Heaven, a History
The U.S. Catholic, a popular American religious periodical, published an article on what their readers believed about the afterlife. Although the 283 respondents to the survey hardly comprise a statistically significant cross-section of American Catholics, their comments document the continuation of nineteenth-century images. Catholics, for instance, want to "hug God" when they arrive in heaven. They expect to meet their family, even "our fist baby who died and that I have never seen," and they hope for an environment of natural beauty and unlimited creativity. Although one reader complained that "to picture heaven as a sort of super vacation resort is childish," most respondents felt comfortable in describing heaven variously as a place where lots of baseball is played, an isolated spot in the country, or a region filled with whatever pleases each person. The respondents to the U.S. Catholic survey echo the hopes of earlier generations: God will be a personal character willing to be hugged, individuals will retain their personalities, families will reunite, and earthly activities will continue.
In a Gallup poll, 71 percent of the American public answered "yes" to the question: Do you think there is a heaven where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded? This figure was only one percent less than in 1951. Those who believed in heaven outnumbered those who believed in reincarnation by more than three to one. While 54 percent of those polled assumed that they would be in the presence of God or Jesus Christ in heaven or an afterlife, only 19 percent believed that people would have responsibilities there, and only 5 percent of those polled thought that eternity would be boring,
Modern heaven, articulated by nineteenth century Americans and Europeans, continues to be believed in our generation. Many Christians hope for reunion with their loved ones after death and express their wishes in magazines, newspaper epitaphs, and funerary sculpture. The popularity of books after near-death experiences, such as Raymond Moody's Life after Life, underscores the continuing interest in firs-hand accounts of the other world.
She Speaks of Death
Oblivion, she said
It made good scientific sense,
Barbara Pescan, from Morning Watch, 1999
What will you give for a taste
No use pretending you
Put your hand in the thorns
Reach gently, but reach.
Balance, if you must, precariously,
Guard yourself only with these words:
Lynn Ungar, from Blessing the Bread, 1996
Heaven Can't Wait
There is little we know for sure. We know that we are alive now, and if we are alive and have been observant, we are aware that we will die, but about what happens after we die there is little agreement. An article in the Kansas City Star's "Faith" section makes it clear that the majority of Kansas Citians believe in heaven and hell. Surveys by the Catholic Reporter and the Gallop Pole organization confirm that around seventy percent of U. S. population share this view.
Historically, early Christianity viewed heaven as a place where we united with God. Heaven was very theocentric and this image of heaven persists. There are many people who believe in this heaven. The Catholic press reports that the majority of their members believe that at death they will unite with God, could run to him and hug him. The streets will be paved with gold, and God will be in the center of heaven on His throne. This image is in part based upon the Biblical text, "Our Father, who art in heaven," and Jesus uses the phrase, the "Coming of the Kingdom of God." It is a rather courtly image.
Our Universalist predecessors believed in heaven. In the Nineteenth Century, Universalists claimed that everyone would go to heaven. They believed in Universal salvation. "If Jesus died for our sins, and it worked, then it worked for everyone and everyone was going to heaven." There was some debate as to whether the worst of humanity would go to purgatory before going to heaven. There was debate about how long their wait might be, but all would arrive at some point in heaven. What the place would look like was a matter of some considerable disagreement, but there was almost no debate about its existence.
In later Christianity, the 16th to 17th Century, heaven becomes more anthropocentric. Heaven became populated with angels, saints, and loved ones. The emphasis was not on God but on doing good works in heaven and union with loved ones. Saints were said to be continually teaching and worshipping God. Emanuel Swedenborg led the shift toward this more anthropomorphic heaven. He had three villages, or levels of angels and enlightened souls. He had a vision of heaven, which laid out this image. The most enlightened ones lived in the highest reaches and were not required to interact with the less enlightened ones. The lower levels were the less advanced souls, who still were working out some of their problems. They too were still inclined to suffer from their character flaws and misdeeds.
