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Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination With the Afterlife by Lisa Miller

I'll be honest--I learned that this book existed on The Colbert Report, which means that massive national television media still sells books! What a relief. Here's the clip:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Lisa Miller
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

Aside from the fact that she's sort of awesome, poor Lisa Miller for having to go on Colbert to talk about religion, since of course not only is Stephen Colbert actually religious, but his character is also religious, and way more obnoxiously so, which kind of puts her at a disadvantage from the start. But anyway, I like how he calls her "big fella", and is pretty cool to her, and she handles his questioning about the Egyptian afterlife and Valhalla with aplomb. As my roommate said while we were watching the segment, "She's pretty fierce."

Okay, so, Lisa Miller is the religion editor for Newsweek, and this book grew out of a cover story she wrote for the magazine in 2002 called "Why We Need Heaven", which discusses heaven as a created idea--that is, something that has evolved with human civilization, providing comfort in different ways to different people at different times, through both shifts in collective consciousness and also decisions by reigning or revolutionary religious factions.

Miller is what I like to call a friendly skeptic. She herself doesn't really believe in heaven; or, rather, the heaven she believes in is pretty abstract, "[a] 'radical hope'--a constant hope for unimaginable perfection even as we fail to achieve it" that can be sensed in the love of a parent for a child, for example. Nevertheless, this is a serious investigation of the varying ideas about heaven that gives its subjects equal respect; Miller has no desire to disparage anyone for their beliefs, and the only time she ever gets close to doing that is when she talks about a medium who you can tell she thinks is a big fraud who takes advantage of grieving people in dark moments for financial gain.

Still, it's a personal story, almost like the memoir of a woman investigating heaven instead of a straight up research text. It's the Crystal Light version of a history of heaven, a survey class, with enough breadth to give the reader a glimpse of all the different competing (and complimentary) notions of heaven without digging too deeply into any of them. The book is, actually, quite slight, less than 250 pages if you don't count the acknowledgements, notes, bibliography and index sections, which themselves take up almost 100 pages.

If I ever believed in a literal heaven, I haven't for a long time, and I certainly don't now, having read Miller's book. The way in which some people talk about what heaven will "be like" or have in it--streets paved with gold, pearly gates, thousands of servants, wine that doesn't get you drunk, food that doesn't make you fat, angels with actual wings playing harps--makes me roll my eyes. First of all, the idea that you could know, in any way, what heaven will or will not "look like" is beyond crazy to me. Second of all, the way in which people blithely attribute earthly things to a supernatural realm makes no sense to me. Why should heaven look like earth? It just seems so literal-minded and thoughtless that it makes me want to scream. I prefer to say that I believe that there is a place we go after this, and if I'm right and the universe/God is benevolent and loving, then we will be happy there. Which is why I consider the question "Is Heaven Boring?", which takes up a good part of the last chunk of Heaven, sort of mind-numbingly silly and fundamentally beside the point.

The one section of Heaven that did give me pause was the section where Miller discussed different ideas about whether or not we will see our loved ones in heaven. It made me remember something that happened when I was very young. I used to be very concerned about my grandmother, and every once in a while I would be seized by a terrifying premonition that she had died or was dying at that very moment. It always turned out not to be true, and sometimes I would tell my parents (who would then tell me to call her), and sometimes I wouldn't. One time, it was late at night, so I shouted for my dad and he came and sat on my bed. I asked him if he thought we would all be together in heaven some day--that, even if Grandma died, or he died, we would be see each other in heaven. Like a smart father, he told me yes, he 100% believed that we would see each other in heaven.

Six months ago, that same grandmother did die, but I don't believe anymore that we'll see each other in heaven. That's not to say I don't believe in heaven--I do--but I don't believe in that sort of literal heaven where all human relationships mean the same thing as they did on earth. I don't believe in a heaven where we have our same bodies (the idea that we all get our bodies back, but we get to be hot this time--or again, if you were hot on earth--and young and spry, seems like nothing more to me than wishful thinking).

