Books in Review

The Book of Heaven:
An Anthology of Writings
from Ancient to Modern Times

Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 108 (December 2000): 43-46.

The Beatific Vision

The Book of Heaven: An Anthology of Writings from Ancient to Modern Times. By Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski. Oxford University Press. 448 pp. $30.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Heaven is not simply a theological, literary, or artistic phenomenon. It is experiential: in moments of play, of love, of passion, of unity, of selfless giving, of freedom, of being moved by music or art, in our urge to compassion, to surrendering—in all these we sense heaven. Occasionally a joy seizes us by surprise. Once, walking in the Sierra Nevada, I encountered a bush in the midst of which was blooming a Mariposa Lily, an unusual and most beautiful mountain wildflower. It was encased by a web in the form of an almost perfect sphere, and from all over the sphere small drops of dew caught the sunlight. I stood astonished. Christian though I am, what came immediately to mind was the Buddhist exultation: “Hail Thou Jewel in the Lotus.” I was often overtaken by a similar joy while immersed in the pages of The Book of Heaven.

The Zaleskis, both familiar to First Things readers, realize that no vision of heaven is ever entirely off the mark so long as it is pointed in the direction of beauty, goodness, truth, and love (words that the authors blessedly do not place in ironic quotation marks). Heaven cannot be fully understood by our minds. It can be discarded by clever academics who don’t know that they don’t understand, but in every culture there are signs to be seen and wise people to point them out. The editors deliberately eschewed exhibits of skepticism, which could have been represented by Mark Twain’s terrifyingly nihilist The Mysterious Stranger. As they observe, heaven is far richer than its detractors.

All who have eyes to read and heart to ponder will find in this book passages to move them deeply. Who is most stirred and by what depends on the reader’s starting point and the stage of his or her journey. With some of these selections we may already be familiar; others we may anticipate; some may seem strange and fail to move us now but will move us later as we grow and change. Some favorites we miss—where are Hopkins, Blake, and Herbert? But the editorial task of choosing from among the vast quantity of material was an enormous one, and the Zaleskis have found a balance between exclusiveness and bulk: the book is a very readable four hundred pages.

The selections are chosen from Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Native American, and Mazdaist sources, ranging from profound theology to popular hymns. Some are ancient, some contemporary; some elevated, others simple; some are poetry, others prose narrative; some are accounts of personal experience; some are folktales; some are fantasy fiction; others are musical spirituals. All the passages are chosen for their “enduring value and literary merit”—not the words of deconstructionists! The symbols, the metaphors of heaven differ, but they point to a reality. The Zaleskis, as well as the writers they choose, know that heaven is a metaphor, something we can only partly understand; something that at times seizes us, unaware, completely, so that we are “surprised by joy.”

The signs of heaven—a bright sunscape, a bird call in the woods, the silence of the peaks, the multi–tone of a creek running in a gorge, the joy of sexual union (appearing particularly in Muslim and Hindu passages)—all these signs, and more, are here. All will of course be disparaged as silly delusions by the reductionists of our day, but thousands of years of experience by billions of people might give the skeptics brief pause. If all ideas are merely the product of chemicals acting in our brain, then it follows that the ideas of the reductionists are as pointless as they claim other ideas to be. Let us start over, allowing human experience to speak again; in this book, it does.

A Tibetan Buddhist speaks of emptiness: “There will appear to you, swifter than lightning, the luminous splendor of the colorless light of Emptiness, and that will surround you on all sides. . . . Try to submerge yourself in that light, giving up all belief in a separate self. . . . Recognize that the boundless Light of this true Reality is your own true self.”

The twentieth–century psychologist Carl Jung on his own vision: “It was not a product of imagination. The visions and experiences were utterly real . . . they all had a quality of absolute objectivity.”

Of eternity, Saint Augustine says: “‘Has ever been’ and ‘shall be forever’ have no place in it, but it simply is, for it is eternal.”

Of the perfection of the senses a fifteenth–century Muslim writes: “I experienced such a sweetness, so pleasant a perfume, so delightful a coolness, such a sense of honor . . . that all my terrors melted away and my fears departed from me, so my heart became tranquil.”

