Heaven and Hell and why we still think
it's important to study them
By Diane Christian
SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of English
'VE TAUGHT AT UB FOR ALMOST 30 YEARS, half my life, and as I survey UB and me in 2000 I'm struck by where I am. I came to this public university from private and Catholic schools--Johns Hopkins, where I took my advanced degrees, and Nazareth College in Rochester, where I taught for two years, one as a nun and the next as a secular. I chose UB's famous English department over Berkeley's--which, oddly, seemed like a convent in comparison with the cowboy culture here. I very much wanted to be out of a religious and into a secular world.|
Yet in my first year at UB the free-wheeling English department asked me to teach "The Bible as Literature." I declined, saying that I wasn't competent in the Bible, though I was a Blakean and often joked that William Blake, my dissertation subject and a great religious poet and artist, had wrestled me out of the convent. I had also studied at Johns Hopkins with William Foxwell Albright, one of the finest biblical scholars ever. My chair persisted, "Well, you've read it, haven't you?" He was puzzled at an ex-nun's hesitation and clearly viewed the class as metaphors for Milton, not the tumultuous thicket of theology, religion, history, archaeology, criticism, controversy and politics the Bible really represents.
So I acceded and taught it, only because I was asked, and I included Freud's Moses and Monotheism, as well as anthropology, to demonstrate that I wasn't doing religion. Then for 28 more years I continued to teach it--loving it, loving the challenge of teaching it, and loving that the course was enormously popular. I attributed the course's popularity to the huge hunger of the young for meaning. I also understood very well the range of responses between faith and critique.
This year I'm teaching "Heaven, Hell and Judgment," a survey of great texts and images from 3000 b.c. to modern film. I'm teaching it as I do the Bible, under the mantle of literature and art, but it's also hot and tricky material. I have to admit now that these interests are my own, not a chair's imposition, and that I'm very interested in religious thinking.
Public universities often have a kind of post- Enlightenment character--not only resolutely and constitutionally secular but even antagonistic to religion. In my own literary discipline, myth and story are often
scorned or condemned. People are sometimes surprised that I teach and have made documentary films because they think mythic approaches are the opposite of critical or objective thinking. In my mythology courses I point to the doubleness of the word "myth": the positive meaning is "sacred narrative"; the negative is "falsehood." Robert Graves cannily remarked that "Mythology is somebody else's religion." Science, I often point out, is a sacred narrative, believed as true. Human thinking analyzes and synthesizes; we forge systems of meaning whether we will or no. As Blake wrote, "Man must and will have Some Religion."|
André Malraux predicted that the 21st century will be the century of religion. Many fear religion as oppressive superstition and a rationalization of violence; many others see it as our best hope for peace, a stay against meaninglessness and anarchy, fearing with Dostoyevsky that if God doesn't exist everything is permitted. It's a cliché that polite conversation avoids religion and politics because they generate conflict. Blake--who said, "Are not Religion & Politics the Same Thing?"-- applauded conflict as necessary, saying that without contraries there is no progression. He recommended mental, not corporeal, warfare. This for me defines intellectual life, a great democratic ideal, and the public university. We need to clarify these profoundly human struggles.
I have great confidence in the hunger of the young for meaning. I remember being there myself and resolving my anguish with a radical religious choice and then another radical secular one. Many things have changed in these 30 years. My students study the images for Heaven, Hell and Judgment on a website, and they e-mail me and I them at all hours of the day and night. Technology lets them roam and access and explore. But basically it's that same hard human tricky conversation we're about. We number our days still trying to figure out the meaning of life. And the public university remains a rare and wonderful free ground where we formally explore the contraries together.
Newsweek did a recent cover story about the Apocalypse. One of my students said of it, "It's pretty good, but it doesn't really have an opinion. That's why we study these things, isn't it--so we can?"
Diane Christian has received numerous honors for her teaching, including the 1991 State of New York and United University Professions Excellence Award. She is also a documentary filmmaker, having made prize-winning films on the condemned on death row, former nuns, and poet Robert Creeley with her colleague and husband, SUNY Distinguished Professor Bruce Jackson.