At the time of this writing, I am back in Florida, packing up to return home soon. I was blessed, Friday, to say goodbye to my mother, Lynett Louise Wood Wilcox, in Georgia—she and I shared a moment that will inform my life while I remain here on this earth. I, like you, am a pilgrim here; this I call an earthy pilgrimage. Lynett is transitioning to be a pilgrim in another dimension; we can call this a heavenly pilgrimage. See, we keep being pilgrims, for death does not mean the cessation of the Journey. God is Immensity, and even after this present pilgrimage, there is still so much of Immensity to come to know, live, share, and enjoy.
Lynett is preparing to move on to Heaven. Her True Self is ready to go, the flesh is slowing shutting down.
Being with my mother on the journey of passage over many months, one I thought would have been completed several months ago, has led me to think more about life, death, and what many call the afterlife—I do not believe in “afterlife,” for “afterlife” is not an afterlife but a continuance of this Life in another dimension.
I am a pastor and spiritual teacher, so I ask of myself, during this transition time for my mother and our family: What is the significance of what I do as a pastor and teacher? The writing ministry? Preaching? Teaching of meditation and Contemplative Prayer? Living and teaching the Contemplative Life? The nature of Hope? The meaning of Heaven? The place of the Church in the midst of the Mystery that encompasses our brief earthy journey?
I posit these questions, partly, for my experience must inform what I believe and share with other persons. Scripture, tradition, and other persons’ experience, as well as my own experience, must inform my faith through reason. The only other option is to attribute nonsense to God.
Central to this passage with my mother is the question, “What is Heaven?” While I focus on now in my living and teaching, this passage with my mother has affirmed that we need to have an affirmation of what is to come in order to encourage and inform us who live this earthy pilgrimage. If we do not have some sure hope, we will be subject to three modern ravages of our time: materialism, nihilism, reductionism.
Materialism: Stuff is what really matters? This leads us to value others and ourselves based on acquisitions; we are products among other products for buying and selling; the value of a person is her purchasing power. This is translated into a materialistic, or consumer, religion that attracts persons looking for material blessings, a materialistic afterlife, and a heaven made of matter, just a higher grade of stuff and free of suffering. God, in this system, becomes a materialistic deity who satisfies lust for goods and is very attractive to persons who feel un-blessed by those goods at present. In such a religion, the blessing of not having and the virtue of simplicity are lost; greed is covered in the language and rites of “spirituality.”
Nihilism: What does it matter, anyway? This is hopelessness. Here a person has lost the capacity to believe in anything absolutely except her inability to do so. Disbelief, or unbelief, has become belief. She thinks, pridefully, herself knowledgeable and wise by being captive to her own little brain and the brains of those admirable “scholars” and “wise persons” who champion skepticism and radical pluralism, while having pity for those myriad deluded souls who still actually believe in some of the “spiritual” things that science has, supposedly, proven a lie, or at least highly unlikely.
Reductionism: Mystery? There is no mystery! The most damaging reductionism, which parades even in religion, from fundamentalist to liberal, is subtle reductionism. A lack of awe and humble acknowledgement of the Immensity of what “I do not know” will always accompany reductionism. Subtle reductionism is seen in the religious fundamentalist-conservative reduction of “God” to “my God” and “our God” (a tribal deity) and the Word of God to “our Bible.” Subtle reductionism is seen in science that reduces Reality to observable interactions of subatomic particles. The quantum physicist and the Bible fundamentalist can share the same basic worldview, practically: subtle reductionism, even while touting a belief in mystery. Simply talking about the greatness of God or being in amazement at the findings of particle physics does not mean one is in wonderment before the Unknowability, Otherness, and Immensity of Pure Spirit!
I return to the question, “What is Heaven?” A sure hope of Heaven, rightly informed, will help us avoid the ravages of materialism, nihilism, and reductionism. If we are not well informed with mature insight and wisdom, then, any or all of those ravagers can ravage our view of Heaven.
I quote from Hebrews 11.8-10:
8Because Abraham had faith (i.e., trusted), he obeyed God when God called him to leave his home. He was to go to another country that God promised to give him. He left his home without knowing where he was going. 9His faith (i.e., trust) in God kept him living as a stranger in the country God had promised to him. Isaac and Jacob had received the same promise. They all lived in tents together. 10Abraham was looking to God and waiting for a city that could not be moved. It was a city planned and built by God. (NLV)
The writer of Hebrews, as we must do, gathered from the history of the persons he addressed, using that history to point beyond itself to the Mystery, the Reality. Faith allowed Abraham to go to Canaan, a land he had never been to; indeed, he left his home without knowing where he was going. Abraham followed the Promise Giver. He remained in that land by the same trust that allowed him to go to that land.
