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Politicians need capacity to imagine heaven

  • 22 August 2007

A feature of the current pre-election campaign is how small-scale it is. It is a case of, 'anything you can do, I can do smaller'. No vision of prosperity to be brought, but only the security of a surer technician’s hands on the economy. No image of a more generous or coherent society, only adjustments to the immigration quota and an assurance that you will be better off. No dreams of a home paradise, but the promise of a slower rise in interest rates. No national health policy, only fixes to 'save' hospitals in marginal electorates.

This modesty may seem a blessing when we compare it with times when visions of the great, self-confident and harmonious society reigned unchecked. Elections bring out the hucksters who promise instant happiness and magic get-well pills. And when the visions of an equitable or triumphant society become utopian, blood can flow in the streets. A knowledgeable electorate which can count surely produces a more honest politics.

And yet we hesitate. The experience of the Christian churches in thinking about the future and the shape of the promised future might be illuminating. It seems that when people have a lively imagination of heaven, the bonds that link them in churches are much more healthy than when the understanding of heaven is atrophied.

In earlier ages of the Church, the hope of good things was imagined in quite tangible ways. It was communal — those saved and taken into heaven were sodales, drinking companions. The understanding of the communion of saints meant that those who had died and those still alive were linked in one body. So heaven meant bringing together all the generations into a happy society.

Heaven was also seen in bodily ways. It was about the resurrection of the body, and not simply the survival of the immaterial soul. This always caused difficulties in understanding, but it lent richness in imagining. The crowded canvasses of saints, angels and the blessed gathering above the earthly events meant that heaven could be seen as a like, but different, place to our own. In more theological language, it meant that nothing that was precious in our bodily life and in our bodily relationships would be lost, but that it would be transformed.

These aspects of heaven were rooted in the Jewish tradition of promise. The promises made by the prophets of what God would do to Israel had to do with an