Sunday, June 29, 2014

Heaven is for Real and False Consolation

Is heaven for real? Of course it is. How do we know? Because Jesus Christ died, rose from the dead, and created a Church that has borne continuous witness to His Truth from that day to this. We need nothing more, at least as far as knowing that heaven is for real. If we think we need more, it isn't because there is a real need for more, but because we have not yet fully appreciated what God has already done for us.

This is one reason that the Church has always maintained a measured view with respect to visions or other private revelations. God, of course, is not constrained by the Church, and does what He will, so private revelations are a genuine possibility and, in fact, the Church has recognized a number of them throughout history. But it is not incumbent on any Catholic to believe in any private revelation, and there are some dangers associated with them, among which is the possibility of shifting (perhaps unconsciously) the basis of one's faith from the historical witness of the Church to a private revelation. Logically this makes no sense, since it is only on the authority of the Church that we should put stock in a putative private revelation in the first place, but emotionally this might happen since a private revelation - especially a contemporary one - can seem more immediate, fresh, and exciting than the ancient witness of the Church. And in that case we are on very dangerous ground, since while the historical witness of the Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, is both true and unchanging, a private witness not recognized by the Church may well contain a mixture of error and truth, and is liable to change with the vagaries of the individuals involved. This is indeed a house built on sand.

While we need to wait for the Church to pass judgment on an alleged private revelation before believing it, we need not wait for the Church to discover for ourselves sufficient reason to discount a private revelation. And it's not hard to find those reasons in the popular book, and now movie, Heaven is for Real. I read the book last year - I think - but didn't remark on it at the time. It's now received much more exposure because of the associated movie (which I haven't seen.)

Heaven is For Real is the story of Colton Burpo, the son of pastor Todd Burpo, and three years old when the critical events in the story occurred. What happened is that Colton became very sick, had an operation in which he nearly died, then later began making statements that implied he had journeyed to heaven while unconscious during the operation.

Colton's age is important. Three year old children have no clear understanding of the difference between truth and falsehood, fantasy and reality, and only a limited understanding of the moral implications of telling a lie. What they do have is a fine perception for detecting their parents emotions, and especially the extent to which they are pleasing their parents and gaining or losing their attention. What I think happened here is that young Colton, doing what three year olds do, which is saying whatever comes to mind, discovered that certain things he was saying drew an unusual, strong and positive reaction from his parents. Naturally this encouraged him to further explore this line of thinking, which was then reinforced by increasingly strong reactions from his parents. This is not a matter of Colton "lying." At that age, he doesn't understand what that meant with respect to relating events from his past - especially events that supposedly happened when he was unconscious - a realm where it is very difficult to separate fantasy, wishful thinking and simple dreaming from reality even for spiritual masters of profound wisdom and experience.

The dynamic is established right in the book's prologue. In the car, Colton's mother Sonja innocently asks him if he remembers the hospital in which he had his operation. Colton's answer is that, yes, he does remember, because "That's where the angels sang to me." Now this could mean a lot of things: It could mean he dreamed of angels singing, imagined angels singing to him, or he is simply saying something for no particular reason he understands, among other possibilities. The response of his parents is worth quoting:
Inside the Expedition, time froze. Sonja and I looked at each other, passing a silent message: Did he just say what I think he said? (Emphasis in original)  
Sonja leaned over and whispered, "Has he talked to you about angels before?"  
I shook my head. "You?"  
She shook her head. 
It's not exactly clear what Todd and Sonja think happened here. Colton has not talked about angels before, but there is always a first time, and there is no reason to think that he hasn't already overheard a lot about angels (his father is a pastor after all). What is clear is that, if Colton's parents think that by passing "silent messages" through looks and whispers Colton is not going to pick up what is going on (specifically, that something just happened that drew unusual attention from his parents), they are naïve. Paying attention to the emotions and reactions of his parents is virtually a full-time job for three year olds. And Colton's parents confirm the reaction by shortly following up with questions about the angels and what they sang to him. (In an odd note, Colton says that he asked the angels to sing We Will Rock You We Will Rock You but they demurred. It doesn't disturb his parents that Colton - three years old - is familiar enough with Queen rock songs to request them, but it should give us a clue that Colton may be more exposed than we might expect a three year old to be, especially as the Burpos belief in Colton's experience is largely based on what they think he hasn't seen.)

In light of what is revealed later, it is also interesting that Colton mentions angels singing as the significant event he associates with the hospital. Later, we learn that Colton, while on his heavenly journey, not only heard angels singing in heaven, but met Jesus, the Holy Spirit, his grandparents, a dead sister, John the Baptist, saw Satan, the gates of Heaven with gold and pearls, the Holy Spirit pouring grace into his father, and even the battle of Armageddon, among other things. Yet, here, it is none of those latter memories that spring to his mind when thinking of the hospital, but only the relatively banal memory of singing angels. We may be forgiven for suspecting that the real origin of the heavenly experience was in the car with Sonja's innocent question, rather than in Colton's operation.

