Guest post by theologian Dr Rob Knowles on The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis:
Part 6: Response to Chapter 10. Heaven.
Turning now to Lewis’s final chapter, on heaven, then I agree with his point that the issue of the existence of heaven precedes any discussion of whether or not belief in heaven’s existence is escapist. If heaven exists, belief in it isn’t escapism, but realism. Since it is far more rational to assert that only God could create a heaven on earth than it is to assert that mere humanity could create a heaven on earth, then it is modernism’s utopian odyssey that is escapist, not Christianity’s eschatological pilgrimage. Moreover, since our heaven will indeed be a new heavenly Edenic earth, then the motivation to bring about reform isn’t lost to escapism either. We don’t get pie in the sky when we die, so much as a reformed earth. Reformation now becomes all the more assured now that we know that our reforming labours are not in vain.
Lewis is also quite right to argue that if heaven is good, then desiring it isn’t mercenary. Mercenaries serve themselves, but heaven is fundamentally about serving others. So, how can it be selfish to desire not to be selfish? As Lewis rightly argues, only the pure in heart want to see God, and so it is safe to assure them that they will.
I believe that Lewis is also quite right to argue that the desire for heaven is universal. And yet this true point, of course, contradicts Lewis’s other arguments that say that the damned don’t want heaven. Here, again, Lewis projects the demonic onto the human in order to make hell seem more palatable.
Lewis is also right to link the desire of heaven to the mode of heaven: the desire for heaven is not about self-gratification, but about leaving the gratification of the self to God and others and instead concerning ourselves with serving God and others. Lewis is also correct to argue that the desire for heaven is sublimated to other more acceptable, surrogate, and substituted desires, and so is often disguised as that which it is not, and so is hidden at the edge of our awareness. Lewis’s notion that our own particular inkling – of our own particular desire for heaven – connects us to key others, who have similar inklings to our own, and also links together memories of scenarios that ineffably and transcendentally suggest it, is also insightful.
Lewis is also correct to configure heaven itself in terms of particularity and relationality, in terms of unique persons-in-relation imaging, being fulfilled by, and variably reflecting and glorifying the diversities and relationality of the Trinity. Our heaven is indeed very personal to us, reflecting and ecstatically fulfilling our redeemed particularity, our secret name known only to God and ourselves. Heaven is not a pantheistic unity of sameness or self-identity, as Lewis rightly notes. And our heaven is indeed a matter of right-relating, a Kingdom of love that, as such, rightly images God’s goodness, is led by God, and exists for God inscrutably.
At this point, however, I run into some difficulties with Lewis’s arguments: (a) I do not think of heavenly right-relating simply as a “dance”; (b) I do not think that heavenly right-relating is an utterly self-abdicating or self-crucifying form of self-giving – though I agree that there is indeed a profound self-unveiling; (c) I do not think that heavenly worship is simply about symphony or music, as though it were narrower in scope than how the Bible defines worship on earth; (d) I do not subscribe to the view of one becoming evermore more and more “oneself” in heaven; (e) I do not believe that heaven is a matter of constant perfected omni-connectivity, as when Lewis talks about each person forever communicating to all others his or her unique vision of God.
I find all five of these points made by Lewis to be downright annoying. They obscure heaven’s real nature, in my view.
Thus, (a), the idea of a “dance” connotes play, celebration, repetition, cyclicity, system, and a suspense of purposeful action and of journey. Again, as we have said previously, it is not that there is nothing resembling “play, celebration, repetition, cyclicity, system, or suspense of purposeful action and of journey” in heaven. Rather, my point is that heaven will also – or will even primarily – be extremely purposeful, full of direction and building and project – a place where we can work on things according to our gifts, a place that does not simply “repeat” things “cyclically”, but where system and organisation are forever flexing to accommodate the new as well as the continuing narrative of the ongoing journey. The notion of a heavenly “dance” sounds more like pantheist or Hindu or neo-platonic thought-forms to me – the dance of Shiva comes to mind. Heaven, though, is not timeless, but time-full. Temporality and teleology are not shelved in eternity.
(b) As I argued earlier, I do not believe right-relating, or inter-subjectivity, to be a matter of utterly negating all forms of self-relationality, or of intra-subjectivity. In heaven, we retain a self-relation, or a relation to the self that involves self-reflective, existentially lived-through experiential self-awareness, and self-stewardship. Sin is an artificially exalted and centralised self-relationality, not any form of self-relationality.
Again, though, and despite his recognition of personal fulfilment in heaven, Lewis at times seems to lean towards far-eastern notions of “self-emptying”, as though one’s personhood were dispersed or dissipated into a void of some kind. Over-pressed notions of heavenly self-forgetfulness, however, are merely present-life sin-denying outward-pre-occupation strategies transposed into a romantic and sanctified key. True, we could argue that Mother Teresa was “self-forgetful” in certain right senses, and undoubtedly heaven will reflect such traits. But it is sober self-awareness – a rightly-configured and stationed self-relationality and self-controlled self-possession – and not “utter self-emptying”, that facilitates true heavenly self-forgetfulness and self-abdication. Lewis again likens heaven more to Jesus’ self-crucifixion than to Jesus’ self-resurrection. Resurrection is the point; crucifixion is just the means to the end – or else we risk defining heaven as masochism.
(c) The Bible defines worship much more broadly than musical symphony. Admittedly, non-musical consecrated activities that are well co-ordinated could be described metaphorically as being symphonic. But the Bible tends to use the notions of “body” and “building” and of “growing up into” for such activities, rather than just notions of symphony.
