The Problem with HeavenAnja van Kralingen
I think we have to consider the possibility that the church may be fibbing when they tell us about heaven. To clarify, by: church- I am referring to all forms of religion which propose an afterlife in paradise.The problem, as I understand it, is if you or I were to find ourselves in a place where all our problems had been resolved, a utopia where we knew only bliss, where all the problems we have, ever had or ever will have, are permanently and absolutely resolved, where all our hang-ups are no longer part of our reality, well then that wouldn’t really be us would it?
As long as we have known ourselves, adversity has been a fundamental and un-extractable part of what it means to be us. There is something which resists us, which constantly challenges us and which allows us to evolve both personally and collectively. An objective truth which is the constant foil to our subjective will. At least that’s how it has been for duration of recorded history.
We cannot honestly imagine anything different. Adversity is so much a part of our lives that I propose its absence would result in a way of being which could not honestly be called you or I, at least not as we know ourselves to be.
The German philosopher Heidegger teaches us about the concept of Being in a phenomenological or existential sense. That is to say from the point of view of what it is to be a human being or to be Daisen (literally to be or being there).
Heidegger suggests that it is more meaningful and more fundamental to view the world from the perspective of what it means to be in the world, and in our case more specifically what it means to be human in the world. Very simply he suggests that it is from this perspective- the perspective of being, that we should construct our worldview, it is being and its contents or discontents as the case may be, that is irreducible.
This is in contradistinction to more material oriented philosophies which do not place being at the centre of all things; and rather view being as aspect, consequence or epiphenomena of the material universe which is considered fundamental and conceptually irreducible.
One of the points that Heidegger makes is about being-in-the-world. By this he means that to be, to be human that is, is to be in the world. He avoids a dualistic world view. He does not perceive man as having a soul, spirit or psyche which is somehow prior to or independent from the world in which he finds himself.
For Heidegger the very concept of being, of what it means to be person is caused by, defined by and unavoidably tied to, being a person in the world. And by world he means the world of man. A world where we encounter the very things by which we come to know ourselves, to define ourselves and by virtue of which we assign a particular meaning to being ourselves.
This itself is fairly simple to follow and supports the objections raised, above, about the difficulties of imagining in what sense we could exist in a utopian reality like heaven.
A closer look at the problem
However the perspective that Heidegger takes here goes beyond this. He is not simply suggesting that we are conditioned by the world but that our very essence is being-in-the-world. That the concept of a world-independent-soul or psyche is fake. This way of thinking is mirrored in many of the mystical traditions. Specifically that the sense of identity we have of ourselves as separate and somehow independent beings from the environment, in which we are placed, is illusory.
The sense of independence we have from our extended environment, if not from our physical bodies, which comprise our most immediate environment, is a perspective which is functional rather than fundamental. Or so this way of thinking would suggest.
So who are ‘We’ exactly?
The next logical question following this line of thinking is the question of identity. To offer any kind of meaningful answer to the debate of whether or not we can, or do, perceivably exist independently from the world around us, and even possibly independently from our bodies, to return to our original question about the possibility of everlasting life in heaven, we need to achieve a satisfactory definition of the term ‘we’ or ‘I’.
Those who have spent any time enquiring into this question, the question of who ‘I’ am, will know that the answer is exceedingly elusive. I am going to attempt an answer though which I feel is reasonable in terms of our present enquiry, if not metaphysically conclusive.
Our sense of personal identity, that which we refer to as me or I, is a composite concept. It is made of personal memories; concepts that I have identified as self: physical characteristics, age, sex, appetites, aversions etc.; ideas and beliefs about what it means to be me- what I stand for, what type of person I am, my moral code and so on; as well as my current state of being- the way I am and the way I feel right now.
The above is an admittedly a simplistic description of identity, but I hope it is not one which would be disputed in principal. These constructs of identity are referred to in transpersonal psychology as the ego complex. And the ego complex is dynamic. As we all know our sense of who we are is fluid and constantly changing; although we do retain, or at least most of us do, a thread which connects these evolving ego-identities throughout our lives. So right there we probably have the question we need to answer- what is the constant, the connector which ties it all together?
Before we try and answer that however, there is something else which needs to be articulated in terms of what it is like to be me. And that is the awareness which shines a light on the world, what is sometimes compared, in mysticism, as the light of the projector, when using a cinema metaphor to describe the state of consciousness.
It is that which is there independently of identity, the awareness you feel at certain moments, for example when you awake suddenly out of a deep sleep, prior to the film, through which you view yourself and the world, being activated. Simply put it is the purest state of consciousness which exists pre ego and which contains the objects of consciousness.
To put it in existential terms it is the consciousness which is referred to as disclosing the world by Heidegger; or by Sartre as that which is not what it is and is what it is not. Which in simpler terms is another way of saying consciousness is not synonymous with its contents; including the ego.
The Ego vs. the Witness or Soul (pure awareness)
This awareness appears on the face of it to be more fundamental than identity in that it is apriori to identity. And there is the suggestion, from the schools of Eastern mysticism, that it is this pure awareness, rather than ego, which is the true self.
Here we get to the crux of the issue. There is undoubtedly a debate about what is more fundamental in terms of our real or eternal self, ego identity or the more essential self, which is referred to in Eastern Mysticism as the witness or in western religious terms the soul. In any case whatever you call it, it is that which underpins and supports the ego identity.
However, as far as I can make out, there is no debate as to who you, as you know yourself to be, are. By definition that which you know yourself to be is your ego identity. Meaning the moment I say: you, and you think about what it is that term referrers to in your personal case, that to which you refer for context is your ego. If in your attempt to answer, you answer personally and experientially and not abstract the question, in which case (the case of abstracting) you could refer to anything you wanted to.
I think one of the best candidates for unveiling our sense of identity is the story. As human beings we rely on the stories of our ancestors, of our parents and grandparents, of our tribe and of the ancients, to tell us who they were and apropos whom we are. And this is a ubiquitous truth which I imagine would be testified to not only by every anthropologist and historian, and is evident from the most primitive of tribal cultures right through to the first world, but is a truth each man can personally bear testimony to. At least as far as understanding his familial, ancestral, cultural, religious and human context.
And so it is with personal identity. Your most cohesive, compelling and meaningful personal identity is your story, your life narrative. You are your story. Where does this story come from? It comes from your being-in-the-world. It comes from the sense of identity you have built up in your journey, through time, in this world.
Getting back to Heaven
Getting back to our original question about the logical viability of heaven. If heaven is a utopian reality sans suffering and sans adversity I think we should reject it as either a viable or attractive proposition. First of all it wouldn’t actually be us inhabiting it; and secondly, even if it were conceptually possible, god-dam-it can you imagine how boring it would be.
If heaven denotes a union with the godhead wherein personal identity is extinguished then that a kind way of saying that actually you are going to die. And although some essential essence of your being may continue it’s not going to be you. Whilst this may be plausible, it not what we are being led to hope for by Abraham’s three children Judaism, Christianity or Islam.
So what does that leave us with? Well two options that I can see.
1. Death, or
2. We need treat heaven as a symbolic destination not a literal place. Heaven becomes the ultimate destination for which we eternally strive but never realise. It is a place which we constantly hold in our heart and to which we endeavour to move always closer. It gives us meaning, purpose and hope. But like Moses we know that we can never enter the Promised Land. To live like this, giving everything and expecting nothing, is to be in heaven.