Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (6): The Modern Heaven & the Decline of Hell

In 1743, the Reverend Robert Blair published a poem The Grave that became so popular that it was published in many editions. In 1808, it was illustrated by William Blake.

One of Blake's illustrations was "The Meeting of a Family in Heaven." The children embrace one another. A son runs towards his father. The husband clasps his wife, with his right arm around her left shoulder, and his left hand planted firmly on her butt. This is not Dante's Heaven where pure contemplation of God is the highest human good. This is a Heaven that reproduces the joys of the world, including sexual desire and familial love. This is the Modern Heaven.

Jesus had said that "in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven" (Matthew 22:29-30). The traditional interpretation--the obvious interpretation--was that in Heaven there are no marital or family relationships. This was part of the traditional view that in Heaven, the ordinary activities of earthly life would be gone, because everyone in Heaven would be continuously engaged in the beatific vision of God.

But over the past few centuries, many people have found this unacceptable. If we are deprived of all the pleasures of earthly life, then how are we going to spend our time. Staring at God for all eternity? Boring!

Today, if people talk about Heaven at all, the prospect of being reunited with loved ones is one of the primary hopes. In the case of the Mormons, the whole life of Heaven is organized around families. Mormons who have a "celestial marriage" are assured that their marriage will be preserved for billions of years. Another important point for Mormons is to pray by name for all their dead ancestors so that they can be brought into Heaven, which is why genealogical records are so important for Mormons.

As John Casey indicates in his book, this Modern Heaven was first fully described by Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. He described the pleasures of Heaven as including eating the best food, playing games, and beautiful wedding ceremonies. He elaborates the idea of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation that the active life of ordinary people is superior to the contemplative life of a theoretical few, and therefore one should expect Heaven to manifest all the practical activities of daily life on earth elevated to heavenly perfection. So that grave monument I saw that looked forward to "golfing for eternity" was in this tradition of Swedenborg's Modern Heaven.

This Modern Heaven might seem vapid to some of us--particularly, those intellectual snobs among us who like to think that we would be happy to have the beatific vision in which we might see "ingathered, bound by love into one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe."

But there is a serious point here. We have no other way to judge our symbolic images of Heaven and Hell except to think about our natural experience of virtue and vice, excellence and degradation, the human good and the human bad. So, if the good is the desirable, and if we have a wide range of natural desires, then why not say that Heaven would allow us to pursue all those natural desires to perfection, and so it would be unreasonable to expect us to continuously engage in only one activity like contemplation?

As Aristotle suggested, it's unreasonable to think that the only truly happy life is a life of solitary, continuous contemplation. The truly happy life requires that we live as the social and political animals that we are--animals with natural desires for love, honor, and beauty as well as for intellectual and religious understanding. So why shouldn't we welcome the Modern Heaven as an image of the human good understood as the fullest satisfaction of all our natural desires over a complete life?

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