As the world’s Christians prepare to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a debate over heaven is not as sexy or politically charged as other familiar battles in the American culture wars. It’s hard to argue for more air time for eschatology than contraception, but the theological and cultural conflict over heaven is, in the end, perhaps more important than most such battles, for it is about how Christians view the purpose of life.
The conversation about the nature of heaven that we tackle in the April 16 issue of TIME (available to subscribers here) is challenging popular piety. “Heaven is a new state of affairs in which God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy is coming into the present situation,” Christopher Morse, professor of theology and ethics at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, told my colleague Elizabeth Dias. “It is breaking in and breaking up all that opposes love and freedom in the world.”
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My own interpretation of, and interest in, religion is both personal and historical — which is to say, my personal experience led me to a historical inquiry about the nature and course of the faith of my fathers. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Protestant chapel services every day in school from the time I was 4 until I was 18, and then attended an Episcopal university.
History is an essential element of my attraction to religion both in terms of writing and living. Who wouldn’t want to understand the forces that, at least in terms of Christianity, determine the very nature of how we tell time and whether we believe in the Christian story or think it a fairy tale?
To me, the work of N.T. Wright, an Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar whose books I find enormously compelling, lies squarely in the tradition of the medieval scholastics, most notably Thomas Aquinas, who embodied the sanctification of reason in matters religious. We have been given the power of thought and the capacity for interpretation and are to use them as a means to understand, as best we can, the cosmos in which we find ourselves. We don’t — can’t — begin to know everything. In my own case, I’m with Hamlet, who said that “there are more things in heaven and on earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
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If heaven is understood more as God’s space on earth than as an ethereal region apart from the essential reality we know, then what happens on earth matters even more than we think, for the Christian life becomes a continuation of the unfolding work of Jesus, who will one day return to set the world to rights.
If you begin to think about the drama of life in such terms, you begin to invest more meaning in the here and now — not in the “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” pagan way, but as a way of infusing everything with potentially sacred meaning. The love of friends, the brush of your spouse’s hand, the eyes of a young child — these become not hints or glimpses of what heaven may be like as a posthumous region but of what earth may be like if light and love achieve dominion over darkness and envy.
This is a debate that doesn’t fit easily on the usual left-right, blue-red, liberal-conservative spectrum. That’s because each understanding we explore is rooted explicitly in faith in the salvation history of Jesus. The divide isn’t about a secular ideal of service vs. a religiously infused vision of reality. It’s about whether believing Christians see earthly life as inextricably bound up with eternal life or as simply a prelude to a heavenly existence elsewhere.
If, like me, you find the former option intriguing, then heaven is the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed. It is not Disneyland in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy. We could do worse than think in such terms.