Of course we’re not talking literally “up.” That would lead to all sorts of absurdities. We’re speaking metaphorically, which is to say that we’re speaking psychologically. So how do we get at the meaning of the metaphor? – by playing with it until we begin to see through it as through a lens and by doing a sort of archeological dig into language, collecting instances of the metaphor buried there. After all, language is a repository of lived experience. And here’s the crux: in seeking to understand why heaven is up we have to see through the metaphor to the lived experience it evokes.
Growing up: developmental
In a young child’s world they are surrounded by people who are taller, more powerful, experienced, knowledgeable, capable and have a more complete perspective. The literal difference in height becomes a metaphor for all that goes with maturity. The phrases being raised (nurtured by those more powerful to see beyond the immediate moment etc.), growing up (becoming more capable), looking up to someone (respecting and taking them as an example to be lived up to), looking down upon (seeing another as less capable and less worthy of respect) flesh out the metaphor.
Verticality as lived by a child (a child of God even) is connected to images of heaven when we experience God as a parental figure. Living God as a parent has other implications. Parents chastise and correct, helping children to live uprightly-to be upstanding citizens so that they live with integrity and affirm the dignity of others. Parents, recognizing that children naturally strive to be like them, (hopefully) teach by example and try not to bring them down or leave them downtrodden.
Being upright: ethical
This connection in the parental metaphor to accountability (as a child to a parent) brings us to ethical aspect of the vertical metaphor. Looking up to someone and holding them up as an example means you try to measure up to the standard they represent. Once you know where you stand, and you learn to take a stand, live what you believe (live an upright life) and hold your head high.
But be careful. Pride comes before the fall: don’t get uppity and put yourself above others.
Vertical is the dimension of striving – even striving for virtue. We strive for new heights and climb the ladder (or the mountain). The metaphor works because it is grounded in bodily experience: standing up and climbing require that we oppose gravity. So it is that can also speak of the fall, our fallen nature, Satan’s falling from grace and his being condemned to crawl on his belly (Gen 3:14). The pursuit of virtue (being upright) requires that we remain vigilant and resist the gravity of our fallen nature.
And be wary of the perils of unrestrained ambition – the vertical without a connection to the divine (to what is greater). The Tower Babel was doomed because they sought to reach the heights of heaven on their own power. Icarus, throwing caution to the wind, flew too high and fell to his death while his father, Daedulus, respecting the limits of his man-made wings, lived and was later given wings by Athena so he could fly like the gods. Humility is to participate in divinity as a gift.The Latin root of humility is humus, meaning earth. Humility is having both feet on the ground. It is accurate self knowledge; not puffed up, nor beaten down. It is grounded in a connection to what is larger than oneself (and outside one’s control) whether that be the cosmos, divinity or the human community.
The mountaintop experience: spiritual
And yet it’s worth climbing the mountain. You see more from up there and with distance comes perspective. On the mountain you begin to see the interconnectedness of all things and people. (Seeing the Earth from orbit feeds the ecology movement.) The power of that perspective is in our instinctive desire to weave a coherent life story – to have life make sense – and in a cosmological context: my life is part of the whole. The spiritual drive is to live a connection to something larger than oneself and the mountaintop experience is about that connection.
And so Christians seek God on the mountaintop for God has the ultimate perspective (the heavens are above even the mountains), stands both outside and inside creation, is all-knowing and tells the biggest stories relevant even on the smallest of scales. So it is that on the mountain we are uplifted (rather then feeling down).
It is on the mountaintop where Jesus is transfigured and the disciples glimpse his divinity and his place in the grand scheme of salvation history. And, not surprisingly, they don’t want to leave. The mountaintop is the quintessential experience of transcendence – both an elevated state of spiritual awareness in the divine presence and a sort of freedom from the weight/gravity of everyday existence (that can bring us down.) Taken in the wrong dose it can be a way getting high and avoiding the messiness of living. Or we can bring the mountaintop down with us when we remember, when we allow what we gained there to change us and matter in our lives and when we lift our hearts in prayer.
The cross & the paschal mystery: vertical and horizontal
In our exploration of the spatial metaphor of verticality as the spiritual dimension we have arrived at the perennial danger of spiritual experience (the vertical) being disconnected from daily life (the horizontal.) The Christian answer is in Jesus, God incarnate, the unity of divinity and humanity, the intersection point of heaven and earth who hung on a cross – a symbol of the intersection between the vertical and horizontal. His teaching pointed to a loving God and his living showed what that meant concretely. The story goes that he was raised up on a cross, died, was buried, descended into hell, raised up to new life, sent his Spirit, and ascended into heaven (vertical)– all for us (horizontal). Christians participate in this vertical movement in baptism and through difficult transformative experiences: “take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
Heaven is up
So the answer at hand is a psychological one-one based on how we live verticality and how express what we live through vertical metaphor. The metaphor – as with all metaphors – is a mode of understanding – a lens through which we see and make sense of the worlds and our experience.
Gathered here in the down side of the metaphor – as a cautionary tale – are disrespect of others, being demeaned, pridefulness, denial, death and the consequences of striving without a connection with what is greater than oneself. Gathered in the up side of the metaphor are nurture, coming to maturity, becoming capable and aware, respecting and being respected, being and finding examples to emulate, living with integrity, affirming the dignity of others, being humble, life itself-especially new life, transcendence, purpose and seeing/living the connectedness of all things.
Verticality with its developmental, ethical and spiritual facets is a means for imagining heaven. And the metaphor of heaven as up has a trajectory – a progression toward a goal – a striving of sorts. The metaphor points to heaven.