Sunday, July 15, 2012

Heaven Can Wait

Warrant sang that heaven isn't too far away. In reality, you have to transform yourself.

Is heaven real?

No, of course not. There is a popular book claiming otherwise, but we have good reason to give the book little weight.

First, consider what something real is. It has a material existence. A microbe, a star, a color--all of these can be talked about as presences in the universe. If a color is the one questionable item in the above list, remember that it's a wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum. So it is physical.

What about love? Love is traceable to chemical impulses in the brain affecting physical processes in the human body. Therefore, love too has a clear and direct connection to materiality.

What about an abstraction such as the number 4? Is 4 real? Yes, 4 can be encoded in material units: four sticks, four apples, four fingers.

Is heaven real?

Can we observe it directly and measure it? No.

Does it affect physical processes in the universe or in live beings? No.

Can it be encoded in material units? No.

Therefore, we are very justified in rejecting the idea of heaven.

But a popular book tells the story of a father, a pastor, telling the story of his son. Following recovery from a very serious illness, the son began to claim having visited heaven. The father and son both believe that the son visited.

The story is compelling. The father had been shaken in his faith. The son, so the father tells us, speaks with the authority of observation. What's more, as we so often get in stories of this type, the visitor to heaven comes back with knowledge "he could not have possibly known." We readers and hearers must take in the story and say, "Could it be so?"

Compelling as the story may be--I don't think it is, particularly--it's probably best not taken as evidence of heaven's existence. The story does nothing to bridge the gap from the idea to material reality. The human brain, awesome as it is, doesn't do a great job in helping us construct a full picture of reality or reconstruct remembered observations. Indeed, because we actively construct cognitive pictures, making us susceptible to all sorts of illusions, and actively construct memories, we ought to be especially wary of a second-hand retroactive claim about "observations" made in the mind.

Ultimately, the I've-been-to-heaven story is of a type we've seen since Moses came across the burning bush. It's 40 days in the desert. It's the light on the road to Damascus. It's Augustine opening his Bible. It's Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents. It's Iron Man escaping from terrorists in Afghanistan. The hero witnesses something amazing and becomes transformed into a different kind of person--a person with a specific mission and purpose.

That these stories help us little with establishing heaven is almost banal. The interesting question is what in our emotional make up drives us to feel compelled by them. Do we understand the father's doubt? His subsequent connection, through the son, with his god? Do we understand the son's recollection of a dream? His sense of being able to give something to his father, of being a source of power?

The impulse is to rally around the people and to partake in their transformation, not so much to believe the story. Surely, some people will believe the story and agree that heaven is real. But most folks, I think, will maintain an "I'm not sure" attitude while setting themselves in the community of people they think the father and son represent. The important thing to walk away with after a story such as the father and son's is "I'm a Christian, too," not "I really and fully believe in heaven."

The important thing is the transformation. That's what everyone sees. That's what everyone believes. That's what everyone feels. That's what everyone desires. And that's why the story compels.

But heaven still isn't real.

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