Seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Think of what is above, not of what is upon the earth.
By the use of the word above, literally the things above, Paul is touching a metaphorical field that is embedded inexpugnably in human experience. “Above” and “below,” are references to a rich, universally shared, texture of thought and experience. In matters of character and behavior there is the lofty and the base; in society there are the higher orders and the lower. We know that while we live we can look up in hope to the heavens from which Christ will return and that when life is over we will lie down in the dust. The Greeks knew that Zeus spoke from the sky and that the underworld was below our feet, as in Hebrew imagination was Sheol. The preface to the Eucharist invites us to lift up our hearts.
This fundamental metaphor makes its way into the New Testament, where it under-girds theological geography. Every person experiences the earth beneath and the heavens above, and whether one thinks of heaven as an inverted hemisphere, as the Hebrews did in Genesis, or as ascending presences as Paul did when he wrote of being caught up to the third heaven, or as a sequence of encircling spheres ranging outward from the earth (Ptolemy) or the sun (Copernicus), heaven is always above. Perhaps it is there because the sky is unoccupied territory in which thought and imagination can roam free. For the medievals the heavens, in contrast with the inconstancy and folly of things earthly, were a place of beauty, permanence, and light, those spheres that lay beyond the moon were untroubled by human affairs. The New Testament persistently pushes thought and imagination beyond the realm of nature and necessity that lies under our feet and toward a place or an idea that we know, using language that is easily attacked as nonsense by post-Humean philosophers but which cannot be driven from the human intellect and heart. “I will lift up my eyes to the hills” (Psalm 121:1) and “Somewhere over the Rainbow, way up high” move through the same imaginal terrain although one is sublime, the other its vernacular half-light.
“The heavens” hints at a cosmological fact and “heaven” is the image that describes what lies beyond the heavens, beyond the created order, which is where God dwells and with Him and in Him the fullness of reality. The Epistle to the Hebrews exemplifies the double meaning of heavens and heaven, for the author tells us that Christ is the great high priest who has passed through the heavens (Hebrews 4:14) and is now in heaven. Hebrews presupposes a world in which the things of earth are copies of heavenly things, with heaven understood as the place in which God dwells beyond the heavens. This was the common insight that Plato elevated to command of the entire intellectual world, the doctrine of eternal ideas that gives meaning to every finite idea. We know that this is a common insight because without the intuition that there is a better place the pain of life would be no more than the pain of a wounded animal. We know it because our hearts reach out to beauty. We know it because we know that injustice is an outrage against something unseen, for justice is nowhere to be found in this world.
That the words heaven and heavens seems to describe a place is unavoidable for there is no human language that moves beyond time and place. Perhaps heaven is a place that is more than a place in something of the way that heaven is timeful in a way that is more than any time or any times. Perhaps the best biblical image is Revelation 4. Heaven is the locus of and the synonym for reality. It is not ideas and images but Christ. Saint Paul called “above” simply “where Christ is.” And in another text he assured his readers that the end of all things is the enfolding of all things that He had made in the beginning in His divine life. How this can be lies beyond language, but it required belief that the telos is a person. The fulfillment of history is not a force or a utopia but a person and those persons whose life is in Him, not absorbed but made fruitful.
“Above” has had a difficult career in the last to centuries and especially in the dark half-century that succeeded the Council of 1962–65. Benedict XVI wrote “It is strange that post-conciliar pluralism has created uniformity in one respect at least. It will not tolerate a high standard of expression.” Liturgists and philosophers and novelists have devoted themselves to the advocacy of things below. Perhaps the arrant carnality, the desire for ecstasy and for unconsciousness, the enchantment with death that natter so relentlessly at the margins of culture can be understood at least in part as a heart-cry: “There must be something more than this.” Paul’s message in Colossians is that there is indeed more, that Christians, and those who will be Christians, have the capacity to lift up our intellects and hearts to dwell with Christ, and that what we know in Him is the stuff from which the adventure of this life draws its power, even until we see face to face.