Saturday, November 4, 2017

THAT UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY: AN ALL SAINTS REFLECTION



I know that my redeemer lives
And at the last day he shall stand upon the earth.
And though this body be destroyed I shall see God
I myself will see him, my own eyes,
I, and not another.
                                                     Job 19

Recently in a St. Louis airport cafĂ© a widow asked me to explain my beliefs about the afterlife. Since her husband’s death a bit over a year ago, she has felt cut off from her Church. The shadow of death falls between her and the community of faith. Now “it’s coming on Christmas” and she does not want to face another Feast of the Nativity so alone. She wanted some way to reconcile faith with the hard fact of death. I had 5 minutes to set out a theology on the nature and destiny of humankind. It seemed to help. I hope so. But it left so much unsaid! This blog post too will leave much unsaid, but I hope it will be a little more thoughtful.
 
A disclaimer: I can’t prove what I say. If I could prove it, it wouldn’t be faith. None of us has a photograph or a soil sample of “that undiscovered country from whose bourne no travelers return.” Death is a mystery. What I hope to present is my faith, grounded in the Church’s teachings, a “reasonable faith,” meaning a faith for which I can state a reason. It isn’t a proven fact but it isn’t just wishful thinking either.

The question matters. It matters for how we live now. As the years pass, I am not too concerned yet about my own mortality, but more and more of the people I love have died and I do miss them.  I want to know what I can dare to believe about their present and their future. Their passing teaches me the mortality of those I love who are still here. At a service following the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, a Jewish cantor sang these words to a distressing modernist setting:

                 It is a fearful thing to love
                that which death can touch.

What is it that death cannot touch? Who is it safe to love? A life in which love is not possible, now that scares me far more than my own death. But what faith, what hope makes love possible in the face of death? Those are the questions that demand answers to the mystery of “that undiscovered country.”

God. Our faith begins and ends in God. We used to speak of logical “proofs of God” – ontological proofs, cosmological proofs, moral proofs, etc. Now we speak more humbly of “warrants for belief in God” – meaning reasons that support our belief.  For now, let’s just say it is reasonable to believe in God. The God in whom it is reasonable to believe is not a superbeing on a distant star. The God in whom it is reasonable to believe is not a being at all. Our God is the source of Being itself. Our God is the ultimate origin and ultimate destiny of everything, us included. What’s more our God is infinitely good, worthy of worship and devotion. So, we start with this Lord of Sea and Sky, the Be-All and End-All of everything, us included. What then, if anything does God have to do with us?

Self. Though this body be destroyed I . . . .

Job’s words open a huge question. Who is this I who shall do these things though this body be destroyed? It is not a small slip of the tongue. It is his point. Job says,
                                                                                                     
               And though this body be destroyed I shall see God
               I myself will see him, my own eyes,
              I, and not another.

I and not another. Job believes his identity is not limited to his protoplasm. That is a good thing. Cells are constantly dying and being replaced. It has been said that we roughly speaking swap out our bodies once every 7 years. I would now be on my ninth body, working on 10. Yet, I still feel myself to be the same person. I do not have the same skin. Nor do I hold the same opinions. I do not look the same. And yet I am somehow myself. There is a core to our being. We have all sorts of subpersonalities with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. But at the center, I am still me. What is that me, that core self, and where did it come from and where is it going?

We come from God. It is that simple. We come from the heart and mind of God. We say that without hesitation because God is by definition the Source and Destiny of everything. So, then, if we come from God, does God forget us? Does God cease to care for his children.

          Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
          and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
          Though she may forget, I will not forget you.
          See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
                                                                Isaiah 49: 15-16

If we, in our mortal frailty are capable of abiding love, how much more so is God who is infinite and eternal, and whose very nature is Love! As long as God remembers us and cares for us, we cannot fall out of existence.

Lady Julian of Norwich, in the 14th Century, fell victim to the Plague. She was so clearly dying that she received last rites. As the priest held the crucifix before her dying eyes, she had 16 Visions of Divine Love, then recovered and lived to describe those visions in the first book ever written in English by a woman. One vision was of a hazelnut that seemed so small, so frail, so flimsy, she wondered what keeps it from falling into nothingness. She asked what it was, and God told her it was the entire universe. How can it exist, it is so small? she asked.

It exists, God answered, because I love it.

In another vision, Julian described the soul. Even in the spiritual Middle Ages, Julian did not describe the soul as a ghostly wisp of spirit. Rather she saw it as our core self, our true self, the thing we mean when we say I.
And she said, that our daily lives, our thoughts, feelings, and actions might well be severed from Christ. But our soul, our core self, is never separate from Christ who is the core self of the cosmos. The division is not between God and us. It is within us.

Our true life is already in God. It has always been in God. It will always be in God. Each day there is a dying, a dying of the body and of the personality we were yesterday. But our self, our core being, our life is in God.

              You have died. Now your life is hid with Christ in God.
                                                                       Colossians 3: 3

If God is eternal – by definition, God is eternal – and God is love as our faith holds, then our lives are held eternally in God’s love.

But shall we remain ourselves? The view of some Eastern religions is that our individual identity is a problem to be overcome and eventually it is overcome as we fall like drops and dissolve into the ocean of eternity. That is plausible. But we Christians have another view arising from two paradoxical truths we hold in in tension:

First, there is a unity to all things, a Being underlying and uniting all beings. That is what we mean when we say: God is one.

Second, this one God is constantly proliferating diversity. The one God who is the essence of Reality itself spins out the universe in all its multifarious complexity.

