A Response to Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife

Lisa Miller's 'Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife' gives us readers an extremely entertaining, educative and vulnerable exploration into the plethora of views regarding heaven.

She is a Reformed Jew and editor of Newsweek's religion section. Miller isn't committed to a firm belief in heaven but definitely manages to elicit our hopes for a meaningful life... and perhaps more. I haven't read any treatment of heaven that is more conversationally readable than this book. With genuine interest and tolerance the author listens to a variety of view points concerning afterlife. She honestly admits that she wished she might have the same faith and confidence in heaven as some of her interviewees express. She seems particularly drawn to the ideas of heaven in orthodox Judaism and evangelicalism. I am not sure whether or not her hopes are crushed due to being a thoroughly postmodern person divorced from a the ancient world-views but she does seem to wish for the earlier literal belief in heaven, even though she is intellectually convinced of modern cosmology.

I felt as if I were receiving a wonderful review of all the comparative religion courses I have ever had while at college. The only difference was that she was thoroughly engaging and utilized testimony from individuals who believed ardently in their views of afterlife rather than mere theorists. She made me want to take the topic seriously and to explore how whatever the other side contains it has an importance to my here and now life.

Lisa Miller has definitely done a vast amount or research and recommends some of the best popular and academic treatments of her subject. I was delighted to see that she even spoke to and read N.T. Wright, one of my favourite Christian theologians who stresses the importance of Resurrection rather than immortality in a bodiless other world. Like the author herself, Wright does all in his power to intricately connect Heaven to Earth in a profoundly hopeful manner.

While tabulating the views of heaven in the history of religions and current traditions, she doesn't neglect to submit heaven to the gaze of empirical science by discussing the various research on NDE (Near Death Experience) and physic phenomena. The age old dilemma of the mind/brain connection is ever in the background. However, even when discussing first-hand accounts of dying and returning Miller emphasizes the need to apply an ethical litmus test as to whether the experience enhanced the character of the person having had it. From her examples it appears that a NDE experience regularly retrieves individuals from death back to their normal consciousness but with more love, generosity and confidence. Such transformation can not be easily dismissed.

Lisa Miller rarely takes sides in the debates on heaven, except in the case of exploiting the grieving through seances or by making the entry into heaven a sectarian or ethnic privilege. She maintains an open mind throughout her book and ultimately displaces a gracious attitude toward different points of view. There is very little reductionism here nor is there any deriding of the beliefs of others. Love is heaven's watchword; Dante is its prime poet. Miller doesn't evade the fact that heaven, when overly literalized and humanized, is jest-worthy as her comments on Albert Brooks' 1991 film Defend Your Life reveal. In between reincarnating Hassid Jews, Paradise-pursuing Muslims and a host of others, the true north of Miller's discussion is an affirmation of life. She exalts the importance of heaven for the expectant living in her last paragraph:

I do not cling to heaven as a radical concept, a place that embodies the best of everything – but beyond the best. A belief in heaven focuses our minds on the radical nature of what's beautiful, most loving, most just, and most true. At the beginning of this book, I said, I believed that heaven was hope. I would now amend that to say, 'Radical hope - a constant hope for unimaginable perfection even as we fail to achieve it.' As Emily Dickinson said, heaven is what we cannot reach. But it is worth a human life to try.

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