674 HOPE: “Heaven” Is a Nearly Universal Dream

Detail of 12th-century icon “Ladder of Divine Ascent” from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt.HOPE! HEAVEN! The words are almost synonymous for billions of men, women and children around the world. Of course, our ultimate hope is that some kind of afterlife will preserve and vindicate our lives. But … pretty soon we discover that these two words aren’t entirely the same.

TODAY, we kick off a week of stories about diverse spiritual hopes. Today, we share a few lines from Newsweek magazine religion writer Lisa Miller’s new book, “Heaven”—enough so you’ll enjoy our Wednesday interview with Lisa and you’ll see why her book is so fascinating.

But that’s not all! Before the week is out, you’ll meet some couples trying to make interfaith marriages work. Talk about high hopes! Let’s start with a few lines from “Heaven,” a book you really could enjoy with friends and small groups wherever you live—and whatever your faith may be.
You can order “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” from Amazon.

Here are a few lines from Lisa Miller’s “Heaven”:

I am a progressive in my heart, but I yearn at times for the discipline and the faith of the orthodox. I wish I could somehow “go there” and embrace the supernatural aspects of heaven—the streets of gold, the many mansions, the banquet, the Torah study, the music, the physical enjoyment of all kinds of pleasures, the bliss, the reunions. What a comfort it would be to me—and even more to my skeptical friends who have lost children. I even yearn for that literal-plus interpretation of scriptural descriptions given to me by believers who are also intellectuals. The heaven of the Quran “is described to us by names we can understand, but it’s a completely different experience,” says Hisham Abdallah, the Roche pharmacologist who lives in Silicon Valley. In other words, Abdallah believes that in paradise he’ll see green, green pastures as the Quran promises, but he also believes that those green, green pastures mean something else entirely. I wish I felt that.

What I don’t wish for—this is my line in the sand—is any certainty about who’s in and who’s out. Any sense of hierarchy among good people—one Mormon sister’s in because she obeys the rules, another’s out because she doesn’t—infuriates me, as does any Christian, Muslim, or Jew who believes that there are only Christians, Muslims or Jews in heaven. … I have nothing but admiration for the evangelist Billy Graham, who had preached for his whole life that belief in Jesus Christ was the only way to heaven and then, in his last decade, softened his stance. “I think (the Lord) loves everybody regardless of what label they have,” he told my boss, Jon Meacham, in an interview that appeared in Newsweek. I hope Graham’s children, some of whom are more conservative on this matter than he was, took note.

When conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews talk about heaven, they often use the word “radical” to describe what they mean. The heaven that will come at the end of the world is a “radical” reversal of the social and natural order. The first shall be last, the meek shall inherit the earth, the stars will fall from the sky. Heaven, for them, is not just love, it’s radical love; it’s not just a return to the perfection of Eden, but a radical return. This is no warm hug, no easy train ride. It’s radical because God is involved and God can do anything. While I do not believe in this intervening God, I do cling to the idea of heaven as a radical concept, a place that embodies the best of everything—but beyond the best. A belief in heaven focuses our minds on the radical nature of what’s most beautiful, most loving, most just, and most true. At the beginning of this book, I said I believed that heaven was hope. I would now amend that to say, “radical hope”—a constant hope for unimaginable perfection even as we fail to achieve it. As Emily Dickinson said, heaven is what we cannot reach. But it is worth a human life to try.


REMEMBER: You can order “Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife” from Amazon.

(Originally published in readthespirit.com)

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