                And God said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures
                and let birds fly above the earth and across the vault of
               the heavens. So God created the great creatures of the sea
               and every living thing . . .. And God saw that it was good.
               And God blessed them and said be fruitful and increase
                in number. . ..
                                                                 Genesis 1: 20-22

God is procreative. God’s nature is not to suck all things into Godself but to scatter Being out into the Void making this wild menagerie of creation. God is procreative and God is relational. God delights in relating with us as the unique individuals that we are, that God created us to be. Theologian Karl Rahner said, Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable word of God. Can a word of God be lost? Can a word of God be silenced? God does not love humanity as an abstraction. God loves each of us in our individuality and for our individuality.

That means our image of eternal life is not a drop dissolving into the ocean, but a dance or a banquet, an occasion of mutual delight. We are lost in wonder, love, and praise but we are still ourselves wondering, loving, praising, while God laughs in cosmic joy at our homecoming.

                         I myself will see him, my own eyes,
                         I, and not another.


Reward and Punishment? What to believe about reward and punishment in the afterlife is quite a quandary. On the one hand, carrot and stick religion has been used to browbeat and intimidate people for too long to endure. Such a religion is not the child of mystic insight but rather is the tool of a domination system to keep people compliant. See for example, On The Necessitie of a Publik Religion by Benjamin Franklin. It portrays God not as Love but as a vindictive Judge demanding our fear but unworthy of our love.  It ratchets up spiritual ambition and dread to make a selfish religion. I practice my religion to advance my own interests and save my own hide.

The alternative, universalism, gives us a considerably more appealing God. The doctrine that all the cosmos will be redeemed has roots in Paul, was expressly taught by that giant of Early Church theology, Origen, and has been proclaimed by greats in the Anglican tradition like F. D. Maurice and Charles Gore. But this too has a problem. Universalism denies or at least diminishes the significance of our earthly lives. If we all end up the same, what difference does it make what we do, think, or feel?

C. S. Lewis offers an Anglican middle way. It is not about what God does to us. It’s about who we become. Lewis observes our tendency over the years to become more and more the way we are. We become more extreme versions of ourselves. A little virtue over the course of a lifetime may grow but life is not long enough for it to become too big. If the trend continues into eternity, however, one could become beautifully holy. Conversely, a little vice will grow worse though the years. But life is short so the worst it is apt to do is make us a disagreeable old person. If that vice grows on through eternity, however, it could produce a monster.

Our happiness is found in relationship with God. That relationship will be considerably more harmonious for the holy than for the monstrous character. Indeed, Lewis suggests elsewhere that heaven and hell may be the same reality experienced very differently by people depending on the state of their souls. Do we want to be nearer my God to thee?

But is the vice-ridden person then lost forever? Not so. Only God and that which is of God are eternal. Those things that are not of God are mortal. Over the course of eternity, the vices lose their energy so that all will be redeemed.

In one book from the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan sends the children on a mission sternly ordering them to stay on the path. Do not wander. But, of course, they do wander and become lost in the forest. There they encounter Aslan. Remorseful, they confess their disobedience and ask Aslan if all is lost now that they cannot get to their destination. Aslan assures them they will still make it to the destination, and they can achieve their mission, but the road will now be much longer and much harder.

There are consequences to our actions, our thoughts, our feelings, our practices, and our habits. They can make our path shorter or longer, easier or harder. But we cannot defeat the love of God which was and is and ever shall be. The love of God is our destiny. In our freedom, we can resist it, but we cannot resist it forever.

Conclusion. Many have speculated about that undiscovered country. I hope I have added nothing new. I am just recounting teachings from the Church – not universally agreed upon but teachings, nonetheless -- the wisdom of the ages as I have received it. If God is God as we believe God to be – the Source and Destiny of All, the Being and the Void, the Meaning of the cosmic story – and if God is as we believe God to be – Infinite Love, procreative and relational, holding the cosmos in being by loving it – then I trust this ancient teaching is a reasonable belief. I will stake my life on it, and dare to love that which death can touch because death touches us all but holds none of us forever.

2 comments:

Jean Heilman said...

I wrote an extensive and eloquent response to your blog but when I left this page to view my comments, they were gone. I do so appreciate you taking the time to expand on your conversation with the lady in the airport. It's too late for me to repeat all I had written tonight so I will do that in the near future. Again thank you. My love to you and Linda.

Jean Heilman said...

I agree 100% with most of your blog. After I study over it (as my dad would say) I may be 100% on board! If I understand you correctly, you feel that those who live more Christlike lives and those who do not, will be on the same road to eternity but it will take longer for the one who doesn't walk as close to Christ? So, do you not believe in hell? As for myself, I know where I will spend eternity and not because of anything I have done or not done. I will be in heaven because of what Christ did for me. When Dale died (41 yrs ago), someone I trusted to have all the "big answers" told me that if Dale was with God and God was within me, that we would never be far apart. I know that I have grown spiritually with the passing years, but I've never felt close to Dale since his death or to Bill since his death. That isn't altogether true. There have been times when I felt one of them right beside me but not daily. I believe that we'll all know the answers someday but God chose not to give us that information for a reason and we just have to live with that! I do believe that God is the beginning of all things. His love is sure and perfect. When I was growing up we had to memorize the Shorter Catechism. The first question was, What is the chief end of man? Answer, to glorify God and to enjoy him forever." I think we have been taught to fear God and that we have totally forgotten the part about enjoying Him forever. I want to say again to you that I really appreciate you taking your time to expand on your conversation with the lady in the airport.