In search of Heaven

1 Swing Time Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers 1936

The number one hit record of 1935 was Fred Astaire’s and Irving Berlin’s Cheek to Cheek: “Heaven, I’m in Heaven, and my heart beats so I can hardly speak…”. It’s where we all want to be.

Over the past week I’ve been watching The Power of Myth, a series of interviews with mythographer Joseph Campbell by Bill Moyers at George Lucas’ ranch in California in 1987. The six one hour conversations opened as many doors as they did when I first watched the program: although I’m not a guru kind of person, Joseph Campbell is as close as I’ve got to having one. Among the dozens of fertile ideas introduced by the two participants, one particularly caught my attention.

Heaven, said Campbell at one point, is not a place. It’s a state of being. Obvious, isn’t it? If it’s a place, where is it? In the sky? On another planet? What about another dimension, whatever that means. Maybe in the future, after the world ends. The world meaning the earth, though, or the solar system, or the universe?

The heaven of course is another word for the sky, what we see when we look up. Where the stars and planets are and where the rain and sunshine come from. But that’s not the heaven I’m looking for.

It’s more like Mount Olympos, the mountain in northern Greece where the Greek gods used to live. Not a precise location. Nobody actually climbed to the top of Mount Olympos to see if the gods were there in ancient times. There wasn’t any point.  They were ‘up there’ out of reach. Heaven is where god is, somewhere where we can’t go without fulfilling certain conditions. Like dying.

2 Gods on the Parthenon

There’s a certain amount of confusion between the two meanings of heaven, mainly because the word in English is derived from the word for sky. Once upon a time the sky wasn’t the place where the weather came from and the stars lived. It was where god was. Now we call up there ‘space’. Sounds vaguely atheistic doesn’t it? We’ve taken the sky from the gods and left them nowhere really to live.

The ancient Egyptians were more thoughtful. Heaven for them was outside the universe, a place where there were no stars. When you died, if things went right, you ended up beyond the universe, with no chance of coming back. Sounds suspiciously like Nirvana to me, or moksha. These are definitely a state of being, not places.

Thing is, if heaven is not a place, then god can’t live there. We see god as a divine being, which is a contradiction in terms. God can’t be a being, because that’s an animal quality, and we use it of ourselves. A human being. Beings inhabit places. But an entity that is eternal, immortal, all powerful can’t be restricted by time or place, or energy or mass for that matter.

So forget the Lord’s Prayer. “Our Father who are in Heaven”. Campbell’s view was that if Heaven is not a place, then you can be there anytime. And, he said, the only time worth being there is when you’re alive. Maybe that’s why you’re alive, so you can achieve Heaven.

3 Lucas Cranach the Garden

When we look at other words for Heaven, we get the same basic contradiction, the same dual meaning. Paradise, for example. Paradise is Heaven, but also the Garden of Eden, more generally a garden, or, given the time and place the concept was used, probably an oasis. It’s where you get away from the sand and the sun, a place of trees and water.

It’s the place we were in when we were hunters and gatherers, before we invented ‘civilisation’, when we lived in the Garden. Back then, life was simpler. And, in retrospect, pretty good. A golden age.

It seems that Heaven, or Paradise and the other words for it, was originally a definite place. But spiritually it came to be used metaphorically. As it happens, Hebrew is said to be a very metaphorical language, and lends itself to poetry easily, like Chinese. All through the books of the bible we find metaphor, a kind of concrete expression of a state of mind. “Forty days and forty nights in the wilderness” means an indefinite period, a long time. “By the waters of Babylon, we wept when we remembered Zion” means grief of exile.

Poetry is a good example to consider when looking at spiritual concepts. Poetry has absolutely no meaning at all. Don’t waste your time trying to find out what it means. Poetry is another way of knowing than the rational. It too is a state of being. As it happens, a natural state, one we all find it easy to adopt. We realise what “Shall I compare you to a summer’s day” means. We don’t have to think up sunny days, maybe a field of wheat blowing in the wind, or any other summer day we might have experienced. That’s not the point. It’s that we know the seasons advance, summer turns to winter, the bloom vanishes from all we love. We feel it in a thousand different ways, no matter who we are. And Shakespeare uses this sense of passing time and dissolution to praise the one he loves. We know this is what lovers do, and we also know that maybe they’re not as foolish as they seem. As Campbell says, nobody asks, what does a flower mean.

So let’s chuck out the word ‘god’, with all its literal meaning of an old man in the sky and think instead of divinity. Let’s drop the word ‘Heaven’ and think instead of a condition we can attain, grace.

4 Little ballerinas

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Grace means to be in touch with the divine, and also the effects of such connection. We are in accord with the world and with ourselves, integrated, harmonious. We move gracefully, “just like a ballerina” in Van Morrison’s song:
But if it gets to you
And you feel like you just can’t go on
All you gotta do
Is ring a bell
Step right up, and step right up
And step right up
Just like a ballerina.

We don’t have to go anywhere special to achieve grace. Divinity is all around. As Jesus said, “knock, and it shall be opened to you”. One way to achieve grace is to rid ourselves of our preoccupations. It is surprising how much time we spend going around with an objective, a fear, an obsession. One effect of doing this is to get things done. Another is to be blind to our surroundings, or see them in some way discoloured and distorted by our preoccupations. To look directly at something is often to see it as if for the first time, fresh, vivid. And in some cases, divine. As TS Eliot put it in Little Gidding:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Trees and plants can be like this, but also the people we love. We have to just stop being annoyed they are the way they are, not the way we think we want them to be.