Having suffered the evils of charismatic choruses for many years, the thought of heaven being one big “worship celebration” – a kind of “celebration of celebration itself” or “worship of worship itself” – feels more like hell to me. Charismatic worship jingles tend to allow the Holy Spirit to activate—as formative speech-acts—only slogans and teenage-crush lyrics. Thus, the Holy Spirit is allowed to open up only tiny impoverished language-worlds that have few points of relational resonance or connection with our hearts, minds, and relational lives. This situation is not helped by an under-developed musical understanding that thinks that the theme-tune to Rainbow can open up the depths of the soul. The result is a relational claustrophobia that imposes teenage relational crush-dynamics—or even “tots-at-a-puppet-show” relational dynamics—onto adults who are trying to worship. Thus, charismatic jingles deprive adults of genuine adult relational contact with God. And yet, the adults are often then berated (as though they were tots) for not “pushing into worship”. The perpetuation of such a scenario for all eternity would indeed be hell.
But even if we allowed that heavenly worship music would sound better than the great classical composers’ pieces, to reduce worship to music would still be hell. Worship includes the full range of consecrated human activities, only one of which is singing God’s praises. I find it truly annoying when people speak of heaven as though it were one great musical session that never ends. That would be an absurd suppression of all the other dimensions of worshipful activity, which include all that human beings were created to be, do, and accomplish. Heaven is more diverse than this life, not less.
Again, then, Lewis seems to be allowing the wonders of heaven to cause him to collapse his doctrine of heaven into some kind of ecstatic neo-platonic or far-eastern absolute simplicity, as though heaven rendered us perpetually too overwhelmed for us to be ourselves or knuckle-down and get on with life’s diverse activities. One is reminded of Jesus the carpenter – whistling whilst he worked, no doubt, but not only whistling; and certainly not so lost in cathartic ecstasy and transcendental wonder that he could do nothing but be lost in cathartic ecstasy and transcendental wonder. We cannot be so caught up into God’s infinity that we become infinite ourselves, as though we were forever effusing out of ourselves into massive expanses of light-filled cosmos. It’s time to bring heaven down to earth, just as the Bible does.
(d) I do not subscribe to the view that one becomes evermore more and more “oneself” in heaven. One thinks of balloons being blown ever bigger, or of ecstasies becoming ever-greater with one perpetually being like a balloon that is forever bursting more and more. All this sounds more like one of Liberace’s fantastical and thinly-disguised libidinal displays than heaven.
Admittedly, selves are most fully realised in right-relating. But it is not as though right-relating becomes “evermore righter and righter”. Admittedly, if we link identity to notions of narrative, then as our heavenly history extends and extends, then there will be more and more to our histories, to who we are. But this is just to say that there is more and more that is “us”, not that there is a never-realised “final us” that is always deferred, but towards which we are always journeying. This sounds like the absence of fulfilment, or perpetually deferred fulfilment, and not like satisfaction.
Or perhaps Lewis is speaking of some ever-greater inner and outer resonance that produces some ever-greater ecstasy that gets ever more beyond our ability to imagine experiencing, such that we have to symbolise it with imagery that has to try harder and harder to steer-clear of effusive sexual analogy.
I think, though, that we’d do better to get back to the carpenter’s bench, and learn what spirituality and heaven are really about.
(e) Heaven is not a matter of constant perfected omni-connectivity, of each person forever communicating to all others his or her unique vision of God. Such a notion confuses the quality of heavenly human relational connectivity with the extent of heavenly divine relational connectivity. In heaven, we do not suddenly become like the infinite God. We will not be able to interact with everybody at once, and we will not be able to apprehend billions of differentiated diverse communicative signals from billions of others all at once in a way that equally and perfectly appreciates those signals. In heaven, we do not become God. Rather, we just become fully consecrated to God.
Probably the best way of calming down from thinking about heaven in more neo-platonic, or far-eastern, or pantheistic, or Hindu, or Buddhist ways is to think about heaven biblically, as an Eden that fills the whole earth. There is great joy; there is celebration; there is fulfilment – and so on. But there are also normal things, like “walking in the cool of the day”, or gardening, or having a chat about things, or carpentry. There will also be non-idolised forms of sporting activity, perhaps like football. Heaven is like earth now, except with sin, suffering, chaos, demons, and death taken out.
Heaven will be a new, better normality. It will not be the eternal dance of Shiva nor have the psychedelic character of a DMT trip; it will not be some kind of shot-away dispersal of self-emptying into the void of nothingness; it will not be collapsed down into an endless sing-song expanded only along the axis of symphony; it will not be some kind of ever-greater quasi-libidinal cathartic out-pouring that fetishizes overwhelmedness; and it will not be assumption into a God-like infinite connectivity. In its new normalness, it will be much better than these counterfeit and exhausting notions of heaven.
These guest posts examining C. S. Lewis’ book The Problem of Pain were written by theologian Dr Rob Knowles. He has written extensively on the life-time work of A. C. Thiselton and his contribution to the field of hermeneutics.
Knowles’ first of three volumes on Thiselton has been published and is available here:
His less academic Relating Faith is available here:
Volumes two and three of The Grammar of Hermeneutics are forthcoming.
And 2018 should see Knowles’ next two books published, on The Baptism of Jesus and The Temptations of Jesus.