Measuring the Pearly Gates

There was a time when heaven was in heaven. But then something happened to heaven. As long as the physical universe had some sense of “up” one could locate heaven above. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2). With the rise of modern science, the tidy world picture of a centered earth and a sphere of stars on the circumference dissolved. Space just went on and on infinitely so that there was no center, no up and no down. No place for heaven.

Jeffrey Burton Russell, a medieval historian, who has already written A History of Heaven, is back trying to see what can be done to relocate heaven once location is no longer part of the concept. To accomplish this task, Russell leads the reader through a brisk tour of philosophical and scientific ideas from William of Ockham to Richard Dawkins, from Nominalism to ultra-Darwinism. From beginning to end, the fault is a denial of knowledge. By denying that words penetrate fundamental reality, the Nominalists paved the way for natural science as a measured arrangement of physical observations. Ultra-Darwinists equally deny fundamental knowledge. “Knowledge” is simply a complex way of adjusting to the environment. The opposable thumb and a large brain have been—at least so far—useful adaptations for hominids.

It may seem an odd claim that science is not into “knowledge.” Science would seem to be the very model of knowledge compared to which our religious ideas—heaven included—seem the vaguest of fantasies. What is it that science does not know? Qualitative difference. The crucial turn involved in modern science is that it reconstitutes “the world” as quantitative. In a quantitative world, there is no place for heaven. This is the case in the strictly spatial sense. If there were a real “up,” like the sphere of fixed stars in the ancient cosmologies, what was on the other side of sphere? How could there be a difference between the space inside the crystalline shell and what was outside? Space is space, there are no different kinds of spaces; the universe can only be conceived as spatially infinite. In an infinite universe heaven could, of course, be in some place which, though far distant, was continuous with our earthly space. This would mean that with sufficiently advanced space travel, we could get to heaven. That sort of heaven won’t work; believers don’t think that heaven is gained by rocket science. If heaven is not just distant, then it is in a different kind of space, but the notion of a qualitatively different space is, as noted, nonsense. In the modern universe, heaven is permanently “mislaid.”

Bad enough that in a quantitative space, one can’t find heaven. It turns out you can’t find humans either. If qualitative difference is reduced to quantitative measure, humans are not qualitatively different from fish; they are simply more complex. A Darwinian ethic posits the sin of “speciesism”: the notion that there is some important qualitative difference between humans and other organisms. Heaven disappears not only as a physically locatable place, it disappears even more fundamentally as a qualitatively optimal state of existence because there are no qualitatively better or worse states. Before folks started searching for heaven beyond the stars, they were intrigued with the idea that there were better and worse states for being human. Various cultures held that wisdom or sex or love or courage or serenity were optimal human states to be pursued. The fundamental for all these goals was life itself, so one could easily come to believe that given the insistent attraction of the “best” states, there was a life after life in which the best states could be enjoyed fully and forever: heaven. In a quantitative world all this disappears. From the standpoint of sheer biology, life and death are equally valued natural processes. My health may be attractive to me, but not to my bacteria, and who decided that my life is better than theirs? So it goes, and so goes heaven.

Russell explores the modern world’s exclusion of heaven under a series of spatial and temporal chapter headings: Up, Ahead, Back, In and Out, Forward, and Here. The array of philosophers, theologians, literary types, and pundits marshaled in the text is somewhere between dazzling and depressing, depending on one’s acquaintance with their extended work. For those thinkers whose work I know with some depth, I thought Russell gave a fair-enough account. The problem is that for any single thinker, there is often a subtle turn that a quick overview cannot accommodate. For example, Russell’s account of Wittgenstein—arguably the greatest twentieth-century philosopher—is correct up to a point. He properly notes that for Wittgenstein terms like “God” and “heaven” are meaningless because of the nature of language. What he does not note is Wittgenstein’s claim that his extraordinary Tractatus Logico Philosophicus consisted of two books: the one he had written, and the one that could not be written—and the latter was the important one! Wittgenstein thought that “God” and “heaven” were concepts so important that they could not be written about, though they might be “shown.” Language refers to “facts” in space. I can refer to the color and shapes located on the canvas, I cannot refer to the “beauty” of the painting. Beauty is not located on the canvas; it shows itself, as it were, “across the whole.” Heaven cannot be located in space; if we think it is there, it is because it shows itself “across the cosmos.”

In his conclusion, Russell properly concedes that spatio-temporal ideas about a heaven above (a life after) are, after all, only metaphors. Heaven, he asserts, is “the metaphor of metaphors.” He does not elaborate that notion, but it seems not a bad characterization. From the standpoint of quantitative science, a world of qualitative difference is one great metaphor. Wittgenstein again: in his later work he is interested in the notion of “seeing as.” Metaphor is seeing a world of measurable quantities as having human, “spiritual” meanings. I see the curve as a smile. In that sense, “seeing as/metaphor” moves measurable fact “up” to spiritual value. Heaven is the ultimate “up” toward which the metaphorical world of qualitative difference points. Heaven is the metaphor for a metaphorical world.

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: 

Dennis O’Brien, former president of the University of Rochester, is a longtime contributor to Commonweal.

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