Friday, February 08, 2008

Episcopal Follies

Heaven is a place
A place where nothing
Nothing ever happens....
David 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.
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.

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.
Whew, that was close. It's a good thing the Commonwealth has so many other, much more useless and offensive laws to pursue.


Steve said...

The Mormon afterlife sounds the most fun.

joel said...

I was interested in Bishop Wright's comments because they were much like what I believed about heaven when I was a Christian. (I remember shocking a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses by agreeing with them that Jesus will rule on the earth.)

As I read Wright's interview, it occurred to me that ruling the new earth sounds like a recipe for an eternal Excedrin headache. It makes milking the cows sound idyllic.

"Don't worry about what it's like; it just is."

I think the point here is to not try to project too much of what this life is like into the next one. If we weren't at all concerned about what heaven is like, we couldn't say anything about it at all. After all, it would certainly be a bummer if heaven turned out to be like the popular image of hell.

So what can we say about heaven? To me, that's the tough question. I can't come up with a plausible description. What that says to me is that I can't conceive of an afterlife.

Issues like this led me to become one of the Brights you mention.

Lee Faber said...

Not that this was a major point of your piece, but someone once did an article on the whole angels dancing on pinheads business and found it is first written in Tristram Shandy. It would be a stupid question even for the scholastics, and even those who thought angels had some kind of "spiritual matter".

Scott Carson said...


Just so you don't confuse me with one of the folks who don't know about the whole pin head thing:

I mention it here.

And it was Disraeli, not Sterne, so even later than you think!

Anonymous said...

So, Joel, you stopped believing in God because you found you couldn't adequately conceive of things like heaven? Hmm.

I find myself unable adequately to conceive the sorts of things that quantum physics is supposed to be about. Should I adopt your reasoning and stop believing in quantum physics? Or should I give up the idea that what I can't adequately conceive must be false?

As one who lays claim to being the world's most serious agnostic, I feel completely qualified to pronounce reasoning like that at least as embarassing as the sort of reasoning embodied in appeals to Scripture to justify the authority of Scripture. But perhaps I'm being uncharitable, and you really aren't just assuming that the transcendent creator of all things must pass a finite animal's tests of conceptual clarity on pain of non-existence.

Scott Carson said...


I think you're exactly right about the projection stuff. Certainly that sort of thing can be a danger in just about any theoretical situation (one thinks here particularly of cosmology in the secular domain, or perhaps string theory; philosophers and theologians aren't alone when it comes to the project of making the kosmos a place more condign for their own presuppositions).

Now, on the matter of being a "Bright". No offense, mind you, but when I use the word "Bright", it's always with a certain amount of irony, since it is, sadly, folks like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins who are most famously associated with that movement, so I hope you're not a "Bright" in their sense. If all you mean is that you find various religious doctrines difficult to believe (join the club), for the reasons you outline here, I would say that just makes you a run-of-the-mill atheist (or perhaps an agnostic), not a "Bright" in the sense described by Dennett (or here). I would say, based on what's at your website, that you're probably too intelligent to be a "Bright".

On the other hand, I recently heard an interview with Penn Jillette in which he sounded downright reasonable (pretty good for a guy who received his secondary education from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College), so what do I know.

Lee Faber said...

Dr. Carson,
I stand corrected.

Anonymous said...

What Williams actually said is


Not that it matters.

Anonymous said...

A rather lengthy analysis of what Williams meant is


I understand that the main point is to join in on the media circus and burn the man at the stake. After all, the media always does a superlative job presenting Catholic doctrine in a fair and unbiased way, so why shouldn't one assume the same thing is going on here?

Scott Carson said...

I'm not sure what makes you think that I didn't read Williams' statement, other than that you seem to disagree with my assessment of it.

At any rate, I have indeed read it, and I stand by my characterization of it, being somewhat addicted to the habit of attributing meaning to a speaker on the basis of what he actually said, rather than on what I might wish he had meant to say. As you amply demonstrate, there aren't very many people on that particular "bandwagon" in his wacky zone of "Catholicism".

Tony M said...

I always thought the angels on the pin thing could never be "pinned" on the scholastics to begin with. S. Thomas in the Summa says that you don't number the angels: you number things that are same in species but different in number (ie distinguished by body), not things that are of unlike species. Each angel is its own species entirely, no two alike, so...

Joel, I cannot (and, I am pretty sure, nobody else can) imagine the universe ending at a finite place, say with a brick wall - what is on the "other side" of the wall? Nor can we imagine the universe going on forever - I can believe it, but not imagine it, since what I would always be imagining is simply NOT SEEing the limit off that-a-way, not actually imagining the whole infinite space. Nor can I imagine the universe's three spatial dimensions we perceive as being twisted around themselves so that if forms a n-dimensional mobius strip, for example. I might believe it, but could never actually imagine it. Our capacity to grasp does not constitute the measure of the thing to be grasped. So an inability to conceive heaven is our deficiency, not heaven's.

Kevin Davis said...

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. [e.g., criticisms of Left Behind]

Well, the taking up of the "temporal" into eternality is the point Wright is making. I'm not on board with your criticisms of Wright. You fault him for what exactly? Wright has simply been emphasizing that scripture speaks of a new creation, i.e., the restoration of what is broken from human sinfullness, and that the images in scripture are quite time-bound and creaturely -- all in contradistinction to the "spiritualizing" tendencies of Platonism (et al.) that influenced later conceptions in the church. The importance of Wright's point is that it preserves the integrity of God's plan of creation since "creation" (this creation) is not merely done away with; rather, it is restored, redeemed, reconstituted -- in the consummation of Christ's victory over sin and death. In other words, Wright is arguing against an unfortunate division between the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of creation, viewing the former as nullifying the latter, not seeing it as God's plan of creation fulfilled. Wright admits that there's much we cannot say about this eternal life with God and fellow creatures, but I think Wright is correct in what he can and does say.

Scott Carson said...


I'm not all that sure what your characterizing as my "criticism" of Wright. I would have said that the kernel of my comment on Wright was:

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.

True, I faulted him for endorsing the standard liberal Shibboleths of our time (global warming, the Iraq incursion, etc.) as somehow emblematic of what is wrong with a certain anthropomorphic view of heaven, but that point can, of course, be separated from the theological claim, which, as I have already said, I think is a good one.

Kevin Davis said...


Okay. Thanks for the clarification. When you said, "it is nevertheless bound up in the temporal and ephemeral," I was taking this as criticizing both his theological and political posturing, such that the latter necessarily follows from the former.

Kevin Davis said...

By the way, when you do a post on "Episcopal Follies," let's not put N. T. Wright together with Rowan Williams. Surely Bishop Wright deserves better :) Rowan Williams, while producing some fine theological treatises, has been a terrible leader of the Anglican Communion. If he had sided with the Global South bishops and excommunicated the U.S. branch, it would have forced TEC moderate and conservative dioceses to break from TEC and join with Canterbury and the rest of the Communion. The remaining liberal TEC would be on their own, schismatic, and apart from their "beloved" Anglican Communion. Of course, as it stands now, most of the Global South (i.e., the vast majority of Anglicans and growing) has disowned the U.S. branch and has established episcopal oversight of disaffected conservative churches. Thus, we have a much larger schism than would be the case in my ideal scenario where Williams is actually a good leader, committed to historic Christian morality and biblical mandates. Sorry for this rant; I obviously needed to get it off my chest.