I was at a cousin’s wedding four months ago. Fun time. Saw all my cousins, and many of my nieces and nephews. If you have a family flung over even a few states, you’re familiar with the fact that family only gathers for very big joys and very big sorrows—weddings and funerals. And the occasional family reunion.
So this was a joyful time. And we came to the point where my closest cousin, who also served as best man, toasted his younger brother’s marriage. And during that he referred to his parents, both of whom had died in the previous two years. And my cousin Bob used a very familiar formulation. “Mom and dad are looking down on us tonight and they’re really happy and proud.”
And that got me thinking about Heaven. So that’s the subject for today—what people have thought about heaven over time, and what you and I as courageous, hopeful, faithful people might make of heaven as both a spiritual and practical matter.
Let’s get started. And first off, let’s define heaven. In her aptly titled book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, religion writer Lisa Miller offers that Heaven is actually several ideas: it’s the place where God lives; it’s the place our spirits go after we die; it’s the place where our body and spirit will be reunited at the end of time. A lot of our imagery of heaven comes from the Christian New Testament, especially from the Book of Revelations. The idea that St. Peter is waiting at the pearly gates with a Santa Claus-like list of who’s been naughty and nice? That comes from the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” The pearly gates comes from Revelations, as do a lot of our ideas of thrones and palaces and gold and such.
How do modern Americans imagine Heaven? In a 2002 Newsweek poll, 19 percent of Americans view Heaven as a garden, 13 percent as a city.
And part of the modern definition includes the idea that Heaven exists concurrently with this world, and that the two inevitably intersect—for example, when we feel the presence of one who has passed. A recent study found 3 in 10 of us believe they get “definite and specific” answers to prayers on a monthly basis. Some believe in more institutional intersections: Think of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, where the angel Clarence is sent to assist a suicidal George Bailey. Think of the belief that a resurrected Jesus will return to Earth.
What I take from all of this is the idea of the Sacred or the Divine inserting itself into our everyday lives, of an intermingling of this reality and a Next One, which is better, and literally higher. If you have any question of how deeply this idea of a Place Above is embedded in our culture, ask a child where Heaven is. They know.
The 10-minute history of heaven starts, as much of our religious history does, with Judaism. The important distinction here is that, for most Jews over time, Heaven is the place where God resides, with angels (think “administrative staff”; in the Book of Job, for example, Job’s plight begins with a rather cruel bet between God and Satan, who at this point in the Jewish narrative is not opposed to God at all—instead, he proposes that God bring ill fortune on one of his most righteous to see if he will curse God). But people don’t go to Heaven. Instead, the tradition revolved then, and to a large degree still does today, much more around the idea that we live on through our children, tied together in a great chain of being. Read the Jewish Bible and the focus is on re-covenanting with God in this world, not the next.
With the birth and death of Jesus, Heaven becomes central to the spiritual narrative. In his provocative book, God Is Not One, professor Stephen Prothero offers a prescriptive understanding of the world’s largest religions, an exercise in problem-and-solution.
With Christianity, Prothero says, the problem is “sin.” We as people are born with it, and it separates us from God. The solution is “salvation.” And so the purpose of a faithful life becomes to gain access to a close relationship to God in Heaven, which is now open to believing people.
“In my father’s house are many rooms,” says Jesus in John 14:2. “I am going there to prepare a place for you.” With his death and ascension to Heaven, as reported in the New Testament, a path is blazed and a process set: faithful belief in Jesus, now the Christ, is the sole path to Heaven and eternal salvation.
Other than the Book of Revelations, there isn’t a lot of talk about what Heaven’s like in the New Testament. In Corinthians, Paul says of Heaven, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Now most Christians in America don’t give much thought to the theological details of Heaven, though 87 percent of all Americans believe in something awaiting them after death. Their expectation is that they will die and go to “there,” where they will be in close relationship with God and their loved ones who died previously—and their pets. Forty-two percent believed they would be reunited with a beloved pet after death.
Looking for details on the Christian Heaven? There is a thriving subgenre of religious literature—mostly by Protestant, evangelical authors—that fills in the blanks on what heaven will be like. Not a part of that movement, but interesting nonetheless, the conservative Catholic priest Father Richard Neuhaus imagined Heaven as something like his hometown Manhattan, though he thought that “those who in this life did not like NYC would have another place to go.” It’s a theme I think you’ll recognize over and over—that people imagine a Heaven stitched together from the things they love and value.
Islam offers a version of Heaven, called Paradise in the Koran, which reached many Americans’ consciousness for the first time in the aftermath of 9/11, when the hijackers’ expectations of a paradise teeming with nubile virgins was shared as proof of how different they were from everyone else. But Islam is not all that different—there’s Paradise and Hell. What differs is the Koran’s vision of Heaven: a religion born in a desert, Paradise is marked by fountains and rushing rivers. There are four rivers in the Muslim Paradise: one each of milk, honey, wine and water. Food is abundant, and it does not spoil. You can drink the wine but will not get drunk. There are silk robes and fine couches and houris—dark-eyed, full-breasted spirit women who provide sensual pleasure of every sort.
