Imagining Heaven: Silence and Evasion

When it comes to controversial issues in eschatology Catholic philosophers and theologians routinely do what they tend to do in general, that is, defer, mime, and attempt to thread the needle between speech and silence, saying and unsaying. Their aim is to say as little as possible, not only because of the desire to avoid displaying their genuine bafflement, but also because they feel sheepish about their inability to produce affidavits of their entitlement to speak. It is not nice to be found stuttering and stammering in any circumstance; it is worse again to find oneself so utterly exposed when speaking of the heavenly state that is the suggested purpose of your entire life and supposed to be the object of one’s deepest desire. Far more importantly, it is not only the special classes of theologians and philosophers who leave off.

It is noticeable that in Christian believers in general, and Catholics in particular, that when it comes to “last things” there is a shocking reserve, a reserve that cannot be reduced simply to anxieties about disputed questions concerning the intermediate state, the transitional state of Purgatory, or even the embarrassment of a doctrine of hell and its supposed challenge to the justice and mercy of God. If heaven, as the signified of the eschatological state of the blessed, is not always vigorously questioned—though it sometimes is—there is, nonetheless, a studied vagueness concerning “the better place,” alleviated only by stipulations that we imagine heaven as different in all fundamental respects from this life. Or, alternatively, demanding that its figuration not be so evacuative of the pleasures of this life and our political and social responsibilities. We arrive back at the paralytic beginning: we don’t know what we say, and when we say anything at all, we don’t know what we mean. As Christians we are all bumblers. Philosophers and theologians are just bumblers with the fig leaves of disparate and even contradictory protocols.

In the polite and educated circles in which philosophers and theologians move, beyond the velleities of our stipulations that do little to illuminate heaven and far more to identify who we are or who we want to be, imagining heaven is judged to be in equal parts a sentimental and frivolous activity, tantamount to joining John Lennon and Yoko in dreaming of states of peace and union otherwise than what we experience now. Of course, we are not obliged to abandon the notion of heaven entirely. We can and sometimes do find the energy to support it over the objections of Nietzsche and Marx and the critiques of its use throughout Western Christian history in which the notion of heaven is judged to have functioned as a salve for the suffering here on earth caused by social inequities and economic exploitation and to have drained off the energy needed to fundamentally change the world in which such injustice inheres and thrives.

In any event, Christian thinkers have done enough to show that we can fly in the face of skepticism and the general debility of being modern, even if not necessarily with a good conscience. Yet there are limits: enough is enough, even more than enough. Even if we do not relent regarding the traditional belief in heaven, we put ourselves on notice not to escape into fantastical projections as to what heaven will look like and evade pressing too hard on questions concerning the particular form of our flourishing and happiness in what has to be a radically altered state.

One major question it would be best to avoid is whether the eschatological state of the blessed is primarily immaterial or material, disembodied or embodied. The question is far more risky than it might appear: in answering, on the one hand, we might discover that we are nebulous Platonists all the way down; on the other we might find out that Christian belief in the afterlife bears a close family resemblance to the Valhalla of roistering, jousting, and sword-wielding, even if no blood is drawn. Or perhaps in what might be a third option—though it looks quite like the second—that after the manner of Egyptians we have come to imagine heaven as the good life of endless hunting, eating well, copious sex, and not being eaten by crocodiles.

Of course, how we came to be so tepid and beset, so pale despite our healthy lifestyles, so far from the brazen imaginative world of Dante, is a long story whose telling would involve a Charles Taylor-like monument to chart how religious believers have been shaped (or misshapen) by ideas about the world, about who they are and what they can know, and about the domain of religious beliefs and practices, now come to be regarded as both private and marginal. Even if one could tell this story, which would involve episodes of naturalism, agnosticism, and activism, as well as their overlaps and junctures, it would not be a story fit for an article such as this. Suffice it to say that we late Christian believers find ourselves weighed down by layers of assumptions that minimally function as disincentives to go beyond the bare belief in an afterlife. All too often this empty canvas invites brush strokes that specify otherwise and issue us a permit to paint Dantesque or Breughel-like scenes of punishment of one person’s malodorous gossipy cousin, another’s lying-cheating ex-boyfriend, not forgetting, of course, the too long postponed comeuppance for your ideological enemies whose number grows daily and whose faces constantly shift.

