Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Imagine There's No Heaven

I placed this quote from Don Cupitt in Sunday's bulletin as a reflection piece.

It is from his book,
Emptiness and Brightness:

It is the philosopher’s job to question all the things that ordinary people take for granted. And in the last century or two this has often meant having doubts about God in particular. Anyone who has had a vivid and strong conviction of the objective reality of a loving personal God, and then loses it, finds himself or herself suddenly plunged into an equally vivid and strong conviction of being utterly alone in an infinite, cold, empty darkness.

This is the Nihil, the Void, and if one is unprepared for it, it is like being damned or like being severely depressed. When in this state one cannot imagine ever being able to escape from it. But in time most people do escape and find they can congratulate themselves on having learned a few useful lessons.

First, many of most of people’s religious and moral tenets are comfort-beliefs, clung to as a defence against the Void. Such beliefs are defended fiercely: it is a sin even to question them. But any serious interrogation of one’s own basic convictions risks discovering that some of them are just comfort-beliefs and must be got rid of….

....Serious religious thought today risks the Void all the time—so much so that in the end one is sure to be taught the great mystical and Buddhist lesson: it is necessary to make a friend of the Void….

....I contend that in time we can learn to love the Void. We can learn to love the Empty, free-floating, foundationless, outsideless contingency of everything….learn to love life and simply…float. pp. 70-71
I enjoy the writings of Don Cupitt. I have appreciated his willingness to search honestly and take nothing on "faith." For him, "taking it on faith" can be the same as living in denial. He doesn't take any theological belief including God on faith.

My recent post in which I expressed some hunches of my own achieved a good level of energy in the comment section. I tend to think that believing, wishing, or hoping that our consciousness will survive our own deaths is a comfort belief.

I don't think life after death is true. Nor do I find it particularly comforting. Further, I don't think that the message of Christianity has to be or always has been about surviving death. At its best, Christianity is a life philosophy inspiring us to do justice and to live compassionately, joyfully, and hopefully,
this side of the grave.

I also find a belief in life after death oppressive and worrisome. After giving it up, I find life much more liberating. I, like many, was raised in a religious tradition that emphasized life after death and going to heaven and avoiding hell. There were things that one needed to believe in order to get to heaven or be saved. The bodily resurrection of Jesus comes to mind. I remember hearing many an Easter sermon stressing that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead and that one needed to affirm that in order to be a Christian.

Of course there were other requirements as well, such as accepting that Jesus died for my sins. If I didn't accept that doctrine I would die in my sins which meant an eternity of hell. I left that long ago. I am happy to have done so.

I became a Presbyterian as an adult. The Presbyterians have an interesting theory. The theory is that there is nothing anyone can do to make it to heaven as it all has been fixed. God has already elected who will be saved and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Of course the flip side is that God has predestined the non-elect for hell. But not all Presbyterians believe in the flip side.

The idea that it is all fixed is helpful. I kind of like it. With it, there is no need to worry about one's state in the afterlife as you can't do anything about it anyway. What do we do? Live justly, compassionately, joyfully and hopefully in the present. You are free from obsessing about the afterlife, so you can devote energy and time to this one.

Because the weeds of Arminianism (one must do something to be saved) continually taint the crop, many Presbyterians don't understand their own unique philosophy.

I think that letting go of the idea of an afterlife altogether is the logical next step for Presbyterianism. We already have the idea that there is nothing we can do to get there, so giving up the "there" makes perfect sense. It fits with our understanding of our 14 billion year old universe and the evolution of all of life including human beings.

Imagine there's no heaven. It isn't hard to do.

Well, it might be a bit hard at first, especially if we have had it drilled into us and if we still regard it as a comfort belief. But when we let it go, we may discover that this life is a unique experience we will never have again. At death, we will sink into whatever consciousness we had before birth, which of course is no consciousness. It will be done.

But, if you are reading this, it isn't done yet. You have breath today. What will you do with it?


