Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Of Heaven and Triathlons

I was thinking about heaven over the weekend. More precisely, I was thinking about how Christians should envision heaven.

Let me try to explain what I mean. It is easy enough, I think, to offer a Christian portrait of heaven. In classical theological terms, “heaven” names the state of eternal loving union with God and the blessed. To be in heaven is to experience and be transformed by the “beatific vision,” that is, the immediate experience of God. And that experience is thought to have two primary effects: perfect bliss and moral sanctification. Since Christianity defines moral goodness in terms of love, the “sanctification” element means that heaven involves being perfected in love by virtue of an unfiltered experience of God’s love.

Those in heaven become, in effect, channels through which divine love radiates outward to everyone and everything else. And so, to be in heaven is not merely to experience perfect joy; it is to experience that joy on account of belonging to “the beloved community” (as Martin Luther King, Jr., called it). In part it is the joy of being loved in such a community, but more deeply it is the joy that comes from loving as purely as it is possible to love.

This, I think, is a pretty good theological description of the Christian notion of heaven. But what I was thinking about this weekend wasn’t about how to describe heaven in abstract theological terms. A description doesn’t always evoke a sense of what it would be like to experience that which is being described. Unlike recipe-book descriptions of dishes, which prompt us to almost taste the explosion of flavors and textures, theological descriptions of heaven don’t typically produce a similar experiential echo.

But, for reasons I’ll get into in a minute, I think the concept of heaven needs to be more than just a theological abstraction. Events over the weekend inspired me to think about how such abstractions should be fleshed out—and then, coincidentally, a posted link from a facebook friend yesterday morning directed me to a rather interesting short essay on Randal Rauser’s blog, one that dovetailed remarkably with my own thoughts.

Apparently, there is this phobia called “ouranophobia”: the fear of heaven.

Randal Rauser opines that this fear is rooted in a conception of heaven as one endless church service. We hear theological descriptions of heaven like the one offered above—a community of the faithful united with God—and Christians quite naturally think about church, where people come together in a deliberate attempt to form a community defined and shaped by God’s presence.

It happens, I think, almost out of a sense of duty. We’re supposed to associate our church experience with nearness to God. And so we’re supposed to think of heaven in terms of that model. But the result speaks for itself: heaven becomes an endless church service.

And this is clearly the wrong way to think about it. In Rauser’s words:

…we are better off thinking of all the greatest moments of beauty and goodness as more appropriate icons for our heavenly destiny. You don’t look at an icon so much as through it to the transcendent reality beyond. And so it is for the world. All that is most wonderful and glorious about earth now is but an icon, a pale image like a shadow flickering on the back of Plato’s famous cave, which draws us to look at the unimaginable glory that awaits.
I remember the first time that my thoughts took me in something like this direction. I was in my late teens, and I was in Norway for the Christmas holidays (for the first time in many years). I went with my relatives to a “Sølvguttene” concert in the National Cathedral (Sølvguttene are the Norwegian version of the Vienna Choir Boys). I remember sitting in this beautiful building, surrounded by loved ones, listening to Sølvguttene sing, in Norwegian, the lovely German Christmas carol, “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.”

I was swept up in that moment, in the wash of sounds and the presence of family and the prospect of having a big Norwegian Christmas Eve with my extended family, complete with all the family traditions…and I found myself thinking, “I wish heaven were like this.”

Not “I hope heaven is like this.” Not “Perhaps heaven will be something like this.” My thought was a counterfactual one: I was sitting there thinking that this moment was so much better than heaven was going to be.

And then I stopped and asked myself, “Why am I thinking that? What, exactly, is my image of heaven anyway? Puffy white clouds and people with wings and harps?”

I wasn’t quite sure, but one thing became immediately apparent: I believed in life after death, in heaven (and, at the time, in eternal hell), but my image of heaven was linked to one feeling above all others: tedium.

Heaven was about being bored.

