»  The American Spectator

June 2012

  Heavens to Betsy!

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Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing
by Peter Kreeft

[Note :  This was not commissioned precisely as a book review. Kreeft's book was sent out to several writers, who were asked to record their reactions to it for a set of comparative essays.]

Seeing that the first sentence in the first paragraph of the first chapter of Peter Kreeft's book Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing is a quote from C.S. Lewis, my suspicions were aroused right away. Kreeft hastened to confirm them, quoting Lewis again four pages further on, and again eleven pages after that, then four pages on from that, then two pages on from that, then forty-one more times in the following hundred pages.

The metaphor that comes to mind is the one about conversing with the monkey when the organ-grinder is at hand. I knew, by the time I reached that second quote, that I had signed up for 152 pages of Lewisian woo. (No, Mister Editor, I didn't read the Introduction, nor the Appendices. How much can you ask of a man?)

And in fact I am pretty well acquainted with the organ grinder. If you write for conservative American magazines and websites, and reveal yourself to be an unbeliever, concerned readers will quickly direct you to C.S. Lewis, with many earnest beseechings. If I had a dollar for every email I have received that contained the injunction, "Do please read Mere Christianity," I might be able to afford the guided pilgrimage around Lewis's childhood haunts on offer from the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

Lewis's writings have been a major inspiration for untold numbers of American Christians. In the United Kingdom of his birth he has not much honor, as I suppose is fitting for a prophet. He is respected around British university Eng. Lit. departments as a literary critic of insight, and remembered fondly by some among the general public as the author of some quirky children's stories, but Lewis otherwise occupies very little space in the British (or Irish: his first confession was Church of Ireland, which is to say the Irish chapter of the Anglican Communion) imagination.

American Christians by contrast have taken him to their bosoms as a seer of the first magnitude. St. George's Episcopal Church of Dayton, Ohio has actually immortalized him in a stained-glass window. Nor is his appeal restricted to Anglicans: I know devout Roman Catholics who swoon over Lewis, and no doubt there are Baptists, Congregationalists, Lutherans, and Methodists in the fan club too. It is in fact an interesting question, though one I shall leave to readers to ponder in their own time, why Lewis's powers are great enough to excite such admiration while yet not great enough to persuade the admirers into his own sect of choice.

I attended services of the ECUSA myself for some years before losing the sliver of faith I had. Our minister here on Long Island was a sturdily conservative fellow who did not deviate far from the Scriptures and the Book of Common Prayer. He used the 1789 text of the latter, of course; I think I should have fallen into unbelief even sooner than I did but for the satisfaction of hearing him prompt us to the Lord's Prayer with "we are bold to say …" (Cranmer's translation of audemus dicere) rather than the slatternly modern option "we now pray …"

I can't recall hearing that minister mention Lewis. From time to time, however, the dear man would be absent on some clerical business and a substitute would be drafted in. These peripatetics all seemed to be full of Lewis, leaving me squirming and grimacing there in my pew as they gigglingly retailed some vapid Lewisian parable, populated by creatures with names dredged from the lowest sediments of Edwardian nursery-room whimsy: Puddleglum, Reepicheep, the pfifltriggs.

And ever eager to give my polite emailers the benefit of the doubt — you need to have endured the long-serving blogger's acquaintance with im-polite emailers to understand this impulse — I actually did give Mere Christianity a try.

What stuff! All right, I am a rather severe empiricist, deeply unimpressed with introspection as a means for discovering anything about the world of nature, including human nature. Even after cutting the guy as much slack as I could, though, and setting aside the hearty-sober tone of the thing (ported over intact from every mid-20th-century British schoolmaster's standard lecture on the perils of self-abuse), Lewis's arguments seemed feeble. I got as far as the famous trilemma in Chapter 4 of Book II:

[Jesus of Nazareth] either was (and is) just what He said or else a lunatic, or something worse. Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

My reaction to that passage was: Why couldn't Jesus just have been mistaken? Answer, after a few more pages of bogus analogies and unsubstantiated assertions, came there none, and I never did finish the book.

(I did, though, receive as a gift from one of the kind beseechers a nice boxed set of the Narnia stories, which my kids had read to them at bedtimes — all but the last book, which I myself could make no sense of, and so spared them. The only lasting effect has been a taste for Turkish Delight, which I still buy as a family treat at Christmas.)