The car story in the book's prologue is meant to whet our appetites for further revelations and keep us interested while we get the backstory of Colton's illness, operation and aftermath in chapters one through eleven. In chapter twelve we get back to revelations of Colton's experience in heaven. This time it is explicitly prompted by his father:
Sitting at my makeshift desk, I looked over at my son as he brought Spider-Man pouncing down on  some nasty-looking creature from Star Wars. "Hey, Colton," I said, "Remember when we were in the car and you talked about sitting on Jesus' lap?" 
Still on his knees, he looked up at me: "Yeah." 
"Well, did anything else happen?" 
He nodded, eyes bright. "Did you know that Jesus has a cousin? Jesus told me his cousin baptized him." 
"Yes, you're right," I said. "The Bible says Jesus' cousin's name is John." 
Todd takes it as given that the only explanation for this "revelation" is that Colton actually went to heaven and met Jesus and John the Baptist (who, we are told, is "nice.") The obvious explanation is that Colton is merely repeating things he has overheard that he thinks will please his father - especially since we are told, just before this incident occurs, that Colton is playing near Todd while he works on his sermon.

And, as is natural, as time goes on the revelations get more detailed, elaborate and sensational while Todd Burpo's critical faculties increasingly abandon him. Todd is blown away when Colton mentions that Jesus has "markers", his word for Christ's Wounds, because he somehow thinks it impossible that Colton would know anything about them since Protestant kids aren't around crucifixes much. For my part, it's hard to believe that a three year old as perceptive and attentive as Colton, in a very religious household headed by a pastor, wouldn't have had any exposure to the fact of Christ's wounds. The kid has never seen a picture of Christ on the Cross? In any case, in his description of the "markers" Colton leaves out the fifth wound - the spear wound in Christ's side - which might be explained by the fact that the wound would be less visible behind Christ's robes, but it is also just the wound one would expect not to be retained by a three year old when he is briefly exposed to a crucifix or picture of Christ on the cross. Todd is also amazed by Colton's description of Christ as wearing a white robe with a purple sash, when such a description pretty much describes the generic picture of Christ found in children's books.

In the next chapter, Sonja Burpo remarks with respect to Colton that "It's like he just pops out with new information all of a sudden."  It doesn't occur to her or Todd that this might be because it really is new information, in the sense that no one, including Colton, knew about it before. And this particular new information really is tough to swallow. According to Colton, everyone in heaven has wings; not just angels, but men as well (everyone but Jesus).  Furthermore, they all have halos. This isn't meant allegorically, but literally. Todd Burpo struggles mightily for scriptural support for this vision of physical halos, and the best he can come up with are references to Stephen's face "becoming bright as an angel's" before he was stoned to death, an angel's appearance "like lightning" after the Resurrection, and John's vision of an angel's face that "shone like the sun" in Revelation. Of course these aren't references to halos, and in any case halos and wings have their origin, and have always been understood, as physical signs of non-physical reality - in the case of wings, the transcendent nature of angels with respect to terrestrial reality; and in the case of halos, the sanctified nature of the individual's soul. Naturally a child will miss the allegorical nature of these symbols and take them literally, but an adult certainly shouldn't. And when a child explains that he saw in heaven the physical manifestations of medieval artistic motifs, we don't really need to search our memories to discover if we ever mentioned wings and halos to him, as the Burpos do.

Things become more serious in the succeeding chapters when Colton moves on from wings and halos to encounters with his dead relatives. He meets his grandfather ("Pop") and, then, a sister who died in the womb. This may be the most affecting section in the book, and we cannot but feel sympathy for the Burpos in their pain and joy in their consolation when Colton tells them that their little girl is in heaven. The Burpos say they never told Colton about the miscarriage, but they did tell Colton's older sister Cassie; it is surely not outside the bounds of probability that either they or (more likely) Cassie let something slip at some point to make Colton aware of a missing sibling. In any event, there are several interesting things about Colton's sister in heaven. The first is that she doesn't have a name, which comes up when Sonja asks about it:
Sonja's eyes lit up and she asked: "What was her name? What was the little girl's name?" 
Colton seemed to forget about all the yucky girl hugs for a moment. "She doesn't have a name. You guys didn't name her."   
How did he know that? (Emphasis in original)
Well, he knew it because children are typically named when they are born. More revealing is the fact that Colton, clearly a perceptive and intelligent young boy, is generating a conclusion rather than reporting a fact. He doesn't know the girl's name. This might be because Colton never asked her name and she never volunteered it, even if she actually had one. (Colton doesn't say that she told him she doesn't have a name). Instead, the girl-with-no-name is taken by everyone as just another fact of revelation, when we are given its deductive origin. And it would be strange if the girl really did have no name. Colton's heaven is beyond our ordinary understanding of time (this is how Colton's elaborate visions of Armageddon, meeting relatives, watching the Holy Spirit beam grace into his father, etc., are fit into the three of minutes of Earth time Colton says he was in heaven.) So, in this realm beyond time, Colton's sister is doomed to be ever-nameless? Or is she waiting for her parents to join her in heaven and name her? Then heaven isn't really beyond time, is it? In any case, Christ has told us familial relationships in the beyond aren't quite what they are on Earth (Matthew 22:30), and there are precedents for God naming children - Jesus Himself, for one. It's hard to believe that God, the angels, and Pop would be content with "Hey you" when addressing Colton's lost sister.