Breaking the Silence and Ending Evasion

Given the desert eschatological landscape in modernity, it comes as a welcome surprise to discover just how energetic Christian eschatological discussion has been this past decade and just how prominent a role has been allotted to imagination. Sometimes explicitly stated, sometimes left implicit, the premise is that for belief in heaven to be real and actual it requires Christians to imagine a heaven that is the object of their deepest desires and hopes. One can think of John Thiel’s Icons of Hope (2013) which, on the model of the best intimations in this life of equity and solidarity, imagines heaven as the postmortem manifold of justice and forgiveness; Paul Griffiths’s luminous Decreation (2014) that proceeds by way of what might be called an Augustinian logic of the inversion of the structures of this life, while playfully, but perhaps in a very English fashion, inquiring among other things as to whether animals will share the perfection of life with us; Leonard DeLorenzo’s thoughtful and evocative account in Work of Love (2017) concerning the communion of the dead with the living and their own communion; and finally Paul Fiddes’ somewhat earlier The Promised End (2000) that landscapes the intimation of heaven unveiled in modern English literature, while leaving in suspense whether these intimations function as prolepses of a felicitous and fully satisfying postmortem state or whether we have to remain agnostic about their fulfillment and remain content with hints and guesses.

I want to draw attention here to an even more recent book that not only grants imagination more than its usual prerogatives when it comes to heaven, but insists on the duties of imagination to think heaven in the face of the loss of loved ones. In the blank space that their going leaves in the world, the ontological wound of their loss, we are obliged in and through the figure of the Cross to think, first the prospect and then the reality of their transition into a radically different mode of existence and relation. Catholic philosopher and poet, Caitlin Smith Gilson, has added to the store of books that provide a thick description of the afterlife running counter to modern philosophical and theological protocols that discourage figuration. As It Is in Heaven (2022) joyously refuses such restraint.

The book is at once unabashedly traditional and exploratory, unfailingly daring in expression while responsive to the questions regarding the afterlife that are framed with a child’s innocence, and argumentatively tight yet copious in reference. It is also hauntingly personal and existential yet playful in imagining our heavenly state and the gush and lush of our enjoyment of God and each other in a transfigured world that presences the divine and supports our renovation and perfected relations with each other. Grief is the door of entry into the exploration of what we can hope for as the actualization of our belief of the “better state.”

Gilson’s grief for the loss of her fifteen-year-old niece is searing. It leaves her standing out on the razor’s edge between protest and hope, hoping against hope that the emptied space of her vital and full-of-promise niece is not final and that the tear in time of the fabric of relation and communication caused by her passing will yield to healing. If the book has a model—and the philosophical and literary references are so wide and so varied that it could have many and the level of originality such that effectively it might have none—then perhaps the safest bet is C. S. Lewis, and more specifically, A Grief Observed in which the sketches of heaven are generated in and through Lewis’s grief for the loss of his wife, Joy Davidman (H in the book), or maybe better his grief that she has been subtracted from the world which, thereby, has been lessened by it. One can speak in Gilson’s case as in Lewis’s to a passion for a heavenly form of existence appropriate to the dignity of the person lost. One observes in both cases the pressure to speak about what we are not entitled to speak of and to detonate the speech with which we commonly deck our grief and offer as consolation to others: “she has gone to a better place.”

Few texts written in the last few years are as pertinently impertinent as As It Is in Heaven. The commitments to the Catholic philosophical and theological tradition provide the basic architecture. These include the notion of the post-mortem intermediate state, antecedent to resurrection, that follows general rather than individual judgment—a position sponsored by Augustine, ratified in Aquinas, and provided exhaustive depiction by Dante in the Paradiso. Without prejudice to the magisterial thinkers of the Catholic tradition, and with due gratitude to Benedict XVI’s defense of the doctrine of the intermediate state in his great book Eschatology, Gilson’s focus is exclusively on our final resurrected state.

