On March 11th, I’ll be the keynote speaker at the 2018 Logan Visionary Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, exploring the idea of “Cosmological and Theological Heaven.”
Given some of the wonderful feedback I’ve received from our subscribers to The Catholic Astronomer, I thought it would be a fruitful exercise to allow you to offer your thoughts on this topic. My hope is that I can find some intellectual gems from all of you I can add to my presentation. In that spirit, I invite you to speak freely and honestly in the comments. No theology police here to knock you down on this post!
Initial Questions: Do I believe in a cosmological heaven?
At the risk of throwing an intellectual hand-grenade at the beginning of my presentation, I will explore the question of whether or not I believe in a cosmological and theological heaven? At the risk of shocking some of you, I struggle to affirm either reality. The struggle is not stemming from a hidden atheism I plan on unleashing in the conference – far from it. Rather, in the spirit of Ludwig Wittgenstein, the terms we use are often meaningless until we agree on a common understanding of the definition of these terms.
Therefore, if by “Cosmological Heaven” you mean that there is a specific place in the universe, analogous to a distant galaxy, that a cosmological heaven resides that we all “go to,” then, no, I don’t believe in a cosmological heaven. To be with God for all eternity necessitates a radically new understanding of being since God cannot be contained within a finite space in creation, be conditioned by time, nor is reducible to something that can be grasped by the human intellect. God is radically other.
That being said, some may protest that if God can’t be contained in a finite space in creation, then what about Jesus? Wasn’t Jesus God? What about the Eucharist? Isn’t Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity contained within the Blessed Sacrament? Am I not denying the very mystery of the Incarnation (God coming in flesh in the person of Jesus Christ) by saying that God cannot be contained within a finite space? Though these initial protests are sound, they need to be tempered by the reality that the unity of the Trinity, the three persons of father, son, and spirit in one nature, reminds us that God is an indivisible unity: Where one person of the Trinity is, so, too, are the other two. God is both radically other and radically close to us at all times. To borrow from the traditional language of the Church, God is both radically transcendent and radically eminent.
What does all of this have to do with the idea of a “Cosmological Heaven?” This would mean that if God is radically transcendent and radically close, then Heaven would need to reflect this reality. Therefore, the state of being we call “heaven” cannot simply be a far-off place that we discover in a rocket ship or a “parallel universe” that is beyond our universe. Nor can it be reduced to the peace and joy I find on my parent’s farm where I grew up, analogous to Shoeless Joe Jackson visiting a cornfield in Iowa to help reunite an estranged son with his father. In a move of the great Catholic “both/and,” heaven is present in the cornfield, in a distant galaxy, in every parallel universe, but also transcends any material reality we can comprehend. The “close to us/beyond us” relationship of Heaven reflects the radical transcendence and radical eminence of God.
Initial Questions: Do I believe in a theological heaven?
To approach the question of whether or not I believe in a “Theological Heaven” requires the same type of clarity of terms as I employed in our exploration of the idea of a Cosmological Heaven. One of the things I’ve observed in some (not all) understandings of modern theology in regard to faith and science is to reduce the term “theological” to “theoretical.” This is an important distinction because a “theoretical” heaven would be to answer the question, “If there is a heaven, what might it be like?” Though this question allows for a radical intellectual freedom that can put anything and everything in heaven from unicorns to flying spaghetti monsters, it ultimately devolves into a subjective end point: You think there might be a heaven and I think there isn’t a heaven – Let’s agree to disagree. If this is what is meant by the idea of a “Theological Heaven,” then, no, I do not believe in this type of wild think-tank on the divine that would be no different than a fascinating work of science fiction.
What do I believe? I believe that “Heaven IS.” Therefore, to develop a theological perspective on heaven is reflecting on a true reality, not speculating of something that might or might not exist. The proper understanding of heaven, as I have referenced before, is to see this state of being as being intimately connected with the eminence and transcendence of God. The Biblical expression of this reality is what is identified as the Kingdom of God.
The heart of Kingdom theology is to see that God’s Kingdom has already been established through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (this we call the paschal mystery). However, the Kingdom is also constantly unfolding, with its full manifestation not being realized until Jesus returns in final glory. Therefore, heaven is something that is accessible to us, in part, right now, but will not be fully realized until Jesus establishes what the book of Revelation calls the “New Heavens and New Earth.” There’s part of me that wants to toy with seeing the theology of heaven in a way similar to how St. Thomas understands the relationship between body and soul in the human person. Just as the human person is an inseparable “body/soul” where the two realities cannot be separated, yet are profoundly distinct, so, too, is heaven and earth a “heaven/earth” in which the two realities are intimately connected, while also being profoundly distinct. As tantalizing as this is, I must remember that my presentation is to be no more than 25 minutes.
One of the clearest expressions of this twofold reality of Kingdom theology as it relates to faith and science is found in the thought of the Anglican biblical scholar NT Wright. Below are Wright’s thoughts on Kingdom theology as it relates to evolution.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Next week, I will share what I will present at the conference as a healthier vision of the question of understanding, God, Heaven, and the Cosmos. For now, I would like to hear what you think of my initial musing. Again, speak freely and boldly. You just might make it into my final presentation! (And I will give you proper credit for your thoughts!)