Heaven is an unreality for contemporary physicalists of all schools of thought who preach that matter is the only reality and that everything in the world can be explained solely in materialist terms. Yet for those who are open to the sacramental dimension of our diurnal existence, heaven is here, there, and everywhere.

Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It, by Jeffrey Burton Russell (210 pages, Oxford University Press, 2006)

“In many milieus today,” writes historian Jeffrey Burton Russell, “it has simply become ‘uncool’ to believe in heaven.” His endeavor in Paradise Mislaid to proclaim heaven’s reality makes no attempt to defy “coolness,” however. “Coolness,” he concedes, “is not a philosophical position and so cannot be argued against.” What Russell defies in his important, albeit intellectually challenging, sequel to A History of Heaven (1997) is “physicalism,” something altogether more formidable and consequential than mere “coolness.”

Physicalism, as Russell defines it, is an intellectual bias that began undermining religion about the time of the Reformation. Up to then philosophers in the tradition of Plato and Aristotle acknowledged the subsistence in things of intrinsic qualities, which they called essences. Essence is that which abides, or in the case of the human soul, transcends and endures eternally. For Aquinas, Russell reminds us, “what was ‘real’ were the underlying, essential qualities of beings,” the “dogness” of dogs, for instance, the “manness” of men, the “angelness” of angels, the “godness” of God.

It is not surprising, Russell remarks, that early Christians had far less trouble than their modern counterparts accepting the Eucharistic conversion of the elements: “The fact that quantitative analysis of any kind shows that the bread and wine are identical before and after the consecration was and is irrelevant for people thinking in Aristotelian essentialist terms.” In truth that fact is precisely what makes the sacring miraculous. But for physicalists nothing is miraculous. For them miracles are attested only by “ignorant and barbarous” people incapable of rational thought, as renowned British empiricist and physicalist extraordinaire David Hume asserted dogmatically.

Contemporaneous with Hume’s influential critique of religion there occurred in the 17th century a paradigmatic shift in philosophy from essentialist to quantitative modes of thinking about reality. Material became the exclusive focus of the century’s intellectual elites, including skeptics Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and René Descartes. These key figures of the Enlightenment denied that God could be known “by the things that He made,” as Paul had written some 1,600 years earlier. More than Copernicus’s supplanting of Ptolemaic cosmography, observes Russell, the shift from essentialist to quantitative thought “disenchanted the cosmos” and ultimately incapacitated the popular mind for thinking about the eschatological significance of life and death.

In addition to noting its origins in various formulations in the 17th and 18th centuries, Russell exposes physicalism’s various forms since the industrialization of England. Figuring prominently in the exposition is “physicalist evolution,” which Russell carefully distinguishes from “evolution science.” While both claim “that species of plants and animals develop through natural selection,” the former insists that they do so “by entirely physical means.” This insistence, Russell rightly contends, is based not on scientific observation and verification but on a stubborn ideological desideratum. Moreover, physicalist evolution, unlike evolution science, rejects the possibility of intelligent design, without which heaven is impossible. In the final analysis, physicalist evolution, which must be accepted on the basis of faith, is less a science than a meliorist religion, whose gospellers view heaven as a superstition inhibiting secular progress.

This view has been perpetuated in our time by several schools of thought. Two with which Russell deals instructively are Marxism and pragmatism. Marx posited that consciousness is derived not from God but from material conditions and that religion is merely an expression of psychological impulses mistaken as divine revelation. From this logic Marxists conclude that heaven is either a figment of wishful thinking or an illusion perpetuated by a dominant minority to placate a servile majority, but certainly not a transcendent and ever-present reality.

Like Marxists, who share his conviction that truth is historically and culturally contingent, the pragmatist theorizes that any proposition is true if believing it to be so results in practical benefits or social advantages. If belief in heaven benefits secular society, then let us have more talk about “final judgment” and such. If it stands in the way of secular progress, then we can just “imagine there’s no heaven,” to borrow the clever phraseology of John Lennon, and dispense with it.

Also scrutinized in Russell’s exposition of latter-day physicalism is deconstruction. The espousers of this Logos-loathing ideology of postmodern semantics would convince us that the divine center of language cannot hold because in the beginning there was nothing, and nothing was with nothing, and nothing was nothing. Pervasive though deconstructionism is at the American university, “its absurdity will soon be recognized by everyone,” Russell assures us, “and it will be remembered only as one manifestation of a deteriorating Western culture.”

Since it cannot be measured or quantified, heaven is an unreality for contemporary physicalists of all schools of thought who preach that matter is the only reality and that everything in the world, including thought and will and feeling, can be explained solely in materialist terms. Owing to this pernicious worldview, modern man now “struggles,” as University of Chicago rhetorician and political philosopher Richard M. Weaver put it shortly after the Second World War, “with the paradox that total immersion in matter unfits him to deal with the problems of matter.”

Immersion in matter also unfits the moral imagination, on which heaven depends for realization. From the point of view of physicalists, the likening of heaven to a community of many mansions, to advert to one of Christ’s poetic attempts to make salvation cognizable, is nothing but a meaningless lie. For they assume, Russell emphasizes, that truth consists exclusively in “what is observable.”

On a strictly literal level Christ’s parable is a lie. But Christ was no more a literalist than a physicalist. He was a revealer of truths, many of which are communicable only indirectly through figures of speech, or what Russell calls “depth-metaphors,” that adapt the Word to the limitations of the human intellect. (“Immediate are the acts of God,” writes the author of Paradise Lost, “more swift / Than time or motion, but to human ears / Cannot without process of speech be told, / So told as earthly notion can receive.”) Such figures have to be interpreted (as Dante Alighieri argues in his letter to Lord Can Grande della Scala) on multiple levels of understanding, including not only the literal but also the allegorical, moral, and analogical. Sacred poetry conveys otherworldly realities expressible most efficaciously in figurative language—the primary episteme of religious truth. In the case of heaven, depth-metaphors point toward a world no less real than that into which Christ descended to become the Son of Man.

No less real than man’s though it is, the world from which Christ descended and will come again to judge the living and the dead is without question superior, for heaven is world without end. Nor is heaven impalpable in our exchanges of godly love on earth. “Taste and see,” Russell enjoins us in his book’s concluding sentence. For those who are open to the sacramental dimension of our diurnal existence, heaven is here, there, and everywhere. Because they ignore this truth, the truth of life everlasting, physicalists are severely limited in their outlook, “blind in one eye,” in Russell’s apt description, and ultimately, if not mortally, misleading.

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The featured image is a detail from The Angel (c. 1882) by William Closson (1848–1926) and is in the public domain. It has been brightened slightly and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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