And as I sat there listening to the beautiful music, I thought to myself: “Then I’ve got the wrong idea of heaven.” But the problem wasn’t with my theory of heaven. While I probably couldn’t have provided precisely the theological account sketched out above, I believed something in that ballpark.

I say “believed,” but it was mainly a matter of rote endorsement. I didn’t believe it in the way that I believe in the promptings of my senses, an automatic and irresistible affirmation hardwired into me and rich with content. I knew that my grandmother, sitting near me in the cathedral, believed in God and heaven in something like that way. She couldn’t help it. She believed as automatically as breathing, and it was a belief full of color and substance.

My belief wasn’t like that. But it wasn’t a matter of hope, either. If heaven was something to be dreaded (not for its horrors, as one might dread the idea of hell, but for its tiresome monotony), then how could my belief be a matter of hope? It didn’t spring from the yearnings of my soul, from my longing for the good. After all, what filled my image of heaven wasn’t the good at all.

Or maybe the problem lay further down. Maybe it’s better to say that what filled my image of the good wasn’t the good. I had the kind of deficient view of the good that leads people to insist that evil people are more interesting than good ones. Goodness, for me, was uninteresting—as if being interesting weren’t a good thing. And so, armed with my deficient view of the good, God and heaven became utterly banal.

“But that’s upside down,” I thought to myself. Perhaps, somewhere in the back of my head, I was recalling the phrase “the banality of evil.” And I knew that here, in this moment, there was rich vibrancy that was not the least bit boring. At the same time, of course, I was aware of others sitting around me who were, indeed, bored to tears.

You always see them at classical concerts. They have no sense of the music, of the transcendence of that moment when dissonance resolves. There are enough times in my life when I have been one of them, bored in the presence of exquisite music. What makes the difference is the extent to which I am in the music, living in it and through it, invested wholly and completely in the moment-to-moment depth and flow. It’s a matter of attention and love.

And as I sat there in that concert, something shifted in me. What changed was my vision of heaven. That word, “heaven,” started to be fleshed out with new content, new resonances. It ceased being about some alien future on the other side of death, something I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from. As is true of music, disconnection means disinterest, and so tedium. To put heaven wholly on the other side of death is to strip it of the very things that make it meaningful—or, perhaps better, of the kind of substance that fits with its meaning.

Our concept of heaven needs to be filled up with things that seize us and hold us, the moments that are deepest in their savor, the things that inspire, not ordinary desire, but yearning, that soul-hunger for the good.

Let me explain this distinction a bit. Desire is a kind of unpleasantness that we feel on the wrong side of getting what we want. We don’t notice the unpleasantness if the desire is readily satisfied. And the process of satisfying desire is pleasant enough, often intensely so. But desire smacks of pure subjectivity: the object of desire is good because we desire it, whatever it happens to be.

When I speak of yearning, I have in mind something different. Yearning fills us when we have intimations of something we didn’t know to desire. The yearning is a foretaste of something greater than we could hope for or imagine, a good whose worth is utterly independent of our desires. And yearning is not pain, but an exquisite and at times terrifying movement in the direction of something that has brushed against us, something whose touch we never expected and can barely comprehend.

When we desire, we feel a lack that needs to be filled, and we know exactly what will fill it (if only for a time). When we yearn in the way I have in mind, we feel as if some lack we never knew about is being filled, as if we are closer to complete than we have ever been. And as we lean urgently in the direction of what is filling us, we sense a great not yet. We aren’t ready yet, not for the totality of what is there. What promises to complete will only swamp us if it comes in all its fullness now.

But there is no disappointment, no frustration of the sort that accompanies thwarted desires. Instead, we feel more alive, more real, more whole. To yearn in this way is to stand on a threshold.

It is moments of such yearning that, in the years since I sat in that cathedral, have been filling in for me the conceptual space of “heaven.” But I never really thought about it that way, not explicitly, until this weekend.