The Sukhavativyuha Sutra says of the light of the Buddha: “Not only do I praise now his radiant light, but all the buddhas, disciples, and individual buddhas, and the host of all the bodhisattvas also praise it in unison.”

The Book of Revelation says of Christ: “And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto . . . the Lamb for ever and ever.”

The mystical Jewish Hekhalot Rabbati also hints at the glory:

A quality of Holiness, a quality
     of power,
A quality of fearfulness, a
     quality of sublimity . . .
Is the quality of . . . JHWH,
     God of Israel,
Who comes crowned to the
     throne of His glory.

How shall the dead see? The Apostle Paul says: “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”

The worldwide presence of such signs or metaphors does not prove the reality of heaven to the ironist and skeptic, but a consideration of them allows one to suggest a natural, nearly universal human wish for the perfection of love and beauty. All live with such a sense of desire (unless it has been snuffed out by wars, famines, plagues, or academic departments), and yet of frustration. For however much we wish to know and love the cosmos, we cannot ever fully understand it; no matter how much we wish to know and love other creatures, we cannot fully understand even those whom we love best; and no matter how much we wish to know and love ourselves, we cannot even fully understand ourselves. What purpose would our unsatisfied longing for knowledge, truth, love, beauty, and compassion have were there not something that they point to beyond all the noise of our lives?

All we have, and have surely, are the signs of better worlds, the “intimations of immortality”—as Words­ worth puts it—awe, hope, trust, humility, mindfulness, openness, holy fear, the desire to become what we are meant to be, resurrection, re–creation, new birth—all leading beyond to a reality that is more real than the material reality that we see around us, and infinitely more real than the ironic, postmodern world in which most intellectuals choose to make their dwelling. Demons are there to block the way, some with strange antique names, others with the common names of cynicism and arrogance, where a word such as heaven is a social blunder unless hedged by quotation marks. The contemporary mindset—whether in its materialist reductionist or postmodern cynical varieties—rejects such intimations, but this book might open minds and unfortify hearts. The usual objections will be raised by persons who do not grasp the inner meaning of the subject and choose not to learn about the varieties of human experience.

The Book of Heaven begins with a short, sensitive general introduction that briefly presents the historical, religious, and mythic contexts, Eastern and Western, including immortality, resurrection, and rebirth. Short introductions preface each section and there is a brief identification of each exhibit. The sections are arranged neither by religious tradition nor by chronology, but topically: the journey; lands of bliss; the vision of God; the celestial court; heavenly society; heaven on earth; a new heaven and a new earth (projections of heaven on this world in utopian ideas).

Although this is a florilegium, not a historical or theological treatise, a few ideas might have been developed a bit. There is a strange tension, in Christianity especially, between the concept of an immortal soul and the concept of the resurrection of the body. The Zaleskis address this by speaking of the “recreation of a world, not the reanimation of a corpse,” but the problem is much more complicated than that, and one is reminded of “Seven Stanzas at Eas­ ter” by John Updike:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not
     reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle
the Church will fall.

This can be read as either complete denial or complete affirmation of the Bodily Resurrection, but it allows no room for the pointless “resurrection–experience” of unbelieving believers.

Another perennial problem is which metaphors for heavenly time and space are the most likely, or least unlikely, to be apt. One still comes across some variant of the ignorant old canard that no matter how many galaxies you search, you won’t find heaven in any of them; and it would have been helpful for the Zaleskis to have replied to this. Another area one wishes they had explored is the related question of tenses: “will we go to heaven” as opposed to “are we in heaven.” Also needing some discussion, though distasteful to the democratic worldview, is whether a hierarchy exists in heaven. Almost every tradition throughout the past, and most in the present, affirm that some people are closer to God than others, more or less in the way that Dante described so vividly. Finally, one wishes that the authors had elucidated the dynamic, rather than static, nature of heaven; it is still too common a silliness to hold that heaven is like an extremely long church service.

The Zaleskis might have shown more of their personal engagement with each passage (and the choice of each exhibit), but they properly decided to put very little spin on the passages and instead let them speak for themselves.

The last word can be left to C. S. Lewis: “Welcome, in the Lion’s name. Come further up and further in.”

Jeffrey Burton Russell is Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of A History of Heaven.