Course C. The History of Heaven
Thursdays, 9:30-11:00 a.m.
Instructor: David Shyovitz, Associate Professor, History
This course meets on Thursday mornings beginning on January 14th.
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.
Jan. 14 “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.
Jan. 21 “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.
Jan. 28 “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).
Feb. 4 “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.
Feb. 11 “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.
Feb. 18 “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.
Feb. 25 “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.
Mar. 4 “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?
Mar. 11 “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?
Information is subject to change. Full course and policy descriptions are available at www.nualumnae.org
• Each 9-week online course is $125.00. Registration pays for access to a live webinar and limited-time access to a recording of each week’s 90-minute session.
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