Basically, I think that if the universe, or God, is Love, then the great reward for fulfilling your true nature and not separating yourself from God/the universe is that you get to be a real, seamless part of it someday. You don't just get to feel love, you get to be love. A Oneness, as Miller calls it in her book. I don't want to get bogged down in the question of "do pets go to heaven?" or "is heaven boring?" or "do angels play Bach or Motzart in the celestial choirs?" They feel like petty concerns. Maybe my idea of the afterlife is just as far-fetched and shallow as the more literal interpretations, I don't know. I really try not to think about it that much, because I'm not going to know until I die, and then it sort of is what it is.

I have to confess, this book has left me a little unsettled. As much as I scoff at the paint-by-numbers New Jerusalem-type visions of some of the people in this book, reading Heaven forced me to admit that my theories about heaven and what happens when we die aren't exactly 100% comforting to me, because my human brain is too simple to understand how something like "being one with the universe" could be fulfilling. In my heart of hearts, my heaven would be an endless library with a comfortable chair in the center, and my family playing Rumikub at the kitchen table down the hall. But if I believe in heaven, I have to believe that whatever it is will make me happier than I have ever even believed possible. Maybe I'm wrong. But even if I am, in the end, who's going to care?

But I do know that I don't want to go to a heaven where wine doesn't get you drunk. That's the best part.

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  1. Blogger Unspar! | 9:38 AM |  

    Sounds like an interesting book. I agree with you, I have a hard time conceiving of a literal heaven, and I even believe the Biblical versions of it. What I've come to think is that, heaven, insofar as I can conceive of it, can be neither literal nor abstract, but it is real. Heaven is a real place, and that's the part that matters most.

    I don't think heaven can be the place where our personal fantasies can be fulfilled, though. That's too self-oriented. Heaven has to be God's home, and I believe that it's going to be a God-oriented place. And since God is love, and love is above all things selfless, I don't think it could be a place where we get everything we ever wanted for ourselves.

    But I sincerely worry about the "I don't want to think about it because I won't know until I'm dead" mentality. What we think about heaven makes a big impact on how we live in this world, so if we're apathetic about the next life or think we'll be fine no matter what we do, we'll probably be apathetic about this life and think nothing we do really matters in the end. Or if men think heaven will be stocked with virgins for the ones who die as martyrs, then men will probably disrespect women and seek to be go out as a martyr. If we think that heaven is a place where we'll be united with a loving God who sent His Son to die for us (whether there are golden streets or not), then we'll probably want to honor Him in our lives now like we'll one day do in eternity.

    Considering heaven is God's home, then it's important to not only think rightly about heaven but also to think rightly about God. It should be our goal to be right with Him while we're here and alive. As one of my favorite quotes says, "He is very unwise who is intent upon other things than those that may avail him for his salvation" (Thomas a Kempis). I'm continually learning and discovering that that's only possible through Jesus Christ.

  2. Blogger Papa Thor | 10:38 AM |  

    [I love philosophy almost as much as I love babies!]
    We humans have mental models of the various things we encounter, think about, speculate on. The "truth" of those models is not important, but whether they are useful, whether we make sound decisions based on those models.
    Our conception of heaven is perhaps fun to concretize what we deem as desirable, such as non-alcoholic wine or comely servants, but its usefulness is in how it affects our decisions. Heaven is not merely some future destination, but a real goal to drive our life choices. Calling it love or God or oneness with the universe, we all recognize the desire to be better people.

  3. Blogger qualler | 10:46 AM |  

    OHD, well done on writing by far the most thought-provoking and beautiful blog post in the history of The Blogulator. You're awesome.

    I think I agree the most with this author: that whatever happens after we die, it's probably something that we as humans cannot possibly comprehend. Personally, although I am a regular church-goer myself at an Episcopal church, I obviously practice my religion/spirituality via Christian-based theology, but also have room to truly believe that this path is just one of many equally valid paths. I'm grateful, then, that the church I go to seems to unofficially carry that same belief.

