Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Politicians need capacity to imagine heaven


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 actual society, and were couched in terms of tangible flourishing. They involved a happy and wealthy society, a harmonious ecology, and just and harmonious relationships between people. Images of lions lying down with lambs, of green fields overflowing with milk and honey, and of kings bearing gold and silver as taxes enriched the imagination and gave heaven a tangible feel.

Politicians need capacity to imagine heavenThis did have problems, of course. The vision of heaven was balanced by an even clearer and more imaginative vision of hell. Where hell dominated, it could easily lead to a polarised view of society between the elect and the damnable, and to conflict between the two. Crusades and massacres of heretics could be the other side of a utopia.

But this was not integral to the imaginative vision of heaven in large terms as the transformation of a society. But the capacity to imagine heaven has diminished in modern western culture, and its effects are felt in the erosion of imagination about the future in politics too. When people think of judgment, they think more in individual terms. They see heaven as the reward for good deeds — we speak of people going to their reward. And they go alone. The idea of people linked together in a common destiny is not current.

They also think more in terms of the mind. Souls go to heaven, and to imagine it in bodily terms is an embarrassment. As a result, the links that bring people together in heaven are more distant and ethereal. As the imagination of heaven fails, the focus of life becomes more unremittingly on the present reality, which is seen in increasingly intractable terms.

When that happens in churches, the church paradoxically has a more solid importance as the place in which to live in this life. It becomes seen as increasingly important for the church to control those who live in it, because the present reality has nothing to counterpoint it. So, we have a flat understanding of the future and a pressured understanding of the present.

Which brings us back to Australia and the election. A flat understanding of the future, in which the hope is minimal and limited to economic theory, also brings with it a controlling government with an emphasis on security and predictability. The promise that you will be better off is delusional unless it means differently off.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Is the implication that failure of imagination is one of our sins? How then are we helping young parents to enliven their own and children's imaginations? Failure of imagination can be why we cannot empathise, or be generous. Are then artists the future hope? poets? sculptors? Thank you AH, always excellent. Margaret

Margaret | 23 August 2007  

When we hold ourselves to be body only there is no hope beyond death. When we see ourselves in bodily form but know intuitively that we are one emanating as the extension of God, our inherent creativity is stirred to build a future worthy of our being but one. Politicians as each of us are called to cease idly waiting for heaven to appear and awaken to the presence of heaven by being creative as one and in the interests of oneness.

Francis Brown | 01 September 2007  

Similar Articles

Hip-pocket implications of real jobs in remote communities

  • Frank Brennan
  • 22 August 2007

We are now entering a new phase in Aboriginal policy. It is not just about protecting the children, and the latter phase will challenge taxpayers. Real jobs and real services don't come cheap in remote Australia, regardless of the community's racial identity.