A traveller's guide to the undiscovered country
Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2002).
The devil, it is said, has all the best tunes, and there is no denying that literary and visual depictions of hell have generally been more dramatic and effective than those of heaven. Both Dante and Milton offer us descriptions of heaven but their accounts of hell are more memorable. And if even great poets find the task difficult, it is hardly surprising that the rest of us generally fail pretty abjectly. The great majority of representations of heaven are no more than idealized versions of earth; life in the hereafter is represented as a continuation of earthly life, only better. Sometimes, in fact, it does not seem to be much better: there is a school of thought according to which heaven appears to consist in taking part in a perpetual church service. One recurrent preoccupation concerns the matter of sex. Muslim tradition provides solace of this kind but most Christian writers have been more circumspect; St Augustine was even uncertain whether women would have breasts in heaven.
Stanford approaches the subject mainly from a Christian standpoint, although he does include the views of Muslims and Buddhists among others. He is himself a Roman Catholic but his faith appears somewhat provisional and uncertain. Of course, for heaven to have any reality the prerequisite is that we should continue to exist in some form after our physical death, an idea that is coming to seem implausible to increasing numbers of people today. Indeed, even Church leaders tend to play down the notion of an afterlife today. Stanford does touch on this question but without going into it in any detail; his main objection to the oblivion option seems to be that it is so depressing, which is hardly a good enough reason to reject it.
The notion of heaven as a place we go to when we die was not part of Christianity at its outset. The earliest Christians expected that Christ would return in the near future, within the lifetime of his immediate followers, and only when it became clear that the Second Coming had been indefinitely postponed did it come to be believed that those who behaved well would go to heaven at their death. The teaching of a general resurrection at the end of the world was always difficult to integrate with this immediate translation to a different and better realm, and I certainly remember being puzzled by the discrepancy in my Catholic upbringing. If we are already in heaven after death, what need is there for a bodily resurrection and a Last Judgement? According to Stanford, St Thomas Aquinas resolved this difficulty by saying that the individual judgement and the Second Coming would both happen on an eternal plane, so that the blessed would both wait and not wait to see God, as it were. This seems to be a case of solving the difficulty simply by asserting that it is solved.
This book offers a readable survey of earlier views of heaven in the West, though I found the smaller section at the end where Stanford looks at modern attitudes to the afterlife to be the most interesting. There are also several "Traveller's Tales"—accounts of apparently paranormal experiences connected with death—some of which are quite intriguing. These aside, however, the book does little to convince the reader that ideas of heaven represent anything more than wish fulfillment and fantasy. As usual these days, it is marred by some unfortunate typos, which in some cases reverse the meaning of sentences completely. And it is not only typos which do this: Stanford writes that "the historian and polemicist A.N.Wilson holds that it is impossible to underestimate [sic] the importance of [St Paul] in shaping Christian thought." Wilson, of course, said the exact opposite.
28 January 2003
%S A traveller's guide to the undiscovered country
%A Peter Stanford
%G ISBN 0-00-257101-3
%P x + 374 pp
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