Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It

by Jeffrey Burton Russell

Published by Oxford University Press

224 pages, 2006




Paradise Found

Reviewed by Pedro Blas Gonzalez

Immortality. Heaven. God. These ideas have defined entire civilizations and served as existential orientation in the lives of many individuals. Transcendence also seems a fitting addition to this list. The gravitas that these words once elicited was never in doubt. Instead, anchoring life in the security and solidity of certainty, these venerable ideas acted as moral and spiritual guideposts.

For historian and author, Jeffrey Burton Russell, these vital concepts also exhibited the additional dimension of being exciting intellectual cornerstones of myth, religion and social/political organization. With close to 20 books to his credit, Paradise Mislaid is Russell's examination of the history of transcendence that most cultures have identified as heaven. Professor Russell's insightful series on the history of the devil is, in the estimation of this writer, the single most in-depth and penetrating study of this subject. Satan: The Early Christian Tradition (1981), Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages (1984), Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (1986) and The Prince of Darkness: Evil and the Power of Good in History (1988) offer a panoramic view of good and evil and how this has helped shaped man's view of his place in the cosmos. This series of books is unique and unparalleled by any other historian.

Paradise Mislaid is a follow up work to the author's equally well regarded 1997 book, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence. Even though these may sound like heavy topics, we can quickly dispel any apprehension on behalf of some readers who might imagine these books to be off limits given their subject matter. Russell is both knowledgeable and a gifted, clear writer.

Taking the notion of heaven seriously, Russell is not content to offer a desultory treatment of this idea. Instead, he challenges the denizens of modish "post-modernity" and the cult of cool to an intelligent dual that the aforementioned refuse to engage in. Russell tantalizes the reader with a sound grasp of historical fact and an abundance of logical perspicuity. Russell's approach is also passionate and vital, a clear indication that ideas not only matter, but that they have consequences. Consider his acumen in describing the dominant psychology of this flippant age:

In many milieus today it has simply become uncool to believe in heaven -- or God for that matter. It is fashionable to erect a defensive wall of cynicism, arrogance, and irony around oneself. Cleverness trumps conviction and trendiness trumps truth. "Coolness" is a social posture designed to defend the self by disguising it from others and even from ourselves. It is meaningless to ask why something is uncool; it is entirely a matter of fashion. Coolness is not a philosophical position and so cannot be argued against.

Careful not to water down the historical conception of heaven, Russell manages a concrete working of this concept that is rather philosophical, yet mundane and approachable. Again, the success of Paradise Mislaid has everything to do with the author's desire to think along with the reader and not necessarily to pontificate. But he also safeguards the integrity of the subject at hand by not incorporating frameless, relativist "interpretations" that merely protect what is often nothing more than the convenient hedonism of its proponents. He explains: "Heaven exists now. The word 'now' can mean either the dimensionless, timeless point forever moving between past and future, or the eternal now that comprises past and future."

Russell's well rounded attention to the topics of immortality, heaven and God are rather impressive. His arguments for free will and the existence of God, too, are skillful but never ponderous. He takes on Freud and the subsequent psychoanalysis establishment with the same ease that he engages Kant, the Enlightenment and 20th century existentialism. Of Freud he asserts: "According to Freud, the religious urge was the product of the Oedipus complex and has no root in external reality; moreover, since it is irrational, it blocks the way of the Progress from animism through religion to science."

The author's understanding of the failure of psychoanalysis as a science, even though a formidable industry is made evident when he explains: "Freud's views, though owing something to both Darwin and Sir James Frazer, were imaginatively original. Since religion is nothing but the projection of internal neuroses upon the external world, God and heaven are simply infantile fantasies that shackle us with promises of happiness in another world."

But Heaven Mislaid is not solely an exposition of the history of heaven. The book also presents a powerful indictment of all contemporary forms of crass physicalism. Russell reminds us: "Whether one 'believes in heaven' or 'doesn't believe in heaven,' the most meaningful and fullest way to understand it is through its tradition. It remains stunning that the cosmos exists, that life exists, and that consciousness exists." | January 2007

Pedro Blas Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Amongst his intellectual pursuits is his interest in the relationship that exists between subjectivity, self-autonomy and philosophy.