Is Heaven for real? A blue-eyed Jesus riding a horse. Serenading angels. A bunch of dead relatives hugging. That is the real heaven according to the four-year old boy Colton in the book and movie, Heaven is for Real. Critic Bruce Handy in Vanity Fair makes the following observation: "What baffled secular me is why the film’s vision of heaven, which seemed almost boringly conventional—the handful of scenes illustrating Colton’s experiences look like the kinds of celestial imagery you’d see in a child’s Bible or on the walls at Mormon visitor’s center—is troubling to Todd and the members of his church."
My reaction. What else would you expect from the mind of a four-year old whose father is a Christian minister? As for troubling, when isn't a near death experience troubling, especially when it is reported back in images familiar to a four-year old?
Does the fact that Colton's report reflects the mind of a four-year old mean that he made this all up? It is more complicated than a yes or no answer. Why? Because this is a classic example of what cognitive linguists refer to as cognitive frames.
No, I am not talking about some new google glasses that augment our thoughts like borg hardware. I am talking about an organic process that is already in place in our brains. Our brains create thoughts, create our noetic reality, based on a mental operation that cognitive linguists call framing. That is, there are certain clusters of ideas that are activated when we experience certain things.
Think about a hamburger. What do you see? Smell? Taste? We all know what hamburger means. It is a cluster of things, and items in the cluster can be changed out, yet still we identify it as a hamburger. It is a meat patty, usually beef, sandwiched in a bun. Now is it a hamburger if I add cheese? Bacon? Mushrooms? What about bison instead of beef? Turkey? Sausage? Tofu? When does it stop becoming a hamburger and start becoming something new? An innovation? A cognitive blend, when the conventional hamburger frame has shifted to such an extreme that a new idea, a new culinary delight, emerges?
Now we can apply this to religious studies and biblical studies in many fruitful directions. Scholars are already seeing the app here. I will probably return to this idea in the future on this blog and discuss some of these new directions in scholarship, where cognitive studies is meeting the bible. But today I just want to comment on its implications for religious experiences like Colton had.
Cognitive frames are what makes the difference for religious experience. Why do some people report encounters with Jesus and an afterlife that matches Christian conventions that a four-year old knows like we see in the Heaven's for Real? Why do other people report encountering other types of gods and realms in their religious experiences? Because everything we experience we experience through our bodies and brains, and our brains are wired in very specific ways. We all, no matter who we are or where we live, experience the world through mental frames. Some of these frames are universal, like our experience of verticality or containers. Others are defined more culturally, like a blue-eyed Jesus sitting in heaven.
My point is that we experience our world as our brains and bodies allow us. They define and limit whatever that raw experience actually may have been. It is not a matter of after-the-fact interpretation that we lay on the raw experience. It is a matter of experiencing the raw as what we already know (albeit with occasional innovation when our frames shift). We can't do otherwise.
So is heaven for real? Yes, for Colton it was. But his heaven may not be real for everyone.