Thursday, April 30, 2009

The New Priesthood

One of the vilest monsters in the modernist bestiary is The Exploitative Priest. This character is abhorred because he preys on ignorance and superstition, holding the simple enthralled by his claim to be able to interpret signs and omens, and even to foretell the future. His wickedness is exhibited in his swiftness to command compliance or risk ostracism and excommunication. To those who are pliant to his will and learn his doctrine, he holds out the hope of clemency and salvation, but those who doubt his word or question his teachings are damned as infidels or heretics.

Human nature being what it is, there have certainly been such clerics in history, though not as many as the modernists would like to believe. Furthermore, the Gospel of Christ, when properly understood and preached, is quite different than most religions in human history. The Exploitative Priest is found more widely in paganism, as Daniel 14:1-21 testifies.

Modernists assume that the presence of The Exploitative Priest is due solely to the conniving, scheming, and political skulduggery of The Religious Party. If they'd just leave the simple people alone, they could live their lives in peace. But I think the situation is more complex than that. In fact, looking around this postmodern world, it seems to me that people need a priest figure, even if all he does is exploit them. Furthermore, if there isn't one, they'll seek until they find one.

I don't know why this is. Maybe it is because people want to be connected to something greater than themselves. Maybe it is because they cannot escape the guilt within their breasts, and if they deny the path that God has provided to excise that, they'll find some other path to assuage it. But whatever the reason, it seems that people clamor for a guilt trip, and won't settle until they get one.

As Exhibit A of this hypothesis, I offer the modern Global Warming / Climate Change hysteria. It has all the trappings of the Exploitative Priest scenario: the prophets of doom (led by their Elijah, Al Gore), the guilt, the apocalyptic vision, the path to salvation, the sacrifices and offerings, the interpretation of the omens and foretelling of the future, damnation - the whole smash is there. There's even the transcendent reality of The Earth - a semi-mystical concept that differs quite sharply from the physical reality. A true scientist would be amazed that this unproven mythology has seized the popular imagination so strongly on the basis of such threadbare and contradictory evidence. The fact that it has seems to me strong evidence that people need to feel guilty, and if they deny guilt in one arena of life, they'll have to expiate it somewhere else.

The real mystery is why people not only tolerate exploitation, but seek it out. Perhaps their hearts know that justice will demand something of them for their sins, and want to pay it in the way they prefer. Whatever the reason, I find it cruelly ironic that the modern world that went to such pains to demonize all religion as being simply the product of the Exploitative Priest has turned around and created an even more exploitative priesthood of their own.

C'mon back, guys. It's much simpler than that.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Fourth Last Thing

I'm waaay overdue on a post here, for which I apologize to anyone who happens to follow my musings. I've had several ideas for topics, but have felt that I needed to "wrap up" the posts regarding the Four Last Things before continuing. Here goes with the final, and most difficult topic:

If people rarely consider or discuss hell, then they almost never consider heaven - at least, not seriously. To the modern mind heaven seems to be either an assumed state or a distant irrelevancy - or both. Questions about who will get to heaven, and under what conditions, are considered gauche. Admission is assumed, even for those who disregarded anything to do with God or salvation in this life. To see this in action, just try suggesting to a family member that such a dear departed is anywhere but "at peace", and you will be castigated for being insensitive and judgmental.

Another more subtle attitude sounds more altruistic: that we shouldn't worry ourselves about heaven because it cheapens any good we do on earth. The idea is that we should want to do good for its own sake, not because it would qualify one for some long-term payoff. A more jaded extension of this view sneers at "pie in the sky bye and bye", or disparages some as being "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good."

The result of these casual attitudes has been a culture full of people so earthly minded that they're no heavenly good. If there was someone who was heavenly minded, it was Jesus. He even did some scoffing of His own - at those who would consider any good of this world to begin to compare to the blisses of eternal life. If you read Jesus' words - His actual words, mind you, not His words interpreted by some socially-conscious preacher - you find two overriding themes: first, that the purpose of His entire mission, the telos of all the pain and suffering, was to open for mankind the door to heaven. The second is that this admission to heaven was far from foregone. He often warned His disciples most severely that the way was narrow and difficult, and that few would obtain it.