An interesting aside here: Fully 1 in 4 Americans, across all faith traditions, believe in the idea that they will be reincarnated back into this world. The numbers are similar in Europe. This includes a sizable number of Christians. Miller offers this really startling insight: that life has become so good in the West that many folks WANT to do it again, that their lives are not so insufferable as to dissuade them retracing their mortal steps. And that they think they could do better on the next try.
Another is the disintegrating belief in a resurrection of the earthly body. If you’re looking for proof, consider the fact that nearly 50 percent of Americans are considering cremation of their bodies after death. If you thought you were going to need that body in a couple thousand years, you’d probably take a little better care of it—even after you’ve died.
It’s really fascinating stuff.
So let’s turn to you and me and Unitarian Universalism.
As UUs, given that one-half of our name refers to universal salvation, the idea that God will grant all people entrance to heaven, it may surprise you to know that comparatively few current UUs believe in heaven. In 1966, a survey found that just 10 percent of UUs believed in life after death. I’d bet the number is higher today, but not THAT much higher.
Now, I get that we are a rational, skeptical people and that Heaven is an idea beyond the rational. It requires a “leap of faith.” But I think we would be wrong to just dismiss it. Because in that dismissal is a touch of denial.
And what we are denying is one of the great questions of religion. Now bear with me. As my friend Jonathan Black, a former member here, reminded me last weekend, there are three questions that drive us as religious people.
- Where do I come from?
- Where will I go?
- What should I do with my time here?
I’m going to leave alone where we come from. But as a UU, the last two are inextricably bound together.
Because ultimately, we believe that life matters. We believe that what we do and how we do it and how we think about it carries us forward. Each of us has moral and figurative weight and momentum. My actions, your actions, our collective actions, will be felt in this world for years—even after we’re no longer alive. Much like our Jewish friends, we are tied to the past and the future in a great cord of Being. Being mindful of that, it’s not a reach to say that the Divine—Heaven, if you will—cracks open on this day and this time, if only we allow it.
The father of American universalism, John Murray, famously said, “Go out into the highways and byways of America. Give the people something of your vision. You may possess only a small light but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them, not hell, but hope and courage.”
As UUs, let’s be honest—we’re awful at this. We don’t talk about what we believe, we don’t bring friends to church with us on Sunday mornings. That said, I offer these thoughts about what I’d expect on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
I’m with Paul on Heaven. I think that whatever goes on after my death is beyond my current ability to conceive it. I think that all our human conceptions, by nature of where and when and by whom they are conceived, fail to comprehend Heaven. As somebody said, and I just can’t find it in my notes, the person says that when we get to Heaven, we’ll think, “Well, of course, this is exactly how Heaven should be.”
So, though I don’t think I can ever get the details right, I do believe that the sacred pokes its head into this world and our existence, that revelation remains unsealed, available, that we can be in communion with the Divine, even while here on earth—especially while here on earth. I believe we can find the Kingdom of God in our everyday world, if only we will put ourselves in position to recognize it. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn says in his book, The Art of Mindful Living, “You don’t need to die in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. In fact, you have to be truly alive in order to do so.”
To be alive to the Kingdom, I need to be present. I need to cultivate compassion and curiosity. I need to love deeply and radically. I need to live in an abundant mindset. And I need to acknowledge that I live in grace—that the bounty and fullness of my life is an unearned blessing
These are the values of my Heaven—and maybe yours. And this is a calling to my Unitarian Universalist faith that is both practical and transcendent. And it lives in the present. Here. Now.
Accessing the present isn’t easy. My son Kelly answers almost all requests for his presence with a variation on “later.” He’ll say “in a couple minutes” or “as soon as I finish this chapter of my book.” And the truth is, he often doesn’t get to where his presence was requested. And I worry that he’ll always put off things—and that opportunities and experiences will pass him by without his knowing it. I want him to live a life of presence—with a sense of urgency. This world—and Heaven, too—is here, right now, in this room, if only we take the leap of faith to experience it.
How do we experience it? Through regular spiritual practice. It need not be something crazy-hard or long or complicated. Just open the door when you have the opportunity. Here’s what I’m trying to do every weekday. On my drive to work, I’ll turn off the radio and the iPod for 5 minutes and I’ll follow my breathing. I will breathe in “mountain” and breathe out “solid.” I will breathe in “flower” and breathe out “fresh” (which makes me smile). I will remind myself that there is so much in my life that deserves my gratitude, reminding myself of the Rev. Forest Church’s admonition to “want what you have” [The rest of his mantra: “Be who you are. Do what you can”]. I will search for the kindness in my heart and ask myself to live it. I’d like to think that I am aligning myself with the divine, with Heaven.
Some days are good; some I fail. But the point is, I’m aiming myself at compassion and a loving faith. I encourage you to do the same. And not to expect too much. As Thich Nhat Hahn says, travelers for thousands of years have set their course by the North Star, but they have never expected to reach it. That’s not what the North Star, sitting high in the sky, is for. And maybe when we speak of Heaven, we are best not to speak of what it is or is not. That’s not what it’s for. Instead, use Heaven as a compass to the things you value most: love, compassion, presence, inquiry, creativity, whatever those things are for you.
Because for all this talk of Heaven, we can’t know what happens after we die. Instead, we can use it to understand our values and to make decisions about what we value and what we make happen in our lives, in this very moment. And when we reach the end of our natural lives, whatever may be in the offing, may we share Mary Oliver’s sentiments:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.