It was Emmanuel Kant who took on Swedenborg and others, raising questions about the reasonableness of heaven. He and Decartes, before him, were skeptics, as are many contemporary UUs. We have been deeply influenced by the Enlightenment thinkers.
People in our times have had visions of the afterlife, too. It was not just Swendenborg. I have enjoyed and been amused by books like Life After Life and Life After Life Revisited. There they report the experience of a tunnel of light and veeghe images of loved ones standing at a distance. There is the classic musical movie, "All That Jazz," which does a wonderful depiction of such possibilities. And I say maybe, and maybe not.
I have always like a "Far Side" cartoon. In this cartoon, the first frame is a patient on the operating table. A surgeon is standing over her shining a very bright flash light into her eyes. In the next frame, she is on a TV talk show testifying to her near death experience…"And then I saw this bright…it was like it was calling me home." I tend to be a skeptic. I believe no brain probably functions to produce this kind of euphoric hallucination, but that remains to be proven.
Steven Levin and Richard Alpert, also known as Ram Dass, say that you can be an escort for the dying. They did considerable work with the dying, helping them prepare for death and enter the after life. Steven Levin describes just such a process. He had been working in a hospital with a woman with terminal cancer. She feared her death and his work was helping her move more to accepting the inevitable. One night he awoke and claims to have had a strong sense of contact with her. He imagines talking to her, reassuring her, feeling with her her last breaths. "Yes, it is okay. Just let go." She eased her breathing, until it stopped. He said he went with her for some time, floating away, until he realized that he must return or risk loosing himself.
I have worked for twenty-five years as a minister. I have been with the dying. I know that we can be escorts for one another in those precious and intimate last moments. My friend Mark died about ten years ago of AIDs. We were all around his bed. He was dying but yet he didn't. We sang to him. We touched him. We said our good byes. Yet, he lingered. One evening I visited with him with several of his closest friends. We all said goodbye again. We talked with him about all the loose ends of his life, and how they were taken care of. We talked about our love and said goodbye, offering him permission to let go. I focussed my prayers and my meditative mind on helping him let go. In that moment, he took two or three slow and erratic breaths and then took his last. I cannot say where he went. I can tell you I felt like a gatekeeper. Did he go to heaven? Given the good he did in the world and the number of people he loved and who loved him, I can tell you he lived in heaven most of his life.
About the here after, I am a skeptic, an agnostic. I just don't know what happens. What I do know about is the here and now. The touch of a hand. The smile on the face of a loved one. A new baby born. What I know for sure is that heaven and hell are certain truly psychological states. I do know about the summer and picking blackberries. I know about the taste of blackberry cobbler fresh from the oven with vanilla ice cream melting over it. I know about purple lips and purple fingers, turned colors by late summer berry picking. The heaven about which I am sure is here and now. And this heaven can't wait. We do not need to wait to find it. We do not need to walk on our knees praying and repenting in order to arrive. We need only open our eyes and say "yes" to the grandeur of life that is and is all around us. I know this heaven, and we shouldn't wait.
There may be more to the here after, but I do not know about the here after any more than I know about where I was before I was born. I expect that I will return to the same place from which I came. From nothingness to nothingness, possibly.
With Unitarian Universalists there is no one right answer. We believe first and foremost in religious freedom. We each are free to decide for ourselves what we believe is right and true. About the after life, there is so much room for speculation and differences. And, we delight in our differences. I offer at least six different UU responses to the question of heaven. First, it is a psychological state.
Second comes from one of our long time church members. About two years ago, I did service for him. He had not been around for a while, but he was truly a UU. He was a writer, a teacher, a scientist, and a philosopher. He wrote these words which echo for me the 23rd Psalm.
"Eulogy" Dear Ones, It is good to have this opportunity to have a last word with my friends and loved ones. During my life on this earth it has been my good fortune to share the experience of life with so many good people. In that time I have learned many things and traveled extensively. Love and the devotion of my family have blessed me.
