“CAN a Cambridge college go to heaven?” It was the first creative question that I can remember posing to a theologian. “Will institutions remain?” It has been on my mind ever since, and it’s a good question for Advent, the season of eschatology and the Last Things.
Eighteen years ago, a term into my theological studies, I saw that Christian thinkers had focused, for the most part, on the destiny of the individual. More recently, we had somewhat redressed the balance, wondering about the redemption of the cosmos as a whole.
That leaves us, though, looking only at either the whole or at individual parts. What about the eternal destiny of intermediate-sized things: of colleges, universities, nations, guilds, trade unions, the Royal Horticultural Society? Could they have a distinct place in the life of the world to come?
I put that question to Denys Turner, then Cambridge Professor of Philosophy of Religion, after a lecture. Could a college participate in the life of the world to come? His reply was swift and brutal: “How long have you been in Cambridge? Not long enough. Colleges won’t find a place in heaven. Although . . . in the other place, maybe.”
The first time I stuck my head above the parapet to ask a question, I got short shrift: a quip, not a reply. At least, I hope that the damnation of Cambridge colleges was a humorous quip, not a considered opinion.
WHERE might we look for resources to address this question? We have encountered two perspectives already. There is the long tradition that would think only of the individual. Colleges or societies would be beside the point: individuals, not universities, can see God (or not); individuals, not rugby clubs, can respond to grace (or not); individuals, not collectives, have an immortal destiny.
The other extreme is talk about the redemption of absolutely everything. Of late, that proposal often been directed towards other animals, but we might extend it to take in associations. It takes to itself the poignant words of Jesus after the feeding of the five thousand: “Gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6.12). Perhaps even societies and guilds are scooped up in the end.
Nothing is lost, perhaps, but it’s a profligate way to find room for collective enterprises in the life of the world to come, if the only route that we can imagine for their preservation puts them alongside every last pelican, plankton, or petunia.
An alternative would consider what it means to be authentically human. Forms of association, belonging, and common projects are integral to who and what we are: no recognisable Andrew Davison without Corpus, Merton, Westcott, St Stephen’s House. Entering into eternal life (let us hope), we would bring along with us all the bonds of belonging and association that have shaped us.
If I am to be redeemed, and I am a member of various communities, won’t something of their character feature in that future life — at the very least, in the effect that they have had on me, and so many others?
If so, the topic takes on a moral dimension. However attractive the vision is of “Gather up the fragments, so that nothing may be lost”, it can’t mean that everything about history is issued into the presence of God, evil as well as good. The Kingdom of heaven “is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind”, Jesus said, and “when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets, but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13.47-49).
That warning is addressed person by person, but the business of rooting out what is wicked also passes right through each one of us: what persists into eternity is what shines already with the light of eternity; nothing marked by wickedness can pass through the gate. So, can a college go to heaven? Yes, if what it represents, in each of those welcomed into their eternal home, is good, and not evil: if it is wheat, and not tares (Matthew 13.24-30).
It seems to belong to human institutions to be morally in-between: dedicated to a range of ends — many good but some less so; and seeking to achieve them by a range of means — some noble, others not.
Recent history provides us with the examples of Oxfam and Wonga. Taken all in all, Oxfam seems to be a very good organisation; but we have seen how a small number of employees can allow human weaknesses to get the better of them in deplorable ways. For Wonga, on the other hand, it seems that very little good could be said about it, although surely, even there, employees sometimes showed kindness for one another. Even the Mothers’ Union would not be entirely perfect.
Such observations need not derail our discussions. They simply suggest that, once the winnowing has taken place, some collective human endeavours may be represented substantially in eternity; others as possessing only a wisp of what leaves an eternal mark. God would save what is saveable, and cherish what is cherishable, whether that be more or less.
THE idea of human endeavours opens up another theological line of inquiry: that we could approach associations and societies as works of human labour and ingenuity. “Blessed are the dead, that die in the Lord,” we read, for “they will rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them” (Revelation 14.13). That is not a picture of human beings who justify themselves in the eyes of God. It is a picture of human beings justified by grace, in whose lives and labours God is profoundly interested, and at work. Grace, so much the starting point of Christian theology, does not obliterate human deeds — it nourishes them.
Later in the book of Revelation, we read of the New Jerusalem that “people will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations” (Revelation 21.26). Whatever is glorious and honourable about human life will find a place in the presence of God; we bring it with us, as part of who we are, and part of what God has made of us.
The moral point comes round again. Can a horticultural society go to heaven? Yes, if it is part of the “the glory and the honour of the nations”, measured not in Nobel Prizes, but against St Paul’s checklist: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4.8).
Another obvious passage to consider comes from his first letter to the Corinthians:
If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each builder will become visible, for the day will disclose it; it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss. The builder will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Corinthians 3.12-15).
Can a collective enterprise go to heaven? Yes, if it is part of who we are, and that is honourable, just, and worthy of praise. Yes, if it is the fruit of labour, and that has a glory and honour to it. No, if it is woven out of hay or straw; yes, if it is a building in gold, silver, and precious stones.
Can intermediate-sized associations “go to heaven”? Yes, if they are woven into human lives made good and holy; if they are part of what is redeemable about us. Yes, if they are a treasure to be brought into the heavenly Jerusalem; yes, if they are “honourable . . . just . . . excellent . . . worthy of praise”. Yes, to draw on another of Paul’s lists, if they are marked by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5.22-23).
But no — just as firmly, no — if they are marked by “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy” (Galatians 5.20-21). Whatever has that character, Paul writes, has no place in the Kingdom of God.
When our theological speculations are done, one principle remains: nothing characterised by kindness, justice, or generosity is lost; nothing characterised by enmity, factions, or envy will be retained.
“GOING to heaven” is a useful eschatological shorthand; but heaven short-changes the Christian hope, which is for a restored earth as well as a new heaven. Faith points to the resurrection of the body, and the transformation and redemption of the earth, however difficult it may be to speak about that in concrete terms. Here, aspirations so lofty that the book of Revelation must present them in scenes of the oddest mysticism are joined to the practical impulse to do the decent thing, in daily small and concrete ways.
With any honourable deed, by any act of kindness, in any act of human solidarity, in ways that we cannot understand, we are building the foundations of the city that is to come.
A seemingly speculative and abstract question about the eschatology of intermediate-sized things has become profoundly practical. They may have an eternal destiny if their life is characterised by what is “honourable . . . just . . . excellent . . . worthy of praise”, if it is part of honest work that builds, even now, the foundations of the city that is to come.
Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Science at the University of Cambridge, Fellow of Corpus Christi College, and the Canon Philosopher at St Albans Cathedral. This essay is based on a sermon preached before the University of Cambridge on 14 October, in Great St Mary’s.