The Sociable Heaven

A poem by Sara Teasdale has gotten me thinking about heaven lately.

How can our minds and bodies be
Grateful enough that we have spent
Here in this generous room, we three,
This evening of content?
Each one of us has walked through storm
And fled the wolves along the road;
But here the hearth is wide and warm,
And for this shelter and this light
Accept, O Lord, our thanks to-night. [1]

Teasdale’s “generous room” seems an apt way of capturing Joseph Smith’s vision of a sociable heaven, where not only families but friends are reunited. In the same passage where he calls friendship “one of the grand fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism,'” Joseph famously said:

[L]et me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society. What do we care where we are, if the society be good? [2]

I think that Joseph would have been quite at home as one of Teasdale’s “we three.” Goodness knows he had walked through storm, fled the wolves, and felt the tension melt away at a warm hearth.

He also said, famously, that no man knew his history. For all his love of good society, Joseph had not been able to make himself, his own life story, adequately known to others. None of the breaking of bread, none of the conviviality he enjoyed, had been enough.

One of the best things I’ve heard anyone say about heaven is when a friend in High Priests’ Group invited us to imagine that we were suddenly freed from the weariness and time constraints that prevent us from accomplishing what’s really in our hearts. Sometimes we wish to open our hearts to a friend (or to God, which could be the same thing), but mundane responsibilities push the urge back into the swelling spiritual undercurrents that we all carry around. We sit to ponder and the baby cries or the doorbell rings or dinner needs making or any of a thousand things. So we fail to tell our stories adequately, even to ourselves.

Heaven, then, is the apotheosis and the working out of this desire to speak our souls, whether directly to God or while breaking bread with those we love. As a writer I know that this kind of speaking isn’t easy. The words seem to well inside, but they never quite spill out onto paper in quite the way I think they should. So I imagine heaven as the space where we can, together, work out our stories. (This differentiates it from Steve Peck’s Borgesian hell, where our stories are already written and we spend eternity searching for their perfect articulation, operating under the questionable assumption that we’d recognize them when we saw them.)

While contemplating Teasdale’s poem and Joseph’s sociable heaven, I’ve also been teaching Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology, which contains a fierce critique of liberalism and its tendency to prefer endless discussion to actually making a decision. So I get that my vision of heaven entails certain political assumptions that might turn out not to be well-founded.

Still, I think that Joseph’s teachings about theosis in the King Follett sermon strongly challenge the idea that Heaven will be run by a Schmittian sovereign. The God of the King Follett sermon wants us to grow in capacity until we attain everlasting burnings. [3] In my experience, this growth looks like a long process of figuring out–one that I’ve found has been helped immeasurably by the input of friends.

For me, then, I think that heaven almost has to involve sitting down with the people I love most and all working together to figure out our stuff. Heaven is the place where the loquaciousness that I long for here, but that circumstance (including my own awkwardness) impedes, might finally come to be. Heaven is also the place where I can develop the capacity for patient listening that my own busyness and insensitivity thwart.

In the 21st century, long hearthside chats are the exception rather than the norm. Part of the issue is that we’re busy, and another part of it is that many of us don’t have hearths, but a big part of it is that often we live so far away from each other that communication via electronic media is all we’ve got. So we make do. Still, I have to admit that Facebook feels like a pretty weak-tea version of heaven.

How do you create community in the electronic age? I’ve been very happy this year to join the BCC community (and I’ve especially enjoyed opportunities to break bread with BCC-ers). I’ve come to love people I haven’t met. So while we all long for the hearth, we have to find our second-bests. This is one of mine. What are yours, and how do you maintain them?

While you chew on that, listen to this fabulous setting of Teasdale’s poem by Susan Labarr. [4]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9kf9-HD4FE]

[1] From the posthumous collection Strange Victory, in The Collected Poems of Sara Teasdale (New York: Macmillan, 1940), 292.

[2] TPJS, 316. Yes, I tried to source this at the JSPP. If you can find it there, share a link in the comments.

[3] This one’s easy to find at the JSPP site: there’s a link on the homepage.

[4] Vast gratitude to Jim Kasen for introducing this piece to my life.

Comments

  1. Clarence Darrow echoed Joseph’s sentiments when he said: “[My wife] believes there is a heaven and a hell, but it won’t make any difference which one I go to – I’ll have so many good friends in both places.”