Science has been my love too, and the varieties of religious belief my fascination. Although a belief in the supernatural has been a source of great comfort to others, I have never found it useful personally. My study of science has convinced me that I am a part of Nature just as the land, the air and water are all parts of Nature. I know that when my body decays it will return to the substance of the earth and part of it will one day be taken up again in the wonderful process of life. Whether it will be included in the body of a tree or bird or another human, I will live again in that sense and that gives me comfort. We know that this earth will eventually be swallowed up in the dying throes of our sun and that, in turn will be part of a new star in the timeless processes of Nature. Thus, from stardust I have come and to make up a new star I will return. This knowledge is great comfort to me. Though the substance of my body will return to Nature, I know my spirit will be with you in precious memory, and this comforts me.
This UU is not alone in this prospective. Another UU once said to that I was not sure what all the bid deal was about death. He knew he would come back again and again. Next time he would probably come back as Elvis's guitar or its future equivalent. This seems possible and is based upon fact. The knowledge comforted him.
Third, other UUs see any sense of immortality taking place in what one member called the preciousness of memory. Yet, memory passes quickly too. Those who have known us die. Then only the greatest and the saints are remembered for more than a generation or two. UU theologian, Charles Hartshorn says of God that it is the process of all that is, has been or will be, and within this process is the memory of all existence. Once we have existed, then we are a part of existence. We then are a part of the eternal. Our lives will be forever a part of what we have called Life, the remembering of it is being a part of Being, or God, if you will. God remembers all.
The former UU minister of Shreveport, LA is Bart Gould. Bart says that we are all apart of the divine spark of existence. When the Big Bang took place, the universe became filled with matter, the sparks of divine being and becoming. Each one of us contains some bit of this divinity. Upon death we simply reunite and recombine with God. In my reverie and fantasizing, I do imagine that reincarnation is possible. Not just in the most physical and scientific sense, but more like the popularized versions of Hinduism. I do wonder whether I have had past lives. I imagine that when we die we become disembodied and able to become what ever we imagine. Why not imagine our next life or no life and simply step off the dharmic wheel? There are a significant number of UUs who find reincarnation an acceptable understanding of an after life. If we become disembodied, why not imagine being reincarnated. Well, maybe that is the way it goes.
About these answers, I am not sure. But, even more so, I doubt the continuity of consciousness. Our self consciousness seems more about our egos. I cannot conceive that I will endure forever, but this is not an official UU position. It is just the surmise of this minister. My list of answers is not exhaustive. There are other responses or answers I have heard from other UUs. I know that there are members of this church who believe both in the continuity of consciousness and in reincarnation. Although, I do not believe these are the majority perspectives. One member said to me, "I find life so wonderful and God so generous, I can not imagine that a God so generous would not also offering something equally amazing after I die.
There is little we know for sure. And there are lots of big questions. Why do we live? What does it mean to be here? Why are we here? What does it mean to be good? How did we come to be here? How do we know what we know? What will become of us? Where are we headed? What happens after we die?
There are more questions than there are answers, but we live in the questions and thereby gradually live into the answers by which we can live.
And what I do know for sure is that there is living hell here on earth. Child abuse, substance abuse, mental illness, war, famine, environmental degradation, betrayal and divorce, the death of a child, and the list goes on.
And that there is heaven here on earth too. This I know for sure. I have been to the mountaintop, I have been to Leadership School. Where I was surrounded by UU lay and professional leaders sixteen to seventeen hours a day for twelve days. I have walked the sands of a Caribbean Island, named paradise and it was. I have been well married and well loved. I think it is heaven. I have seen the face of my children being born. It looked like heaven to me. I have served the needs of the neediest people on the planet and been taught by them how to love again. I went to them to serve and to teach and was served and taught instead. I thought I was going to Nicaragua and found heaven instead.
This is what I know. The truth of one UU is not the truth for us all. Here we gather in the spirit of goodwill and in honest difference, we align our lives together.
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