Two major influences helped form my perception of heaven: my father, and the writings of C.S. Lewis. My dad (the one who kept warning me about divine judgment) kept echoing Jesus' words to me - about how nothing in this world even began to compare with the glories of life with Christ. But it was Lewis who helped me see that the beautiful, wonderful things of this life were only beautiful and wonderful because they were little glimpses of heaven. This helped me see beyond the cultural cartoon mythology of heaven as this not-particularly-exciting place where people in robes wandered around on clouds. I've known plenty of beautiful things in my life: stunning sunrises and joyous Christmas mornings and touching homecomings and majestic concerts and quiet evenings at home with my family and so, so many other things. Lewis helped me understand that the only reason those things were beautiful and meaning-full was that through them, I touched eternity - or eternity touched me, as the case may be.

This has become how I think of heaven: not simply as an ultimate goal to be reached beyond the grave, but as something that is seeking to break into this world, to burst forth with a superabundance of life and joy and beauty. That seems to be what you find in Scripture as well. Our parish Bible study is going through the Book of Acts, and in every sermon from Pentecost to the end, there's an undertone of something seeking to burst into our world. That's our role as Christians: to "infect" this drab, drear, monotone world with the color and symphony of heavenly glory. I loved Lewis' image of the Incarnation as like an invasion, a reconquista by the rightful King of the world, and we are His partisans, receiving His supplies and working to expand His reign on this earth. That's the Church's mission, and our mission as members of His Body. Every good deed we do, every act of charity and work of mercy, is an infusion of heavenly glory into this sin-damaged world.

This is not to denigrate the ultimate place of heaven, true union with God and a New Creation. But it is not something we just have to mope around and wait for, putting up with burdens and sorrows here in hopes of an ultimate payoff. Of course, we won't see the full payoff until all creation is redeemed, but we can be a conduit of heavenly grace to the world even amidst our trials and struggles. If we focus on that goal, and strive for it, we bring it closer, and a little more of our world comes under Christ's dominion. That's what being "heavenly minded" really is - and nobody has ever done more good for this earth than those who think like that.

Friday, April 03, 2009

The Third Last Thing

In the classical meditation on the Four Last Things, the third is the unpleasant one, the one the modern world doesn't wish to mention or even think about.


Hell here means the place of final damnation, eternal separation from God, the place prepared for Satan and those who followed him, both spiritual and human. No second chances, no rescues, no escape hatches. Hell is the destination for those who want nothing to do with God.

Hell has to be one of the least meditated-upon topics in modern society. If we think about it at all, we consider that it was for the Middle Ages, we think, or for Puritans – narrow, superstitious, uneducated folk who were dominated by cruel overlords and driven by fear. In these more enlightened times we understand that God is Love, and would never be so cruel as to send someone to such a terrible place as hell. Well – maybe the Jeffrey Dahmers and Josef Fritzls of the world, but not somebody like me.

Would He?

From what I've seen, modern consideration of hell goes no deeper than a hare-brained pseudo-syllogism that runs something like this: I'm too nice a person to damn anyone to eternal suffering, and God's far nicer than I am, therefore God won't damn anyone either, and thus we don't have to worry about hell.

Besides (continues the modern argument), of what benefit would it be to meditate on such a downer concept as eternal damnation? Why ponder hell if nobody's going there (except perhaps a few really bad people)? That's hardly enlightening or uplifting, and isn't religion all about being enlightened and uplifted?

There are so many ways to respond to the modern attitude toward hell that one hardly knows where to begin. But I'll try by starting with this last attitude, that hell is a downer not only unworthy of meditation, but deserving to be consigned to the bin of relics next to hair shirts and penance pilgrimages. Obviously, I believe that to be false, and that hell is very worthy of meditation, but for a reason that sounds incongruous.

We should meditate on hell as a demonstration of God's love for us demonstrated in His respect for us.

