Lisa Miller's Heaven

I promised myself that this would be the last paper book I will read while on this Earth: Lisa Miller's Heaven, Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife,(HarperCollins 2010).

Do I intend to move away from Earth, now that I have completed my reading of this book? Hardly, I just intend to read my next book in electronic form is all. I am about to buy a book reader.

But that has nothing to do with Heaven by Lisa Miller, a book I found fascinating page after page and hated to see end. But although I enjoyed every word along the way, it was the very end that was perfect!

I knew I would like this book when Miller confessed to not being a believer. At that point I knew that I was not going to be reading an attempt at indoctrination, but at information.

Miller respectfully interviewed a large number of persons from many backgrounds, and also respectfully consulted texts of scripture and literature to weave her story about the different heavens that have been believed in over time and are believed in today, distributed over the different extant faiths, major and very minor. She includes all of the same sources I have also consulted in my researches about the afterlife. She included, for example, not just the major religions but also near-death experiences, Sufi mystics, Christian mystics, spiritualists, etc.

She mentions some of the idealist communities of the early American experience, such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community experiments with their diametrically opposite approaches to human sexuality (p. 77). I was somewhat surprised she never mentioned Mormons in this same context of early idealistic communities, with their attempt to have all things in common and of instituting plural marriage (polygyny only, not polyandry) as part of their view of imitating heaven. But she chose to restrict her discussion of Mormons to the beliefs held by members she interviewed today, which no longer includes these oddities. OK.

She tells a cute but poignant St. Peter at the Pearly Gates joke on her page 127. On page 129 Miller mentions an astonishing 80% of Americans polled believe in hell and its tortures, and yet so many polled did not believe there was only one path to heaven that some churches responded with teachings focused on reiterating that there was only one way.

Because of a personal interest in the arguments between those who say only faith saves, and those who say that “faith without works is dead,” I was quite interested in, and learned something from, Miller's discussion of this topic in a broader setting, bringing in Jewish and Muslim as well as Christian sources, on her pages 137-143.

AN ASIDE ON EARNING HEAVEN THROUGH SELF-SACRIFICE:

On page 127, Miller gives three examples of this idea of earning heaven idea gone terribly awry: (1) Christians and the sale of indulgences, (2) Muslims and the salvation bought through martyrdom. In both instances the purchased salvation extended to family members. (3) Then a Jewish extreme right-wing political ad suggesting heaven to be the reward for a correct vote.

Moving on to a discussion of martyrdom in battle, on page 141, another Christian example is given with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preaching to Second Crusade soldiers in essence, as Miller interpreted it: “Give the blood in your bodies to Christ, . . . , and you will gain heaven.”

Miller sprinkles many other examples into this discussion of earning heaven through sacrifice and suffering and shows there have been and are still many facets to this idea of earning heaven through suffering. This idea crosses many time and religious boundaries. Hers is not a simplistic discussion.

This idea of self-sacrifice to earn heaven, and the long and interesting final chapter on “Is Heaven Boring?” (starts on page 207) combined in my mind to return me to something I had written many years ago about the inexplicable defense of Mormon polygamy offered by its women.

What I wrote at that time referred to the self-sacrifice involved in choosing to become a plural wife. My illustrative example was the marriage of a man recognized as a church President and Prophet, John Taylor, and his last wife Josephine Roueche, 52 years his junior, who married him and lived with him for the last seven months of his life:

Here is what this 78-year old man promised this 26 year old woman would be her reward for becoming his 16th wife (he was no longer cohabiting with any of the other 15 wives at this point in this life, but the idea was that this arrangement of 16 wives would be in full effect in the next life, and carry on into the eternities!): [proper references are given in this source]:

In that article written some time ago, I made sure to point out that “thy God” meant her husband, John Taylor, as he became in that future realm a God among the Gods. Him, not her, but “priestess and queen” doesn't sound too shabby.

In that same website article, I quoted a contemporary Mormon author who gave the longer version of this marriage proposal, and changed “thy God” to the more palatable “thy Head and husband.” The modern author also makes sure there is no polygamy mentioned in his introduction, and no trace of polygamy in the text itself, suggesting that this is the promise given to every faithful woman properly married for all eternity following Mormon ritual and belief:

     Now crowns, thrones, exaltations and dominions are in reserve for      thee in the eternal worlds, and the way is opened for thee to return back into the presence of thy Heavenly Father, if thou wilt only  abide by and walk in a celestial law, fulfill the designs of thy creation, and hold out to the end. 

    That when mortality is laid in the tomb, you may go down to your grave in peace, arise in glory, and receive your everlasting reward in the resurrection of the just, along with thy Head and husband. 

