As religion editor for Newsweek magazine, Lisa Miller was asked to write about heaven and the almost universal belief in the afterlife.
“I was motivated by 9/11 and the idea that someone could do these terrible things in the name of heaven,” Miller told those gathered April 22 at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Miller’s book, Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife, was released two years ago “as a conversation” about the range of beliefs formed over thousands of years.
“Eighty percent of Americans say they believe in heaven,” said Miller, “but no one has a clue what that means.”
In many cases, heaven is depicted as something that can’t be had on Earth. Miller said Islam evolved “in one of the crappiest places on Earth,” where food rotted in the heat and fresh water was scarce. So it’s little wonder, she said, that the Koran describes heaven as a place where people are fanned by servants, eat from lush gardens of fresh fruit, and find plenty of water.
As for heaven’s location, “I always thought it was up in the sky in the clouds,” said Miller, who helped launch the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog. “But why do we think heaven is up?”
The daughter of a scientist, Miller acknowledged being strongly rooted in the analytical and literal, which made certain aspects of heaven difficult to imagine. She isn’t alone: A respected Harvard scientist and practicing Christian who had no problem with the more spiritual aspects of heaven fretted about the details.
“He had trouble with the changelessness,” explained Miller. “Humans are characterized by change. Our hair falls out, we learn stuff, forget stuff, my daughter grows bigger. So what does it mean to live in this perfect, changeless world?”
Miller grew up in a secular Jewish home in New Haven, Conn., and joined a synagogue only after her daughter was born. She and her daughter attend synagogue every Saturday morning, she wrote in a post for “On Faith,” and her non-Jewish husband is supportive.
Miller said she rather likes the Jewish idea that when “we strive for truth, beauty, and justice, we are encountering heaven. We are imitating what God wants us to do.”