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Up, Up, and Away!

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Written by Basil on 06/5/2003 9:44 PM. Filed under:

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“And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” This verse from today’s Gospel, Luke 24.36-53, is troublesome to modern children of the Enlightenment. This nettlesome story which appears in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles bothers those who have not been innoculated to its biblical worldview. “Up” into “heaven”? What does that mean? Is the Lord bodily in the stars? Will Voyager bump into him someday? And up? What about the direction up is special here? Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, roundly criticized for his wholly unorthodox views, rightly points out that this language is entirely foreign to postmodern pilgrims.

Christians who have been brought up translating this ancient world picture into a more sophisticated worldview may be tempted to patronize such pilgrims, but we have grown up drinking the Kool-Aid, as it were. We know without thinking that “heaven,” though formerly thought to be “up,” has been reinterpreted to be a different state of existence &#8212 something spiritual and therefore non-material. Remember, though, not everyone is in on the jargon.

Still, the Lucan descriptions specifically say he went up. Even the most cynical of searchers have difficulty thinking of scriptural descriptions as meaning anything other than “literal fact.” Even the name of today’s commemoration is the Ascension, following the credal language of the Nicene Council, “and ascended into heaven.” Why the directional language?

If the Bible says he went up, but that description is now meaningless, what exactly does today’s commemoration mean? Archpriest Thomas Hopko notes dryly, in passing, “The Church’s celebration of the ascension, as all such festal celebrations, is not merely the remembrance of an event in Christ’s life. Indeed, the ascension itself is not to be understood as though it were simply the supernatural event of a man floating up and away into the skies.” So, did he fly away or not?

As so often happens, C. S. Lewis makes some outstandingly salient points here. He holds that it is an “historical error to hold that all, or even most, early Christians believed in the sky-palace in the same sense as we believe in the solar system.” Whether this position is true or false I leave to the archaeologist and the anthropologist. What he says next, though, is worth its weight in gold — note the anachronism creeping into my metaphorical menagerie. “We must distinguish between the core of belief and its attendant imagery.” Lewis says,

When I think of London, I always see a picture of Euston Station. But I do not believe that London is Euston Station. That is a simple case, because there the thinker knows the imagery to be false. Now let us take a more complex one. I once heard a lady tell her daughter that if you ate too many aspirin tablets you would die. ‘But why?’ asked the child. ‘If you squash them you don’t find any horrid red things inside them.’ Obviously, when this child thought of poison she not only had an attendant image of ‘horrid red things’, but she actually believed that poison was red. And this is an error. But how far does it invalidate her thinking about poison?

She’s been told that aspirin will kill her. This is not in error. She has been told, rather often, which items in her home are poisonous. This is not in error. Moreover, a visitor to her home, thinking he was about to drink some water and told by this child that it was instead poison, would do well to heed her advice. To “disredgard the warning on the ground that ‘This child has an archaic and mythological idea of poison as horrid red things’” would be a fatal error, indeed.

Lewis goes on, in the same essay, to remind us that all of our language is symbolic, and there is no way around using metaphor to describe non-physical realities that defy description.

To say that God ‘enters’ the natural order involves just as much spatial imagery as to say that He ‘comes down’; one has simply horizontal (or undefined) for vertical movement. To say that He is ‘reabsorbed’ into the Noumenal is better than to say that He ‘ascended’ into Heaven, only if the picture of something dissolving in a warm fluid, or being sucked into a throat, is less misleading than the picture of a bird, or a balloon, going up. All language, except about objects of sense, is metaphorical through and through.

So, all this talk of ascending and descending is both for the weakness of premodern man, and it is also for the weakness of modern man. It is also for the weakness of postmodern man. We continue to share the same human nature as all of our ancestors, and mystery demands symbolic containers that condescend to that weakness.

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One Response to “Up, Up, and Away!”

  1. pete Says:

    brilliantly stated.