With regard to the resurrected body, the Catholic tradition provides protocols for our speech inaugurated in Saint Paul and impressively rehearsed in early Christian thinkers from Irenaeus on. Many of these are provisos concerning the inability of our language to stretch beyond the interruption of death and thus our responsibility to underscore differences between the eschatological and pre-eschatological state. Whether essentially or accidentally, Aquinas, who is a central figure for Gilson throughout her work, is an advocate of such epistemic scruple. Essentially, we might say insofar as what he has written is marked by this scruple; accidentally, perhaps in that Aquinas died before he had the opportunity to turn to a systematic treatment of eschatology in the Summa Theologica.

Nonetheless, for Gilson, it is evident that her beloved Aquinas is in need of supplementation. Beleaguered ideologically and imaginatively depleted as we are, we do not have the luxury of his level of scruple. We cannot not speak, and if that implies the risk of saying too much, then the risk must be taken. We can in due course hesitate, draw back, emend, cull, and at a limit repent. Thus, the boldness and the imagistic flood of Gilson’s projections made up of streams native to her poetic imagination, streams of biblical references, and streams of images and symbols borrowed from authors such as C.S. Lewis, Dostoyevsky, Péguy, Rilke, and T. S. Eliot who are her most intimate interlocutors.

Still, it is important to underscore the philosophical rivets. Aquinas is central. Yet the author is not sponsoring a Thomism committed to purity. Her Thomism is open both to conversation with other modalities of philosophy and to being supplemented by discourses that operate fundamentally in the mode of symbol rather than concept. For her, Thomism’s privileged conversation partner on the level of philosophy is phenomenology, but phenomenology understood not to be hostile to metaphysics, as is the case in Husserl and Heidegger. Gilson is not without precedents for linking up Thomism with an ontologically rich phenomenology. In the background there is Edith Stein; in the foreground John Paul II, whose theology of the body peeks through time and again throughout the text.

Gilson and the Primacy of Resurrection

Parts 1, “Heaven and the Transcendental Meaning of Death,” and Part 3, “All This and Heaven Too,” are the two pillars of the text insofar as they represent the imagining of heaven as defined in general by the resurrected self in ecstatic relation to God and other selves (Part 1), and, more particularly, by the elevation of the senses to the point of ecstasy (Part 3). As one is first carried along by these discourses on the resurrected body and the extravagance of newly constituted sensory capacities, and then comes to ponder how biblically grounded and conceptually precise the claims are, one finds oneself marveling at a text that is unique precisely because it has no interest in novelty. As she makes the case for the primacy of the resurrected flesh in an authentic Christian eschatology in Part 1, for all her delicate layering and embroidery, recurrence to classical and modern philosophy, as well as her ample literary reference, it seems obvious when one steps back from the lively, even violent, currents of the text that Gilson is making three essential points.

The first is that the fundamental option for the resurrected body over the disembodied soul makes an absolute distinction between Christianity and Platonism. This distinction is insisted on, even as Gilson makes clear that she is far from negative about Platonism and is convinced that in its more existential dimensions it has something important to contribute to Christian eschatology. If Gilson feels secure in advancing the priority of the resurrected body, it is largely because of the centrality of the discussion of Christ’s resurrection in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, as well, of course, as Paul’s insistence on the promise of the resurrected body for those who have had faith in Christ and patterned their life after his.

Though Gilson pulls on numerous threads concerning the eschatological state, she does not talk to the muddle of the contemporary moment in which theology finds itself embarrassed talking about the disembodied soul in an intermediate state, while philosophy finds itself reluctant to talk about resurrection. Since, given the prevailing naturalistic and skeptical ethos in modernity, to affirm that something (anything!) survives death represents its maximum reach. However, we might account for trickledown, in the new social imaginary, even as they attest to the reality of the afterlife, most Christians shy away from depiction. If pressed, most perhaps would confabulate something that bears a closer relationship to the texts of Plato than the New Testament.

