Russell’s Paradise Mislaid

Here is a quick review of Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Paradise Mislaid: How We Lost Heaven and How We Can Regain It (OUP, 2006).

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Russell is Emeritus Professor of History at UC Santa Barbara with works that include Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages (UC Press, 1965) and Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians (Greenwood/Praeger, 1991). He is best known for his five volumes on the history of the Devil, beginning with The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity (Cornell University Press, 1977).

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This is the only book from Professor Russell that I have read. From what I’ve gathered, he was raised in a skeptical, nonreligious household but converted to Christianity at some point in his career. His faith is evident on occasion in the book as he’ll take a modest apologetic stance, and the book’s title indicates as much. But this is the work of a historian and scholar of religion.

Paradise Mislaid is not exactly what I was expecting. If you look at the subtitle, you would expect roughly equal treatment of how we lost heaven and how we can regain it. But the book is overwhelmingly focused on explaining the former: how we lost heaven. Beginning with the second chapter (p. 17) and straight through until the end of the sixth chapter (p. 132), Russell gives a sweeping and sufficiently detailed survey of how the West lost heaven. The book is only 162 pages, or 210 pages with endnotes and the index.

He focuses on the intellectual currents. There is scarcely an important name that does not get some attention, especially figures in the modern period who populate the bulk of the book. Galileo, Locke, Newton, Descartes, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Comte, Darwin, Marx, and Freud are all here. It was nice to see a few others who do not always get their due in these sort of surveys, such as Herbert Spencer. There is also a number of literary figures, such as Mark Twain. The end point of this historical trek is “physicalism,” the term Russell prefers over “materialism” and “naturalism,” and is illustrated in Charles Sanders Peirce and Bertrand Russell, among others. Physicalism is defined as “the belief that any statement must be reducible to a precise statement about matter and energy in order to have meaning or truth” (13).

This belief is not itself derived from the natural sciences. “Physicalists claimed to scorn metaphysics, yet their own supposition that the cosmos is merely physical is itself metaphysical” (70). The reader will be disappointed that this crucial feature of Russell’s rebuttal and overall counterargument is never fully developed. In the remaining thirty pages of the book, the reader expects to find a program of some sort for regaining heaven, i.e., regaining the metaphysics necessary for the concept. Perhaps Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies (OUP, 2011) serves this need better. There is a discussion of intelligent design (137-140), which Russell argues is at least every bit as legitimate a postulate from science as physicalism and thus “restored a balance” in the discussion (140). There is a lot of questions remaining, but not surprisingly, given that Russell’s training is in history and religious studies, not philosophy.

Yet, Russell is skillful at explaining philosophers and scientists and others in his lengthy survey of Western thought, which is (as noted above) the large majority of the book’s content (pp. 17-132). So, whereas the book’s weakness is in its attempt to “regain” heaven, the book’s strength is in this section detailing how we lost it. I said above that this survey is “sufficiently detailed,” though that is more by way of breadth instead of depth. Russell breathlessly moves from one thinker to another, one idea to another, and this has the advantage of allowing the reader to get a sense of the whole. The specialist would not likely be satisfied with any given summary, but the student will benefit.

So, what about heaven? Thus far, I have not discussed heaven at all. And there is in fact not much about heaven in this book. The reason is because Paradise Mislaid is a follow-up to his 1997 book, A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (Princeton University Press). If I had read this book, I would probably have a much better sense of Russell’s discussion of metaphor. Metaphor, or “depth metaphor” as he likes to say, is featured in the opening chapter and closing chapters of Paradise Mislaid, and it is also crucial (in addition to rebutting physicalism) for his thesis about regaining heaven in Western consciousness. I found this to be underdeveloped in this book. Even though he presents his work on heaven and metaphor in the prior book, I would have liked to see it developed here again in relation to the problem of physicalism. Albeit limited here, his account of metaphor is important and well-stated. For example:

Our idea of heaven is a metaphor for heaven itself. Statements such as “heaven is just a metaphor” or “heaven is nothing but a metaphor” ignore the fact that every human idea is a metaphor and that some of those metaphors are pointed toward reality. None is more pointed to reality than heaven, the metaphor that draws all depth metaphors toward it and into it. Heaven is the metaphor of metaphors, where all confusion and all pretension are caught up in loving truth. Metaphor grows in richness and reference unless we are taught to block it out. (156)

To believe in heaven is to believe in ideals beyond which humans never reached. My previous book A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence explored the rich paradoxes of heaven. Here, I will say only that heaven is liberation, freedom, fulfillment of the individual self in vast horizons, fulfillment of the social self through participation; and liberation of the divine self in the presence of God. (161)

As a final note, this book is much more than about heaven. Heaven serves, as indicated in the above excerpts, as a comprehensive metaphysical concept. It’s the fulfillment of man’s life with God and with each other. If heaven is lost, Russell seems to say, then God is lost and so is man. As a concept, heaven in Russell’s account will appear to many as too undefined in concrete terms. He is not interested, at least not in this book, in speculations about the spatial properties of heaven or, a la N. T. Wright, in relation to the Pauline “new heavens and new earth.” Russell favors negative theology and “negative metaphorical theology” (120-121, 154), and he will commend Eastern Orthodoxy throughout the book, albeit in only brief passing remarks.

With this inclination toward negative theology, Russell is completely undisturbed by the drastic cosmological shift inaugurated by Copernicus and Galileo. Heaven is not “up,” except metaphorically, but the metaphor points to something real. It is beyond our comprehension. It is shrouded in mystery, the mystery proper to God. But it is real and not merely a projection of our wishes and aspirations, as taught by Feuerbach, Freud, B. Russell, R. Dawkins, etc.

I recommend the book, but its value will depend on how much expertise the reader brings. If you are conversant with the development of Western thought in modernity, then most of this book will only be a refresher.

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