HeavenDavid Byrne and the Talking Heads got it wrong, apparently, at least according to an interview with N. T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, in Time Online. According to Wright, heaven is really going to be a lot of work, at least for those lucky (?) souls who wind up there.
Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens....
Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do. It's more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul's letters we are told that God's people will actually be running the new world on God's behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it's a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.OK, so if I persevere here in this present existence, discussing philosophy, science, and theology with generations of bright young women and men without falling into sin while doing so, I get to milk the cows for all eternity in the next. Sounds great.
Yes, yes, I'm just kidding--of course I believe there really is such a thing as "heaven", if by "heaven" what one means is, roughly speaking, a state of being that corresponds to the final realization of the good for humans ("You, therefore, must be perfect [teleioi], as your heavenly Father is perfect", Our Lord advises us in Matthew 5.48, where the term teleios refers to a state of perfection that is attained by achieving one's telos, or proper good). And, for all I know, that state of being is very much as the Right Reverend Wright has described it. Certainly he is quite correct to bemoan the simplistic and credulous popular notions of heaven as a place of singing psalms before the Lord while enjoying an eternity of heavenly bliss of the sort one often finds in the popular literature on the subject. Such anthropomorphic notions not only play right into the hands of the Brights, who rightly ridicule the preposterous implausibility of it all, but also raise the specter of puzzles about human happiness and the notion of eternality (it seems to be proper to our nature, for example, to derive more pleasure or satisfaction from change or difference than from mere stasis, so it becomes ever more difficult to imagine the popular conception of heaven as a place of happiness rather than mind numbing boredom of the sort celebrated in the Talking Heads song). Having said this, however, I cannot say that I think that Bishop Wright has really improved things all that much. He has, perhaps, moved us farther away from an improper understanding of what role "heaven" ought to play in our theology, but I'm not so sure that he has, in doing so, moved us any closer to a proper understanding of it. I cannot help but feel that any and all attempts to concretize what is essentially a conceptual notion will fall victim to the very same sort, though a lesser degree, of anthropomorphism of the noxious sort one finds in, for example, the Left Behind trash.
This is not to deny that such speculation is not only tempting, but even something of a rush. Especially as one moves beyond the half-century mark, as I will do this year, it seems virtually inevitable that one will begin to wonder "What, exactly, is in store for me?" John Polkinghorne (who will turn 78 this October), for example, is cited by Wright as holding the following view:
John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves." That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom.Now that has got to warm the cockles of the hearts of all those geeks out there who inhabit the software engineer chat rooms and plan to vote for Ron Paul if they can just get their trans-dimensional teleportation devices to beam them to the polling station in time. More prosaic sorts may simply wonder if they will still be hypertensive in paradise or, if they will be, will it matter. Such questions are the materialist present day equivalent of 13th century speculations about the number of angels one might conceivably dance with on the head of a pin. My friend David Romani once remarked to me, while we were discussing the idea of transsubstantiation as an explanation of the Real Presence, that when it comes to the Eucharist it may well be the case that bare acceptance is the best mental attitude. "Don't worry about how it happens," he said. "It happens." Perhaps that is the right sort of attitude to adopt towards "heaven": "Don't worry about what it's like; it just is."
One thing that struck me about Wright's view was the fact that, in spite of clearly aiming at moving us along towards a more sophisticated view of heaven, it is nevertheless bound up in the temporal and ephemeral. In criticizing the Left Behind vision of heaven he says:
If there's going to be an Armageddon, and we'll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn't matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.Sure, the worst thing about those books is not their heretical theology, it's their lack of concern for the environment. Getting into heaven, it turns out, will be easier for you if you're a member of Greenpeace.
Speaking of which, N. T. Wright is not the only English Bishop with environmental worries on his mind. It turns out that a whole hoard of English Episcopals have come out with a novel plan for Lenten fasting, according to a story broadcast on NPR just the other day:
With the season of Lent upon us, bishops in London and Liverpool have come up with a new kind of 40-day fast. Along with the aid agency Tearfund, the bishops have launched a carbon fast. Instead of giving up chocolate, how about giving up on plastic bags or incandescent light bulbs?They don't say what we're supposed to do with all the mercury contained in the fluorescent bulbs being used to replace the incandescent ones, but we're probably not supposed to eat it in our sushi.
As usual, though, the wackiest English cleric is no mere Bishop, it's the Archwacko of Canterbury, who looks forward to the day when women will have to have their heads covered in church again--only this time it will be for a very different reason (again from NPR):
The Archbishop of Canterbury says he believes some aspects of Islamic "sharia" law will be introduced into Britain.Whew, that was close. It's a good thing the Commonwealth has so many other, much more useless and offensive laws to pursue.
In a radio broadcast Thursday, Archbishop Rowan Williams said he was talking only about civil law in areas such as marriage and divorce. He said it was "unavoidable" that British law would have to accommodate Muslim practices.
The archbishop's statement was welcomed by some Muslim groups, but the British government was quick to distance itself from Williams' remarks.