Biblical scholars -- well, many of them, anyway -- now say it's pretty clear that when Jesus talked about "the kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven," he wasn't referring to some perfect place in which to spend your afterlife.
Nonetheless, for centuries Christianity -- to say nothing of many other religions -- has been focused on "heaven," meaning, in the stereotype, that place where angels fly around playing harps and where everyone is happy and at peace.
As you might well imagine, as people have pondered heaven, writers have found it a hot topic for books, and there are a bazillion titles of books that purport to describe heaven. Hell, too. On the bookshelf above my desktop computer, in fact, I find a little booklet from Christian History magazine called "The History of Hell: A Brief Survey and Resource Guide."
A reflection of the wide interest in heaven is seen on the cover of the current Newsweek magazine. It's a story by a physician called "Heaven is Real." It's an excerpt from a new book called Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander.
The magazine piece is a really engaging explanation of what Alexander experienced when, as he writes, he was in "a deep coma, my body unresponsive, my higher-order brain functions totally offline."
What he says he experienced is what most of us would call heaven. He says that while "the nurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity. . .my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I'd never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility."
What are we to make of all this? Hard to say, exactly, but the fact that the person experiencing this is a scientist who tells the story in terms of science gives it more credibility in the minds of lots of folks, I would guess.
In the end, however, I still think Jesus would have us focus not on some sweet by-and-by but, rather, on how we can live today in a way that will be in harmony with the best eternal values.
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A BATTLE FOR POLAND'S CATHOLIC SOUL
When I traveled to Poland in 2007 with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn to work on our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, it was clear how deeply Catholic the country is. But Reuters reports that is changing. The Catholic Church is losing influence in Poland and there's a struggle for the country's soul. Many countries are in the midst of negotiating with post-modernity, so Poland is not alone in that. But Poland's Catholic history is long and deep, and it will be fascinating to see how this current soul-struggle plays out. In the end, I'm betting on the church.