  4. Blogger Brigitte | 11:14 AM |  

    Ok, I will try to leave this comment a THIRD TIME. Blogger, you make me angry. You will NOT be in my heaven. In my heaven, comments will always post on the first try, and the server will never be busy!

    Seriously, though, eloquent review, OHD. And interesting conversation. Though, religion--yikes! Am I right, folks? My mother told me not to mix religion and pop culture, but we're breaking all the rules today!

    I agree with OHD's take on heaven. Why would you drink wine if it didn't get you drunk? That's called grape juice, and it's available right here, people!

    In all seriousness, I do think that the afterlife (which I believe in) is not anything we can name or imagine, because it would fall outside the material world, and all we really know is the material world of which we are a part. But it makes sense that humans use what we know to attempt to describe something we don't know. How else could we talk about it? It's the same thing with aliens: aliens probably are so completely outside of our experience that we could not possibly imagine or describe one, but in the movies they all look a lot like humans.

    I don't think it's dangerous to admit that we don't really know what happens after we die, and I don't think it's a bad thing to say "why dwell on it?" If I stop existing when I die, does that make my life or the things I do with my life any less meaningful? I don't think so. I don't like thinking of this life as merely a test for the next one, and I don't think the fear of punishment or the promise of reward is all that motivates humans to do good. I think that's a very capitalistic way of looking at the world, in a sense--it is based on the assumption that humans are basically bad, and we need something outside ourselves to be good. I treat others well because as a human I have a natural drive in me to exist in a society and to treat others well. Call that drive nature, the Universe, or God, and it really amounts to the same thing.

    Good discussion! But I'm a little offended that Qualler thinks this is the most thought-provoking post on the blogulator. Didn't you read my last recap of Pretty Little Liars, Qualler? :(

  5. Blogger OHD | 10:38 AM |  

    Thanks everyone! I think this post has the most comments on it than any Blogulator post I've ever written. Is it because I posted a clip from Colbert? Be honest, that's why you read it.

    I really wasn't saying that we shouldn't ask ourselves questions about heaven, because I totally think we should, I just think that asking ourselves what are, in the end, sort of silly, pointless questions about whether or not there will be avocados there (because heaven without guacamole? Hard pill to swallow) or whatever--basically, dwelling on what heaven will look like, or who will be there--is beside the point.

    But I still think we should think about it and ask ourselves questions about it. I also think Brigitte makes a good point, that promise of reward in the next life, whatever anthropological/sociological uses it might have, shouldn't be the sole reason why you try to be a good, loving person day to day. In fact, if it IS the only reason, that is in itself quite mercenary and is kind of the exact opposite of the point.

    Miller says something in her book that I thought was really smart in a DUH sort of way--she says that of all the questions about heaven, the one that interests her least is who gets to go, which is actually the question that most religions (esp. orthodox/evangelical sects) care most about, and they all have an answer for you--their way or the highway. Which is, if you believe in a universal god, strictly IMPOSSIBLE and illogical. I don't really have a point to make, I just thought it was interesting.

    But I must say I disagree with you, Brigitte, about religion + pop culture--haven't you ever watched Battlestar Galactica? If not, for shame. I wish TV and movies talked about faith/spirituality, even in a supernatural way, more deeply. Usually it's just used as a straw man or a crutch, which I hate. But BSG does it well, as does Joan of Arcadia.

  6. Blogger Papa Thor | 12:32 PM |  

    Haha, you got comments because none of us had to actually read the book to have opinions!
    There are several directions I could take this, but going back to pop culture there are religious overtones to most of the best (and worst) in pop culture (I would say "by definition" but that only gets people mad).
    Recent movies: Sandra Bullock in the "Blind Side"; that crap that Avatar was trying to teach us; "No Country for Old Men" when he says "I gave my word" what do you think that means? "The Departed", is there any more "Catholic" director than Martin Scorsese? I think "Life is Beautiful" should be the 79th book in the Bible (or 67th or 74th depending)
    TV is harder, I don't know, is there anything in music or video games that correlate to religion?

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