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24 July 2012

A New Heaven for a New Earth

Over the twenty-hour round trip car ride from Georgia to Indiana and back that we made recently to visit family, my wife and I listened to The Lovely Bones audiobook. In many ways, it reminded me of a favorite movie of my wife's, What Dreams May Come. One of those ways in which they are similar struck me as quite telling. Both present a vision of the pleasant afterlife as types of designer heavens, places consciously constructed by the desires of each individual. This seems radically individualistic and quite different from more historic and traditional conceptions of heaven that are essentially one-size-fits-all. The idea that one person's heaven is distinct from another person's heaven seems like a recent innovation to me. (If anyone more familiar with the history of religion knows better, please let me know in the comments below.) This seems like yet another example of the old Durkheimian hypothesis that religious beliefs are reflections of the social organization of societies from which they spring. As contemporary society becomes more individualistic, our beliefs about heaven reflexively become more individualistic as well. We don't as much share an afterlife so much as we have afterlives that are tailored to our specifications. Among those countless options available to the dearly departed are when, for how long, and even if our exclusive heavens overlap with the heavens of others.

Interestingly, we seem to have been much more comfortable historically with designer hells, places that are ironically suited to one's sins in the material world. Think Sisyphus and his stone, Tantalus in the water with the fruit, the varied punishments in Dante's Inferno, or Homer and all of the donuts in the world. There appears to have been a shift in the metanarrative over time from collective eternal joy/individualized eternal torment to individualized evolving satiation/collective fixed pain. Quite the one-eighty.

Anyway, The Lovely Bones was surprisingly moving, although we found it far from perfect. I haven't seen the movie adaptation, but I've heard that it was horrible.

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