Goodbye to Heaven?

 

Douglas Adams flippantly gave the answer to the meaning of life as an arbitrary integer, thereby making the point that such a question is as absurd as his answer. For many Christians in the past and present the meaning of life is encapsulated in the story of the ascent to heaven, nowadays made fun of in a thousand St Peter at the pearly gates jokes. Life is understood as a journey to heaven or hell depending upon ones behavior in this life. Jesus is the means by which this journey is successfully taken through the work of belief. The decline of the church bears witness to the insolvency of this religious currency although many are still enthralled by it. The story of ascent via morality and belief is supported by the mind-body dualism of the neo-Platonists since reward can only come after death, in a placeless place and a timeless time far removed from the sadness of this world. Only the mind continues to eternal life. We have long suffered the denigration of the body that this metaphysic has produced, not to mention the flight from the world. It was these realizations that prompted David Marr to write his unhelpful book “The High Price of Heaven” although the point was made. One wonders if this flight from the world and the body lies at the basis of the deranged life of nations who hold closely to the promise of heaven.  After all, if the world is a place to escape from it cannot be taken seriously.

 

The above story of salvation does get some things right: that life is a journey towards God that is only completed at death. However, it begs revision so that it is more faithful to the Christian story. The absence of dualistic thought in the biblical texts denies the immortality of the soul. Human beings are bodies vivified by the breath of God and the world is given to us as God’s good creation. It is in the world, as vivified bodies, that the story of salvation takes place and its goal is to be found therein. The gospels all speak of the kingdom of God/heaven as being an earthly and communal reality and never as something that will only be experienced after death. If life is a journey towards some fulfillment or goal (or telos) then what is the nature of the journey, how do we embark on it and what does it do to us? Gnosticism was an early and powerful Christian heresy that told us that the way of salvation was the way of secret knowledge. (Gnosis = knowledge) This heresy, that continues today in aspects of the salvation story above, is powerful because it brushes the truth. If it were obviously wrong, people would take no notice of it. The Christian journey is a journey that incorporates knowledge in the community and the individual (obviously). But this knowledge is not occult or secret, it is derived from the experience of men and women down the ages and born witness to in biblical texts. The grand narratives of the nation Israel, the rise and fall of kings and the loss of land and temple are all narratives derived from the experience of the nation. In this sense they are not mythological although they certainly contain legendary aspects. Our journey into the experience of the world is made in the company of these narratives which are true because they reveal the essence of what it means to be a human being. Worship is in part the regular rubbing up against these narratives so that our narrative, our journey through life, is affected by them. In this sense we travel backwards into the future of our lives facing the narratives of those who have gone before us. This is the reverse of facing the future which is opaque, as Les Murray reminds us in his poem “The Future”:

 

“We see, by convention, a small living distance into it but even that’s a projection.

And all our projections

Fail to curve where it curves.

 It is the black hole

out of which no radiation escapes to us.” 

 

The journey is characterized by a conversation between past narratives and our narrative. It seems to be an innate way of learning; we are addicted to stories, we weigh them up and test their authenticity.  So an obsession with stories is a mark of the journey and their truth the reality of God. The goal of life is therefore contained within each moment of realization, each (to use traditional language) assent of the soul towards God.  Thus the journey into God is eternal, that is, outside of time because it exists at every moment of existence. The smallest child and the oldest and wisest adult are both on a part of the journey and that part contains their whole world. There can therefore be no judgment about progress, no discernment of who is further along the path. Death is not the goal of this journey, simply its ending.

 

How, then, is this God transcendent? For any God that can be completely identified with ourselves is of no use to us. God is transcendent because the narrative of human being is hidden from us. There is no way to it by our deduction, it always surprises us. This is why we never tire of attending to the stories of others, even if, and perhaps especially if, they are fictional. Pity the rationalist scientist who does not go to the movies or read novels or attend worship. Pity those who are caught up with another narrative, that of the ever increasing refinement of lifestyle, extension of life and accumulation of things. This is the answer to the old question: “From what are we saved?”  We are saved from narratives that lead only to shallow living, emptiness and death.

 

The canon of scripture is the way the Christian community points to narratives that have been deemed to reveal the essence of being human. This is a kind of knowledge that cannot be defined as law can be defined. It can only be alluded to, puzzled over, hinted at. This is why it is said that Jesus taught nothing that was not in parables, stories that confront the usual and tease us with new insight. It is also why there can be no answer to the meaning of life except via the individual journey. It is also why the law kills and the spirit gives life. Israel is the chosen nation, not because God is perfidious but because only Israel told authentic stories, the hearing of which changes our lives. It is this tradition of truthful narratives that lead to the writing of the New Testament. The story of Jesus is added to the stories of Israel but with a major difference. There are no figures in the Old Testament who embody the truly human and therefore the truly divine.  There was no one who lived in the scary freedom that He knew. The Christian tradition, framed in terms of the afterlife, is a gross distortion of the gospel that is does not bring freedom but functions via threat and blackmail. This is why so many of us have turned out backs on it, it suffocates our life.

 

Those who persecute the church will complain that this rejigging of theology is not on, that I have glossed an inherently toxic tradition. They are addicted to the easy target and protest at its being taken away. If we look again at the texts at the centre of the tradition we do find traces that can be interpreted in terms of the old story, especially in the gospel of Matthew. However scholars assure us that this is not at the centre but is a corruption of the original core of the gospel. It is just that the old equations of morality and death and afterlife fit into how our minds work while the radical iconoclasm and freedom of the gospel does not.