Friday, May 15, 2009

Heaven isn't real.

(written earlier in the year while still at sea...)

I can't stop listening to "Oh, Heaven Isn't Real" by David Karsten Davies. I'm listening to it mindlessly, drawn to it because it is so happy and cheerful. Something about it is just absolutely joyous.

I'd be lying if I said there wasn't something in the sentiment which also draws me to it.

Sometime last week I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air that was about a modern heretic. I'll have to look the guy's name up later, but the long and short of it is he was an evangelical leader who after some soul searching found himself facing down a belief that everyone will be welcomed into God's presence in Heaven, that it isn't a matter of being saved or not, but rather that Jesus was a sacrifice for all, not just a gate to let the right people in and keep those others out. I've got to say, he's one of a very few Christian leaders I've heard in a long time who made anything that resembled sense when he spoke. The episode was more about how everyone else flipped out when he shared this shift in understanding. Without Hell, lots of people just weren't interested anymore.

How 'bout if you take out Heaven, too?

My childhood was extremely religious. Thankfully, my parents and the other people around me in my family translated this fervor into reaching out to other people. All other people, no matter what. This ecumenical openness and kindness towards all humanity is the part of Christianity that I continue to hold onto and appreciate. Please excuse me if I recount a short history of personal religiousity.

Among my earliest memories is a memory of coming home from church filled with the music. I mean that somewhat literally. I'm guessing that I couldn't read, but I remember looking at the sheet music and images of angels with trumpets coming out of the page and really feeling like singing was making a joyful noise. It all made sense for a brief moment. Why we sang, why people went to church, why there was any church at all and why anyone should worship God. Because of how that song felt, the angels with their trumpets that came in the music and touched this small child, this is why we do all this. The word 'holy' made sense. This, unfortunately, was a brief memory. It isn't repeated, though it was seared into my consciousness. It is this feeling against which I still measure all religious experience. If it leans towards that beautiful connection with the unknown, then I'm all for it. It is doesn't, well, most doesn't. If it seems against that, then I'm bound to be venomous (as I am with most politically religious ass-hats).

Most of my early religious life was spent feeling ripped away from this and having people try to convince me that all kinds of other criteria was important for the salvation of my eternal soul. I prayed and read and tortured myself with trying to reconcile everything to be found in the Bible. Reconciling the text in the Bible with the text in the Bible is a foolish task. Anyone who says they can, particularly with any remotely literal reading of it either hasn't read very much of it, has a very selective and sieve-like memory, or a particularly gifted imagination. It doesn't reconcile literally. If it did, we probably wouldn't spend much time with it. Trying to reconcile it with daily experience can perhaps be more instructive.

Our daily experiences don't make much literal sense either most of the time. So finding something in that expansive text to relate to or bolster what you want to believe isn't the most difficult task. The difficulty comes in being consistent. Actually, consistency isn't the biggest concern for me these days, but once upon a time, it was a dire concern. Anyway, point being I traveled along my own little spiritual journey. I tried to make this text and my life and the world as I experienced it all make sense. How does it all work?

Of course, I rolled around with all the fun little philosophical questions. If God is great, why does he let people die and all that stuff. What do I have to do to get into Heaven? How can he let people go to Hell who never had a chance to get saved? Why couldn't I have enjoyed some of the more fun sins for years without knowing any better before I got saved? If I make it to heaven, but know that other people are burning and tormented forever, then could it ever be heaven? If I am someone who could enjoy this while others burn, why would I belong there?

I'll spare some of the details, but edging up against a mental breakdown that was heavily influenced by a crisis in faith, instead of going over the edge, I stepped back. I'll go ahead and allow it religious terminology, so, if you will, we can call it being born again. This is a fair way to describe the transformation. And it was a transformation.

More than anything, it was letting go and releasing some of the weight that I had carried around. Particularly the moral weight and all this religious crud that I'd spent years piling on. It was partially both reaffirming and completely renouncing my identity as a Christian. It was certainly renouncing all the crap which other people spent years loading into that identity. I was never comfortable with it being an identity based on either I'm-going-to-heaven or you're-going-to-hell, and let's be honest, that's what most evangelical religious identity is based on. Which is stupid and is kind of an asshole-ish way to approach life. So all that was happily out the window.

