SERMON: “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by the not-so-reverend bob

There are ideas to which we offer safe harbor that we never really think about.  One of the most persistent, to my mind, is the craving for ease.  Specifically I’m thinking about our passed-down notions of what Heaven would be like: there will be no more death, no more sadness, no more hunger, and we will all (well, the pre-qualified all, that is) have everything that we could ever need without having to work, trade or ask for it.

Taking, for a moment, a step back from this cherished chestnut, what are the most obvious implications of this idea?  The first that comes to mind is that anything less than Heaven is somehow iniquitous.  That change (particularly actual physical change) is bad.  It seems to be a common thread in religious belief that there is — underlying all physical reality — a certain unchanging (in fact unchangeable) forged-in-iron, carved-in-stone TRUTH, and that Heaven is the certain logical perfection of a deeply-flawed temporal existence.

Once again I run into something I’ve come to understand about certain religious beliefs: the major problem with the concept of Heaven is not the obvious one (that it is not true), but that is in, in a very fundamental way, a profoundly pernicious denial of reality.  The very idea that the teeming, complex, frenetic activity of life is a condition that Heaven will put right by bringing everything to an eternal stasis is — as has been pointed out by minds greater than my own — not a description of Heaven, but rather of Hell.

One of those truths of life that I resist acknowledging is that the only things that have stopped moving, growing or changing are those that are inert or dead.  (But even then, it’s hard to think of a rock that isn’t undergoing some sort of alteration, be it ever so slowly deep in the earth’s crust or more rapidly, exposed to the erosive effects of wind and weather.  And no life form dies that is not immediately given over to a process of “natural” recycling).

The reality is that our living bodies are a walking, talking, never-ending process of death and renewal as we slough off old skin cells to make way for the new, for example.  Our teeth may be wearing away faster than they can renew, true, and our brains may not be producing loads of new cells but they are, nonetheless, ever creating new pathways and connections that make the mind itself an evolving phenomenon.  Our bodies are constantly repairing damage to our DNA caused by the cosmic rays that pass through us every day, and despite our thoughts to the contrary, we continue to evolve on a species level, as does every other living thing around (and within) us.

We are physical animals in a physical world.  Despite the scorn we heap upon physical exercise, there is absolutely no denying that we require a certain amount of activity to remain mentally and physically fit.  (It could be argued that there is much about our current levels of obesity, depression and anxiety that could be dramatically reduced if we human animals would just use our bodies as more than passive receptacles for technology and industrialized foods).

(As I’ve said before, we are not so different from the bears and tigers in the local zoo pacing off their boredom: we evolved in a physically-challenging environment.  Life in the wild may not be safe or secure, but it certainly is stimulating and tends to keep any and all animals in top form).

We humans are remarkable if for no other reason than we have developed the mental power — and through it the technological skill — to bring about the kind of reality the cold, frightened, hungry animal that we were for millennia could only dream of.

But somewhere in the Middle East, some thousands of years ago, one poor, hungry and tired soul penned an idea of Heaven as having “streets paved with gold” and rivers flowing with “milk and honey”.  We parrot these ideas in countless sermons in countless churches and Bible studies, but how many of us would actually choose gold streets and sweetened milk as our idea of an ultimate reward of comfort and ease?  But this is how we are with ideas of Heaven (be they religious or otherwise): we use them as tools to endure present distress more than as actual templates of a world we might want to inhabit, and, therefore, they need not be, well, practical nor even desirable.

And yet we have created a world with incredible ease for ourselves.  Hell, we weren’t happy with just creating an electronic device that brought the world’s best entertainers into our living room, someone designed a small plastic device that meant we didn’t even have to cross the room to turn the damn thing on.  And now we have our favorite shows on DVD, which allows us to exercise mastery over time and space as we watch them until we’re sated, skip ahead, or repeat a favorite scene.  (I don’t know about you, but too much of that, and I find myself with sudden urges to replay reality when I miss a moment in time!).

And though I am low-income by American standards, I am so loaded with goods and technology compared to the rest of the globe’s population (not to mention the mass of humanity that lived and died owning practically nothing we would consider valuable) that I have little choice but to see myself as “rich” by human standards.

But all wealth and ease is relative, isn’t it?  I heard a joke on the radio today about what is the perfect income for a trader on Wall Street.  The answer?  “A dollar more than anybody else is getting!”.

We know now from studies that we humans are so adaptive that any increase in income or the acquisition of new goods and comforts will only elevate our happiness for a very short time (hours, perhaps days), and we’ll then go on pretty much as we did before.  Some of us answer this challenge with non-stop acquisition (a trait we seem to grudgingly admire in those who can pull it off)!

But leaving aside the vapid morality of such an approach, that behavior is not simply an expression of being “spoiled” or “out of touch”, but actually returns us to our inner animal that evolved, frankly, in a challenging natural environment that required our rapidly evolving large brains to survive: having evolved with the stimulating challenge of survival, we still crave the stimulation that our natural environment no longer supplies in its most raw form.  What has happened to our species over a very few hundreds of years is that our technology has jumped us forward much faster than our Ice Age bodies and minds can handle.  In a very real sense, we have lost our way by following the technology we have been able to create, and find ourselves using our technology more and more to tickle our bored brains.

Now I’m no Luddite: I think the only way forward for us is, well, forward.  Even were we able to convince ourselves of the attainability of some mythical past “Golden Age”, we couldn’t get there.  (But neither am I fooled by the new technological utopians who have become their own priestly class, accumulating vast wealth from their impoverished parishioners).

Like it or not, history is something that is always happening to us right now, and we have only the option of facing it with the knowledge and tools that we have as it happens.  There is no template, no plan, no ideal other than the ones we ourselves conceive of.  And, that being said, there is also no Heaven in our future.  There is only the Heaven (or the Hell) that we are all part of creating in the (very real) here and now.

All that we humans can do is do our best to negotiate the present in ways that make us feel good about the way we’re going about it.  In general, that means living lives that create a bit more good than bad in the world (not always an easy result to quantify) while acknowledging the actual physical, temporal animals that we are.  We all understand this.  And we all know that there are times when life’s challenges swamp our capacity to face them with good cheer or even hope.  These are the moments we pray for a Heaven of ease (or a Hell to punish those that do bad things to us and to others).

But these are wishes to get us through the rough spots, not realities we should ever really want to see come to pass.  Besides, we are such adaptive animals that a few days of Heaven would soon have us wondering if they weren’t having a bit more fun down in the more challenging Hell.

In reality, every moment spent on “Heaven” is a moment wasted here on earth.

t.n.s.r. bob

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