On Saturday, my wife participated in Oklahoma City’s Redman triathlon, competing in the half-Iron (70.3 mile) distance. She and I went down to the city the night before so she could pick up her race materials and put her bike in the transition area, and we stayed in a hotel down there so that she could sleep a little later (until 4 AM instead of 3). Unfortunately, the folks in the hotel room next to us decided to host a party there. Requests for quiet and phone calls to the front desk finally succeeded, but not until closer to 1 AM. The remaining hours of sleep were, at best, fitful. When the alarms went off, I joked that she was really doing a quadrathlon: go a night without sleep, then swim 1.2 miles, bike 56, and run 13.1.

We drove to the race venue in the darkness. Once we were parked it was a brisk 15 minute hike to the starting area, much of it in a darkness so deep it was hard to see the sidewalk in front of us. When we reached the venue, it was alive with activity. Athletes were hurrying around in the artificial light, taking care of last minute preparations, transition-area setup, and, of course, potty stops. As the sun began to rise over Lake Hefner, I helped my wife into her wetsuit and shared her nervous anticipation. It was the longest endurance event she’d ever done, and she’d been training hard for months. Her body was ready. She was ready.

Finally it was time. I wished her luck as she pulled on her swim cap and headed into the starting chute. I snapped pictures as the full-Iron-distance athletes trotted down to the water for their mass start. Then came the half-Iron athletes in waves. After I watched my wife’s wave scramble into the water and begin swimming, I turned and headed back towards the car. I had a two hour drive ahead of me: one hour up to Stillwater to get the kids and my mother-in-law, then another hour back to the race venue.

I walked along the path that had been shrouded in darkness two hours before. Now the sky was a brilliant blue and I saw the white heron fishing by the lighthouse, and the sunflowers, while behind me I felt the weight of dreams, of human struggle and aspiration, and ahead of me my children, who would likely clamor about me as I came into the house, demanding hugs. And I paused and breathed deeply. I had to choke back tears.

There it is, I thought. Not some rote belief but a real presence pressing in on me, filling the moment with almost more than I could hold.

For awhile I just stood there, yearning, leaning against the threshold of joy.


  1. Eric,

    We are used to thinking that reality is a static place, but I think reality is fundamentally a movement of creation, a space where the most valuable form of creation there is takes place, namely the creation of personal perfection. Under such an understanding of reality heaven becomes not a state of perfect bliss and of purity of love and of being present with God, but rather a movement towards that state (which some call “theosis”). Under this understanding heaven is not a place but a direction, not a state but a movement.

  2. Dianelos,

    I have some sympathy for this vision of things, although I also have some questions about it. I certainly share the idea that heaven would be active rather than static, dynamic rather than passive. Whether the dynamic character of heaven is best conceived as the exercise of a perfected character or as the continual perfecting of one's character depends, I think, on whether you think there is an endpoint that can be reached.

    With respect to the comprehension of the infinite God, John and I (in God's Final Victory) consider briefly the idea that "no finite being can comprehend the infinite, and that the joy of the blessed partially consists in growing eternally in their comprehension of God." We neither dismiss nor endorse this idea, since acknowledging it was enough for our purposes.

    But I wonder if there is a distinction to be made here between a creature's capacity for comprehending and the act of comprehension. Even if the latter is eternally increasing (one is continually coming to comprehend more of God's infinite essence), the former might admit of a definite maximum, a state of perfection--in which case it wouldn't be more heavenly to eternally approach but never attain that state. Far better to grow eternally in one's comprehension of God as "efficiently" as one can (by virtue of having a perfected capacity for comprehension) than to dynamically move forever towards a fuller understanding of God--but less well than one could.

    Similar distinctions can, I think, be made with respect to love, distinguishing between the capacity for love and the scope of one's love. The latter might be eternally growing as one encounters more and more of God and God's creation TO love--and this would be so even if the capacity for love were itself perfected and so not growing.

    If it is in fact possible for a finite creature to have perfected capacities in these and other domains, this would seem more "heavenly" than to constantly have imperfect capacities but get ever closer to perfection. The point is that something like the dynamism and growth you describe would still be conceivable at another level.

