A Skeptic’s Heaven


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

This is going to sound really strange coming from me, your faithful Skeptic In Residence. But, strange or not, here goes ... I believe in Heaven. Don't be in too big a hurry to pick your chin up off the floor or to sponge up the residual drool, because I'm now about to tell you something even stranger: I have been there. But ... make of the following what you will ...clouds

It is September of 2008. My wife Diane and I are in Hilo, Hawaii, on the Big Island, where Diane and her younger brother Brian were born and raised. Diane's mother is in the hospital, in high spirits, recovering quite nicely from a broken leg. Diane's father is in the same hospital, struggling with ... well ... just about everything, especially pulmonary problems ... but mostly with just being well over 90 years old. In fact, the hospital has arranged that my parents-in-law share the same room. Dad Iwashita’s birthday is in a few days, but he dies on 15 September, just a couple of days before his birthday and his Buddhist funeral is scheduled on his birthday itself. (In fact, at the funeral, the first thing the presiding Buddhist sensei did was to lead us all in singing "Happy Birthday" to Dad Iwashita. If that seems in poor taste, it is only because you were not there.) Mom Iwashita has recovered enough to allow her to attend and participate. She has asked me to give the eulogy.

A large crowd of family and friends attend, from both the Big Island and Honolulu (on the island of O'ahu). The atmosphere is festive. We have a large reception and lunch – actually, a feast -- after the funeral ceremony. Since the two parts of the family live on separate islands, they see one another in person only rather sporadically.  So there's a lot of catching-up.  There's also a lot of laughter and boisterous joking, much reminiscing and sharing of memories, some tears -- grief, of course, but even the grief was bittersweet, at worst. (Dad Iwashita had a sense of humor so dry as to be downright arid:  if he told a joke, you might well not get it right away, but when his joke did "hit", you'd best not have a mouthful of anything. A lot of the conversation consisted of re-telling "Dad Iwashita's greatest hits".)  Diane, Mom Iwashita, and I are very much in the thick of it, with our own memories and jokes.


For me, the eulogy and its aftermath were ... magical, ineffable ... I'm searching for words ... . Diane's family -- what I fondly call "Iwashita Nation" -- has always welcomed me. But on that particular day, I felt welcomed into their hearts, their souls, with a special intimacy. I remember the heat. I remember the taste of the food. I remember the smell of the flowers. I remember all that as if it were right now. I was aware. I would not have been surprised to look at my wristwatch and see that the numbers had stopped changing. I felt shell-shocked -- but in a good, even an ecstatic, way. I felt the ground under my feet, but I seemed to float. Nothing had changed. Yet everything had changed. The universe sang. Everything -- but most especially the people -- seemed to "stand in glory, shine like stars, appareled in a light serene", as the venerable old Anglican hymn has it. So did I. What kept running through my mind was a quotation from Julian of Norwich's Shewings of Divine Love: "All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be most well". To whatever extent it can be expressed in words, that, in fact, is the keynote of what I felt interiorly: not "hyper-vigilant", not “on guard”, quite the contrary: just keenly, almost preternaturally, alert; yet superlatively calm and at peace.

I did not hear voices or see angels, nor did I have any mystic visions, nor did I encounter a "Great White Light". The world I lived and moved in was thoroughly and entirely this world. There was no transcendent world. There was only this world, the same yet transformed ... yet transformed by being seen as it is. In fact, distinctions like "transcendent" and "immanent" seemed, not just incoherent, but laughable. Perhaps it was like the world Thomas Merton described in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, the world he saw in a similar vision while he stood on a street corner in Louisville, KY, in 1958. I don't know. All I know is that for at least 24, maybe 36, hours I inhabited a world that had finally become itself ... or perhaps a world I had finally seen as it really was ... as it really is.

I think I stood where Emily stood, after she died, in Thornton Wilder's unforgettable play Our Town:

Emily: So all that was going on and we never noticed. ... Goodbye to clocks ticking ... and mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths. Oh earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any humans ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some.

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I did. Some.  That day. That, I believe, is heaven. Listen ... maybe there is another world. Maybe there is an afterlife. Maybe there is neither. I don't know. Remember: I am still a skeptic. But precisely because I am a skeptic, precisely because I credit my own experience, precisely because I have a visceral hostility toward uncritically accepting anyone's "finite answers" to "infinite questions" -- for all those reasons, I strongly suspect that one of the more tragicomic ironies of religion is what I now regard as the very real possibility -- I'm tempted to say "probability" -- that we, none of us, need to strive to "go home". Maybe we are already there. Now.

"Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation." -- II Corinthians 6:2 (KJV)

James R. Cowles

Categories: Spirituality


  1. Terri said on April 3, 2014
    The Kingdom is within you. :)
  2. Terri said on April 3, 2014
    Actually, on a more realistic note, I don't really believe in a heaven "out there" somewhere. Of course, I can't know that for sure, but that is my general thought. But I do believe in the inbreaking of heaven--tiny glimpses of what that loving perfection would be like if the entirety of us all got our butts in gear and loved one another!
    1. jrcowles said on April 3, 2014
      Yes ... Exactly. I am VERY skeptical about heaven as a place. But I am not (any longer) skeptical of heaven as a ... well ... certain "quality" or "modality" of interpersonal relationship. Here and now. This completely bypasses, by saying nothing either way about, whether there is a heaven, an afterlife in the more conventional sense. I don't know about that. No one knows. Many believe. No one knows. But I do know what I experienced on this -- and on a few other occasions I didn't have the space to discuss.
  3. Terri said on April 3, 2014
    Ooo...one more thing...my tradition includes experience as a guiding principle. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. :)
    1. jrcowles said on April 3, 2014
      And one's personal experience gains credibility from corroboration with others' experiences and their common similarities. OTOH -- remember: I'm still a skeptic -- it is fair to ask how far it is legitimate to follow this "similarities-with-diversity" criterion. There are similarities in people's accounts if having been abducted by UFO inhabitants ... and UFOs themselves. On the OTHER other hand, the "commonality" criterion is implicitly inended to render the experience OBJECTIVELY real, and not a matter of mere perception or taste. So it is equally legitimate to ask if objective reality is necessarily a criterion of objective -- or, anyway, trans-personal -- truth. We all have certain beliefs, principles, and perceptions that cannot be objectively substantiated, but that we regard as binding, even to the point of encoding them into law. E.g., the incest taboo, sex with minors, etc. (Stat rape with a condom is still stat rape.) None of these issues can be addressed, absent some more or less explicit idea of what constitutes "The Real".
  4. PoetJanstie said on September 18, 2014
    I am tempted to say that mindfulness is what we need to experience your ... Or rather our own version of heaven, JRC, but that would be just putting a label on it and is too pretentious for words. Each of us is unique in ourselves and our observation of the world, none of us can truly find that 'heaven' through the prescription of an establishment, be it Church or other organised religion. Only by some form of relaxed mindfulness or perhaps by good fortune one day, to be in the most relaxed and receptive frame of mind, will we be able to experience our own version of your 'heaven'. Thanks once again for your insightful writing.

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