heaven. i’ve always liked the sound of the word – the soft consonants immediately conjure up the fluffy clouds of my childhood image of heaven – it’s like this huge, downy, unimaginably comfortable bed up there where the sky is always blue and the sun, stars and moon always shine. maybe there are harps playing somewhere and manna, a food made by and for gods, is available in inexhaustible supply; the taste never grows old. up in heaven (definitely up!), people (souls? angels?) live in never-ending bliss. it’s like chocolate, cointreau and orgasm all rolled into one.
somewhere around the twentieth word or so of writing this, it all started to feel a bit cartoony. the memory of a famous german animation film started to rear its head. it’s called “ein muenchner im himmel” (“a guy from munich in heaven” – watch it – even if you don’t understand the wonderful narration, you’ll definitely get the gist of it). the important part for us that this guy, alois, hates it in heaven because there is neither beer nor snuff and he has to rejoice and sing hosanna all the time. fortunately god has mercy on him and proposes to make him his emissary to the bavarian government. so alois is sent off with his first letter to the government – but as soon as he touches the soil of his beloved munich, “he felt like he was in heaven.” he gets so busy drinking beer that he never delivers even the first letter, which is why the government, to this day, lacks divine counsel.
so there are a number of things – heaven as a childlike fantasy, as a caricature, heaven as boring, heaven as a very individual thing. lisa miller, in her book heaven – our enduring fascination with the afterlife – touches on them all and at times wonders whether our minds are too limited, too two-dimensional to think about this place. or is it a state? a feeling? god’s love? it may be this confusion as well as our relatively good life that make it all a bit too difficult to think about. this results in an ever declining interest in this – thing (we still don’t know what or where it is.)
barack obama’s former preacher, the revered jeremiah wright, complained about this in a 1990 sermon at his chicago church. his “educated friends,” he said, wished he wouldn’t talk so much about heaven “because that’s so primitive, you see.” but wright argues
if i drop heaven, i’m going to lose the first verse in my bible … i’m going to lose two of my ten commandments … i’m going to have to stop praying my favourite prayer, ‘our father’ … i’m going to have to do away with the second coming; i’m going to have to get rid of pentecost. i’m going to have to throw revelation out of my bible … don’t make me drop heaven!
i find the reference to “primitive” interesting but before i muse on that i must tell you that one of the things i disliked about miller’s book is that she had to go and do the old abrahamic faith thing. well, i’m sorry, but heaven isn’t only populated by christians, jews and muslims. buddhists, especially tibetan buddhists, have a complex, intricately worked out theory about heaven; the idea of heaven exists in confucianism as much as it does in daoism. examples from lesser-practiced or older religions include the eternal hunting grounds of some first nations and the valhalla of norse religions. and we haven’t even talked about other major religions yet, such as hinduism or sikhism – wikipedia’s entry on heaven will point to more. i don’t expect the writer on such a topic to cover all of them, but i do expect either a nod in their direction or an explanation of why these other heavens weren’t discussed. the global context within which everything happens nowadays just does not allow us anymore to ignore the multiplicity of cultures and beliefs.
let’s go back to the primitive and, why not, to our friend alois. the interesting thing is that while alois had all sorts of complaints about heaven, he DID go to heaven, and heaven was a familiar place. if you watch the movie and don’t speak german, you’ll still understand the story – st. peter, the angels, the voice of god, and that it’s up in the sky. this is because heaven is ingrained in us, and arguably not just through cultural learning over the generations but perhaps deeper. maybe it’s “just” our imagination, our dreaming – don’t we all want to have a place where everything and everyone is cleaner, shinier, sexier, safer, more loving, more exciting; just perfect? maybe there is such a “place”, in a physical, ethereal or mental abode. maybe it starts in the heart. or maybe, as miller recounts in her book, we can literally build it right here. i’m grateful to her for familiarizing me with the history of habitat for humanity, a powerful international “nonprofit, ecumenical christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.” habitat for humanity started with a small christian commune in 1952 named koinonia, founded by clarence jordan, which was
“a demonstration plot for the kingdom of god” (a demonstration plot is where farmers experiment with new seeds or planting techniques – and then invite their neighbours to come see what they’ve done.) … jordan invited his neighbours – the grandsons and -daughters of the slaves and sharecroppers who had ploughed that land for generations – to work with him.
miller recounts the story of georgia solomon, who grew up near koinonia.
when she grew up, and had three babies and not enough to eat, the people at koinonia built her a house. “i made it through my trials and tribulations,” she said, “and now i’m striving for eternal life.”
maybe heaven is food on people’s plates, smiles in their hearts and roofs over their heads.