Core 3: Journeys through Heaven

Steve Smith (smithsg)
Office: Christian Center 11, 974-1334
Home: 1611 Edgewood St., 354-2290

Ford Fellow: Drew Walker (walkedc)
Ezelle 122, 974-1920

IDS 1300 (06) Topics in the Premodern World
Spring 2000

What is heaven? And what’s it to you?

The purpose of this course is to learn more about the possible nature of the best world and the perfected life by studying powerful suggestions that a variety of premodern cultures offer on these subjects. We want to understand premodern views (1) for their own sake, as human creations; (2) for the influence they may have on us–our cultures being descended from premodern cultures; and (3) for what they suggest to us about how we should think and act in the future, personally and collectively.

The disciplinary foci of the course are philosophy and religion. Our study will be philosophical in that we will try methodically to obtain as much clarity and completeness as possible in defining, analyzing, criticizing, and justifying ideas. We will also study some classic philosophical texts. Our study is religion-centered in two senses: (1) most of the texts and artifacts we study are generated by and transmitted in religious traditions, and (2) the questions of the best world and the perfected life are (I suggest) inherently religious questions, no matter when or by whom they are addressed.

Our leading questions in this course include:

What is the nature of the best world, an optimized world? Who or what is found in it? Is it spatial and/or temporal? Under what conditions could such a world be produced, or approached, or approximated?

What is the nature of the perfected life, of “salvation”? Can a person or society’s life be perfected only in an optimized world, a “pure land”? Or does perfection involve leaving any world behind (journeying through earth and heaven)?

What are the most important things that people imagine or directly experience relating to heaven and salvation? How do images of heaven and salvation relate to coherent concepts of heaven and salvation? When do images lead our thinking, and when do concepts?

What accounts for the special affinity of premodern cultures for elaborate afterlife ideas? Do they represent an “otherworldly” phase in the history of civilization? To what extent do we inherit this affinity from our premodern forebears? To what extent are we in rebellion against it?

The course is designed not only as a window onto the premodern world but as an exercise machine to build up your thinking, speaking, and writing abilities so that you can enter more fully into the ideally rich conversation that is the goal of liberal arts education. Like other Millsaps core courses, this one promotes certain broadly relevant abilities:

Reasoning. This is your ability to keep track of differences and similarities, of evidence and lack of evidence, and of your own acts of acceptance and rejection, so that you can draw conclusions about what is true or false, likely or unlikely, consistent or inconsistent. Most of the assignments I give and many of the things I say in class will challenge you to reason in a more sustained and purposeful way than you are probably used to. Also, we will read some classic philosophical texts that were deliberately created to (and, in fact, did) advance the art of reasoning for everyone.

Communication. Learning does not take place only in a private laboratory in your head. To a great extent it depends on conversation. This course will ask you repeatedly to weave your thoughts together with other people’s thoughts by oral and written presentation and (most importantly) by response.

Historical consciousness. The premodern period saw a tremendous elaboration of visions of afterlife. What does that mean to us? Our studies will help us to pick out meaningful contours in the historical-cultural continuum of human life and to see how our own desires, perceptions, and choices relate to the raveling and unraveling of this larger fabric. We will have occasion to reflect on how meaningful it is to define ourselves by supposed historical dis-continuities like the “premodern”-“modern” divide.

Aesthetic judgment. We will consider artistic expressions of themes of heaven and salvation in diverse cultures and articulate our responses to them, pursuing a semester-long study of the relationship between imaginative appreciation and intellectual judgment.

Global and multicultural awareness. One of the meanings of heaven is multiculturalism: the vault of heaven is understood to cover, and in a way to unite, all lands, peoples, and experiences. The theme of heaven invites discovery of humanistically significant parallels among different cultures, and, perhaps even more importantly, provides opportunities to sharpen our focus on an issue in one culture using the vivid ingredients of another (as, for example, the nontheist emphasis in Chinese heaven thinking poses questions to Western theist heaven thinking, and vice versa). We will also learn more about how each religious culture is not a unitary way of thinking but a set of continuing disagreements and divergences.

Valuing and decision making. This course is concerned not only with what certain people and cultures thought about heaven and salvation but with what we really think about the best world and the perfected life. To take this course is to take up these questions and see what progress we can make in answering them. You will be asked to articulate your own ideals and questions about the best world and the perfected life and to refine them critically in conversation with the materials we study and with your fellow learners.

Course readings will be drawn from these required books, plus handouts:

Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History
William Theodore de Bary et al., eds., Sources of Chinese Tradition, Vol. 1
Dante, Inferno (trans. John Ciardi)
_______, Purgatorio (trans. John Ciardi)
_______, Paradiso (trans. John Ciardi)
Wu Ch’eng-En, Monkey (trans. Arthur Waley)

Grading will be based on class participation, including daily homework and a film project report (25%), two sectional exams (25%), a salvation study (25%), and a final exam (25%). Homework papers will be graded “check” (possibly “check plus” or “check minus,” if they excel or fall short in significant ways) and essays will be letter-graded. We’ll be talking all along about how to approach writing assignments and exams.

Homework papers are one-paragraph responses to course readings, usually answering an announced question. The purpose of this assignment is to give you a focus when you read and to get you started assessing the meaning of the reading and pursuing your own questions about it.

You will participate in a group FILM PROJECT. Your group will watch a noteworthy film on a heaven-related theme and make a ten-minute presentation on it to the class. Each group member will submit a 1-2 pp. review of the film. More specific guidelines, including a list of eligible films, will be furnished.

You will also write a 7-8 pp. paper on the concept of salvation. This paper has a research component, in that it will take some point(s) of reference in medieval materials, and a purely philosophical component, in that it will present an original conceptual argument. Guidelines, including suggestions about sources to use, will be furnished. This paper will go through a peer-reviewed draft before being submitted to the instructor.


