25 June 2004

Life after life

It occurred to me that, after my last post (in which I minimized the relative importance of the afterlife in Jesus' message) some among my throngs of constant readers might be wondering exactly what I think about life after death.

Well, hmm. As I said in the previous post, It's important to me to take the Bible seriously. So what does Scripture say? It's clear that in Old Testament times Hebrews believed in a shadowed, Hades-like half-afterlife called Sheol. In the New Testament (as I mentioned) little is said on the subject, when compared with other topics. What is said seems to present a variety of points of view, and interestingly much talk about the afterlife--particularly from Jesus--is in the context of parables, such as the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). Certainly both Jesus and Paul--especially Paul--were steeped in the Jewish tradition of the Pharisees, and one of the distinguishing tenets of the Pharasaic worldview was belief in the resurrection of the dead. This became an important facet of early Christianity, and is enshrined in the Nicene Creed: "We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come."

So what does all this mean? Well, opinions differ. The authors of the Bible and the creeds weren't writing science, and certainly didn't consider themselves as doing anything of the sort. What they were doing, often in the language of story, was hinting at holy mysteries. The creed itself, in contrast to other statements it makes, uses somewhat mysterious language: we "look for" the resurrection of the dead; we haven't found it yet. Many people feel that they can discern from reading the Bible precisely what is meant by this resurrection of the dead, and exactly what will happen to each of us after we die. I think they're fooling themselves. I think it's a mystery, a holy mystery--one to tell stories, myths, and parables about. One of my favorite stories about the resurrection of the dead was told by Martin Smith, SSJE. Fr. Martin talked about how we and everything that we contribute to God's Creation will certainly live forever in the indestructible memory of God.

So life after death is a mystery? Tell stories about it, but don't hang your hat on any concrete beliefs about it? That's neither very original nor very satisfying. So is there anything that I could say about the afterlife that I really think is solid and "true", like I think gravity and the love of God are true?

For a goodly portion of the time when I was a practicing Buddhist, I believed quite sincerely in the scientific reality or reincarnation. Sentient beings die, and in a relatively short period of time, they're reborn in a new form. To be sure, I thought we were like a flame being passed from wick to wick, where only in the loosest sense could the 57th flame be said to be the same flame as the first. But I was basically an orthodox Buddhist on the subject of life after death. However, by the time I read Stephen Bachelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs (highly recommended), I had already come to the conclusion that the scientific reality of the doctrines of karma and reincarnation were peripheral to Buddhism, and I didn't really believe in them in any case.

Here's what I do believe, "scientifically." Physicists teach us that in this universe, matter and energy are never destroyed. I believe that goes for whatever the heck we really are. The memory of God does not fail. And as my wise wife told me, whether there's life after death or not, we certainly live forever--from our point of view. It's just a matter of whether "forever" extends beyond the moment of our death or not.

Which brings me back to the beginning. There are many ways to interpret the phrase "the life of the world to come," but like I said in the last post, when Jesus spoke of "Kingdom come," he was almost always talking about something that can come into this life: here, now, and for the rest of our lives, if we just let it. And if we choose to live in this Kingdom, we need not fear death, just as we need not fear life. Both hold many mysteries, but none more mysterious than the mystery of salvation: of the call of grace and the response of faith, and the promise of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

13 June 2004

What is salvation?

At the moment, this is the top hit from Google for the phrase that's the title of this post. Go ahead and read it; it's not too long. I'll wait right here.

Have you read it? Good. Here's what I say about that: Bullshit.

Uh, Mike, did I just hear you call a nice story about a grandma and her grandkids and cocoa and cookies "bullshit"? Yep. Mike, have you been watching too much of the Penn and Teller show of that name on Showtime? Yep.

Anyway, the thing I'm picking on in that nice story isn't the exclusivism (which I've discussed previously), and I've certainly got no problem with encouraging kids to confess Christian faith as long as you're not coercing them into it. (Though one should keep in mind that it's too, too easy to coerce a child. Hence statutory rape laws.) My problem is with this, which is really the bit that attempts to answer the titular question:

"Grandma, do you mean God sent His Son so I won't ever get lost again, like I did last week in the mall?" asked Shane.

"No, Shane, that's not the kind of lost Jesus is talking about," said Grandma. "When these verses tell us we're lost, it means we won't be able to spend forever with God after we die here on earth."

Bullshit. Sometimes I think Jesus spent all that time in his three-year ministry talking about the Kingdom of God just to have his followers as blissfully clue-free as the scribes and Pharisees he contended with himself. The Kingdom of God, aka the Kingdom of Heaven, is not some place we go to when we die if we've confessed to faith in Jesus. Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is within [or among] you." (Luke 17:21) !! Not later. Not after death. Here, now. Belinda Carlisle said, "Ooh, Heaven is a place on earth." This former Go-Go was paying attention! Are most Christians paying attention to the full weight of Jesus' teaching? Sometimes I don't think so.

I think that to claim that salvation is about what happens to you after you die is to seriously miss the point of Jesus' ministry. Jesus preached a Kingdom of Heaven that was constantly trying to break into our living, everyday reality. Salvation is to be handed the keys to Heaven right now. The moment you're born again, the moment you open the door of your heart, you're a citizen of Heaven, and you have access to that Heaven at any time. You may not always remember that--in fact, being human, it's a cinch that we won't--but that door is open. You don't have to wait until you die to go in.

