This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  September 8, 2006

By Jeffrey Burton Russell
Oxford University Press,
210 pages, $26
Heaven, a metaphor pointing toward reality


Heaven is best understood as a metaphor, says Jeffrey Burton Russell. The emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, uses it as a metaphor for Christian belief in taking his readers on a tour of Western thought since the Middle Ages, where his earlier book on the subject, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence, left off. In so doing, the self-described lapsed atheist encourages both Christians and secularists to examine their bases for determining whether something is worthy of belief.

Dr. Russell demonstrates how skepticism began to influence mainstream Western thought in the 16th century when a growing number of scientists and mathematicians concluded that anything immeasurable and unquantifiable -- such as heaven and God -- could not be real. Eventually the concept of secular progress began to eclipse belief in heaven, even among Christian theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist and a leading proponent of the Social Gospel movement in the late 19th century, who rejected heaven as blocking progress toward the Kingdom of God on Earth. Ironically, Dr. Russell says, the belief in secular progress is itself counterintuitive to what history has recorded.

By the end of the 20th century, Dr. Russell says, physicalism, a term he uses throughout the book roughly equivalent to what others might call materialism or reductionism, was the most widespread belief among the educated. He defines the concept as “the metaphysical belief that the only valid statements about reality (other than mathematics) are statements about physical objects, movements and forces; there is no real world other than the physical world.” In examining controversies over evolution during the past century and a half, Dr. Russell challenges both creation science -- which he declares not to be real science at all -- and physicalism in favor of intelligent design. Examining this school of thought, the scholar describes it as “a scientific approach entirely in harmony with evolution science” and one that challenges physicalist evolution.

“Metaphysical physicalism claimed to oppose metaphysics yet disingenuously promoted its own metaphysics to the public as science,” Dr. Russell writes.

While stressing the importance of tradition in searching for a believable concept of heaven, Dr. Russell uses such metaphors as “the warm heart of the living cosmos, Jesus Christ,” to describe it rather than citing scriptural and creedal statements. He notes that even the Vatican, in the 1979 “Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology,” cautioned that “neither the Bible nor the theologians supply us with enough light to be able to describe properly the life that is to come after death.”

People who minimize belief in heaven by referring to it as a metaphor “ignore the fact that every idea is a metaphor and that some of those metaphors are pointed toward reality,” Dr. Russell writes. For him, “in the absence of any possibility of proof one way or the other, the preponderance of the evidence has come to favor theism over atheism.”  Anyone who wants to dispute that assertion will face a formidable challenge from this prodigious polymath.

Darrell Turner writes the annual religion section for the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: