Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finding Heaven Here

Review of John C. Robinson, Finding Heaven Here (O Books, 2009).

It is hard to know how to approach this book.  It flows without pause from the language of religion into that of psychotherapy.  Within this, a whole range of authorities are cited.  Most are Christian, but representatives of all major religious groups can be found here, and even an atheist or two.  From this mass of material, Robinson spins a web of experiential religion that he implies, not least by the variety of his quotations, should work for all people.  The simplicity of his offer is just this: ‘I found heaven on earth, and so can you’ (p. 9).

His thesis is simple.  Heaven is present all around us right now, if only we would learn to see it. ‘Heaven on Earth lies here, wherever you are, right now, always full and always enough’ (p. 2).  But we do not see Heaven on Earth, rather we need help to see it.  It ‘arrives through a change of consciousness’ (p. 4), and Robinson provides many exercises to enable that change to be experienced.  Above all he sets up ‘Heaven’s Compass’, which ‘represents a navigational tool, a method of understanding and a spiral journey towards a goal’ (p. 38).  Robinson’s discovery of this compass is the way to find Heaven on Earth.  En route, he draws in a huge range of spiritual guides.  A 40 page appendix of quotations from Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Native American Spirituality, Mythology, Archaeology, Naturalists, Etymology, Poetry, Mystical Experiences, Ordinary Experiences and Aging provides supporting evidence. 

But this is precisely where the whole thing begins to fall apart.  There is a profound insight from many traditions, as Robinson illustrates well, that suggests that Heaven is indeed wrapped up with the world as we encounter it.  But Robinson’s vast collection of quotations are selective and utterly divorced from their context.  The moment one starts to pick at them, they come apart at the seams.  Thus, Robinson quotes Luke 17.21 (‘the kingdom of God is among you’), but omits the whole range of other material in the Gospels that speak of the kingdom as something that is coming.  An introductory course in the New Testament would have caught so basic an error.

Things get worse, as Robinson utterly fails to deal with the historical realities of pain and hardship.  ‘A new kind of life has begun as I witness what the Bible alludes to as a “new Heaven and new Earth” (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1), that is, a new heavenly consciousness and the divine realm it reveals, a life readily available to all of us when we finally learn to see’ (p. 22).  Robinson’s Heaven on Earth is an escape from the hard realities of life.  Both Isaiah and John of Patmos would dissent – they offer hope to those enduring the aftermath of exile and the horrors of persecution.  Robinson’s decontextualized approach could only have been written in comfort.  When he writes that Heaven on Earth ‘lies as close as sun sparkling on water on a pond outside your window, the gently moving branches of the tree in your yard or the sound of children laughing in the next room’ (p. 3), he betrays a context to this writing that is never acknowledged.

There is little more to this book than the power of positive thinking.  The so-called ‘Heaven’s Compass’ is a form of Gnosticism, a technique for the enlightened and the initiate (albeit a more democratic Gnosticism where purchasing Robinson’s book is the only requirement for initiation).  Of course, Robinson has a warning for reviewers like me: ‘If you limit your vision with negative beliefs, you’ll miss the magic this book has to offer’ (p. 9).

There is little to recommend this book.  The most basic of critical questions finds no answer.  It is experiential religion that is selective about the experiences it includes and removes them from any context at all.  If experiential religion is what you want, go for a walk and talk to the people you meet.  There’s more value in time spent walking and talking than in reading this book.

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