Living in the Shade of Heaven

We don’t understand that life is a paradise [at present], for we have only to wish to understand this and it will immediately appear before us in all its beauty. Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazarov.

Whitehead has referred to basic insights or initial intuitions or feelings of mankind calling for explanations or justifications. Our desire for immortality is “one of these initial intuitions, or persistent dreams, or impulses.” If we begin with this fundamental impulse of the human spirit, the question is not disputing their “truth” on this or that so-called scientific ground or explaining it away but how to express it. Believers and non-believers needn’t dispute the matter taking all or none position but may better have a dialogue regarding how far we have succeeded in defining or understanding it correctly.

It needs just a moment’s reflection to see that the issue of Heaven is neither an obsession of old schoolmen nor a subject for idle dreamers or escapists but concerns every man by virtue of being human. On it hinges the fate of people, believers and non-believers alike as it involves the question of meaning of life. Violence in domestic or political arena is a reaction to failure to finding love/being loved and agitation of spirit that fails to find repose in absence of the object it craves for by its very nature. All divorcees and criminals have failed to find love/attention. The recent history of violence has much to do with the history of decline of understanding of Heaven in modern consciousness.

One can transpose to Islam and arguably to all transcendence centric traditions that posit our real home in the yonderland of Spirit, Kreeft’s description of the medieval Christendom: “It was the world beyond the world that made all the difference in the world to this world. The Heaven beyond the sun made the earth “under the sun” something more than “vanity of vanities.” Earth was Heaven’s womb, Heaven’s nursery, Heaven’s dress rehearsal. Heaven was the meaning of the earth..” Indeed deep down, everywhere, man refuses to believe his mortality. If both the desire and somewhat intuitive conviction and over a dozen rational arguments that cumulatively do mean a lot if not individually so compelling are corroborated by countless experiences men traditionally have had and even modern do have occasionally – one can go to YouTube and see hundreds of videos by not only gullible believers but former sceptics that seem to imply some sort of survival and good news from the yonderland – one has, as a rational being, reason to believe essential immortality of intelligence that asks the question about its own mortality and thus seems to presuppose its own transcendental status as outside spatio-temporal frameworks. There is no harm in hoping for the best while preparing for the worst in any case. None of us can easily grant that love – whose very mention evokes supernatural or eternal aspect – can die, that beauty is merely natural phenomenon, that intelligence or that consciousness isn’t somehow primordial.

It is not difficult to see that corresponding ideas to Heaven as Home idea inform every tradition that is wedded to the project of self-realization/enlightenment/Nirvana/Paradise of Essence/Illumination/Beatific vision. Again Kreeft’s words find resonance across traditions. “Home—that’s what heaven is. It won’t appear strange and faraway and “supernatural”, but utterly natural. Heaven is what we were designed for. All our epics seek it: It is the “home” of Odysseus, of Aeneas, of Frodo, of E.T. Heaven is not escapist. Worldliness is escapist. Heaven is home.” Kreeft answers the familiar charges that one would feel bored in heaven or seek to escape from it or it constitutes escapism from the world. “People think heaven is escapist because they fear that thinking about heaven will distract us from living well here and now. It is exactly the opposite, and the lives of the saints and our Lord himself prove it. Those who truly love heaven will do the most for earth. It’s easy to see why. Those who love the homeland best work the hardest in the colonies to make them resemble the homeland. ‘Thy kingdom come. .. on earth as it is in heaven.’” He explains why consciousness of Heaven is required to illumine our odyssey on earth. “…if we see life as a road to heaven, some of heaven’s own glory will reflect back onto that road, if only by anticipation: the world is charged with the grandeur of God and every event smells of eternity.”

Man may be defined as transcendence oriented or perpetually restless Heaven seeking animal. It is something evoking or invoking (or parasitic on) Eternity/Heaven or semblance of it in ordinary experiences such as sunshine and women and beaches and friends and music and wine that secular writers propose for our earthly salvation. All that takes us out of body, makes us dance in ecstasy, or swoon in serenity and weep tears of love and gratitude or even just talking to friends, sipping tea in silence, making love with spouse or kissing one’s child constitute our (as believers and nonbelievers alike) share of life in Heaven or mortal’s claim to immortality. Modern drug culture and alcoholism is ultimately linked to squeezing of spaces for cultivating safer and tested methods for tasting Heaven or securing our seat there. So the question of immortality is of great practical significance for governments and police is better equipped if it knows it. Daredevil driving that kills thousands annually is seeking shortcut to heaven here.