By the same token, hell is a place on earth. Just ask somebody in the depths of clinical depression. Just ask that guy in the hood with the electrodes attached to him at Abu Ghraib. But that's also bullshit. Because I know firsthand that for someone suffering clinical depression, but with a lifeline of Faith, Hope, and Love, hell can't completely take over. By the same token, if that poor guy in the Iraqi prison was saved (by which I don't mean "if he was a Christian"--see a previous post), then although he was doubtlessly terrified out of his ever-loving mind, I don't believe he was in hell. But the high-powered CEO, on top of the world, might be living every moment of every day in hell if he's never opened his heart to the one who stands at the door and knocks, and says "be compassionate, as your Father in Heaven is compassionate".

Anyway, that's my answer to "What is salvation?" It's got nothing to do with dying--although for one who is born again, the day you die can be just another day in paradise (to quote that other '80's pop theologian, Phil Collins). It's about living a life in which the Kingdom of God is within you, and the love and compassion of God is the law of this interior country.

Having said that, I think I'm not going to go back and write all that exegesis I promised in the post on exclusivism/pluralism. I think I've said what I wanted to say about salvation. If anybody reads this and wants me to back it up with more Bible interpretation, let me know.

The Da Vinci Cash Cow

It's been a while since I've been in a real, books-and-mortar bookstore, as opposed to lurking around Amazon.com. But last night Tina and I stopped by our local Barnes and Noble while we had time to kill between dinner and a movie. I wandered, as is my custom, into the Religion section. Holy crap! I was rather shocked and a little dismayed to see what The Da Vinci Code had done to my favorite corner of the bookstore.

Bullshit to the right of me! "Ah," thought I. "A book from the religious right on how The Da Vinci Code is wrong and evil and full of hate and lies. I thought I'd heard that someone had written one of those." (I always thought "lies" was more or less a synonym for "fiction", and everybody knew that, but that's just me.) "Oh look--another one. And another one." There must have been 6 or 8 of them, just counting the ones that were turned cover-out because the book vendors thought they'd be top sellers. The Truth Behind the Da Vinci Code! Cracking Da Vinci's Code! Breaking the Da Vinci Code! De-Coding Da Vinci! Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? (not to be confused with Fact and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code.) The Da Vinci Hoax! (No, all the titles don't have exclamation points, but they might as well.) Boy, it sure is a good thing for these guys and their publishers that Dan Brown wrote that evil, evil book.

Bullshit to the left of me! Then I started to notice the other books of "scholarship" that were newly in abundance. Most of them didn't make direct reference to the Code in their titles, but they picked up on themes in the book and took them out into left field, up over the fence, out through the atmosphere, and for a nice giddy jaunt around the moon. Now, just to be clear, I finished reading the Code a week ago, and I quite enjoyed it as an exciting thriller, though I thought the so-called experts in symbology and cryptology were pretty slow on the uptake in figuring out some fairly obvious puzzles. But they were operating on very little sleep. Also, I had read a bunch about the book on the internet before reading it, and I had probably heard about the use of such things as anagrams and reverse writing beforehand. In any event, there was much in the book (religious history, art history, etc.) that, even given my limited knowledge, I could tell was pulled out of Mr. Brown's left ear, or some such orifice. That's his prerogative as a writer of fiction, and he used that time-honored craft to great effect--it really is a fun read. But now I'm seeing "scholarly" treatises on how Jesus and Mary of Magdala did indeed marry, have kids, and joyfully worship the Goddess together along with the "real" early Christians after the faked crucifixion. It's proved! We've got facts!

Right. Actually, I'm more amused than disturbed by all of this. Good clean fun, for the most part, though I don't have much patience for people (left or right) who take what they know to be bullshit and present it as fact. And I have only slightly more tolerance for people who take stuff based on the thinnest of evidence and present that as the Gospel truth and make a bundle off it from people for whom their message has psychological or emotional appeal. There's fiction--it doesn't claim to be true or meaningful; it's just fun and maybe somewhat thought-provoking. Like The Da Vinci Code. There's myth--doesn't claim to be true (in the historical or scientific sense), but does claim to be meaningful, and many find meaning in it. Like much of religious literature. There's fact--stuff that overwhelming evidence indicates is probably true in the historical or scientific sense. Like, well, most of modern history and science writing. And then there's bullshit--stuff that claims to be fact while being based on scant evidence or on no evidence at all, or stuff that claims the status of myth but hasn't stood the test of time. A lot of the derivative Code books seem to fall into the last category--they present as truth claims that are based on myth or on "history" written before the modern concept of history was formed. (Both the Bible and the Gnostic scriptures fall largely into the categories of myth and premodern "history".) Sometimes these modern "truth" claims are based simply on fiction--whether it was made up in the first, 13th, 19th, or 21st centuries--stuff that people just invented and that doesn't really deserve the status of myth.

It's all fine, but I wish they'd have the good sense that Dan Brown did and call their nonsense a novel. Then all that crap would be in the fiction section instead of cluttering up my beloved religion shelves. ;-)