Mark Twain quipped that people assume heaven will be green fields and harp music -- an eternity of activities no one would enjoy for five minutes while still alive. Here is a central dilemma of our preoccupation with heaven. Our imaginations are limited by our experience. When we read fantasy, or science fiction, it is always an elaboration of things we already know. The invented creatures have six heads, or are made of light. We cannot really imagine something we have not experienced. And -- with few exceptions -- no one on earth imagines he has already experienced heaven.
There is no lack of people willing to give it a shot, however. In her new book Heaven Newsweek reporter Lisa Miller interviews a variety of people: devout believers, scholars, a self-styled medium, pop singer David Byrnes (of the hit song "Heaven"), and the author of The Lovely Bones. All of them try to explain how it might be possible that we, who can so easily find ourselves bored to tears by a long afternoon, will be enraptured for eternity.
Heaven is a fascinating and enduring topic. While hell may be more vivid (after all, Dante's Inferno gets higher marks among most aficionados than his Paradiso), we aim for heaven. Miller writes engagingly, intersperses her own reflections with those of the wide variety of personalities, and raises the central questions. While it is true that you may not finish knowing what heaven is like, you'll feel, given the range of religious and other traditions she covers, that you've had as close as possible to a virtual tour.
Still, to read the book is to be struck by the periodic banality of human fancy. But then, how well would we have imagined this world before we experienced it? Who would have guessed mountains and eyes and tuna fish and tables and fossils and crockpots and libraries and clouds? The task of envisioning a radically different world is doomed before it begins. Heaven is, quite literally, unimaginable.
Is it also unbelievable? Having stood by the bedside of many who are dying, I have often asked, "What do you believe happens after death?" Some are convinced of the eternity of the individual. Others are equally persuaded that we go into the ground, rot, and disappear forever. Miller gives a careful hearing to both sides, evaluates the evidence for near-death experiences, and emerges from her journey a sort of yearning skeptic.
Belief about heaven is inextricably tied to what one believes about God. If there is a God who creates and cares for human beings, then why would God abandon us after death? Surely, as Henry James wrote, it takes an entire lifetime to learn how to live, and all that seems wasted if there is no chance to enact what we have learned.
The human experience is powerfully physical. Can we suppose that our physical brains, distorted or disabled from minor damage while we are alive, will miraculously be resuscitated after being obliterated by death? If we are materialists, believing that what we can touch or see is all that exists, heaven is a childish fantasy. Still...
An old rabbinic parable asks us to imagine twins lying together in the womb. Everything they need is provided. One brother believes, "irrationally," that there is a world beyond the womb. The other is convinced such beliefs are nonsense. After all, the womb is the only world they have ever known. The first tells of a world where people walk upright, where there are mountains and oceans, a sky filled with stars. The other can barely contain his contempt for such nonsense.
Suddenly, "the believer" is forced through the birth canal. Imagine, asks the author, how the brother left behind must view this -- a great catastrophe has just befallen his companion. Outside the womb, however, the parents are rejoicing. What the brother left behind has just witnessed is not death, but birth. This is a classic view of the afterlife -- it is a birth into a world that we on earth cannot begin to imagine. Lisa Miller's book is about a place that may or may not exist. Believers may take comfort in the thought that whichever way it goes, only they have the possibility of experiencing themselves proved right.
Follow Rabbi David Wolpe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RabbiWolpe