We have heard the good news but we have not paid heed. There is a great news broadcast in all scriptures, in the writings of saints, symbolized in great art works, hinted in virgin nature, dreamt in dreams or seen in visions, lived by children and simple minded, tasted by lovers, that is the Good News of Heaven. Heaven has been promised by God, witnessed by prophets and attested by saints. We haven’t just heard of it we have lived under its shade it or seen it albeit dimly or through a veil. It is thanks to Heaven’s ecstasies that we continue to cherish life, sex, music, beauty.

Peter Kreeft explains why we can’t afford to miss heaven even if our ideologies deny it, “The big, blazing, terrible truth about man is that he has a heaven-sized hole in his heart, and nothing else can fill it” And “Talk about heaven and you’ll get sneers. But talk about a mysterious dissatisfaction with life even when things go well—especially when things go well—and you’ll get a hearing from man’s heart, even if his lips will not agree.” And explains that we aren’t really interested in houris – Iqbal also remarked that houris complain about believer’s little interest in them. “No one longs for fluffy clouds and sexless cherubs, but everyone longs for heaven. No one longs for any of the heavens that we have ever imagined, but everyone longs for “something no eye has seen, no ear has heard, something that has not entered into the imagination of man, something God has prepared for those who love him.”

A clarification regarding the view of not desiring heaven attributed to Imams and Sufis is due. Reza Shah Kazmi explains:

It is, of course, true that the highest degree of spirituality transcends the desire for Paradise and the fear of Hell, and the moral conduct proportioned thereto. But this means that when such higher degrees of realization have been attained, the state of the soul is one that can properly be characterized as ‘paradisal’, that is, as being already so utterly content with the beatific presence of God that it can desire nothing more. This state of soul is called in the Qurʾān al-nafs al-muṭmaʾinna (89: 27), ‘the soul at peace in absolute certainty.’

The mere thought of Paradise is itself a purification of the mind and heart, a means of averting from the soul the ever-present temptation to seek its ultimate happiness and well-being in this world alone.

Building on the Quranic verse “And give good tidings to those who believe and perform virtuous deeds, that for them are Gardens underneath which rivers flow. Every time they are given to eat from the fruits thereof, they say: ‘This is what we were given to eat before’. And they were given the like thereof (2: 25), Reza Shah Kazmi writes about Imam Ali’s (RA) teachings, “The ‘fruits’ of the paradisal gardens are thus experienced already in the herebelow, in the form of all goodness, beauty and truth, and the diverse modes of happiness flowing therefrom. All such experiences are so many foretastes of the ultimate beatitude in Paradise. On the ethical plane, the performance of good deeds, and even more directly, the realization of intrinsic virtue, iḥsān, is thus not simply a prerequisite for posthumous salvation, but is already a kind of deliverance, here and now. It is a deliverance from the imprisonment of sin, on the outward plane, and from the bondage of egocentricity, on the inward plane. This theme of salvation here and now, grounded in unshakeable certitude, is fundamental to the spirit of the Imam’s teachings.”

All joy felt here on earth is loaned from Heaven. Simone Weil, with the world fraternity of sages, noted that joy (embodied quintessentially in heaven) is contact with reality and sorrow distance from it. As such man’s adventure to embrace the Real or more correctly God’s search for man, as Heschel would put it, can’t fail to fructify and in fact its successes constitute all the triumphs of human spirit in diverse sciences or departments of human life. Man is made for the Absolute, to die in It and thus to eternally live. Certainty is the requirement of intelligence and man is not absurdity. If man fails to access the most certain, the indubitable, the absolutely safe in Wittgenstein’s terms, he has failed as a man. God is the greatest certainty — the greatest and most palpable of the present facts in Whitehead’s words — and a philosophy or epistemology that doesn’t account for this does not deserve to be called a philosophy. It is failure and betrayal of philosophy and of man and his intelligence if the real is not knowable.

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