Heaven. People use this word so casually. Chocolate cake is heaven, sex is heaven, a massage is heaven, a day sans kids is heaven! And of course there is ‘Heaven’. The real Heaven. But how do we define this place? We all know what we are referring to when we use the word heaven, even though there is no map or vision, and we all seem to share some sort of universal construction. If you ask a child, it probably consists of clouds and light. If you were to ask an adult, the visual description would probably include similar notions of light alongside concepts of purity and theology. Having an understanding of heaven does not mean one has to be a believer in it which makes it all the more compelling to discover why we all use the word. Often. We aspire to heaven, we want to be part of heaven and we want to have the possibility of the heavenly within our lives.
But how much do we think about Heaven and what it is or what it signifies? We do not take the trouble to gain clarity over its definition, we are comfortable with a veiled sense of something other, something beautiful, something beyond reach. This is a modern response to heaven though, for our definitions of Heaven were once more defined (as were our definitions of Hell). The Bible is full of detail which we seem to have somewhere in our universal memory but seldom draw upon in any depth. Perhaps it suits us to keep this special holy place under a veil? Maybe we would ruin it or tarnish the possibility of its existence, if we thought too much about it. Could the act of trying to define and capture it, somehow push the realm of Heaven further from our grasp?
Religion has been the mainstay of Western Art and whilst many of the images are inspired from Christian doctrines, the concept of Heaven is present in Islam, Judaism and many other religions. Over the centuries many artistic attempts have been made to offer a visual representation of Heaven; take Dore’s Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the highest Heaven, The Empyrean, a wonderful image which was produced as an accompaniment to the text of Dante’s Paradiso (1868). Or perhaps look at the winged celestial figures in a Botticelli painting. I often think that Botticelli, more than most, is responsible for our coloured host filled conception of Heaven. His only challenger maybe Burne-Jones whose androgynous angels adorn our Christmas cards. Such images are certainly more palatable than the Heavenly images Hieronymus Bosch left us with.
Our desire for a heavenly experience is constructed around positive experiences, and now, perhaps more so than ever before in history, we require a Heaven. We spend our daily existence toiling, with intermittent bits of contentment and happiness. It would be a wonderful comfort to be working toward a state of perpetual contentment and bliss. Once we die we could then leave this impure world and head towards a state of salvation. Even those that are staunchly secular remain open to the possibility of Heaven, in a manner that defies their own lack of Christian belief. Myth, fact, story, dream, we don’t really care just as long as it could be true. Perhaps we may even meet our loved ones when we arrive. (For example parents often call upon such words of comfort when the family pet passes on: and gradually, gently, with little conscious consideration, we pass on the concept of heaven, of a place that is better. That is somehow beyond us, at least for the now).
The references to Heaven within the Bible are centred mostly around God’s kingdom and throne, but it is a place reportedly full of angels. Paula Gooder describes our present relationship with Heaven as being ‘more about the personal fate of human beings than about God’ confirming her belief that ‘we have ended up with a privatized and postponed conception of heaven’. This confirms my previous comments about our desire for the concept of heaven to be possible. Gooder also points out the negative consequence of a delayed heaven, which results in a devaluation of God’s creation, our world.
But who really cares? What difference does the thought of the immaterial world really make to us here on earth in the toil and drudgery of daily existence? Who really cares when we are actively involved, or witness to, global affairs which include warfare, genocide, famine and oppression?
I think humanity does care though. We do care. We have to care because the stomach churning hideousness of mankind, is almost what keeps us going with our desire to find something pure. This hideousness is what encourages martyrdom, be it Islamic or Christian interpretations – or something entirely different. We need and desire something to elevate us beyond the here and now. We use music, art and religion. I believe we have used these approaches in our search for elevation since time immemorial. We seek communal, heavenly reparation. And we most typically seek it through Art.
Perhaps this is the safest venue and the most secure form in which to seek the heavenly?