Thou wilt be permitted to pass by the Gods and angels who guard the gates, and onward, upward to thy exaltation in a celestial world among the Gods.

To be a priestess queen unto thy Heavenly Father, and a glory to thy husband and offspring, to bear the souls of men, to people other worlds, (as thou didst bear their tabernacles in mortality,) while eternity goes and eternity comes; and if you will receive it, lady, this is eternal life.  And herein is the saying of the apostle Paul fulfilled, 'that the man is not without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord.' (l Cor. ll:ll.)  'That man is the head of the woman, and the glory of man is the woman.' (l Cor. ll:7.)  Hence, thine origin, the object of thy creation, and thy ultimate destiny, if faithful.  Lady, the cup is within thy reach; drink then the heavenly draught, and live.

Even now as an unbeliever, this still has a certain thrill to it: it creates a view of life continuing and expanding through the universe forever, with exalted men and women doing the work as Gods and their help-meets [sorry, Gods are male, hence the priesthood is male, don't poison woman's preparation for eternity with an Equal Rights Amendment!].

Men will be creating worlds, and will use women for populating them, forever and ever. “Worlds without end,” was a code-expression for this vision.

I am asking you to momentarily set aside the radically anti-feminist idea of the eternal Divine-Order being the Patriarchal Order, which means God purposely intends for men to forever have dominance over, and own, one or more females*.  

Set that aside and you can see several reasons for this belief in the afterlife being very comforting to both men and women:

(1)  There is no longer any existential abyss:  you today can fully understand the purpose, origin, and destiny of life in general and your own life, and

(2)  You do not any longer need to study cosmology and all that nasty math and physics underlying it: you know that in time, with on-the-job training, perfected, Divinized men will be creating worlds, and perfected, divinized women will just keep on doing what they already know how to do, and

(3)  Sex is eternal, it is divinely ordained--no more questions: biology and evolution have nothing to teach us on this subject, the physical world is not perfect as the next world will be.  Ergo, homosexuality is a choice, and is evil; human hermaphroditism is a biological accident and surgery can remove ambivalence.  Feminism is from the Evil One and designed to subvert the imitation of the Divine Order in this imperfect world.

All of these sources of anxiety are gone if you will just believe in this vision of eternal life.  

I was once thoroughly enamored with, and wholly believed in, this vision of the afterlife.  It made the cosmos a cozy place that I understood.  It stroked and stoked my infantile male ego.

But I got over it, as documented elsewhere on this site.

______________________________

* If you feel this talk of "owning" women on my part is unfair and going overboard, please read the revelation, allegedly the record of words spoken by Christ to Joseph Smith called Doctrine & Covenants 132, where women are referred to as "that" and as objects given to men [emphases added here are not in the original, the original is available online, just search for "Doctrine & Covenants 132"]:

What is the purpose of all of this:

END OF ASIDE

I appreciated Miller making sure we understood the influence of my favorite ancient prophet Zoroaster/ Zarathustra on Judaism, and thus on Christianity. Similarly I appreciated her respectful treatment of the prophet Swedenborg and his message.

I had to chuckle to myself on page 185 when her Mormon guide to doing genealogical research assured her that “LDS members would not use my search as an opportunity to seize my grandparents' names and baptize them.” Of course they wouldn't, they can't until these records pass I believe about 90 years post-mortem, then the privacy laws expire and the names will be sent to the temples so “work for the dead” can be done for them, to allow them into heaven if they choose to accept it, as was explained to her.

In Miller's discussion of progress in heaven I was disappointed that she mentioned the Mormon belief in progress in the afterlife on page 231, but not the Mormon notion that men will become as God is, to some new world(s) in the far future.  Women will be at their sides, of course, begetting the spirits that will populate these new worlds: worlds without end.  It is the Mormon way to prevent boredom in heaven: creation is hard work and never ends.

My friend Dante figures prominently in this book, as he should, and I got a real chuckle on page 166 where Miller quotes Harold Bloom's book The Western Canon as observing [ellipses as in Miller's book]:

“Nothing else in Western Literature, in the long span from the Yahwist and Homer through Joyce and Beckett, is as sublimely outrageous as Dante's exaltation of Beatrice . . . . Beatrice is the signature of Dante's originality, and her triumphant placement well within the Christian machinery of salvation is her poet's most audacious act.”

That is exactly the conclusion I came to, elsewhere on this website: Dante inserted the deliciously-heretical 'Religion of Love' directly into the heart of Christianity. And got away with it!

