A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence,by Jeffrey Burton Russell (Princeton University Press, 220 pp.; $24.95, hardcover). Reviewed by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, who teaches history, literature, and women's studies at Emory University.
Traditionally, the promise of heaven has offered Christians—and, in different ways, Jews and Muslims—the reward for the suffering they endure and the virtues they strive to practice during their life on earth. The Christian understanding of heaven depends upon and embodies the realization of the victory over death that Jesus offered and, beyond that, the indescribable joy of abiding within the radiance of God's love.
Jeffrey Burton Russell, professor of history and religious studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of a magisterial, four-volume history of the Devil, begins this extraordinary book with the reminder that heaven represents the fulfillment of our existential longing for ultimate connection. Normal human beings, he writes, long for "three things that cannot be attained in this life: understanding of self, understanding of others, understanding of the cosmos." Indeed, he insists, we are created precisely "for the connection with others, for the connection with the cosmos, for the dynamic connection among ourselves and with God." Our pleas for connection are often met with silence, "but if we listen, the silence sings to us." Heaven is that singing silence: "Heaven is reality itself; what is not heaven is less real. Hell is the contradiction of heaven; it is the absence of reality."
That the reality of heaven transcends human understanding, imagination, and expression has never dissuaded human beings from fashioning images and descriptions of it. In this volume, the first of—or prolegomenon to—a projected multivolume study of heaven, Russell focuses upon the Christian conceptions of heaven from the beginning to Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy (1314-21), especially its final book, the Paradiso, which Russell calls "the most sublime portrait of heaven from the Book of Revelation to the present." Writing as an avowed Christian, Russell insists that, while it is impossible to write the history of heaven itself, it is appropriate and instructive to write a history of the ways in which human beings have imagined it.
Russell skillfully guides the reader through the first 12 centuries of Christian conceptions of heaven, beginning with "Elysium, Jerusalem, and Paradise," progressing to the "Heaven of the Early Christians," "Heaven East and West," and "Visions of Heaven." The next three chapters, "Wooing the Bridegroom," "The Desire of the Intellect," and "The Fire of Love," discuss the intellectual and mystical currents of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, setting the stage for two chapters on Dante's Divine Comedy, "Approaching Paradise" and "The Heavenly Paradise." A brief conclusion, "Hearing the Silence," returns to the central question of heaven's nature and meaning.
Although the book follows a loose chronological organization and explores the development of central aspects of people's understanding of heaven, it might be misleading to think of it primarily as a historical study. Throughout, Russell's deep engagement with the spiritual significance of heaven in Christianity leads him to focus primarily upon clusters of ideas about heaven. The earliest Christians, like other ancient peoples, were above all concerned with the experience of heaven, including the nature and location of heaven as a place, the relation of body and soul in the resurrection, and the timing of bodily resurrection. Beginning in the second century, Christian writers increasingly focused upon the quest for a metaphysical basis for heaven as a concept. Experiential questions persisted, but they intertwined with and were often overshadowed by theological discussions of intellectual and mystical knowing, beatific visions, and mystical union. Insisting that "historically, heaven is what it has been thought to be," Russell concludes that "the concept was firm by the time of Dante."
No brief review can begin to do justice to the rich complexity and subtlety of Russell's thought, but two main points command special attention. First, although the book testifies to his exceptional learning and intellectual sophistication, it is written with the utmost consideration for the readers who are not scholars. In this respect, Russell offers us Christian scholarship at its best, for, without ever falling into condescension, he clearly explains even the most difficult and unfamiliar terms and concepts, and he invites even the uninitiated reader to share his evident delight in exploring the many facets of this pre-eminently important concept.
Second, the entire book pulsates with Russell's own commitment to heaven's ineffable beauty and splendor and, hence, with his sense of the reality of God's presence in the here and the hereafter. A word on "reality" is nonetheless in order, for Russell makes much of the distinction between the modern secular notion of reality as material and the traditional Jewish and Christian notion of reality as metaphorical. Thus, he emphasizes the importance of "metaphorical ontology," reminding the reader that "ontology is the study of 'being as such and in itself'; it attempts to penetrate to the essence ('is-ness') of particular things and of the cosmos in general." In the traditional Jewish and Christian view, "metaphor expresses a deeper reality than can be attained through the overt sense."
