefs in heaven. Drawing on her interviews with religious leaders, academics, and everyday Americans, Miller sheds light on many of the intriguing topics that influence our perceptions of heaven, including the ideas of resurrection, prophets and visionaries, and salvation. By exploring the earliest biblical conceptions of the afterlife and ancient theologies as well as modern-day views of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian believers, Miller examines what exactly these beliefs in the afterlife are, how they have impacted one another, and how they have evolved to meet the needs of their followers – for both good and evil – throughout the ages.
In tackling the many intriguing and enduring questions about the afterlife, Heaven addresses this complex notion in an accessible and engaging manner. Miller’s enlightening work offers a definitive look at a shared religious ideal and allows Americans to reflect on how their own views of heaven compare to both traditional and popular ideas on the afterlife.
Anyone wanting to teach about this subject needs not only to be informed about “what the Church really teaches” on the subject, but also about the prevailing popular notions of heaven. The best book for the former is certainly Joseph Ratzinger’s “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life”, which should be read from start to finish by any prospective teacher in the area. But for the latter, it seems to me that this book by Miller might be worth purchasing.
Her website also gives an extract from the book, and here it is with my comments in [italics]. The line of argumentation regarding the resurrection is interesting to say the least:
Excerpt from “Heaven”
March 25, 2010 by admin
It’s Easter—that most pleasant of springtime holidays—when children stuff themselves with marshmallows and stain their fingers with pastel dyes. In reality, of course, Easter is about something darker and more fantastic. It’s a celebration of the final act of the Passion, in which Jesus rose from his tomb in his body three days after his execution, to reside in heaven with God. The Gospels insist on the veracity of this supernatural event. The risen Lord “ate barbecued fish [Luke] and walked through doors [John],” is how a friend of mine, an Episcopalian priest, puts it. This rising—the Resurrection—remains at the center of the Christian faith, the narrative climax of every creed. Jesus died and rose again so that all his followers could, eventually, do the same. This story has strained the credulity of even the most devoted believer. For, truly, it’s unbelievable. [No, it isn’t, in fact. Billions have believed since it was first proclaimed.]
Resurrection—the physical reality, not the metaphorical interpretation [an important distinction to which she will come in a moment]—puts everything we imagine about heaven to the test. My new book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife, argues that while 80 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, few of us have the slightest clue about what we mean. Heaven, everyone agrees, is the good place you go after death, a reward for struggle and faithfulness on earth. In most of our popular conceptions, we have bodies in heaven: selves, consciousness, identity. We do things. People yearn for reunions in heaven with friends and relatives—and even with their pets. “I want to lay my head on Grandma Lucy’s lap,” the Christian memoirist Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in an essay. “I want to shell field peas with Fannie Belle and listen to Schubert with Earl.” Some people imagine heaven as the place where their most material yearnings are fulfilled [it is interesting that it is virtually impossible to imagine pleasure – which is a commonly expected experience in heaven – without a material body to experience it]. The evangelist Billy Graham once spoke of driving a yellow Cadillac in heaven; the heroine of Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones eats peppermint ice cream; suicide bombers in the Middle East fantasize about the sexual ministrations of 72 dark-eyed virgins. In all these visions, embodiment is the crux of the matter. If you don’t have a body in heaven, then what kind of heaven are you hoping for? [An important question.]
Despite the insistence of the most conservative branches of all three Western religions on resurrection as an incontrovertible fact, most of us are circumspect. The number of Americans who say they believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has dropped 10 points since 2003 to 70 percent, according to the most recent Harris poll; only 26 percent of Americans think that they’ll have bodies in heaven, according to a 1997 Time/CNN poll. [This suggests an interesting gap between the popular belief of a material body in the afterlife and the belief in the historical veracity of Jesus’ own physical resurrection.] Thanks to the growth here of Eastern religions, reincarnation—the belief that after death a soul returns to earth in another body—is gaining adherents. [This is certainly the source of a lot of changing beliefs in the hereafter.] Nearly 30 percent of 2003 Harris poll respondents said they believed in reincarnation; of self-professed Christians, that number was 21 percent. Reincarnation and resurrection have, traditionally, been mutually exclusive. Among Christian conservatives, a private hope of reincarnation would be seen as not just illogical but heretical. [Or, more to the point, the other way around: not just heretical, but illogical. They are mutually exclusive ideas simply on the basis of pure logic.]