  3. Eric,

    I do think there is an endpoint to the human existence. After all to be human entails to be limited. Thus the idea of theosis, i.e. of one’s being extinguished in God, strikes me as both very beautiful and very logical. And also strongly resonates with the understanding of the eschaton in the Eastern religions. And also with the way mystics talk and with some important bits and pieces of our own Gospel according to John. Only God is eternal, and our life is eternal only in the sense that it will be subsumed into God’s.

    I think I understand your idea about the distinction between capacity of comprehending and actual comprehension, and how the former can be perfected at some point in time within our life. I like to visualize reality as a landscape on which one walks, and in which the spot one stands on represents one’s own state of character. When one needs to reach the peak of a mountain one will typically not see it, but will walk more or less blindly, trying to pick the paths that go upwards, studying a map or following the signs that previous climbers have left on the road, etc. But at some turn of the road the peak will come into view. That point would be where one’s capacity to comprehend God is perfected, even though one may still be far away. This may be the same point at which, as you say, one’s capacity for love is perfected. Another way to perhaps say the same thing is that at some point one will not anymore choose to sin, one will not anymore choose to move away from God, for the simple reason that one’s character will have reached a state in which one realizes the nature of one’s being and the absurdity of sin.

    Now the idea that heaven starts somewhere has its antipode, namely the idea that hell too starts somewhere. Hell, then, would be the place where one is so far away from the peak and the landscape becomes so flat that one cannot anymore tell which way the peak lies. One’s capacity to comprehend God reaches zero. Virtually all choices open to one are now sinful. One has lost one’s way.

    Under this picture clearly enough extremely few people reach heaven in this life, but many fall to hell. But whereas heaven, by its nature, is a point of no return, the same need not be the case for hell. Or, rather, the same would be the case for hell if it weren’t for God’s grace, as I discuss bellow.


  4. [2nd part, continues from above]

    If the above picture is a good description of the dynamics of the human condition and thus of the dynamics of reality, then perhaps we find an explanation for a problem which has long troubled me, namely the different views about soteriology taught by different traditions within Christianity. Roughly, in the East (and also in my plain reading of the Gospels), salvation is found by one getting up and following Christ. Salvation is a matter of doing what Christ asks of us. The grace of God is there in the texts of the Gospels, in the traditions of the Church, and in the presence of the living Christ - but grace works like a light that brightens the path, on which one must walk by one’s own strength and will. In the West, and particular in the Protestant tradition, the understanding appears to be quite different. Now, it is said, salvation comes not from works but from faith, one is literally saved (and I assume propelled forwards) by the grace of God. The grace of God is now seen as a saving hand one must grasp. One’s depravity is such that this is the only way.

    This apparent contradiction may represent the different realities of grace and of salvation within the dynamics of the human condition. The Eastern tradition speaks to the human condition of one who stands, as it were, mid-way between hell and heaven. Christ in the Gospels talks to his disciples who had already left their old lives to follow Him, and to the multitudes of believers who came to listen to Him. The Western tradition in contrast speaks to those who are further behind and close to hell. These people are lost, do not know what they are and what is taking place. Here, indeed, the grace of God must be a much more active one. And as God respects peoples’ freedom, people must still take a first step in faith and grasp grace’s outstretched hand.

    In general I think that the view of reality (which on theism is a fundamentally personal one) as well as of one’s personal condition as a dynamic movement – first, fits with how one’s reality is as a matter of experiential fact, and, secondly, helps one understand the apparent contradictions between religious thought both within and outside of Christianity. If I am right, then Protestants have the merit of actually having reached beyond the Gospels, having faced up to the gravely fallen condition of most of us, and having revealed the nature of God’s grace within that common reality – while, interestingly enough, thinking they are doing nothing but concentrating on scripture.

    Finally, the idea that reality is fundamentally a movement reminds me of one of the most famous sayings of one of the most famous philosophers of antiquity, namely Heraclitus’s “ta panta rei” (i.e. “the all flows”).