by Angus Sibley
Heaven is an unfashionable topic, even in church. In half a century of regular worship, I have hardly ever heard a preacher celebrate the joys of the hereafter. The old hymns that ecstatically envisage those joys, such as Bernard of Cluny’s “Jerusalem the Golden,” are seldom sung today. Sean Innerst has argued that “if we do not occasionally consider heaven, our Christian lives will tend to be less focused and energetic.” Even Christians, it seems, now give rather little attention to the world to come. One can only assume that the non-religious world gives even less.
It is surely strange that any Christian should not “occasionally consider heaven.” How can we forget that this life is essentially a pilgrimage toward heaven? But modern Christianity heavily accentuates the study of how we should live rightly here on earth. In this, we continue to fail. Yet, in startling ways, our earthly lives are coming to reflect the heavenly vision of the ancient sages.
Instant communication and nearinstant travel dominate our times. Our screens can show us simultaneously this very moment’s events in Baghdad, weather in Antigua, football results in Rio, and share prices in New York.
From distant islands we can be in instant contact with our relatives in Florida, colleagues in Frankfurt, clients in Hong Kong, and friends in London; we can choose from dozens of TV channels; on CD we can hear any music from Monteverdi to rock; on the web we can email the world, encounter surfers from everywhere, read countless facts and opinions, and study anything from Egyptology to astrophysics.
What has all this to do with the traditional theology of heaven? The key is the word simultaneous. The hallmark of modernity is our ability to connect with everything at once. This fascinates us, but it can also overwhelm us. The flood of information and contact outruns the capacity of our minds and bodies. It devours the limited time at our disposal. “Time starvation” has become an epidemic disease.
It may be thought that this “simultaneous possession” of so many facets of life is a novelty. Yet it was by no means beyond the dreams of the ancients. Boethius, a neo-Platonist philosopher and Christian theologian, saw our timebound earthly life as a mere reflection of the underlying reality that is timeless eternity, where there is no before or after, where all good things are present together and always. In AD 524 he wrote that “eternity is the entire, simultaneous and perfect possession of unending life.” Seven centuries later, those memorable words were fully endorsed by St. Thomas Aquinas.
Our modern world may seem to have little interest in that Boethian eternity of the philosophers and theologians. Nevertheless, here on earth today we pursue with vigor and determination those very things that Boethius and St. Thomas awaited with such confidence in heaven.
They envisaged a sphere where access to everyone and everything, free of the remorseless pressure of terrestrial time, is possible. Here, our life rolls out in sequence along a brief segment of the line of time; eternity escapes this format. There, we may imagine, our portion of time opens out, like a Japanese fan, from a short line into a large and beautiful circle, whose perimeter indeed expands to the far horizons and beyond.
No longer need our experiences be crammed one by one, as cards in the drawer of a card-index, into a brief timespan. They can spread over an infinitely spacious, gorgeously carpeted floor, where we may enjoy them at will without haste. For, as St. Thomas wrote, "eternity knows no succession of events, the whole is present together."
A Lifetime Is Not Enough
So, there is a basic difference between heavenly eternity and our earthly efforts to grasp some fragments of its infinite variety. Whereas in heaven life is unbounded, here on earth we face the tight constraint of human longevity. And though that is gradually lengthening, our possibilities are expanding much faster.
Of their amazing capital, Italians say Roma, non basta una vita! To explore Rome fully, “a lifetime is not enough;” and every lover of the Eternal City knows the truth of that saying. Yet Rome is but one, though the greatest, of dozens of fascinating Italian cities, and Italy but one of more than a hundred countries, any of which we may long to know in some depth. But we have time for only a few of them.
People today are avid for a variety of experience; and this enthusiasm is deeply encouraging. It offers hope of release from the bigoted attitudes that too often cramp the outlook of those whose lived are confined within narrow limits. Yet the further we go in our pursuit of ever more diversity, the more we are aware of how much we must inevitably and regrettably pass by, unvisited, unexplored, and unenjoyed.
Frustration assails us as we perceive so many vivid joys, so many charming places, so many beautiful friendships, beyond our reach simply because we lack the time to reach them. The wider we stretch our possibilities, the more irksome grows our dearth of time. Why then does not everyone embrace with delight the prospect of an eternity beyond, where the tyranny of time shall be no more?
This reluctance has many causes. First, perhaps, comes the scientific outlook of our age which, for many people, makes it hard to believe without proof. But one cannot prove that there is no afterlife.
Next, even in the religious world there is a fear of becoming entranced with the heavenly vision, lest we forget to care about others’ earthly woes. Christians were once accused of being “so heavenly minded, they are no earthly use.” Determined to avoid that error, some have fled in the opposite direction.
Another obstacle is the prickly individualism of our times. People may be reluctant to join a community of believers where one is expected to accept a body of doctrine, rather than believe whatever one fancies. Yet going one’s own way can lead to the misguided religion of the fanatic or the crank, sometimes with tragic results.
A further problem for many is the appalling behavior of some of the world’s believers. If dissent between faiths can cause such hideous strife, is it better to have no faith? But that is a nihilist view. Confidence in one's own faith need not exclude respect and tolerance for those of others.
Finally, it has to be said that popular notions of heaven have often been unappealing. On imagines the blessed standing around playing harps for ever and ever. Well, at least they play harps, not those strumming, twanging guitars that make such an irritating noise in too many churches. But the harp concerto needs to be replaced by a grander vision.
We should think of a sphere where life has a perfection of fullness and beauty that here we can barely imagine; where everyone does good and no one does evil; where there are no frustrations, tragedies, or agonies; where there can be no lack of time. For just as restriction to two dimensions is in the nature of a photographic image, but not in the nature of the objects photographed, so being time-bound is in the nature of our earthly reflections of eternity, but not in the nature of eternity itself.
No doubt it is hard for our sceptical age to believe in something so wonderful as the classical concept of eternity. “If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is;” that maxim serves us well in our worldly affairs. But the shrewd wisdom of Wall Street is a poor guide to transcendent realities.
Here is a paradox. At a time when so many have forgotten the traditional idea of heaven, we see our lives developing in ways that strikingly reflect it. In this world, however, a tantalizing reflection is the best anyone can hope for. Consummation of that vision of boundless life is unattainable here. Yet we cannot prove that it is not ultimately possible. Why should not men and women today, like Boethius of old, have confidence in its achievement hereafter?
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Angus Sibley, actuary and investment analyst, recently retired from a carrer in London and now lives in Paris. He has a particular interest in the conflicts between Catholic social teaching and the theory and practice of modern economics. This article first published in Lay Witness Magazine and reproduced with permission of Catholics United for the Faith
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