Book Review- “Heaven: A History”

It’s not clear to me whether John Lennon realized he was proposing his own sort of Heaven when he wrote the classic ballad “Imagine,” but that’s what he was doing. He invites us to “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try” and describes a world of peace and love, a sort of heaven on earth. The longing for peace in a heavenly place has led poets and prophets throughout the centuries to write, paint, sing and talk about Heaven. Professors of religious studies Colleen McDannell (University of Utah) and Bernhard Lang (University of Paderborn, Germany) have traced these currents throughout western thought in Heaven: A History.[1] To call the book a “tour through the museum of Heaven” would impose all the baggage the boring word “museum” carries; this book is an enjoyable journey. Mormons have a pretty different view of Heaven compared to other contemporary Christians, so I was glad to see a short section of the book discussing Mormon views specifically.

The authors explore theology, architecture, literature, art, and popular ideas to give readers a sense of the diverse perceptions of Heaven over time. While acknowledging the oversimplification of their framework, they identify two overarching and competing versions of the afterlife: theocentric and anthropocentric. The crucial difference hinges on the type of relationship expected to exist between humans and the divine. In the theocentric model, heaven consists of the soul and God; the focus is on God to the exclusion of other considerations, relationships, and associations. In the anthropocentric model, human relations are emphasized; heavenly reunions, communities, and awareness of others are central. Interestingly, the authors found both perspectives present in a wide array of traditions: “These two concepts [theocentric and antropocentric] do not depend on the level of sophistication of those presenting the image (theologians versus lay people), or time frame (early versus contemporary), or theological perspective (Protestant versus Catholic). Rather,” they argue, “we have found that throughout Christian history anthropocentric and theocentric models emerge, become prominent, and weaken” (353).

Studied theologians haven’t always accepted Augustine’s expectation of a theocentric “beatific vision,” described in his City of God. “Eternal life,” in this view, “consisted of the supreme enjoyment of ‘seeing God’” (59). No anticipated “family reunion” in this view, one went to the presence of God to stare on his glory for eternity. Heaven is more philosophical, intellectual, as opposed to a physical location in space and time.

The early portions of the book, covering early Semetic concepts and the New Testament, are probably the weakest parts. The further back in time the authors go the more cloudy the sources become. They must settle with the most broad generalizations, relying on some contested scholarship, especially (in my view) regarding Jesus of Nazareth’s ideas about heaven in the New Testament: “Earthly concerns of sexuality, family, or compensation for lost wealth would be of no importance,” they state, overlooking scripture verses that would call into question this conclusion (32). Still, these chapters are insightful and contain important elements that will inform the rest of the book.

Following the section on Augustine (discussed above) they move into the medieval scholastics, who largely kept to Augustine’s views but made heaven a locality: “the empyrean” (82). The universe was a series of “concentric spheres and levels” each nearer to God than the last (82).

In perhaps the most radical section, they explore writings of medieval mystics who anticipated a “more intimate blessed union with Christ” (354). More moderate visionaries anticipated dancing, embraces, and reunions with loved ones; others anticipated much more, including Gertrude (1256-1302) who became a Catholic saint: “In your conjugal love and nuptial embraces show me your greatness…in a kiss of your honeyed mouth take me as your possession into the bridal chamber of your beautiful love,” she wrote unambiguously speaking of Christ (103). The geography of heaven bifurcated into a lower paradise garden and a higher heavenly building or city where saints and angels met and dwelt. Further on they discuss levels of heaven and ranks of angels from writers like Dante and Milton.

The rest of the book follows Protestant and Catholic reformers retrenching from the radical elements, reemphasizing a charismatic heaven where humans praise God eternally. However: “A basic tension occurs at the heart of the Christian mentality,” they conclude, “a tension foreshadowed in its founder’s injunction to love both God and neighbor” (357). From the eighteenth through the twentieth century, they find that models of heaven—from Fundamentalist to post-Christian radical—”have deserted a human-oriented afterlife and have returned to the God-oriented heaven of the reformers” (308).

“A major exception” to this trend, they argue, is found “in the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The feelings of many Christians who hope to meet their family in heaven and the well-articulated doctrines of the Latter-day Saints (Mormons) provide the clearest examples of the continuation of a modern heaven into the late twentieth century” (308). The authors spend about ten pages (313-322) describing Mormon views of the afterlife; this is a significant amount of space in comparison to other contemporary Christian traditions. They tend to steer toward more popular LDS conceptions (citing authors like Duane Crowther and Mary V. Hill in addition to a few GeneralAuthorities[2]). They don’t explore the genesis or development of LDS views. Still, their account is adequate to their task, reasonable and respectful, covering topics like temple marriage, the spirit world, embodiment, child-rearing, and proxy ordinances.

This book is a pleasurable read in practically every sense. The prose is good, the questions raised are interesting, thescope is wide without biting off too much to chew (they do this by focusing on western Christianity alone for the most part). Dozens of short vignettes are sprinkled throughout the broader overview of belief. A particularly touching example is from the painting Last Judgment by Fra Angelico (1400-55, p.130). The painting, the authors note, emphasizes “the sentimental and human quality” of heaven. One small section depicts a monk embracing a female angel, something quite significant to a man who had renounced all physical contact with the opposite sex during mortality, and in contrast to the scholastic view of genderless angels. “‘Here we see a monk,’ the art historian Herbert Stutzer maintains, ‘who during all of his life had renounced contact with the other sex, but is now tenderly embraced by a female angel’ (128). This book increases my hope that reading will be an available afterlife activity as well, it is worth reading more than once. I enjoyed embracing this book.

NOTES
[1] Originally published in 1988, it was republished as a Yale Nota Bene paperback in 2001. The authors are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[2] Elder Bruce C. Hafen, member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, has enthusiastically referred to the book in some of his publications and devotionals. See, for instance, Bruce C. Hafen, “Your Longing for Family Joy,” Ensign, Oct. 2003, 28. Hafen is not one of the quoted General Authorities in the book.


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