All along, really the only thing that kept me tied at all to any type of religious identification was that early touchstone, the feeling from that early memory. I had felt sort of shut out from that for years, and I knew this transformation was real when I could touch that place again. I recognized it and knew it when I found it. This is the peace that passes understanding. Most people want nothing to do with it. They want the peace that is everything in its proper place. This is why people do dumb things like vote republican.

The closest I can come to describing the change is that I came to a point, a sort of realization, that I should just shut up with all my praying so fervently to understand everything and for everything to be in perfect order and to make sense. We'll call it being put in my place, and I suddenly felt both emboldened and humbled and to a certain sense like, "What business do I have even praying at all?" Telling the Almighty what you think should happen or what you'd like to happen or even just asking what he/she/it/them thinks is kind of presumptuous if you think about it. I reconciled the desire to still reach out communicatively by reducing my prayers to "wow." and "thank you." (demure punctuation and lack of capitalization intentional; an exclamation point still seemed a bit big for my britches)

I can't begin to describe how much more beautiful the world became, how much more I liked other people and myself once I got to this place. I like to think that it is apparent in my life, this joy and happiness, but I'm sure it isn't always. I was so dour and uptight before though (but I hid it well). This is slowly making its way back towards something resembling a point.

There was a time when I would have been scandalized and horrified at the existence of this song. I would have probably deleted the file, destroyed the cd if I could get my hands on it, prayed for the singers and everyone who had heard the song, and pleaded on their behalf for God to help them and change their ways. Honestly. This would have seriously rattled me.

Which misses the whole point. The song is happy. It is joyous even. So what if it is blasphemous? My old self would shriek at such heresy, but it is the old self that was further from joy and peace than the current self. I was so ready to be derailed and find darkness. Now I don't have time for it. I started writing all this when I realized how much I liked this song and how it would have bothered me in the past. Trying to put a finger on what is so different, I asked myself if I believed if this song was true or not: do I believe that heaven isn't real?

This is so literal and limiting; I can't even consider it a reasonable question. What does it matter or not? Of course it is and of course it isn't, too. I'm always looking for the beautiful and a more full experience and chances to let myself be a vessel for making a joyful noise, but am I expecting some big fat reward at the end of life for being such a just right the way God wanted person? No. That doesn't sound appealing, but I don't have much time for the question either way. I'm going to do my best to embrace and love and try to treat everyone better than they deserve and smile and spread joy where I can and mischief too. I'm going to embrace the sad and tough stuff too and I'm going to say my prayers, "wow." and "thank you." This doesn't have the least to do with trying to get to heaven. If there is a way to get there, I can't imagine it looking different from this, but the point is that this is just the way I want to move through the world. Why would I do it differently?

Back to the preacher who let go of Hell. It scandalized and fractured his megachurch (is there a grosser word in the english language?) for him to relinquish hold of belief in a literal place of eternal punishment. How toxic do people's minds have to be that this is a thing they want to cling to? Would giving up a literal belief in Heaven also rock people so terribly? How much of most Christian faith is wrapped up in wanting to "be in that number"? Do so many people live their lives based so heavily on some final end goal?

This shouldn't baffle me. I was a religious nutcase. Earlier tonight, one of the memories that came uncalled from the vaults was of me writing in the inside of the cover of a Bible that I was giving as a gift to a boy I was smitten with. It wasn't a love letter, to be sure, but maybe it also was. It was jointly an attempt to reach out to him and an attempt to save his mortal soul. It is painfully embarrassing to look back at. Thankfully I can't remember what I wrote, but you can be sure it was dumb and embarrassing. The point is, I should remember what it is like to feel so powerfully that my eternal life hinged on what I did in this temporal plane. And as far as all that goes I can, but also I don't think fear of Hell or of not getting into Heaven was ever a motivation for me. I've always been inclined to think that anyone doing something out of fear or for reward doesn't really have anything which resembles faith anyway.

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