Review: Heaven By Peter Stanford Essay, Research Paper
Vanilla skies Heaven Peter Stanford 3844pp, HarperCollins St Augustine thought nobody farted there. St Thomas Aquinas saw it as a celestial Trades Union Congress – a place where the “communion of the saints” ruled co-operatively. But the Scandinavian version meant a lot of singing, boar-eating and mead-drinking. Heaven can’t always wait. Peter Stanford’s brisk popular theology – a mixture of creeds, anecdotes and history – shows how the waiting turns into imaginative star-gazing. To write a history of heaven is also to write a history of thought itself, because as we look upwards we resolutely project from what counts as important for us in the existential present. The Augustinian heaven reflected the neuroses of the man from Hippo, the ascetic on the run from a sensualist past. Aquinas produced a heaven of hierarchies that reflected the dynamic feudalism of his age. The iron-clad Valkyries in Valhalla, meanwhile, made Teutonic sense for an early medieval warrior society. Stanford provides a wise guide to the entire celestial anthropology. Practically everybody of any consequence who has looked into the skies and tried to write it all down gets a mention. And although the perspective is western and Catholic/Christian, Stanford’s net is widely drawn. In a nice reversal of the conventional categories, he shows how it is the eastern religious tradi tion that has been individualising while the western one has emphasised the collective. Too many orthodox Christians still like to parody eastern religions, imputing to them a belief that “the essence of the All is the Oneness of the True”. But the Buddhist revolution meant a highly interiorised examination of the self. Heaven the place may be static. But heaven the thought is always evolving. The success of the Christian version owes a lot to its readiness to adapt to circumstances. The idea that the body would be resurrected after death was borrowed from Judaism, which itself picked up the notion when the tribes of Israel came into contact with Zoroastrianism. And that idea was a revolution compared to the earlier Jewish notion of sheol – a murky, subterranean place somewhat like the Greek idea of Hades. What made for a heavenly take-off in Christianity was another Greek idea: the soul that marched on after death. The borrowing here was not passive but a transfiguration of what was lent (or stolen). What would heaven be like? The early Christians whose concerns are reflected in the gospels were reluctant to give an answer. In this respect they are like contemporary Christians: the closest Pope John Paul II has been drawn to an answer is to say is that it means “fraternal love for fellow human beings”. Heaven, having been once over-described by eager Christians, now seems empty. Christ’s words about the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” are interchangeable, and imply an iconoclastic rejection of prevailing religious orthodoxy. These kingdoms are less to do with the harp-playing configuration of popular imagining than with a dramatic reversal of established order. Jewish orthodoxy had a neo-Confucian reverence for the ancestors. And the Jewish afterlife recreated those family relationships. Which is why the Sadducees teased Christ with the hypothesis of the unfortunate woman who had married – in turn – all seven brothers. So: “At the resurrection, to which of them will she be wife?” The strikingly dismissive answer is that the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob “is God, not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all men are in fact alive”. The three patriarchs are not hanging around in sheol, as Jewish theology would have maintained, waiting for the final judgement. They are already enjoying the life of God. And, crucially, they are not then any different from those who are alive now, who are already “with God” because they have rejected the earthly powers. These words reflect the concerns of the early Christian church. Marginalised, despised and oppressed, the converts had been frustrated in their expectation of an imminent second coming. And so that eschatological dance on the brink became increasingly frenetic and interiorised. Perhaps heaven is too fluid a concept to be anything other than a catch-all category. Stanford has, wisely, refused to impose a single order on the diversity. If the price to be paid is an occasionally rambling tone, he has nonetheless done elegant justice to the mental geography of that terrain and its travellers’ tales of the elect.