  1. thanks for this, John. fascinating as usual.
    I had just read a friend's post on Facebook just before opening this article and reading it.
    RE: 'no heaven' out there, but focusing on the heaven here&now, he sums it up perfectly i think:
    "Gramma's homemade bread, with Gramma's homemade strawberry jam. Eating it WITH my Gramma while she sings. Does it GET any better? :)"
    Nope. No better. This is the heaven that Jesus 'saves' us for by saving us FROM worry, dread, fear, despair.
    Peace, Rob

  2. Nice, Rob.

    For some reason, it brought to mind Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. My feeling on that book was that the narrator rushed through his life with no joy, with the idea(hope?) that remembering it would be sweeter than living it.

    Do we treat the idea of heaven/afterlife the same way?

  3. well, maybe there are 2 kinds of people in this world: those who put their main focus on living here & now and those who's focus on heaven in the sweet by and by.
    Once u choose that priority, lots of other things fall into place....

  4. I didn’t see the original post until today—great piece. As you may remember, I am a huge fan of Cupitt and very much appreciate that quotation. For the record, I am also a clergy person (ELCA Lutheran in this case) who has abandoned any realist notion of life-after-death. I think it is in Christianity Must Change or Die that John Spong mentions a TIME article reporting the near absence of heaven or the after-life in preaching today, regardless of denomination. I think that is accurate (and that article must have been at least ten years ago) as is Spong’s observation that it just isn’t a concern anymore for many people in the West.

    For religious people like me and you, John, we have to confront the question directly, often with some emotional trauma. For a lot of people, I think the notion has just faded away or become a very hazy blur. Two things have contributed to this, I think. One is that our notion of God has frankly become pretty benign so people reason that if there is an afterlife or not, it just isn’t something they need to be concerned about. The other is simply that our much more sophisticated understanding of reality makes it nearly impossible to give an afterlife any coherent meaning. Something that we can’t imagine isn’t going to have much importance to us.

    So I think you are right, John, that many people in and out of the church are “dis-believers” on this subject but mostly keep it to themselves. In the congregations I have served it has rarely been a topic of conversation, let alone enthusiastic affirmation. This life is where people’s needs and concerns are. Thanks again John for your honesty and self-disclosure.

  5. @Doug well said. You confirmed what I have been thinking and why it is important to write what is on some folks' minds...

  6. Taking on these challenging issues may be important. Or it may be essential.
    "If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."
    (Thomas 70, from Elaine Pagels)

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  8. Excellent quote @David—very appropriate (and got a little thrill seeing Pirsig’s Zen on your favorite book list—a much appreciated college companion).

    A couple other thoughts, John. Right after posting I was reading Richard Holloway talking about applying Kuhn’s paradigm shift to Christianity and emphasizing the importance of a paradigm’s practical value. I suspect that is a major factor in shifting beliefs about the afterlife. You got into a tiff with earlier commenters about its importance to 3rd World people but that really only makes the point. When people can live reasonably full and rewarding lives there’s much less need for the hope of a paradise to come.

    The one practical value the idea of afterlife retains, however, is for grieving survivors, and I wonder if that isn’t going to stick around quite awhile. Even here, though, I suspect it will continue for most as primarily a symbolic idea. This is where you encounter, for example, the surviving spouse who goes to the gravesite to “talk” with his/her partner. I suspect such behavior is understood in different ways by the people doing it and may even evolve for them over time.

    I remember reading that interest in contacting the dead through séances and Ouija boards ballooned after the Civil War because there we so many soldiers MIA. Parents and widows wanted to know their sons and husbands were at peace. Something similar happened after World War I, with Arthur Conan Doyle and his plunge into spiritualism being perhaps the most well-known example. I think there could be some real benefit in exploring this from a pastoral care perspective, but to bear fruit it would require accepting the non-realist view of afterlife you’re advocating.

  9. @Doug,

    I would offer an alternative reason people have stopped talking about the afterlife. Its because they have stopped talking about death.

    We live in a death denying culture. We don't even bury our dead anymore.

    I and my wife were raised in the Latin Cultures of South America. For both of us, when a family member dies, we have a wake, we view the body, we close the coffin, we take it to the cemetery, we put it in the ground and we fill the hole with dirt. Ashes to ashes.

    The past middle aged pastor that officiated at my father-in-law's funeral told us he had never stayed at the cemetery until the body was buried before. Never!

    A friend at work died. He was very popular. The family did not want a big funeral, so we were all forced to have a celebration at a hotel where we all told stories about him, cried because that's what you do, but is he really dead? It might as well have been a retirement party.

