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CANCELLED - Spring 2020 Course A. The History of Heaven

Alumnae Continuing Education
Norris University Center
Tuesday, Mar 31, 2020 at 9:30 AM (CT) to Tuesday, May 26, 2020 at 11:30 AM (CT)

Dear Alumnae Continuing Education student,

Regretfully, The Alumnae of Northwestern University Continuing Education Program is cancelling all four spring 2020 courses.

Northwestern University is taking significant steps to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on its campuses and protect the health and well-being of students, faculty, staff, and guests. Because the university is not having spring classes onsite for the foreseeable future, we cannot hold our classes at Northwestern, precipitating the cancellation for spring. At present, we do not offer our courses online.

A full refund will be forthcoming. Those of you who paid by check or cash will be sent a check for a full refund from The Alumnae of Northwestern University. The Norris Box Office will initiate full refunds to those who paid by credit card. The refund will appear as a credit posted to the original payment card used for the registration.

Under these circumstances, there is no need to purchase a cancellation fee.

If you have any questions, please contact The Alumnae's voicemail (847-604-3569) or The Alumnae email: alumnae@u.northwestern.edu

The Alumnae Continuing Education Program


Course A. The History of Heaven

Tuesdays, 9:30-11:30 a.m.

Instructor: David Shyovitz, Associate Professor, History

This course meets on Tuesday mornings beginning on March 31st.


Heaven (if it exists) is presumably eternal and timeless--and yet the concept of Heaven has been anything but. Beliefs about the afterlife, the apocalypse, the resurrection and final judgment, etc., have all changed and developed dramatically over the course of nearly 3000 years. This course will survey the history of ideas and practices related to Heaven, beginning in the Ancient Near East and extending to the present. The approach in the course will be roughly chronological, but each week will also focus on one or more themes that have recurred in the tradition of heavenly theology.

Mar. 31 “So You Think You Can Tell Heaven from Hell”: Death and the Afterlife in Greece and the Ancient Near East

The earliest biblical sources never describe a celestial realm of eternal reward, but they do introduce a vocabulary of terms that would eventually be associated with postmortem existence, including the Garden of Eden, the realm of Sheol, the Resurrection of the Dead, and so on. This session will trace the ways in which these concepts drew upon, and were subsequently understood in light of, ideas pervasive in the Ancient Near East and in Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy.

Apr. 7 “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”: Eschatology in early Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Sources

By late antiquity, “heavenly” reward was a ubiquitous element of monotheistic theologies— Jesus promised his adherents access to the “Kingdom of Heaven,” rabbis ruminated upon the nature of “World to Come” (olam ha-ba), and the Quran described the Garden (Jannah) awaiting believers. But the meanings of these promises remained ambiguous—and exclusionary, since each religious community took for granted that members of the others would be denied access to whatever heaven they believed awaited them. This session will trace the divergent ways in which these faiths adopted, and adapted, ancient beliefs and stories, and situate their developing theological beliefs in a cross-cultural historical context.

Apr. 14 “You Make Me Feel Like I’ve been Locked Out of Heaven”: Bodies, Souls, and the Stakes of Sensuality

How could religious thinkers promise their followers an eternal heavenly reward (or hellish punishment) with a straight face, given that the physical human body so obviously decays and disappears shortly after death? How were human “souls” conceived of by late antique and medieval theologians, and by the everyday religious adherents whose beliefs they attempted to shape? Is eternal reward or punishment a physical sensation, a disembodied mental state, or something else entirely? In this session, we will explore competing ideas about where human beings’ essential identity is truly located, using late antique and medieval historical sources as well as currents in classical philosophy (“philosophy of mind” and “philosophy of death”) and in modern science (neurology and cognitive science).

Apr. 21 “Would You Know My Name if I Saw You in Heaven?” Ritual and Family Life in the Shadow of the End of Days

Will the righteous reunite with their deceased family members when they arrive in Heaven? Will spouses need to reconsecrate (and/or reconsummate) their marriages after they are resurrected from the dead? Developing notions of Heaven and Hell were not confined only to the realm of theological doctrine—eschatological beliefs had tangible, devotional implications, as pious individuals prepared for death (from old age, illness, violence, etc.), and as their surviving family members coped with bereavement. This session will survey the rituals, prayers, and mourning practices that sprang up over the course of the Middle Ages, and analyze their implications for how we understand pre-modern familial relations and communal institutions.

