Who Art In Heaven

Now that I've chased the puppy into a panic while trying (and failing) to get the sticky seed pods out of her fur, I suppose it's time to continue my musings about saying the Lord's Prayer. I had thought on Monday when I was writing about the "Our Father" that I would find the next clause, "who art in Heaven," a tad bit easier going, but thanks to something I read since, now I'm not so sure.

I like the image of Heaven and the problem of thinking about what "Heaven" means much more than the quite literally more mundane address to "daddy". Heaven, it seems to me, is a fairly expansive concept, however we try to imagine it celestially. I don't know if Jesus was thinking of Heaven as "the place beyond the stars" or as something more otherworldly or out-of-this-universe or even as a place at all. We tend now to think of Heaven as not so much a place as a state of being in harmony with God. I like holding that image in mind when I'm praying: "Our Father, who art in Heaven," Our Father who art because in Heaven, because Heaven is wherever thou art.

Indeed, I seem to remember reading something recently, I'm can't remember where, about Heaven as being neither in time nor in place, but rather totally "now" and totally "here." Ah, I've found it. It was Northrop Frye, of course, in the Great Code. Or, at least, it sort of was, somehow in Frye and somehow in what I thought about while I was reading him. It's a fairly extended idea, but here is the kernel (pp. 175-78). "I have often reverted to the unreality of our ordinary experience of time," Frye observes, "where none of the three dimensions of time, past, present and future, really seems to exist, and where the word present means only a never-quite disappearing between a no-longer and a not-yet.... In the unfallen, paradisal, angelic or other modes of experience more intense than the ordinary one, time would exist without the sense of external compulsion that we feel in being continually dragged into the future with our faces toward the past. Such an existence would be a musical one, in harmony with nature, in counterpoint with other living beings, and in itself a pulsating inner exuberance....

"Demonic time, of course, would be pure duration or clock time, 'tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow' with no significant alteration.... The immense gap between our ordinary experience of time, or clock time, and our experience of it at the extremes of existence, indicate how easily we adapt ourselves to a kind of minimal sense of reality.... The center of time is now, but every moment of time we can point to is a partly alienating then, in the past or future. Similarly, the center of space is here, but every actual point of space is there.... In the demonic world, of course, space would be totally alienating; in the divine world it would be a real presence corresponding to the real present of time. In the divine world the words eternal and infinite would mean the reality of now and here; in the demonic world they would have only their vulgar meanings of time and space going on without ever stopping."

I remember thinking when I first read this that it was amazing, but I'm having trouble capturing what exactly it was that I thought it said, as opposed to what it seems to say now. I remembered it saying something exquisite about how Heaven is the really now and the really here and having this incredibly vivid sense of what that reality might feel like, time no longer pressing against us, this place where we are now the center of existence rather than always not quite right. And I have been thinking a lot lately about the sense of being in time, never wholly of the past but neither able to see the future. Indeed, I was thinking just this morning about a potential post about how we live our lives projecting futures in which we imagine ourselves aging but the world continuing more or less the same, maybe with more Apple toys to play with, but our ambitions nevertheless keyed to the continuity of the goals that we can envisage based on the way the world is now, when in fact the world is more likely to be wholly different from anything we expect. For example, thirty years ago, when I was the age my son is now, I would never have dreamed that I would one day sit at a table in an apartment in Chicago writing a thought-piece about the Lord's Prayer on my (wait for it) blog! For goodness' sake, most of us didn't even have a personal computers then, never mind the internet. Nor are the changes that I have lived through since solely technological. To give just one example, we were still in the Cold War then. Now my fencing coach is a former Soviet champion. Oh, and I hadn't even heard of fencing, of course. How foolish it seems to try to project who I will be when I'm seventy-five on the basis of what I am doing now.

As usual, it feels like I'm getting off-topic with this, but maybe not. As long as we are in this world, longing for the past, worrying about the future, trapped in time, we are not living now. I sometimes think that if I could ever actually really pay attention, fully absorb myself in the now, not blocking out any of the things around me but allowing it all to press fully on my consciousness, well, I would probably go mad--or experience enlightenment. Heaven must be like waking up, becoming fully conscious for the first time in one's life, no longer feeling separated from oneself or the present, this place here being the only place one could possibly be because it was nowhere and everywhere, the center and the circumference, the question and the answer all at the same time. Sigh. It's not working. I can't capture the insight that I had the first time I read this chapter in Frye. Which is appropriate, given the other thing that I've read that is now troubling me.