Cremation, once viewed as the ultimate desecration of the human body, an insult to God who makes the resurrection happen, will soon surpass burial as Americans’ preferred way to dispose of a corpse. [Interestingly, at our recent Interfaith Symposium on Death and Dying, the Muslims and the Jews – and indigenous Australians – are still quite opposed to cremation. Cremation is more common in Eastern religions, which have a totally different attitude toward the relationship between body and soul.] Already, a third of Americans are cremated, not buried, and that trend line is headed straight up. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University and author of the forthcoming God Is Not One, believes that the rise in cremation is linked to a growing disregard for the doctrine of resurrection. “It seems fantastic and irrational that we’re going to have a body in heaven,” he says. Even the Roman Catholic Church has softened its stance on cremation: bodies are better, it said in 1997, but ashes will do in a pinch. [While God can and will resurrect bodies in whatever state they finally end up here on earth, this change in our practice has done nothing for our affirmation of the importance of the body. It is at least as questionable as many other changes in our practice in recent years. Memo to anyone responsible for my disposal when I die: Bury me.]
Resurrection presented credibility problems from the outset. Who, the Sadducees taunted Jesus, does the man who married seven wives in succession reside with in heaven? The subtext of their teasing is obvious: if the resurrection is true, as Jesus promised, then in heaven you must have your wife, and all the things that go along with wives: sex, arguments, dinner. Jesus responds in a typically cranky way: “You just don’t get it,” he says (my paraphrase) [and a good one]. “You are wrong,” he said in Matthew’s Gospel, “because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” [Precisely.]
Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call “the immortality of the soul.” Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. [I have confessed before on this blog, that as a Lutheran I rejected the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. As a Catholic, I have realised – with the help of Professor Ratzinger – that the Catholic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not only quite different from the Platonic – or Eastern – doctrines, but is absolutely essential to make sense of the doctrine of the resurrection as well.] After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. [ROTFL! What a great analogy. Puts me in mind of those secular ceremonies that actually release balloons as a sign of this at funerals. Actually it is more serious than that though. The disembodied soul is not the whole self – the body is essential to the fullness of our identity, which is what God has promised to resurrect!] Consolation was not the goal of Plato’s afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the “green, green pastures” of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante’s cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy. [Quite.]
Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—”I want to believe in heaven but can’t get my head around the revivification of human flesh”—is to imagine “resurrection” as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual’s spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable [or what appears “reasonable” at the unthinking level of those who are deep divers at the shallow end of the pool] agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: “We cannot know what God has in store for us.” [And this is indeed a cop-out, because we have a lot of revealed information about what God has in store from us from Christ and his apostles and the Scriptures.]
The intellectual flabbiness of this approach [that’s calling it as it is] causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England [let’s hear a cheer for Bishop Tom!]. “People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor,” he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. “In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they’ve never realized that the word ‘resurrection’ simply didn’t mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that.” The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus’ body was gone. [The two main features of the Easter accounts in the Gospels are the bodily appearances of Jesus and the empty tomb. They go hand in hand.] This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God “who causes the dead to come to life,” or in Islam. “I swear by the day of resurrection!” proclaims the Quran. “Yes, Indeed!”
And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable [as I have pointed out, it isn’t], but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. [This is true: even among the orthodox. I once queried an orthodox Jewish friend who had just returned from a funeral about this: resurrection, he said, didn’t even rate a mention at this or at most Jewish funerals he had been to.] I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, “It’s no use to ask, ‘If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?’ The belief in resurrection is more radical. It’s a supernatural event. It’s a special act of grace or of kindness on God’s part.” [Doesn’t that put it very well?] For my part, I don’t buy it. [One could ask, at this point and after so much of the above argument, why not? I suspect that it is doubt about what Jesus called “the power of God”.] I do, however, leave the door open a crack for radical acts of grace and kindness—and for humbling ourselves before all that we don’t understand. [And that’s nice. Openness to God’s grace and kindness is always a good thing.]