A useful experiment: Ask a class of juniors and seniors in Catholic high schools and freshmen in Catholic colleges to figure heaven. If my own experience is anything to go by, you are likely to unearth a society of slightly deranged Platonists, at once carnal and skeptical in their everyday lives and incorrigibly ethereal in their figuring of postmortem blessedness. This leads naturally to my second point concerning Gilson’s laying out of the difference between our original fleshy body and our resurrected body.

Here I will merely lay down Gilson’s basic position, since I intend returning to it when I speak to her elaboration of the exalted state of the senses that are the focus of Part 3 of As It Is in Heaven. Implicitly, Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians provides the framework for her views of the relation-difference between the body destined for corruption and the resurrected body. In this sense, she is at one with the entire Catholic tradition that has attempted to parse how the resurrected body bears both a positive and negative relation to our temporal bodily life, positive in that it transforms and perfects it, negative in that flesh in its original state cannot be carried over the hiatus of death which has fundamentally interrupted our identity.

The third point of emphasis in Gilson’s lavish text concerns the primacy of community in heaven, though Gilson makes it clear that she is uninterested in pitting community against the individual person, which is not only a tendency in contemporary eschatological discourse that proceeds under the umbrella of political theology—Moltmann and Metz would be two good examples—but also a feature of eschatological discourses that more nearly operate within a traditional frame (even as they stretch it) as, for instance, John Thiel does in Icons of Hope. On this point at least, Gilson proceeds more nearly by the logic of extension than contrast. Here is where her allegiance to phenomenology and especially the centrality of intentionality is most to the fore.

She is persuaded by the critics of Husserl in general, and by Levinas in particular, that consciousness is not only always “consciousness of,” but always intends another that at once dislocates it and is co-constitutive of it. Inspired by the personalism of John Paul II, which unites Aquinas and phenomenology, Gilson elaborates a general anthropology that insists on the community horizon for the formation of selves while also promoting a personalism that underscores the illiminable nature of the person in relation, or, what medieval thought would refer to as their “incommunicable” status. Building on truths discoverable within the pre-eschatological sphere, Gilson insists on the priority of perfected community in the eschatological state. She does so, however, with the caveat that this priority is not absolute. If in the heavenly state individual persons find themselves enhanced, indeed, fully realized, in and through their transparency towards others and towards God, then it is also the case that the community is a community of persons, who are irreplaceable by definition.

Of course, our hope in resurrection and the perfection of community and ourselves as persons is tested in and through the crucible of our loss of a loved one who is herself a matrix of relations, some fully realized and actual, others in the mode of promise. Our hope that death is the door rather than a cliff or abyss is made possible solely through our perception of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ as a reversal of fortune as elemental as bringing something out of nothing. Conceptual mastery never overtakes our grief: though our grief may moderate, it leaves us unmoored. D. H. Lawrence famously said of our individual and personal death that it can never be a moment in one’s biography: it snips narrative completion.

One might be forgiven for thinking that Gilson has made things easier for herself in As It Is in Heaven by focusing not so much on what death means in the case of our own lives, but the death of those beloveds that leave us reeling, but can, nonetheless, be included in our story. One would be mistaken if one thought that. Grief is searing; the emptiness appalling—the gap . . . a knife. Death’s apparent absoluteness leaves us undone, as unaccommodated as Lear on the heath or desperately trying to discern a breath in the dead body of his youngest and too-lately loved daughter, Cordelia. This is why, though sorely tempted to remove Heidegger from our canons of philosophy and theology, Gilson advises that we might tarry with him a little and be grateful that he has reminded all of us of the reality of death that is the apocalypse towards which we run and which hurtles towards us.

Of course, there is no need to hang the Catholic flag on Heidegger; he is simply reminding us of other reminders in the Christian tradition, certainly, Kierkegaard and Augustine—though there are numerous others. Literature, of course, is a goldmine of such reminders, Dostoevsky as well as C. S. Lewis, O’Neill as well as William Carlos Williams, Camus as well as Charles Péguy, the latter whom Gilson seems to love with a passion similar to that of Hans Urs von Balthasar who makes him a central figure in his articulation of the anatomy of heaven. Gilson suggests that grief is the form of our coming to know the horror of death that we would avoid. One does not come across in As It Is in Heaven the kind of broad conspectus of the modern denial of death that one finds in the sociological work of Philippe Ariès so eloquently deployed in DeLorenzo’s Works of Love. Nonetheless, such a denial is assumed in this wildly speculative and probing text as it is in C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Grief is the fire that shocks us out of our complacency and leaves us suspended over the cliff.