Russell demonstrably harbors great sympathy for a world-view that located reality beyond the reach of human sensory experience—that saw metaphor and allegory as reality. In the epistemology of traditional Judaism and Christianity, the opening to truth comes through metaphors that continuously open up as if endlessly reaching beyond themselves. "Thus," Russell writes,
Heaven is best understood by metaphor. And not only is the language about heaven metaphor: heaven is itself the metaphor of metaphors, for the metaphor opens to more and more meaning, and heaven is an unbordered meadow of meaning. Heaven is where language collapses into perfect language and then further—into the truth beyond language. Heaven is what things really mean.
Above all, heaven is whatever and whenever God wants heaven to be, for to be in heaven is to be where God is—to be in his presence.
Beneath the engrossing beauty of this book runs a strong current of judgment of the failures of the modern secular world. Tellingly, Russell does not single individuals out for specific judgments. To the contrary, in response to the question of who will be saved, he suggests that heaven is a mystery, "yet one that can be illuminated by a number of paradoxes," including this one: "Salvation is for all, and only for the chosen." In a formulation that will not be satisfactory to many orthodox Christians, he adds that
Every person, of any religion and of any degree of faith, whose heart leans to love and whose life leans to good will is in heaven. Perhaps the only way to avoid heaven is to stay "hard at work, to hear no music, never to look at earth or sky, and (above all) to love no one."
If God has the power to judge, how much more does he not have the power to save? In any event, that choice is his alone.
What Russell firmly, if implicitly, does condemn is the modern habit of mind that tenaciously substitutes the shadow for the substance, the vain idol for the divinity. Convinced that one or another worldly good or attainment will make us feel the love and approval we desperately seek, "we make idols of our strength, our money, our fame, or power, or even some misery we claim as uniquely ours. Idols block our view of, our path to, reality." And here, the choice lies in our hands. At stake in that choice, Russell delicately suggests, is the measure not merely of our lives but of our very way of understanding and ordering them. As a culture and a civilization, we are turning our backs on God, which is to say we are turning away from reality itself.
While Christians confess belief in the resurrection of the body each time they say the Apostles' Creed, most believe in something very different—an afterlife based not on God's Age to Come action (the resurrection of the body) but on the present nature of man (the immortality of the soul), one that requires no end to history ("I will raise him up at the last day," John 6:34, NKJV) but rather a passing into a different sphere of existence.
Apparently Jews, like Christians, confess one thing about the afterlife when they say kaddish, but tend to believe something else. The Death of Death is Neil Gilman's contribution toward the recovery among Jews of the doctrine of the resurrection. In trying to help them reappropriate this classic doctrine, Rabbi Gilman (chair of the Department of Jewish Philosophy at Jewish Theological Seminary) traces the emergence of the doctrine in the Hebrew scriptures (barely hinted at, except for the explicit prophecy of Dan. 12:2), and in second-temple and rabbinical Judaism.
Christians know from their New Testament that by the time of Jesus, the major parties of Judaism were divided on the question of the resurrection: the Pharisees were pro; the Saducees were con; and Jesus sided with the Pharisees. (Gilman stumbles, attributing to Jesus the words of Paul when he claimed that he was on trial because of the resurrection.)
What Christians don't know is how belief in a general resurrection, barely hinted at in the Hebrew scriptures, became a standard part of rabbinic teaching, even while a Judaized version of Hellenistic belief in the immortality of the soul was developing on a parallel track. Gilman helpfully sorts out these historical threads, the rabbinical and biblical from the philosophical and mystical. Then, in a final chapter, he argues that resurrection—with its respect for the reality of death, for the value of bodily and social existence, for the ultimate power of God, and for a noncyclical view of history—is the authentic biblical—and Jewish—doctrine.
Readers will want to exercise caution when Gilman relies too broadly on liberal biblical criticism and on a naturalistic notion of religion. But despite his presuppositional handicaps, Gilman listens carefully to his tradition and offers a resounding and inspiring defense of the resurrection of the body.
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