It was in Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By (1972), which, like Frye's book, I've been carrying around with me for some time now but never actually read. It's not at all what I expected--Campbell is much less, well, mystical than I had expected him to be--nor am I entirely sure that I like it, so wrapped up is it in arguments about the need for science and rational thinking that were de rigueur in the mid-twentieth century (I can't help but picture white men in lab coats whenever Campbell starts talking about "the modern age"). But the thing that's been really troubling me this week is something that Campbell says in one of the essays comparing the religions of the East with those of the West. Never mind that I was somewhat surprised to hear Campbell being quite so positive about the superiority of the Western concept of the individual (not that I necessarily think he is wrong, but I was surprised at the particular position that he took). It's what he says about the different conceptions of reality upon which the major religions depend.

Oh, dear, this is a dense idea, too, and I'm finding it hard to find a succinct quotation of it. But I'm sure you've heard versions of it before (we are all post-Campbell in comparative religion). In a nutshell, for the East (by which Campbell means India, Tibet, China, Korea and Japan), there can be no such thing as the individual because the very idea of "the individual" depends upon a separation of self from everything else, when in fact, "this objective universe [or so Campbell reads "in a Sanskrit text"] is absolutely unreal. So too is ego, the life span of which, as seen, is but a wink.... Stop identifying yourself [the Sanskrit sage goes on] with this lump of flesh, the gross body, and with ego, the subtle body, which are both imagined by the mind.... Destroying this egoism, your enemy, with the mighty sword of Realization, enjoy freely and directly the bliss of your own true empire, which is the majesty of the Self that is the All in all" (p. 70). Accordingly, in the East, the gods, as Campbell puts it, "as agents of the cycle [of birth, death and rebirth], are hardly more than supervisors, personifying and administering the processes of a cycle that they neither put in motion nor control."

Things are rather different in the West, starting with Sumer. In the cuneiform tablets describing the anger of the god Enlil, the universe "is no longer itself divine, radiant of a mystery beyond thought, of which all the living gods and demons, no less than the plants, animals and cities of mankind, are functioning parts. Divinity has been removed from the earth to a supernatural sphere, from which the gods, who alone are radiant, control terrestrial events" (p. 76). The benefit of this "loss of identity with the organic divine being of a living universe" is, as Campbell puts it, the winning for humanity of freedom of the will, but (for me, at least) it is hard to take this freedom as Campbell describes it as an unmitigated good. "No longer were gods and men to be known as mere aspects of a single impersonal Being of beings beyond all names and forms. They were in nature distinct from each other, even opposed to each other, and with mankind subordinate. A personal god, furthermore, sits now behind the laws of the universe, not in front of them. Whereas in the older view, as we have seen, the god is simply a sort of cosmic bureaucrat, and the great natural laws of the universe govern all that he is and does and must do, we have now a god who himself determines what laws are to operate [see what I mean about the men in white coats?--FB]; who says, 'Let such-and-such come to pass!' and it comes to pass. There is, accordingly, a stress here rather on personality and whim than on irrefragable law" (p. 77).

Okay, so now we have free will, which is a good thing. But, you know, I'm not sure I really find this new image of the universe all that comforting. Not at least as Campbell describes it. Not that I prefer the Eastern, Heaven-less perfection as such. It seems even less comforting for there to be no Heaven to long for than for there to be a Heaven now transcendent and separate from the reality of the world. But it does seem as if we've lost something significant by abstracting God from humanity in this way. Which, of course, is the whole point of the Incarnation: if there is no separation between God and man, then there is no real wonder that God takes on flesh and lives among us. Why not? Gods do that all the time in India, right? But reality: which is it? The not-real reality of the cyclical Eastern universe, from which we can only hope to escape? Or the really-real reality of the Western Heaven, from which in this life we are inevitably separate and even after death never quite a part, except insofar as we turn to God?

Sigh. Now I can't even pray the "who art in Heaven" part without anxiety, for what if we're wrong about Heaven and the East is right?


  1. Understanding the reality of Heaven is not important. Eternal life is to know God through his Son, Jesus Christ. I looked at Luther's Catechisms (I'm a Lutheran). Luther focuses on God's nature at Father. He doesn't even discuss the nature of Heaven. The Incarnation is definitely the key: Christus homo factus est.


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