That's right – respect. The existence of hell is required by the existence of free will. A being that can choose, can choose to be somewhere other than with God. That may be a foolish and self-destructive option, but if free will exists, it needs to be there. And if a being is truly loved, it is truly respected, and if it is truly respected, it is permitted to make its own choices, even if those choices are foolish and self-destructive. In fact, to preclude certain choices is an expression of disrespect – and ultimately of something less than love.

Here's an example: in Hayao Miyazaki's classic Spirited Away, the slave driving witch Yubaba has no mercy on anyone – except a giant baby who she keeps in a posh and well-furnished nursery. (By “giant” here I mean just that – the infant is as tall as two men. Anything is possible in the spirit world in which Spirited takes place!) Yubaba prattles baby talk to this spoiled “infant”, cleaning up after it and pacifying its tantrums. By appearances, she loves this baby more than anything. But appearances can be deceiving, as demonstrated by the witch's smothering “love”. The titanic infant is, essentially, imprisoned in his nursery, stifled and stunted by the very thing that has provided for him. In reality, the baby is a pet – doted upon and looked after, but not respected. Only a strange alignment of circumstances permits the baby to escape into the real world, where he meets challenge, difficulty, and ultimately maturity.

God is no Yubaba. He's not interested in slaves or pets, but free beings capable of receiving and returning charity. That means He has to permit us to make choices and take risks, and yes, that includes the ability to choose an existence without God.

But why would any one choose that? The answer lies all around us, in a culture that is increasingly making clear that it wants nothing to do with God. Oh, we'll take the good parts – intellect and senses and a beautiful world to enjoy and other people to love and relate to. Just leave behind those rules about how we should treat each other, and certainly don't mention returning gratitude and worship to the Being who made all this goodness.

The problem is, we can't. God and the good things He creates are a package deal. If you take one, you have to take both. Reject one and you reject the other. That's ultimately what hell is: the rejection of God, and with that the rejection of all the good that God brings. That means puppies and sunsets and vacations and beaches – and, for that matter, creativity and beauty and love.

I can hear the whining already: “But why is God so vindictive? Why deny those goods just because we want nothing to do with Him? Is God like a child who scoops up his marbles and storms off just because things aren't going his way?”

A couple of points about that. I'm not up enough on the metaphysics of it all, but I suspect that is an impossibility. Good without God is probably one of those logical contradictions which C.S. Lewis so thoroughly skewered in Mere Christianity. But let's presume for a moment that if someone doesn't want anything to do with God, God will depart, and leave behind the goods of sense, intellect, and even a physical world in which to live. What kind of existence might that be?

Poets have speculated on that very possibility. One of the more famous exercises was the play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, wherein hell for three vicious, sinful people is simply being locked in a room together. No racks, no fires, no demons – just sinful human natures clawing at each other unmitigated by any compassion or charity. The effect is quite chilling. And mystics through the ages have speculated that hell might be nothing more than sinners repeating for a bleak and dreary eternity the sins which damned them: endless conversations consisting of nothing but bitter gossip, perhaps, or ceaseless banquets at which gluttons have nothing to do but stuff more and more food down their gullets. Even with our limited imaginations, the prospects of such eternities make us shudder – or should.

But why would anyone choose such an existence? If offered the option between such a bleak and empty existence and everlasting joy, why would any rational being choose bleak emptiness?

Well – we are being offered the option. From the perspective of eternity, that's what our lives are: one long question about which we'd choose. But simple mental assent isn't enough. Everyone wants good – the question is whether we want the God from which the good comes. Our lives are a long opportunity to answer the question. God gives most of us a chance to enjoy the goods while pondering the question and its terms. If we look hard enough, we can even see that the lesser goods are just signposts pointing to the greatest Good, the one thing we should really want. If we want that greatest Good, or even to still have the lesser goods that come with Him, He's opened a door to permit that to happen. But if by our lives and actions we prove that we don't want the greatest Good – well, He'll respect that decision. That will be hell.

The thing is that none of us knows exactly when the question is going to be closed. That's why it's good to meditate on hell, and to examine the kind of answer that our lives are giving to the most important question of all.