Millsaps’ Ford Fellowship program is designed as an apprenticeship for upper-level students who are interested in learning more about the profession of college teaching. Drew Walker is a junior philosophy and religious studies major interested in philosophy of religion, metaphysics, and the comparative study of Eastern and Western traditions. He will make several class presentations, help with daily class discussion, and comment on student writing. He will not be responsible for any of the grading, but will always be available for help or questions.


READ and WRITE assignments are placed on the day on which they are due. More specific announcements about them (including changes of plan) will be made at least one class day in advance, so whenever you miss class, be sure to find out, preferably from me or Drew, what’s going on.

Our Thursday class time will occasionally be used for presentation of artistic material or for review. These times will be announced.

Week 1: Introduction to course issues.

W 1-19 Inventory of thoughts and issues.
F 1-21 Inventory, cont.
WRITE: First statement on heaven (1-2 pp.)

Week 2: Introduction to heaven in ancient history

M 1-24 Spirit-journeys.
READ: Handout
W 1-26 Afterlife in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
READ: Handout

F 1-28 Heaven in the Hebrew Bible
READ: Biblical assignments

Week 3: Heaven in ancient history, cont.

M 1-31 Heaven in the Hebrew Bible, cont.
READ: Heaven, Chap. 1
W 2-2 Heaven in the New Testament
READ: Heaven, Chap. 2
F 2-4 Heaven in rabbinical Judaism
READ: Handout
WRITE: 2-pp. inventory of biblical ideas

Week 4: Heaven in classical Greek and Roman thinkers

M 2-7 Plato.
READ: Handout
W 2-9 Plato’s and Aristotle’s views compared.
READ: Handout
F 2-11 Virgil
READ: From the Aeneid (handout)

Week 5: Heaven conceptions in the Indian sources of Buddhism.

M 2-14 Heaven in Hinduism: the law of karma
READ: Handout
W 2-16 Heaven in Buddhism
READ: Handout
F 2-18 The Pure Land Sutras
READ: Handout

Week 6: Heaven in Chinese thinking.

M 2-21 Introduction: the mandate of Heaven.
READ: de Bary, pp. 3-15
W 2-23 Confucius.
READ: de Bary, pp. 17-35
F 2-25 Philosophical Taoism.
READ: de Bary, pp. 64-80 and handout

Week 7: Heaven in Islam.

M 2-28 EXAM #1.
W 3-1 The Qur’an on heaven; Muhammad’s night journey.
READ: Handout
F 3-3 Visionary mysticism: Ibn ‘Arabi.
READ: Handout


Week 8: Christian philosophers.

M 3-13 The encounter of Greek philosophy with Abrahamic faith: Ibn Sina
READ: Handout
W 3-15 Thomas Aquinas on the highest good.
READ: From Summa Theologica (handout)
F 3-17 Aquinas, cont.
READ: From Summa Theologica (handout)

Week 9: Dante

M 3-20 The life and times of Dante Alighieri.
READ: From Vita Nuova (handout)

Tuesday, March 21, 7:00 p.m., AC 215
Martha Nussbaum, “Secret Sewers of Vice: Disgust, Bodies, and the Law”

W 3-22 Dante’s theory of allegory.
READ: Handout

Thursday, March 23, 11:30 a.m., Recital Hall
James B. Nelson, “Incarnation and Sexuality”

F 3-24 The scale of vice.
READ: Inferno, Cantos 1-6, 11, 28-29

Week 10: Dante, cont.

M 3-27 The medieval “invention of purgatory.”
READ: Handout
W 3-29 Dante’s ascent to purity.
READ: Purgatorio, Cantos 17-19, 25-33


F 3-31 The scale of glory
READ: Paradiso, Cantos 1-4, 23-24

Week 11: Dante, cont.

M 4-3 What is it like to be in God’s presence?
READ: Paradiso, Cantos 27-33
WRITE: Peer review of salvation study
W 4-5 Other medieval visions
READ: Heaven, Chap. 4
F 4-7 EXAM #2

Week 12: The afterlife in medieval China

M 4-10 Neo-Taoism
READ: de Bary, pp. 296-305
W 4-12 Buddhist schools in China
READ: de Bary, from Chaps. 15-17


F 4-14 The Scripture of the Ten Kings
READ: Handout

Week 13: Neo-Confucian thought.

M 4-17 Neo-Confucian philosophy: Ch’eng Yi and Chu Hsi
READ: From de Bary, Chap. 20
W 4-19 Neo-Confucian philosophy: Wang Yang-Ming
READ: de Bary, pp. 569-581

Week 14: The Journey to the West (Monkey).

M 4-24 Introduction to Monkey: Monkey’s heaven adventures.
READ: Monkey, Chaps. 1-7
W 4-26 The pilgrim.
READ: Monkey, Chap. 8-9, pp. 113-118, Chaps. 13-14

F 4-28 The pilgrimage.
READ: Monkey, Chaps. 15-18, 28-30

Week 15: Where is heaven now?

M 5-1 Conclusion.
READ: Handout


IDS 1300 (06), Spring 2000 S. Smith


1. Class Attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence.
One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would thereby lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) Our in class inquiry is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Late and missing papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. A ‘0’ will be recorded for any work not turned in (except that, in this class, two homework paragraphs may be skipped without penalty). No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

3. Academic honor. All of us at Millsaps are pledged to uphold academic honor, the core of which is refraining from giving or receiving unauthorized aid on any assignment. A description of the Millsaps Honor Code is attached. I particularly caution against plagiarism, that is, using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgement. Plagiarized work means a mandatory referral to the Honor Council and may result in expulsion from the class.

4. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will be given only to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.