    Frankly, I’ve been so richly blessed in my life I question whether the next one will be an improvement. But I’m open to the possibility.

    Nice post.

  2. EFF: I honestly believe that if we don’t try to make heaven here, there’ll be little point in a next-life heaven. I recognize my privilege in saying this, though, as my life is such to give me fairly frequent tastes of heaven, and many people don’t have that experience.

  3. I concur, Jason. On all points.

  4. A beautiful post, Jason, expressing beautiful sentiments. Thank you.

    For me, then, I think that heaven almost has to involve sitting down with the people I love most and all working together to figure out our stuff. Heaven is the place where the loquaciousness that I long for here, but that circumstance (including my own awkwardness) impedes, might finally come to be. Heaven is also the place where I can develop the capacity for patient listening that my own busyness and insensitivity thwart.

    Yes and double-yes; that sounds very, very appealing to me. Though, I have to say, my affection for this vision with a proviso: the possible alternatives to a Schmittian sovereign–which, I agree, would certainly disrupt this kind of ideal discursive community of souls–are not, I feel confident, limited to the sort of vision usually associated with the King Follett Discourse. The implication of the KFD, in all of the accounts I’ve read, seems to me to be that of endless individuals endlessly progressing along an endless number of endless tracks. Meaning that we all, as supposedly perfected souls, would nonetheless never be in unity, and therefore not perfected; the conversation would always get broken off, at some point, when our distinct tracks diverge. To quote Hall and Oates, I can’t go for that. A society that is always “figuring out” is a society of endless growth and endless possibility, yes, but also endless repetition, endless returns to the same distinct tracks, always coming and going, talking of Michelangelo, a Nietzschean (Peckian?) hell. Give me some rest from that. I want to talk with my fellow souls, but also abide alongside them, united together, perfected by and through their (and my) presence in God’s grace with them. (Confucius’s Analects, 17:19: “What does Heaven ever say? Yet the four seasons are put in motion by it, and the myriad creatures receive their life from it. What does ever Heaven say?”)

  5. Thanks for sharing this, Jason K, it’s beautiful. I love the idea of heaven as the place where that burning frustration that can’t be articulated is finally worked out.

    I’m torn about whether the resolution that RAF hopes for is possible. Is God’s own existence free from tension? I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect we won’t have jerks around anymore. God deals with billions of them.

    To your point about Facebook as a heavenly archetype, I wrote a bit about that here: https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/09/16/through-a-social-network-darkly/

  6. This is all wonderful, Jason. Thank you. Especially for this: “… The words seem to well inside, but they never quite spill out onto paper in quite the way I think they should. So I imagine heaven as the space where we can, together, work out our stories.” That took my breath away.

    I long for the time when truth and beauty can flow freely between me and my sisters and brothers and our God. It happens in rare moments-usually when we are physically together, talking, laughing, embracing. Sometimes it happens with voices over the phone.

    I’ve never felt it in quite the same way via social media. Except perhaps when I actually know the person, have met her or him in the flesh and can connect words or pictures on the screen with their essence – that residue of my friend that stays with me even when we’re not physically together. Summoning images, feelings, sensations — memory keeps me connected to those I love. Memory is a wonderful gift. And the spirit that flows between us. That too.

  7. Also, I have a hearth and I am never happier than when friends and family are gathered there about.

  8. Russell: thanks as always for your comment. (And Eliot reference FTW.) I know that we have (ironically, in the context) diverging views of the KFD. But if you’re right about it, I can’t go there either. I’m with you all the way that sometimes quietly abiding with others is better than all the chatter. And, although I do love a good conversation, I’m an introvert, which I experience as a blessing rather than as a problem to be solved, so I hope that off to the side of the busy hearths, heaven will also entail quiet rooms of our own.

    Kyle: Yes, I think that God’s existence entails all kinds of tension. (Parting ways from McConkie here.) This post would be a vision of hell if, after a while (doesn’t matter how long, really) we manage to sort ourselves out. I think that ultimately heaven has to be a social place, because our interactions with each other are so complex that there’s always something more to work out. I suppose this does mean that there will still be les faux pas in heaven, and I suppose it might also mean that even God doesn’t get it right every time. (No, I’m not sure what to make of that. Who wants to talk it out over lunch?)

