Death and the hereafter are subjects deeply unsettling in today’s consumerist culture, yet the Church seems reluctant to speak clearly about the Christian understanding of an afterlife. Writer and broadcaster Peter Stanford, whose latest book is Heaven: a traveller’s guide to the undiscovered country, suggests that it would be healthier for us to do some serious thinking about heaven.
Pope John Paul II has written more encyclicals and letters on more subjects than any pontiff in recent history. He has rarely shied away from those areas usually marked ‘Touch on this at your peril’. Indeed at times they seem to be his stock in trade. Yet in his papacy of twenty-four years, he has focused just once on the subject of heaven – one of those topics that the modern Church clearly feels uneasy about discussing lest in the process it sounds too medieval and unscientific. In July 1999 the Pope pronounced paradise a ‘blessed community’ which was ‘neither abstraction nor physical place among the clouds’ but rather a ‘state of being’ after death. And that, more or less, was that.
There was, admittedly, nothing particularly noteworthy about the content of what John Paul said. His was a very orthodox take in line with almost 2,000 years of tradition. Or at least 2,000 years of one tradition. In the history of heaven in the monotheistic faiths, there have been not one but two standard positions: one, to give it a grand label, theocentric (based on God), and the other anthropocentric (focused on the human). People in the pews have largely been attracted to the second, because it holds up the prospect of eternal reward in a recognisable, cleaned-up version of earth, populated by much-mourned relatives and friends and stripped of the injustices and baddies of this world. It is a place immortalised in popular literature like Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ classic nineteenth-century novel The Gates Ajar with its picture of hereafter supplied by the heroine’s Aunt Winifred as all gingham tablecloths in log cabins, babbling brooks and family soireés singing hymns round the piano. ‘In the Father’s house are many mansions [Winifred tells her grieving niece]. Sometimes I fancy that those words have a literal meaning which the simple men who heard them may have understood better than we, and that Christ is truly “preparing” my home for me.’
Theologians, by contrast, have preferred a pared-down theocentric point of view. St Augustine, himself once transported from a garden at Ostia outside Rome with his mother, St Monica, to an ethereal vision of afterlife, held nevertheless that heaven, if it was to be worth its salt in perpetuity, had to be ineffable – beyond words, beyond our earth-bound imaginations. So heaven was all-consuming, all-satisfying oneness with God against an essentially blank canvas. Though they accepted his wisdom, human nature being what it is, others who followed in his footsteps could not resist adding a few details without detracting from the centrality of God.
So paradise was stretched to include other beings, not least the angels and saints. In the mind of medieval mystics like Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), for instance, the detail of heaven was a means to an end and that end was the Almighty.
I saw certain ones, as if through a mirror, who were clothed with the whitest garment interwoven with gold and embellished with the most precious stones from their breast to their feet, in the manner of a hanging sash. Their garment emitted a very strong aroma, like perfume. And they were girdled with a girdle embellished with gold and gems and pearls beyond human understanding. On their head they wore crowns intertwined with gold and roses and lilies and surrounded with pipes of most precious stones. Whenever the Lamb of God used his voice, this sweetest blowing of the wind coming from the secret place of the Divinity touched these pipes so that they resounded with every type of sound that a harp and organ make. No one was playing this song, except those who wore these crowns, but the others who heard this song rejoiced in it, just like a man who could not see previously now sees the brightness of the sun (The Book of the Rewards of Life).
Almost a millennium on, John Paul II would have little problem with such imagery. So why then did he take so long to utter his own uncontroversial sentiments? It was twenty-one years into his pontificate before he offered a single morsel to satisfy hungers on a subject which 700 years earlier had been such a hot topic of debate that the papacy of John XXII almost collapsed over his definition of the beatific vision. (To be fair, there has been one other intervention since John Paul took office. Back in 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had warned ‘when dealing with the human situation after death, one must especially beware of arbitrary imaginative representations: excess of this kind is a major cause of difficulties that Christian faith often encounters’.)