However, the Hebrews writer introduces a surprise to the reader. Within the context of history and the faithful obedience of Abraham, a tent dweller, he looked “to God” and waited “for a city that could not be moved,” “planned and built by God.” Abraham, like we do, projects our present experience in this life to the pilgrimage beyond, for that is how we try to make some sense and speak of Heaven. We speak of the here now to try to frame the not yet.
No, I do not believe that Heaven is literally a city that God built, as we humans have and build cities; however, heaven is a literal truth. What Hebrews says to me is that we frame a present hope through the images of our world. That leaves us with the challenge of, in a sense, decoding. So, what is this “city” Abraham looks for while he is a pilgrim on the earth?
This city immovable and from God introduces us to a confidence and a mystery. The confidence is that Heaven is a safe place. That this city is from God means that Heaven is part of the creation of the Divine, even as you and I are. Heaven, you, and I are part of one Whole Reality, all being given life and being from Pure Spirit. Heaven is not an alien place, but only a different kind and degree of place. Heaven is a mystery; Heaven is Mystery. This means, Heaven is pointed to by our pictures of materiality; that is the only way we can speak of such a place.
For me, this means, heaven is not a place of physical geography. Heaven is a place of spiritual geography. To the extent that we learn to live in God through the Spirit, we learn now to live in Heaven and are living in Heaven.
I am content and rejoicing regarding knowing very little about Heaven. Whatever Heaven refers to refers to a dimension somewhat like and unlike present earthy existence. I do not worry about Heaven, I, rather, like Abraham, am “looking to God.” By “looking to God,” Who is Mystery, I am assured that Heaven refers to a continuance of relationships, yet relationships unfettered by the limitations of material existence. Therefore, while Spirit manifests in both matter and spirit, the density of matter limits spirit. Matter is not evil; matter is simply the most limited form of energy, of Energy. For me to believe in the resurrection of the body, therefore, means the transformation of matter into pure spirit, whereby the capabilities and processes of spirit function free of the boundaries of the capabilities and processes of the flesh, of matter.
His Holiness The Dalai Lama writes, “There is more to human existence and to reality itself than current science can ever give us access to” (The Universe in a Single Atom). I supplement that affirmation: There is more to human existence and to reality itself than theology can give us access to. However, both science and theology give us clear hints, sure sensory and intuitive data, to affirm that life is an organic, ongoing process of interdependent relationships. There is no evidence to prove that this Life can cease and that our relationships are annuled by physical death.
Odd, then, that many persons seem to think that science has proven that death is the cessation of personal consciousness and personal relationships. This only shows how ill-informed many persons are and how antagonistic to traditional belief, also. Amazing the ignornace that parades as the "latest insight"! Amazing that the human person can celebrate the reduction of infinite Life, of which she is a manifestation, to finite dust! Odd, and this only confirms how contorted is the human person in prideful rebellion against the gracious Grace of Life Himself, Herself. Odd, but this proves how a materialistically sated culture can lose access to and appreciation of Mystery, unable to intuit Mystery and relate with Mystery. And, let us not just blame science, for religion has been the prime culprit in denuding the spiritual landscape of sensitivity to Spirit and, thus, of the Transcendent Reality that affirms the sure hope of Heaven.
And, if there is a sure hope of Heaven, God, being Immensity, must be the Source of that hope. Infinte hope cannot derive from finiteness derived from Infinity. Hope comes from Grace gifted to the creature.
What Heaven is fully, we do not need to know. That life is essentially Eternal in nature and is about relationships, we do need to know. The sure hope I have living in me, which my mother has living within her, allows me, amidst the sadness of her moving on, to rejoice. I do not fear for her safety; I do not doubt that my relationship with her will continue. Love is unconfined by this life, and this life passage is held within the Eternal Being of Un-create Spirit.
1. What is Heaven to you? How does your religious faith inform your thoughts on life, death, and life continuing after death?
2. How has science shaped your theology? How does theology inform your gaining insights from science?
3. How has experience shaped your understanding of death? Of Heaven?
4. Do you believe you will meet persons whom you loved in this life after your death? Why? Why not?
5. Do you ever sense the presence of persons dear to you who have passed on to Heaven? Explain.
6. What would be the difference between saying “Heaven is a place we go to” and “Heaven is another dimension alongside, or within, this earthy dimension”?
7. What would be the difference between saying “Heaven is up there somewhere, a place” and “Heaven is everywhere, free of confinements of place”?
8. What in the above writing encouraged you? You agreed with? You disagreed with? Explain.
God, You are my Heaven. I Love You, Love. Amen.
Brian's book of mystical love poetry, An Ache for Union, can be ordered through major bookdealers.
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