Thursday, November 24, 2011

Heavens to betsy!

I've been thinking about heaven lately. Or rather, I've realized that heaven is something I regularly think about. Do I even believe in heaven? What triggered the awareness (how interesting that thinking about heaven preceded this rather perplexed awareness) was our class discussion in Lived Religion of the survey results assembled in American Grace. Had anyone noticed, I asked, that a higher percentage of Americans reportedly believe in heaven than report believing in an afterlife? Nobody had, and the class quickly discounted the results.
I asked them to consider that the surveys might not be distorting. Could they imagine ways in which the results could be true? I was thinking of myself. I have all sorts of ideas about heaven, but none involves how or even if it exists. What sorts of ideas? I confess they're of the "who you meet in heaven" variety, but they're usually not about people I knew and loved who have passed away. It's not that I don't imagine, even in some way expect, reunion with them. Instead I imagine meeting people I never knew - grandparents and great grandparents and others back and
back, people who lived long ago and far away. I imagine meeting people who died in wars and famines and disasters, and those whose lives in our own time are miserable and short. I imagine meeting people of other religious traditions, including some I deplore, and atheists, too. I imagine bad people, even very bad ones, murderers and those who prey on the weak. What's going on? Part of it must be the effort to deprovincialize my religious imagination, to force myself to imagine salvation (or whatever) as more than just a gilded version of cosy
us-here-now. Eschatology, we're told, even this latitudinarian kind, isn't just about some future time but a way of thinking about this world and its travails. But I can't say my thoughts of heaven aren't also about what comes after death. I don't know how to express it, beyond the cliché that I don't feel that death is the end. "Feel" how, why? Psychology and sociology offer me their reductive analyses, but I'm undeterred. Is it a wishful denial of mortality, and of our responsibilities to the dead, not to mention the living? Could well be. Could also be true, though, no?

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