Perhaps it is simply that he thinks so much has been said on the subject that there is little need to say anything more. This is the world of Fra Angelico’s Last Judgement, Luca Signorelli’s Coronation of the Elect, William Blake’s The Meeting of a Family in Heaven and Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection: Cookham, a place of music, dancing, good health, sex, self-congratulation and plenty. It is the Elysian Fields, an image shamelessly borrowed from Virgil by the early Christians and entered symbolically through a gate, where, according to the Aeneid, those amongst the dead chosen for their heroic virtues ‘train on grassy rings, others compete in field games, others grapple on the sand; feet moving to a rhythmic beat, the dancers move in formation as they sing’. Heaven is where, according to Dante, the ‘Great Light shines in three circles’, where, the Revd Charles Kingsley wrote, ‘marital love will be without oscillation, ever at the same glorious full tide of delight’, and where, in Steven Spielberg’s Always, Audrey Hepburn presides in a green glade.
Dismissal of myth
Some of this imagery is peerless, some trivial. There is certainly room for more. Another more convincing explanation for John Paul’s silence on heaven may be that acute nervousness in today’s Church over talking about concepts about which different believers have widely contrasting views, some literal, others mythical. Look what happened, for instance, with Catholicism’s Anglican cousins when the former Bishop of Durham aired publicly his thoughts on the mythical qualities of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection. He was not denying their importance, their time-honoured power to approach a deeper truth, to raise our eyes to the far horizon, but he made the fatal mistake of imagining that the very word ‘myth’ has the same resonance in the wider world that it does in theological training colleges. The reality is that today we dismiss myth as little more than a fairy tale. We precede it inevitably with the words ‘just a...’.
It wasn’t always thus, as the distinguished religious historian Karen Armstrong has persuasively argued in The Battle for God:
Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest level of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning ... The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.
What changed was the advent of the age of science. In the eighteenth century, if not earlier, religion altered course to run in parallel as far as possible with the new gods of the rational and the logical. Believing things became synonymous with proving them. And since you cannot put heaven under a microscope and prove that it exists, since you cannot reach beyond death and prove that there is something or someone there, then, it was decided, we cannot believe it. So best then not to mention it at all from the pulpit. But then – and, of course, this is one of the fatal flaws of the scientific mind-set – we can’t quite be so callous, or self-sacrificing, so we keep notions like heaven in a cupboard, hoping that one day they might be fixed up, dusted down, and useful again.
This new orthodoxy has crucially blurred the difference between faith and belief. Faith alone is no longer good enough. Yet just because clouds can be shown to contain neither harps nor discarded sets of wings doesn’t mean that the whole rich history of heaven, a history of the achingly powerful human yearning for life after death, a history of how humankind once bravely and stoically faced up to the inevitability of death, is now regarded, apparently by the Pope amongst others, as redundant.
Restoring the power of myth
We are trapped in a secular and scientific frame of mind that seeks answers, positives and negatives, as a way of understanding ourselves. We are uneasy with question marks. We imagine that we are so much cleverer than past ages, that their wisdom can be demolished by our own, passed through the fashionable filters of science and logic and reason and rendered as a result useless. It can, but the results, from a spiritual point of view, are misleading and dispiriting. What we need is to re-establish a sense of the power of myth, to reverse the modern process that Saul Bellow has called ‘a housecleaning of belief’. This inevitably will involve our church leaders in breaking their silence on questions like heaven and hell and having faith in the laity to understand once again the real purpose of myths and their enormous and life-enhancing potential.
Once religion and its narratives were intimately bound up with myth, and it can be that way again. Myths could act as the clues to the spiritual potentialities of human life, the way we express and give form to our transcendent longings, our ultimate concerns. As Joseph Campbell, author, teacher at Sarah Lawrence College, and America’s leading expert on comparative mythology until his death in 1987, was fond of remarking: ‘the remnants of all that stuff that lines the walls of our interior system of belief, like shards of broken pottery in an archaeological site’. For Campbell mythology was an interior road map of existence, drawn by people who had travelled it.
Belief in an afterlife
One of the most attractive qualities of myths is that they are never true or false. They can only be living or dead. And since we can still, if we try, put the appeal of heaven in modern terms, it must be living. Questioned recently by Gallup, 70 per cent of Americans said that they believed in an after-life. Would that God or the Churches could get so high an approval rating anywhere in the West. The disparity surely shows that the desire for afterlife is as great and as fundamental as any Church or religious institution. Yes, Darwin and assorted scientists can challenge the literal truth of afterlife or heaven, but they cannot take away its resonance, the promise of fulfilment, the human at odds with his or her world, the opaque window onto the most profound mystery of all that it offers. The myth then is not there to answer, but to illuminate, to give form and expression to our shared conviction, as the American Romantic poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86) put it, that this world ‘is not conclusion…narcotics cannot still the Tooth that nibbles at the soul’.