This sense of involvement in the world is an attachment, what Gautama called samsara. The idea is to gain stillness, avoid knee jerk reactions to things we want, fear, resent and desire. Buddhists think of this state as a freedom that results in effacement, a blowing out of the candle, called nirvana. Looked at the other way, from the divine side rather than the human side, nirvana is very like grace.

5 Soul carried to heaven

Christians have a range of beliefs in a kind of series of events, all located in time though occurring in eternity. Go figure that one. First comes Original Sin, by which every human is condemned to hell, and all because of womankind in the person of Eve. Or was it a screw up on god’s part? Then comes the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus, by which Christians obtain forgiveness and redemption. This comes by submission, by islam (the Arabic word) to god. From this in turn comes god’s gift, which is grace. These are events in the ‘real’ world. Then comes the end of the world (or solar system or universe), the last judgment, and Heaven. Some believe that their corrupted bodies will be reassembled and they will exist physically in Heaven. Others believe that something called the soul is involved.

Two things about these sequences strike me. Firstly, the believer is passive. God does all the work, the believer submits. Secondly, it mostly happens, not in this life, but in earlier times and then after death. As for now, believers simply try to be good. Note that though forgiven by the sacrifice of the crucifixion, there is still a checkup at the end of the world, or at death (opinions differ). Heaven is not easy to enter.

6 Sacrifice of Alkestis

The Greek equivalent is the story of Admetos, an argonaut who was a favourite of Apollo. When he came to die Apollo persuaded the Fates to allow someone else to die in his stead, but only his beloved wife Alkestis was willing. The god Herakles rescued Alkestis from the underworld. The story is paralleled by that of Eurydike, wife of Orpheos, who dies but is rescued from the underworld by her husband. Both these myths are connected with the rites of Demeter at Eleusis. The god, Orpheos, or his favourite or priest, Admetos, dies and a mortal takes his place in the underworld. The god, Orpheos, or Herakles, suffers and dies and enters the underworld, and saves the believer, Eurydike or Alkestis. The lovers gain eternal life and live in Elysium, the Greek idea of Heaven. No original sin, but the staggering idea of a dying god. And Heaven. If we have grace we will be resurrected and enter Heaven.

The Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity. God became mortal and suffered and died to save the world. A contradiction, isn’t it? God made the world, god is the world, the world is holy, the world is god. Then Evil enters the world. For some reason only mankind is separate from the rest of the world, and evil, sinful. The creation and the salvation of the world seem part of the evolution of god. These matters are touched on in Olaf Stapledon’s profoundly spiritual SF tale of 1937, Star Maker.

7 Mother and child 1

We don’t remember our earliest childhood memories. The passage through the birth canal, emergence into light and air, elemental fear and maternal comfort, reunion with the beating pulse heard in the womb as we lie close to mother, source of food and life. Are these memories transformed into religious ones as we grow? Is this Heaven, this closeness, this all embracing love?

Campbell reminds us that these ideas, sin and redemption and Heaven,  are not events in a religion, but rituals performed for a reason. The idea of ritual introduces the idea of roles, of parts, of actors in a play. In the creation story there is god, all powerful, and then Lucifer, Satan, enters the picture. Who is Satan? Another god? No. A somehow lesser god, an angel? How does a lesser being challenge an all powerful one? Satan, then, must be god. God and Satan play a part that enable the creation to evolve in a struggle between good and evil. In this evolutionary sense Satan is Time, which changes and alters all things. In the redemption story there is Jesus, and then Judas, the betrayer. Both are essential for the story. No redemption without Judas. He saves mankind, though indirectly. Jesus and Judas play a part that enables the redemption to proceed and be effective. And the idea of role, of parts, suggests not events in time, but states of being, states of the soul. For Campbell these processes were called myth.

8 Plumb blossom

It seems to me that you can’t literally go looking for heaven. You have to be in a state to experience it, and that state is the state of grace. Grace though can be achieved, in several ways. One of the most rewarding is by searching for the sacred. That’s nothing to do with prayer. Or perhaps it is prayer. The sacred is all around, even when you think there is just slums and garbage, bad taste and unfeeling crowds. It’s seen not in things, in objects, but in actions. And not just in actions, but in the way those actions are performed. It’s as if there is a dimension of grace, a layer of grace, which touches us from time to time. It’s a search not for meanings, but for that which just is.

Could be the smile on the face of an old man that seems to show compassion. Might be a child’s excitement at what you think is quite an ordinary article, say a shopping trolley. Could be Niagara Falls or Mount Everest or the Grand Canyon. Perhaps a cat meditating. Plum blossom, the quiet of snowfall, a bird in your garden. Thousands and thousands of things, in such abundance it is staggering, like the stars of the Milky Way. You don’t do anything. You just look, and realise, and experience. That big guy on the block who pushes you around will leave you alone. Just remember what he must have gone through.

9 Bird on a tree

You’ve got grace. Heaven is coming up.

©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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