God is Here, Not "Out There"!
Here in the midst of the Christmas season our awareness of the meaning of the Incarnation is particularly heightened. In reflecting on this mystery, we commonly speak about Jesus “leaving Heaven” or “leaving the Father” to become one of us, to take on human nature. I submit that while there is certainly some truth in such formulas, they are potentially more dangerous than they are useful, in that they unintentionally reinforce erroneous understandings of Heaven and of God’s transcendence, understandings which unwittingly lead us towards a deistic conception of God “out there” which is manifestly false and contrary to Christianity.
Because we are material beings and experience reality “sensually”, it’s natural for us to think of heaven in geographic or spatial terms, and such language has some biblical pedigree: we read about God dwelling in the heavens, and about Jesus literally ascending from the Apostles to the Father. It seems to me, however, that popular piety sometimes takes such language too far, to the point that we fail to grasp the deeper significance and nature of heaven, and more importantly, the meaning of God’s transcendence and his paternal care for creation, man in particular.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear on this: heaven isn’t a place, but is a state (the same is true for purgatory and hell, for that matter), a state in which we see God as He is (to the degree this is possible for the glorified human being), or better, a state in which we dwell with God and in God, in the bosom of the Trinity, in the embrace of Triune love. To be in heaven is to be in ecstatic love, literally. (This is one way, incidentally, to show that heaven isn’t “boring”: anyone who has been madly & deeply in love can testify to the fact that it’s not boring!) The Catechism describes heaven as “perfect life with the Trinity,” “the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme happiness,” and that “to live in heaven is ‘to be with Christ’” (CCC 1024, 1025).
But by conceiving even implicitly of heaven as a place, we consequently — albeit unintentionally — “remove” God (the Father) from us, from the sphere of our existence, placing him “out there” with the god of the deists. No: God’s transcendence is ontological, not geographical: his “distance” from us is at the level of being, not of physical measurement. Our tradition speaks of God as both transcendent and immanent, but this can only be properly understood when we refrain from conceiving of transcendence in a physical manner. God is Other, but He is also With Us: Emmanuel!
God is Love, and He is deeply in love with us. Let’s not let the limitations of language and our modes of knowing lead us to forget that our destiny is in the bosom of the Father who is always-already with us.