The second interesting thing about Colton's sister is her age. We later learn from Colton that no one in heaven wears glasses and no one is old (Pop exists in heaven as a man in his prime). Yet Colton's sister's heavenly existence is not as a mature young woman, but a young girl in the age range of Colton and his sister Cassie. The question then arises: Is Colton's sister physically growing in heaven? If she is, does she reach a particular age and then stop maturing? Or does she stay a young girl, as both Colton and Cassie grow to adulthood here on Earth? Colton, naturally, imagines his sister as something similar to himself and Cassie, and so imagines her in heaven as a child, even though it doesn't really make any sense. Indeed, the whole notion of physically meeting people in heaven is suspect. Angels do not have bodies; we men are awaiting the end of history and the general Resurrection when our souls will be reunited with our glorified bodies here on Earth (which will also have been redeemed.) Heaven, for us, is a state of peace and joy in the presence of God, but we exist in it as disembodied souls awaiting the end of time. The only individuals with physical bodies in heaven are Jesus and, perhaps, Mary (if you are Catholic). Yet Colton makes no distinction between Christ and everyone else in heaven insofar as physical being is concerned; everyone is pretty much the same, wearing white robes with different colored sashes and wings of various sizes. (An aside: The uniformity of clothing in Colton's heaven makes one think of futuristic sci-fi movies like Logan's Run or Star Wars. Why do we tend to imagine advanced states as always involving a monotonous uniformity of appearance? The story would be more believable if Colton related seeing things of unimaginable beauty and variety - even if as a child he was at a loss to describe them - rather than unimaginable banality. Dante didn't miss this point. And another aside: Colton describes many animals in heaven, but animals do not have immortal souls and they are not in heaven. They may be present on the redeemed Earth, but we will have to wait for them till then.)

Colton's initial announcement, recounted in the book's prologue, about angels singing to him in the hospital, gave some clue about the psychological dynamics at work in this story. So too with the circumstances concerning Colton's revelation about his sister. Colton is attempting to get his mother's attention, and doesn't get it until he comes out with the announcement that his mother lost a child in the womb. And just like in the car, time stops for the Burpos:
At that moment, time stopped in the Burpo household. and Sonja's eyes grew wide. Just a few seconds before, Colton had been trying unsuccessfully to get his mom to listen to him. Now, even from the kitchen table, I could see that he had her undivided attention. 
"Who told you I had a baby die in my tummy?" Sonja said, her tone serious.
Certainly a good way to get your Mom's attention in the Burpo household is to announce a new bit of heaven-inspired information. And, of course, to have the same impact, the revelations must get increasingly sensational. Announcing that angels sang to you wouldn't grab Mom's attention so much if you already told her you met your grandfather and sister in heaven. And, so, by the end of the book, we get into full-fledged accounts of the Battle of Armageddon, complete with swords and bows and arrows. If this sounds familiar, you may have read C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or seen the movie. And so has Colton. In fact, it is right after seeing the movie that Colton comes out with his Narnia-like account of Armageddon. By this point, the Burpos seem to have abandoned whatever critical distance they had and simply accept Colton as an all-purpose oracle concerning things heavenly.

Isn't this all harmless? Not really. Take Colton's grandfather Pop. Is he in heaven? Maybe, but maybe not. The Church encourages us to pray for the dead because our prayers may benefit the souls in purgatory. But if Pop is in heaven, he is in no need of our prayers; in fact, he may be praying for us. Were we to think conspiratorially, we might consider that, while the Devil cannot steal the souls in purgatory away from God, he can make their time there longer than it might be by somehow tempting those on Earth not to pray for them. And a good way to do this is to convince men that the souls of the dead don't need our prayers.

And what will happen when Colton finally grows up and develops some critical thinking abilities of his own? In the best case, he would see his childhood revelations for what they are and confess their mundane origin. To use an old word, this would cause "scandal" among those who used his story as part of the foundation for their faith. Maybe some will fall away. Again, thinking conspiratorially, the Devil cannot prevail against the Church, but he can tempt us to give our faith a false foundation in something other than the witness of the Church. In the worst case, Colton would go "all-in" on his story - perhaps because of the humiliation that would come from admitting it wasn't really what he thought it was, perhaps because he doesn't want to embarrass his parents, or perhaps because he knows it would cause scandal - and continue to defend it even though he now knows better. In this case the Devil would have a victory that keeps on giving.

We all struggle with uncertainty in this life - St. Paul tells us we see through a glass darkly - and yearn for the certainty of seeing Christ face to face. But this is the condition of our existence, in which we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Kierkegaard). We are all tempted to grasp at certainties that are not ours to have - not unless God has willed it, which in the case of private revelations, He rarely does. We need to remember that God has already given us everything we need in the Birth, Death and Resurrection of His Son and the historical witness to that in the Church. And we need to remember that the primary spiritual weapon of our adversaries is temptation, and among the most dangerous of those is the temptation to replace the true foundation of our faith with a false one; to exchange the house built on rock with one built on sand.