As the world’s Christians prepare to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a debate over heaven is not as sexy or politically charged as other familiar battles in the American culture wars. It’s hard to argue for more air time for eschatology than contraception, but the theological and cultural conflict over heaven is, in the end, perhaps more important than most such battles, for it is about how Christians view the purpose of life.

The conversation about the nature of heaven that we tackle in the April 16 issue of TIME is challenging popular piety. “Heaven is a new state of affairs in which God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy is coming into the present situation,” Christopher Morse, professor of theology and ethics at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, told my colleague Elizabeth Dias. “It is breaking in and breaking up all that opposes love and freedom in the world.”

My own interpretation of, and interest in, religion is both personal and historical — which is to say, my personal experience led me to a historical inquiry about the nature and course of the faith of my fathers. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, attended Protestant chapel services every day in school from the time I was 4 until I was 18, and then attended an Episcopal university.

History is an essential element of my attraction to religion both in terms of writing and living. Who wouldn’t want to understand the forces that, at least in terms of Christianity, determine the very nature of how we tell time and whether we believe in the Christian story or think it a fairy tale?

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