Instead of getting irritated at the obvious discrepancies between accounts of heaven, as I did on this website in my review of afterlife stories, she instead simply acknowledges the discrepancies and chooses to focus on what they have in common. A classy touch, really.

She focuses on love, in other words, as a common denominator, and she gets irritated with ideas of an exclusive heaven. She singles out several religions for that criticism, for believing that only their most faithful adherents will gain heaven, no one else, and makes special note of a Mormon interviewee from whom she learns that two sisters are expected to have different afterlife experiences in accordance with their degree of adherence to dogma and practice.

But at the very end she makes me, an unbeliever, happy by critically sticking it to two popular atheist authors one of whom I have also been critical, but I was not able to articulate my criticisms as succinctly as Miller did on her page 243:

My biggest beef with the atheist writers Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris—whose works I generally admire—is this: the God they set up to knock down is a straw man.

Miller cites a 2006 Harris poll that says only one-third of Americans appear to believe in a simplistic God that “controls human events.” Good, but given the political rhetoric of early 2012, I wonder if that number has grown as of late?

After she at least pleases me a little about her views on Hitchens and Harris, she grips me even stronger when she observes that her belief about God has become this (p. 243):

. . . “God” is the word I use to describe what is miraculous about this life, the aspect that is awesome and defies rational explanation.

She goes on to illustrate what she is talking about by describing the simple water molecule scientifically and then contrasting that simple understanding with the role that molecule plays as the womb, nursery, and mediator of life itself. A powerful analogy: just because you can explain something to its n-th physical component doesn't mean you can explain the emergent life-properties it supports.

Miller has me getting rather emotional at this point: this woman believes as I do, almost exactly as I do! I am not alone in my way of seeing reality, yet we have both come from quite different directions and through very differing experiences to get where we are today.

God is the miracle of life, she goes on to observe. God is love, she later observes, as have many of her informers along the way in the book, but now she states it as her own belief (p. 243):

Progressives like to say that God is love, . . . it's a notion that I can get behind. If God is love, and heaven is where God lives, then heaven exists in the love between people—and between people and God.

This is very much the part of Rumi's message that I liked, the idea of a continuum of love from the romantic-human to the love between the Lover and Beloved, human and God, God and human. The human is as much the Lover as (s)he is the the Beloved. I draw that out a bit farther than most, and say that this means to me that God is the truest form of love between humans. And the Divine, to the extent it exists, is in us, is born with us and dies with us, but ever grows as humanity continues and grows in love and harmony. Fat chance? Hey, we can hope.

And hope is where Miller ends the book, acknowledging that she has a belief in heaven as a (p. 248):

. . .“radical hope”--a constant hope for unimaginable perfection even as we fail to achieve it.

A few pages before, she told of the difficulties of acting ideally in one's own home, with one's own family, because of all of our selfish human failings. But the hope for an ideal set of human relationships keeps us trying, and (p. 247):

Heaven is in there, somewhere. The joy of that love is—truly—beyond anything I ever imagined.

I got weepy at this point in her book. She is so right. At those rare moments when love and harmony are pure and true between two who love each other in a committed fashion there is a light-beam of heaven striking the heart!

But it is not something to look forward to in some distant life, it is something to strive for while we are yet alive. It is something worthy of meaningfully striving for, at home, often the most difficult place, in the manner described by Miller (p. 246):

In our communities, in our families, we love one another all the time as best we can, fully conscious of how difficult it is and how much humility is required.

Already quite touched by Miller's wrap-up to this point, I decided to also read her acknowledgments, normally a list of thank-yous only interesting if I am in it, which I seldom am.

But it was quite floored by the last paragraph's first sentence (p. 253):

My daughter, Josephine, reminds me every day that life is a miracle.

Lisa Miller gets it! She gets reality! No need searching books said to be words from deities for evidence of the nature of reality and the reality of miracles: just look at the simple but magnificently unexplainable miracle of your being alive, and all others we interact with daily being alive.

We have no clue. We never will have. But today I will approach heaven within my self by being grateful for the un-understood miracle of being alive. I will treat all others I find in that same condition with love, or respect if love is not possible or appropriate, That is how I will create heaven within me, and within the envelope of my influence.

And that is all I hope for and aspire to.

Soon I will be no more. But I will continue to read books, electronically, until that last day of my sentience. After that, I will be no more. No thought can possibly make me strive more to do my best to create heaven in me and around me while I yet breathe. After that, there is only hope. No me.

The ecstatic Muslim/Sufi prophet Rumi said the essence of what I am will be re-absorbed into the ocean of life, and some new day will re-emerge as a new drop. That is the extent to which I will believe.

Thank you, Lisa Miller, for sharing you.

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