The spiritual reality of the Ascension

The Ascension by Phoebe Anna Traquair at the Mansfield Traquair Centre, Edinburgh

Someone I know once expressed concern because he learned Bishop Spong says that if Jesus had ascended to heaven, then he was still going up without stopping since there’s nothing up there but outer space. This sort of crass literalism is not even worthy of fundamentalists who know very well that when Jesus ascended, he didn’t go to a place within the physical, material, tangible, visible universe that is measurable by scientific equipment.

But it turns out that Spong doesn’t even believe in heaven, so whether he was willfully misunderstanding orthodoxy or simply stating his own beliefs — “There is no heaven, so Jesus must have kept going, I guess!” — doesn’t really matter. But what this Spong-ian anecdote represents is a certain discomfort some have in our age with the miracle of the Ascension, perhaps because the divine has been boxed in by the Enlightenment, likely also because people assume illiterate, ancient fishermen were idiots who actually thought heaven was a place in the sky.

Although I have not read the entirety of Christian literature, the only person I’ve encountered who seems to think heaven is literally “up there” is Cosmas Indicopleustes, the same guy who is in that minority of fools who believed in a flat earth (most educated people in the ancient and medieval world knew better). And I may even have misunderstood Cosmas, taking the diagrams in the copy of his book too literally. This is an actual possibility, not just me being irenic or falsely modest.

Most thoughtful Christians who have considered what this event means whilst simultaneously asserting its historicity have decided that, when Jesus was hidden from view behind the cloud, he passed from our plane of physical existence into the Throne of God in the Heavens (taking his physical, human body with Him!!). It strikes me that there may be spiritual significance in God’s use of a cloud, although it may simply have been the most convenient thing for the moment.

Here is the take we find on this event in The Cloud of Unknowing:

[Ch. 59] And if you are going to refer me to our Lord’s Ascension, and say it must have physical significance as well as spiritual, seeing it was a physical body that ascended, and he is true God and true Man, my answer is that he had been dead, and then was clothed with immortality; and so shall we be at the Day of Judgement. At that time we shall be so rarefied in our body-and-soul, that we shall be able to go physically wherever we will as swiftly as we can now go anywhere mentally in thought. Up, down, sideways, backwards, forwards — it will be all the same to us, and good, so the scholars say. But at the present time you cannot go to heaven physically, but only spiritually. And it is so really spiritual that it is not physical at all: neither above or below us, beside or behind or before.

[Ch. 60] Now perhaps you are saying, ‘But how do you arrive at these conclusions?’ For you are thinking you have real evidence that heaven is up above, for Christ ascended physically upwards, and, later, sent the Holy Spirit, as he promised, from above, unseen by any disciple. And we believe this. And therefore, you think, with this real evidence before you, why should you not direct your mind literally upward when you pray?

I will answer this as best I can, however inadequately. Since it had to be that Christ should ascend physically, and then send the Holy Spirit in tangible form, it was more suitable that it should be ‘upwards’, and ‘from above’, than it should be ‘downwards’ and ‘from beneath’, ‘from behind, from the front, or from the sides’. Apart from this matter of suitability, there was no more need for him to have gone upwards than downwards, the way is so near. For, spiritually, heaven is as near down as up, up as down, behind as before, before as behind, on this side as on that! So that whoever really wanted to be in heaven, he is there and then in heaven spiritually. For we run the high way (and the quickest) to heaven on our own desires, and not on our two feet. So St Paul speaks for himself and many others when he says that although our bodies are actually here on earth, we are living in heaven. (Phil. 3:20) -Trans. Clifton Wolters, chh. 59, 60, pp. 125-127

While there are some late medieval mystical works that should be classed as “outliers” and not representative of Christian tradition more widely, on this point, at least, The Cloud of Unknowing is not an outlier. There is thus no theological reason to doubt that Jesus actually did rise up into the air before vanishing from his disciples’ sight. Believing in the historicity of the Ascension neither makes you a fundamentalist, nor necessitates Jesus continually ascending through the reaches of interstellar space.

So celebrate the Ascension tomorrow without feeling like you must turn off your brain.

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