Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Hierarchy in Heaven

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The modern world is so permeated with egalitarianism that we cannot think straight.

Because reality is not egalitarian;  reality is hierarchical.

Especially, Heaven is hierarchical.

And this is profoundly important to Christian life on earth.

Indeed, the purpose of life on earth substantially depends on Heaven being hierarchical.

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If Heaven was not hierarchical, then life after death would ultimately be dichotomous (salvation or damnation, heaven or hell, all or nothing) and life on earth would be drained of meaning except to ensure that one ended-up on the right side of the line.

If Heaven was egalitarian, then (once the soul was in heaven) there would be no difference whatsoever between a Saint and and a last-moment-repented sinner - leading to the question of why bother to struggle, to practice the virtues: why strive to be a Saint?

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There are two matters to consider: salvation and theosis.

In a sense, salvation is 'easy': we are told it is 'merely' a matter of believing in one's heart that Jesus Christ is Lord.

But what then?

What about all the rest of a Christian life with which the Church is concerned? What about prayer? What about religious practices? Living by the Law.

What does all this achieve? Is is merely a matter of insurance?

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The answer is simple: Heaven is hierarchical, and once salvation is attained then life on this earth is (crudely put) about attaining the highest possible rank in Heaven.

This is what the Eastern Orthodox Church calls 'theosis' - the main purpose of a Christian life - the process of becoming more God-like while on earth, the process of coming into closer communion with God.

The highest attainable Heavenly rank is Sainthood.

And while still alive on earth, a Saint will live both on earth and simultaneously in Heaven; a Saint experiences Heaven while still on earth (his head in Heaven while his feet walk the earth).

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Why am I so sure that Heaven is hierarchical? Because that is what we are told: not once but many times.

Angels are arranged in a hierarchy.

The Old Testament prophets are arranged in a hierarchy (with some accorded higher rank - such as Abraham, Moses, Isaiah).

The Saints are arranged in a hierarchy (with some accorded higher rank - such as Mary the Mother of God, St John the Baptist - and among more modern Saints and martyrs, some are accorded a higher degree of veneration).

Heaven is permeated by hierarchy.

If that bothers us, then that is our problem.

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Christian life, then, is first of all a matter of salvation: but once salvation is attained then it is a matter of steps towards, or away-from, communion with God.

That is the main job of life.

And rank in Heaven is (roughly) a matter of where this process has reached at the time of death.

After death, the possibility for changing rank in heaven more-or-less ceases: in Heaven we remain what we have become while on earth.

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However, the Christian does not know while on earth exactly what rank he will have in Heaven.

And indeed, there is the big, constant problem of spiritual pride to contend with - whereby the striving for higher Heavenly rank may be subverted by the desire for spiritual status while on earth.

Spiritual pride is the desire for recognition (while on earth) that one possesses a more advanced degree of spirituality than is actually deserved.

Pride can force a wedge between spiritual status as recognized by the (inevitably corrupt) Church on earth, and the reality of Heaven.

And spiritual pride can mean that we believe that while on earth we have the power to discern our own deserved spiritual rank in Heaven.

Ultimately, this can lead to damnation - hence the pitfalls of striving for Sainthood, temptations so well recognized in the Orthodox tradition.

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Furthermore, we know that the hierarchy of Heaven is almost the reverse of the hierarchy on earth (the rich man rated lower than the poor man, the humblest ranked highest etc.)

This is not a matter of precise inversion of earthly hierarchy - because theosis is a matter of free will, of choices; but that the higher one's status on earth, the harder it is to attain high status in Heaven.

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Hence the traditions of Holy poverty, Holy asceticism, and Holy fools.

To be poor and humble, to suffer, to be regarded as a fool and to be devout is at least correlated with the highest rewards in Heaven.

(And vice versa.)

So these are things that those highest in status on earth need to do to increase the chance of being justly rewarded by higher rank in Heaven.

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What does high rank in Heaven actually mean, and why should we want it? Would it not be enough to have the lowest rank?

These are deep questions to which we apparently do not have such clear answers.

The best answer may be along the lines that we get what we want: when we are full of pride then we do not want the closest communion with God for eternity; and we will get what we want to the degree that we want it.


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