If death is the abyss that grins, the resurrected body is the abyss turned into smile—a smile that acknowledges not only our mortality, but the history and fragility of our flesh which was the scene of our action and passion, our acting and being acted upon. Though there may seem to be plausible exceptions (e.g. the unborn), for Gilson each of us is a history in which our unrepeatable identity is both enacted and discovered; we are both script and improvisation. We bear our damage in our flesh, but bear it gloriously, bear it as a testimony to one who loved us, who bore us up and made us capable of enjoying an excess that otherwise would entirely overwhelm and drown us. Special relations with family and friends are such ineluctable parts of that history that Gilson cannot believe that they are not indemnified, though she is also fully aware that they have to be made straight. Yet, heaven is much more than ratification and repair, it is redeeming loss—the near misses in relations, the relations that would have tingled to the core—and all in all an incalculable expansiveness and intensity in relation that, nonetheless, would not negate special relations and would marry radical newness with recollection.

Such reflections are carried out in part 3, “All This Is Heaven Too” as well as part 1. Especially in part 3. Gilson is positively rhapsodic about the glory of the human resurrected state as the perfected image and likeness of God. Indeed, human beings in their resurrected glory seem essentially to effect something of a disturbance in the common picture of the great chain of being that has angels as the apex of finite creatures. Gilson is unembarrassed about her belief in angels. For her, belief in angels is part and part of the Catholic tradition. Nor is she particularly disturbed by the traditional contrasts between angels and human beings that would have angels higher in the order of being and intellect.

Aquinas’s thought, which serves basically as Gilson’s metaphysical platform throughout the text, endorses a hierarchy that was the common theological sense of both the Western and Eastern Fathers, with Augustine the representative of the former, Pseudo-Dionysius of the latter. For her, however, the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, in an important way, shakes the hierarchy. Not so much, however, by putting human beings at the apex of the ontological pyramid, but by considering human beings as mediators between spirit and flesh. Irenaeus is not mentioned, but he could have been. Maximus the Confessor is not appealed to as an authority for the profound shift towards the valorization of human beings and their enfleshment, as well as the indemnification of the intrinsically dramatic character of human lives, but he remains an available witness. However, steady in the background is C. S. Lewis who understood that for all our stupidity, cravenness, and vulnerability human beings are the glory of God. Human beings are the crux of God’s infinitely costly experiment in love and the granting of finite freedom that bears eternal consequence.

This is nothing of a sly humanism here. What is required is a kind of bifocal vision in which the excellences of angels and human beings before and towards the triune God are offset. If we stick solely to the metaphysical order, then ontologically, epistemically, and doxologically, angels remain superior to human beings. The hierarchy continues to be maintained even in the likes of Augustine, Aquinas and Dante as they suggest a closing of the gap in human beings’ intermediate state in terms of intensity of being, the movement of thinking from discursive thought to the mode of intuition, and the perfection of human beings’ doxological capacity. Gilson can be understood to assume all of the above. Yet this is not her focus. Understandably so, since she is not focused on the intermediate state in the way Aquinas and even Dante are, but rather on our reality in the resurrected state made possible by the incarnation, passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.

If the resurrected state is to be our glory, then, for Gilson, our senses, which are the means both of our belonging and our ecstasy in this life, are unimaginably sharpened even as they are infinitely sublimated. If heaven is the realm of God not only as Truth and Goodness, but, as Gilson suggests, Beauty also, then the sublimed senses are the vehicle for the proper enjoyment of God as excessive. They have been spiritually honed to correspond to God’s superabundant energy, supereminent light, and endless cascading waves of loving. If the senses are sharpened, they are also complicated and made more replete. Gilson is, undoubtedly, influenced by von Balthasar’s suggestion that one inflection of the spiritual grasp and being grasped by beauty is synaesthesia. When Balthasar in Glory of the Lord 1 speaks to this phenomenon in the crossing of senses from seeing to hearing and back again in this life as a kind of foretaste of the eschatological state. In As It Is in Heaven, Gilson speaks also to the crossing of tasting and touch, tasting and seeing, and smell and hearing. In fact, Gilson speaks to all the combinations of pairs of senses, suggesting in addition combinations of three and four, and the ultimate combination of all five senses as the ground and mode of ecstasy towards the triune God and our communion with each other.