Apr. 28 “Stairway to Heaven” / “Highway to Hell”: Visions of Paradise in Renaissance Literature and Art

Heaven was a mainstay of written theological texts, but most pre- modern believers encountered the afterlife through other sensory media—oral sermons, works of visual art, folktales and literature, plays and other dramatic performances, and so on. Using Renaissance Italy as a case study, this session will survey the artwork and performative sources that bridged between pre-modern intellectuals and the non-elites who internalized and often transformed their teachings. Specific attention will be paid to Dante, whose tripartite poetic “tour” of Heaven and Hell exercised an indelible impact on subsequent generations of authors and readers.

May 5 “Heaven Must be Missing an Angel”—The Fall of Satan and the Early Modern Angelic Imaginary

Human beings were not thought to be the only inhabitants of Heaven and Hell—medieval and early modern authors and artists presumed that myriad angels, demons, and other spiritual beings would live cheek-by-jowl in the next world alongside deceased humans. But what exactly is an angel, or a demon? This session will focus on the figure of Satan, and the vicissitudes of his status within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Particular attention will be paid to the development of the “fallen angel” motif that informed pre-modern theology, culminating in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

May 12 “The Good Place”: Swedenborg, Science, and the Modern Invention of Heaven

Modern depictions of Heaven draw upon a diverse array of earlier precedents, but perhaps the most important (and least appreciated) theorist of Heaven is Emanuel Swedenborg (d. 1772), a Swedish scientist and mystic who formulated an influential approach to Heaven precisely at the moment when an increasingly scientific worldview was calling the very existence of postmortem existence into question. This session will situate modern debates about heavenly reward in the broader (so-called) “conflict of science and religion.” As we shall see, the very boundaries between religion and science were far less absolute than we might tend to assume.

May 19 “We’ll Make Heaven a Place on Earth”: Violence, Utopianism, and the Modern Politics of Heaven

Over the course of modernity, beliefs about the Kingdom of Heaven have been increasingly allied with politics. Modern warfare, terrorism, and political advocacy have been invested by Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike with eschatological resonances, as various political leaders and states are figured either as perfectly utopian or as apocalyptically wicked. Why and how has “heavenly” discourse come to assume such a central place in modern, ostensibly secular, politics and society? What would a this-worldly heavenly polity look like, anyway?

May 26 “Heaven is for Real!” The Afterlife in Modern Culture and Consumerism

Religion and commerce have never been strangers to one another— and yet today, the central role played by eschatological beliefs in consumer culture is striking and unprecedented. How have beliefs, symbols, and practices that date back thousands of years been instrumentalized in popular culture (films, television, books, video games, etc.) for material ends? What explains the success of the multitude of shows, films, novels, and so on produced each and every year, which are devoured by devoutly religious and avowedly secular consumers alike? Does the remarkable ubiquity of heavenly discourse for sale to consumers indicate that religious belief has been debased-- or that we are living in a theological golden age?

Parking permit may be requested from this website.

See the event listed as Spring 2020 Parking - Optional


Information is subject to change. Full course and policy descriptions are available at www.nualumnae.org


***One ticket per class, per account.

Course Pricing

One nine-week course $190.00

Discounts for Multiple Registrations for an Individual

Individuals who register for multiple courses may receive discounts on each additional course after the first:

To register for two nine-week courses at the special price of $355.00, select the 2-Course Package.

To register for three nine-week courses at the special price of $520.00, select the 3-Course Package.

To register for four nine-week courses at the special price of $685.00, select the 4-Course Package.


Your email confirmation from Norris Box Office verifies your registration but it is not your entry to class. Be sure to bring your class entry card to each class as it must be shown to the proctors at the entry door. In order to guarantee seating for registered students, those without their card will be given a temporary entry card, but ONE time only. After that one time, a replacement card will be provided at a fee of $30.00.

Refund Policy: Before a refund can be issued, your course card must be returned and the cancellation fee must be purchased on this website. Send your entry card to Alumnae Continuing Education, P.O. Box 2789, Glenview, IL 60025.

Applicable Fees and Withdrawal Schedule:
If the withdrawal request is received prior to the first class, the refund of the original registration will be initiated only after the registrant purchases a $10.00 cancellation processing fee.

If the withdrawal request is received after the first class, but before the second class, the refund of the the original registration will be initiated only after the registrant purchases both the $10.00 cancellation processing fee and the $30.00 per diem fee, per course dropped.

If the withdrawal request is received after the second class, but before the third class, the refund of the original registration will be initiated only after the registrant purchases the $10.00 cancellation processing fee and $60.00 in per diem fees, per course dropped.


  • No refunds will be given after the second class.
  • Credits are not given for future classes.
  • A transfer at no cost to another class offered during the same quarter is an option provided there is space available.
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Online ticket sales ended on 3/12/2020 at 2:00 PM (CT)

Event Location
Norris University Center, 1999 Campus Drive Evanston, IL 60208

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