But enough of the organ-grinder: what does the monkey have to tell us about heaven? I follow Kreeft in not capitalizing that word, and am glad to have been spared the decision. William F. Buckley, Jr. was of the opposite persuasion, explaining that: "It's a place," a thing he certainly believed.

Is it, though? The fundamental conception of heaven always has been, and in the minds of the great majority of Christians still is, of a place the individual personality migrates to after death. Some irreducible core of one's personhood, of one's self, survives the destruction of the body and goes to heaven. Or not: Entry into heaven is commonly regarded as conditional, though the nature of the conditions varies from sect to sect. So do the alternatives, which come down to either blank extinction or an anti-heaven, a place of suffering.

It's all pretty improbable. We know of no aspect of selfhood that does not depend on functioning brain matter. From the point of view of simple psychology, though, it is easy to see why such ideas should be widespread. The hope of something better in a new life to come has kept innumerable souls slogging forward through drudgery and pain. This medieval peasant, for example, struggling from his lice-ridden bed in the damp half-light of an English morning to slop out the pigs:

Hierusalem, my happy home,
      When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end
      Thy joys when shall I see?

No dampish mist is seen in thee,
      Nor cold nor darksome night;
There every soul shines as the sun,
      There God himself gives light.

Similarly with the Other Place, though it is now somewhat out of favor. (There has even been a school of modern theologians, led by Hans Urs von Balthasar, who argue that hell is empty.) Resentment at the misbehavior of others is a natural instinct in any social animal; yet the most cursory acquaintance with this world reveals it to be a place where the wicked prosper while the righteous perish in their righteousness. We need some balm for our resentment. Our imaginations dutifully supply it. "I hope you burn in hell!" screams the wife of the deceased as the convicted murderer is led from the dock, and we all sympathize with her hope, even if we cannot share it.

However, the less-simple psychology unearthed by researchers of this past few decades has shown us that the human mind is a great self-deceiver, with an apparently limitless capacity to cook up stories to make sense of the world, and even, post facto, of our own actions. The suspicion arises that heaven and hell belong to the class of these self-spun tales — psychologically healthful perhaps, evolutionarily advantageous even, but without any foundation in reality. Kreeft tackles this in Chapter Five:

Whatever the origin of the idea of heaven, doesn't the idea actually function as escapism? … The first and simplest answer to the charge that belief in heaven is escapism is that the first question is not whether it is escapist but whether it is true.

Aha! Here should come something worth reading: an explanation as to why one would think the idea of heaven relates to a true fact.

Whether it makes us happy or not, we must believe only what is true.

Yes! Yes!

We must be clear about this because we are about to embark upon a survey of many psychological advantages of belief in heaven, in answer to the charge of escapism; none of these is a valid reason for believing it.

Right! Of course not! So the reasons for believing it are …?

Philosophical arguments, intuitive wisdom, faith in divine revelation in the Bible and the Church, and above all the resurrection of Jesus.

In short, woo: stuff which, if you're that way inclined, you will believe, and if not, not. Nothing in the way of actual … evidence.

Kreeft follows the master in attaching momentous words to trivial responses. What to (I imagine) most of us is worth at best a few seconds' idle reflection, is to these ponderers "terrifying," "awe-inspiring," or "a sadness larger than the world." (Which, the author tells us, lies "at the heart of our greatest pleasures." Speak for yourself, pal.)

Imagine God appeared to you and said, "I'll make a deal with you if you wish. I'll give you anything and everything you ask … Nothing will be a sin, nothing will be forbidden … You will never be bored and you will never die. Only … you shall never see my face."

Did you notice that unspeakable chill in your deepest heart at those last words?

Um, no. Should I try again?

I guess I just have no patience with this stuff. I try to behave well, according to my nature (a product of Nature) and acquired habits. I am not aware of having had any existence before my birth, and do not expect to have any after my death. It's an odd business, all right, being alive; but the most parsimonious account of it is the one offered by a Russian novelist: a crack of light between two eternities of darkness. The rest is tales we make up for our comfort.

I'll hedge my bets and add this, though. If there is a heaven, and if the admission standards are low enough that I can get in, I hope it will be a place where I never have to read anything as boring, self-referential, derivative (of guess-who), clogged with misplaced superlatives, and devoid of interest or narrative or wit or empirical observation as Peter Kreeft's Heaven.