Neither-Nor: Kant and Swedenborg

In Icons of Hope John Thiel poses the question of whether Kant’s embargo on speaking of the afterlife plays a role in the anemic depiction of heaven in modernity, indeed, even in Roman Catholic thought which, despite its own instructions against speculation, historically has allowed far more to be proposed than is permissible in Kant’s functionalist agnosticism.

Expanding somewhat on what Thiel would license, we might say that the challenge that Kant poses to eschatological thought, perhaps its very possibility, is not simply that he functions at once as a synecdoche for numerous varieties of modern agnosticism regarding a blessed afterlife and in the process provides reputational cover for less lofty species, but also that, whatever the faults of his epistemology, he brings Christians back to the apophatic provisos that mark Christian speech concerning heaven in the great Eastern and Western theologians and which are not entirely suspended in Dante. But does he?

There is a big difference between being enjoined to have discretion in our speech regarding heaven, given the abyss of death, as well as the underdetermined nature of the biblical evidence, and being asked to obey an absolute prohibition against speaking about the afterlife. Readers of The Critique of Pure Reason (1781) are often so preoccupied with the heavy epistemological lifting of the text that they will fail to recall that Kant almost two decades earlier went on a rhetorical rampage against the spiritualist tradition. For him this was first and foremost illustrated by the likes of Johann Kasper Lavater (1741-1801) and Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), both of whom brazenly claimed access in this life to the state of our postmortem existence in heaven.

Swedenborg had to be especially provocative, for unlike Lavater the bulk of his opus is made up of eschatological visions. Kant would have had before him texts by Swedenborg such as Heavenly Mysteries (8 vols) (1747-1756), Heaven and Hell (1758), Last Judgment (1758), and New Jerusalem (1758). In Dreams of a Spirit-Seer (1764) the Kant we come across is unrecognizable, if—as is very likely—for better or worse the First Critique has come to identify him. The 1764 book, written in Kant’s metaphysical period, before the influence of Hume takes hold, is a full-throated invective against the stupidities of postmortem projection, of the wrong-headedness of enthusiasm and its refusal to operate according to philosophical protocols that require restraint. Dreams is outrage, spittle and spill, as it tries to invent a vocabulary of denunciation that would have been ready at hand in England where the lexicon was prodigal: “rubbish,” “piffle,” “hogwash,” “twaddle,” “drivel,” “babble,” “bosh,” “prattle,” “gibberish,” and my personal favorite “flummery.”

An amusing, discombobulated, and magnificently out-of-sorts Kant speaks as if the con-artist spiritualists are morally as well as intellectually bankrupt. Of the two targets Swedenborg is especially provocative insofar as the Swedish theosophist provides nothing short of a travelogue of heaven, and, in what amounts to brochures, points to its more splendid features. These include depicting heaven as a society of the resurrected organized into ascending social ranks, constituting in the end a kind of spiritual aristocracy. Kant was more agitated by Swedenborg’s entitled certainty than his hierarchy, though had he reflected on it that would have outraged him too. Blake, who in his painting and prophetic poems indulged in a copious amount of postmortem projection himself—and some of it of a sexual nature like Swedenborg himself—objected to Swedenborg’s hierarchy, but, arguably, was more put off by the insufferable complacency of Swedenborg’s apocalyptic visions that projected so easily from this life into the next. The projection was so effortless, so devoid of the use of hyperbole and contrast that the earth became the measure of heaven rather than heaven the measure of earth. Thus, the question that we might ask, perhaps even are compelled to pose, is the following: does As It Is in Heaven represent the return of the repressed and Swedenborg’s victory over Kant? In which case, are we not obliged to resist it?