    As for Facebook, my feelings are pretty mixed. I, too, have had good experiences with it like the one you write about, and I’ve liked maintaining connections with long-disbanded groups of friends. Still, I’ve seen the often-shallow form of interaction that FB fosters break friendships that were good IRL. I’ve backed away from FB lately, and while I certainly miss the breadth (emphatically including contact with members of the extended BCC family), my life’s better for reduced exposure to some of the petty politics that I think the format encourages. Partly, this post is a response to some of the longing for deeper relationships that pushed me away from FB.

    Melody: I’m looking forward to having you in my home in a couple of weeks! No hearth for us, but we’ll make do.

  9. The Joseph Smith quote that you couldn’t source is from a discourse made on 23 July 1943 in Nauvoo and is in the Joseph Smith Diary (recorded by Willard Richards). It’s not up on the Joseph Smith Papers website yet, as they are still in process of posting all the documentation from April 1843 til Joseph’s martyrdom in 1844. The transcription of the discourse from that diary and others can be seen at http://www.boap.org/LDS/Parallel/1843/23Jul43.html

  10. So great! I had to forward this to several friends because we always feel cut off from the unclogging of our brains where the words get backed up by the demands of our lives.

  11. Mary Ann: thanks! I knew someone would come through!

    I’ve also learned today of a beautiful take on the Mormon theology of friendship by our own Kristine:

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2007/07/03/denn-der-herr-ist-freundlich-the-doctrine-of-friendship/

  12. I think “we fail to tell our stories adequately, even to ourselves” because of our earthly limits of knowledge and light, but especially, it seems to me, because of our limits of language to capture (both thinking and speaking or writing) what we really experience. I’ve wondered if there will be a way in heaven to transmit experiences (pardon the geeky reference, but something akin to the Vulcan Mind Meld) or if we will have some kind of gloriously improved language or superior communication method with which to socialize? While the idea of being free from interruption sounds heavenly at first, it seems that the meat of life, the real meaning for each one of us, is found precisely IN those very interruptions – a call to us from another soul who needs something. Perhaps I do not want to be freed from those after all. I can never fathom very well what it might be like to exist outside of time, though.

  13. Beautiful, envisioning, uplifting. I needed this. Thank you. I’m keeping a personal copy.

  14. Denver Snuffer Observer says:

    Threadjack deleted. Admin.

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    It would be interesting if people in the bloggernacle engaged this phenomenon we are seeing with DS, and perhaps also engaged those sympathetic to DS in places where they might be found (like LDS freedom forum) to offer thoughts on staying in the LDS Church vs. leaving.

    Sorry, but that sounds boring as *&%&. Predictable cat is predictable.

  16. Jen: much wisdom in your comment–especially your point about interruptions. And geeky references are always welcome around these parts!

  17. Jason, this is beautiful – and, secondary to the heavenly ability to tell our stories fully, I particularly like the connection to online communication. There is a special power in this sort of community for those who feel like they don’t quite fit in other places and can’t express themselves as openly as they can here.

  18. Miranda Wilcox says:

    Thanks Jason!

  19. I love that this expresses something I myself have never been able to articulate. I’m in a complex situation with a few family/friends/acquaintances who have drawn away and definitely not been able to understand my faith transition. I’ve had to reach out online for a support system. I imagine heaven as a place where those gaps close, and we “see” each other.

    ps no hearth but I have a killer bookcase to gather around
    pps I would love to live in a neighborhood where everyone was required to have big front porches of outside living space. Where instead of huddling downstairs in front of netflix we socialize outside naturally and organically without kid/adult “playdates” set up. That sounds like heaven on earth.

  20. Yes, there is something to be said for the front porch in addition to the hearth. And I’m all about great bookcases, but “killer bookcases” sounds like something Steve Peck would dream up.

  21. Fwiw, the musical setting of this poem is one of my absolute favorite choir songs to sing. Perfect as we approach thanksgiving. Link at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9kf9-HD4FE

  22. Ok, so somehow I missed on my phone that you had included the YouTube link already. My Bad. At least great minds think alike!

  23. Jason, you can get at various versions of King Follett here and here.

  24. Thanks, WVS. The parallel versions at BOAP are incredibly helpful.

  25. This tastes good. Thanks, Jason.

  26. You’re welcome, J. That’s one of my favorite lines from the KFD–maybe one of my favorite lines from JS, period.

  27. Jason- I love your second comment. I’ve always taken D&C 130:2 as motivation to create the kind of sociality in my life now that I feel is worth having in the world to come. Great post.