Yearning for more
Heaven in this context is a name and a plethora of shapes and visions that we have throughout history put to that most fundamental human yearning for more than this life. It is a promise that is so finely attuned to our own desires and needs that it has been with humankind from the start. It predates alphabets and philosophy and even, potentially but whisper it quietly, organised religion. From the time when the first Neanderthal widow or widower sat next to the lump of dead protein that had been his or her mate and realised that something had to be done about the smell, we have wondered what, if anything, comes next. The assumption of the majority has always been that there should be something. So when that body was put in a cave or a ditch or onto a fire or pushed over a ledge into a ravine, the one left behind looked into the void and felt an emptiness and abandonment. So arose the myths and traditions and literatures, the shamans, the soothsayers, the poets, the writers, the dramatists and even the priests and the popes who have attempted to provide the answer. And so arose too that intimate connection between belief in God and the hope of reward with him or her in life everlasting. For many – particularly Western – faiths, the two are synonymous.
At a time when in the West our Churches are struggling to maintain their role in the face of a wholesale privatisation of faith – what was once explored in houses of God is now pursued in the privacy of homes and hearts with the consequent development of à la carte menus of beliefs – this is perhaps a suitable moment to consider the beneficial effects of a return to talking about the big issues that link all of humankind. Like death. And as part of that discussion, we must not fight shy of mentioning afterlife and heaven. It may be counter-cultural even to talk of death, but what better stance for the Churches to adopt in this consumerist age. John Paul II himself would surely approve.
Human beings are the only animals who have to live for most of their life with the knowledge that they will die one day. Yet today’s affluent society prefers to ignore mortality, keeping death out of sight, out of mind. We switch off whenever we see a hearse, immerse ourselves in the rituals of relatives’ and neighbours’ funerals to avoid thinking about what precisely they are marking, and cast our minds no further forward than the other side of that crematorium curtain. We keep our fingers crossed that the doctor will tell us that the ache or pain we’ve been having for the past six months is nothing serious. We crave youth, and some of us go to great lengths to arrest or even reverse the signs of ageing. Preparing for our declining years is now all about taking out personal pension plans. It is, you might say, the ultimate triumph of hope over experience.
Moreover, it ignores the fact that death has been central to the development of our culture, if only because it establishes a tyranny of time, where trial and loss and dissatisfaction can thrive within flexible but ultimately finite boundaries. Today we try to ignore that and, from the rebranding of funeral directors as ‘morticians’, with its deliberate overtones of beauticians, to the publisher who renamed Martin Amis’ novel Dead Babies as Dark Secrets for fear of alienating readers (and hence lost the irony intended by the author), we treat death as if it should never be mentioned. Though it was introduced in the death-soaked Victorian 1880s as a way of relieving pressure on overcrowded cemeteries, cremation has now become the exit of choice for three quarters of Britons – or at least for three-quarters of their grieving relatives. It anaesthetises death. After a cremation hardly anyone ever goes back to the crematorium’s tidy, well-fertilised garden to put flowers in a vase. A churchyard grave, by contrast, contains an actual corpse and is a permanent invitation to mourn.
Yet, like it or not, at some point, most of us will be forced to confront our own death, albeit for some only fleetingly, in that split second before the car smashes into the back of the one in front. Surely it is better to allow ourselves a little more time to ponder. I’m not advocating wandering about in black, humming ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, and spending decades putting our affairs in order, but rather confronting reality before we get to the Dennis Potter stage of rhapsodising over cherry blossom and life’s unbearable beauty while swigging liquid morphine.
And if we’re honest, all of us do, in our quieter moments, look mortality in the face, even if we quickly avert our eyes at the scale of the questions we pose. Yet if we could retrieve heaven as a context within which to contemplate death, it could take away some of that fear. In its broadest historical and mythical shape heaven offers nothing less than the chance of making sense of the pain that is there in life regardless. At the very least it tells us that others have been down this route before. To live fully, I firmly believe, we have to think about death when we are fully alive and heaven, taught with care and subtlety, still has a vital role to play in that process.