It is true that finally even a careless reader of Gilson’s ebullient text will answer the question in the negative, and come to the sensible conclusion that Gilson no more favors Swedenborg than Kant who in modernity functions as the flaming cherub refusing us entry into paradise. And perhaps for the simple reason that the garrulous “say-everything” of Swedenborg and Kant’s “say nothing” are simply two sides of the self-same modern coin. Or to avail of a less dead image; fantasy projection and linguistic asceticism in modernity share a common root. Fantasy projection is the monster that modern skepticism breeds and which Kant heroically, and ultimately unsuccessfully, tries to contain.

While Gilson seems to operate in a Swedenborgian manner to the degree to which she licenses the use of imagination, a key difference between her and Swedenborg is that her imagining is constrained (maybe even regulated) by the Christian philosophical and theological tradition. She takes risks that perhaps only Christian artists take with respect to heaven. Still, at every turn her iconic extensions from our pre-eschatological to our eschatological state are provided ballast and weight by the Catholic tradition of reflection. In this respect her imaginative eschatological poetics operate after the manner of Dante’s Paradiso as a supplement to what the philosophical and theological traditions have said about eschatological peace, satisfaction, about rest but also dynamism, about individual and communal perfection, about the letting be of thanksgiving and praise, the brilliance and depth of true beauty, and the apocalypse of love hidden from the foundation of the world that is now relentlessly and forever streaming.

Perhaps another key difference—again one for which Dante as well as C. S. Lewis provides a precedent—is that our depiction of heaven represents a point of view from which we come to see not only the value and beauty of the gifts of time and flesh, but also the manifold imperfections of our lives and the damage we have done to others.

The Specter of Dante

The above is sufficient to establish that Gilson’s visionary enterprise occurs within the horizon of a Dante-like poetic extension of the philosophical and theological reflections of the Catholic tradition to which she pledges her fealty, rather than within the horizon of Swedenborg, defined by a form of curiosity satisfied only by transcendent objects. I do not mean to suggest that Gilson routinely calls on Dante. In fact, Dante is cited very sparingly in the text. Where then is Dante? If a presence in As It Is in Heaven, then his presence is latent rather than patent. Two points can be made by way of support: first, that C. S. Lewis serves at least as a partial proxy and, second, that Gilson can enjoy the luxury of validating the particular, even idiosyncratic, intimations of heaven in and through experiences recorded in the novels of Dostoyevsky and the poems of Péguy, and Rilke, among others, because she has the assurance from Dante that they can be unified in a single synthetic vision and also that neither singly nor together are they athwart the mainline Christian tradition—or even necessarily at odds with the doctrines of the Catholic tradition.

Still, it would be pushing too hard to say that the largely out of sight Dante is the silent partner in As It Is in Heaven. It would be more accurate, as well as more modest, to say that Dante is something like a specter. This becomes most evident when one allows oneself to feel the angst that fuels As It Is in Heaven and tracks Gilson hunting for hope in the face of absolute loss. Gilson is each one of us; she is the Christian inquirer whose eschatological frame is creaking under the weight of grief and is about to give. It is not so much the doctrines concerning heaven, but the images and hypotheses welling up that link us to our deepest desire and expose our enduring longings.

Without this process of excavation for which Dante provides the paradigm, heaven withers on the vine and the appeal to the better place becomes heaven’s obituary. This is the shadow cast by the modern within the Church, as well as without, which Gilson feels she has to tussle. The battle is not against the Church’s legitimate circumspection, but against the way in which the circumspection can be leveraged against the Church’s positive claims that will reduce belief in heaven to an anxious “perhaps” or diffident “maybe” only periodically alleviated by testimonials from “near-death” experiencers who can offer reassurances for the reality of the afterlife in an empirical language that remains respectable even if the claims are controversial.

Gilson lays forth for us that we need to say more in order to keep belief alive in a world in which we are always being pressured to say less, and risk saying too much in order to say enough.

Featured Image: Philip Viet, Casa Massimo, scenes from Dante, photo taken by Sailko; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume treatment of Hans Urs von Balthasar's response to philosophical modernity. The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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