    A death denying culture isn't going to embrace thoughts of the afterlife. Either for or against.

  10. Doug, that is very helpful. How do we deal with death in a pastoral setting? This needs to be revisited.

    I was surprised when I moved to East Tennessee when people told me that they didn't want funerals (for themselves or for their loved ones if they could help it). I didn't understand it until I went to a few of them. They are disastrous. Heaven and hell and schmaltzy weirdness. It seems like it is either that or nothing.

    We do need grieving rituals. Some people do need to find a way to "keep in contact" with their beloved for a while but the Christian baggage is way to burdensome.

    Of course, Daniel Dennett has hypothesized that religion started by the capacity of humans to give agency to inanimate things (such as departed loved ones) that gradually transferred to deities. Maybe we don't need much more than ancestral spirits even as we know we are pretending.

    Is that a book by Holloway?

  11. @David Yes, great quote! I really am going to make a set of Thomas cards.

  12. BTW, I am a big believer in funerals. Lots of ritual. Lighting candles. Sacred texts. Songs. Stories. Tears. Food. And time. Plenty of time.

  13. Yes, Looking in the Distance and I think it recently came out in paperback. Very accessable--highly recommended.

  14. Great! I will get it. Another book to feed my addiction!

  15. @Jodie, I agree there is a certain degree of denial and plain weirdness in our attitude towards death. I wonder about the connection with attitudes toward afterlife, however. In my experience what people really stress about is dying, rather than the notion of being dead. This includes concerns about loss of control, pain and suffering, financial preparedness, etc. Dying has become very complicated--we're even confused about what it means to be dead!

    As a liturgical church, Lutherans typically do all the things you described. People seem to find liturgically "just following the book" very calming and reassuring. And I stay to lower the casket if the family does. As for the "celebration of life" events, I guess I don't really have a problem with them. I think you overstate the case in saying it could be a retirement. I doubt anyone is confused about that. If anything, I would fault our culture for its general avoidance of messiness and awkwardness. Increasingly we hide away the sick, impaired, elderly, poor, or anyone who doesn't meet our standards for health and beauty. And more than once I have dealt with people whose confidence that so-and-so was now "with the Lord" was really an avoidance of their hurt and grief at that person's death. After all, isn't afterlife the ultimate denial of death?

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  17. @Doug,

    "After all, isn't afterlife the ultimate denial of death?"

    It can be. Specially when people express a belief that someone who died is alive and well and awake and either in the presence of the Lord, or comforting those left behind...

    That's not even resurrection. That's Spiritualism.

    The afterlife that I was brought up on is that you die and go to compost, but then one day the process gets reversed somehow, and then you live happily ever-after. New Earth and all that.

    At the end of the day, people are all over the map on the topic. And it's all wild speculation.

    I remember walking through a cemetery in a church yard in England once and noticing the graves that had the names and birth dates a death dates that came after each other and thinking. This guy was born after this guy died, and he probably stood here one day and looked down at this tombstone over here, and wondered what this guy's life was all about, now that he is but a name and two dates, and then this guy over here stood over both of their tombstones and wondered the same thing, and now I am standing here looking over all three of their tombstones, and if I lived in this town someday somebody else would be standing over all four of our tombstones coming to the same realization that I am coming to now:

    We are like treads on a caterpillar tractor.

    And there is nothing we can do about it.

    One day, all of my dreams and all of my memories and all of my joys and all of my pains will be reduced to a tombstone with a name and two dates on it. And then the tombstone will crumble away and that will be that.

    So John's got a point. Eat, drink, and be merry! Life is for living. That IS the moral of that story. If we deny death we run the risk of denying life.

    Your other point is also true, at least about me. It's not death that bothers me. It's the process of dying that freaks me out. I'm one of those who say they want to do it all at once. Be here one minute, and lights out the next. Modern medicine has made it easier to survive crisis and be restored to health, but the price has been that for those who die, the process gets dragged out much longer than it used to, and sometimes it's really not pretty.

    Again, eat drink, and be merry. While you can.

  18. Eat, drink and be merry. Yes.

    But also, Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

    That at least for me is a pretty good creed.

  19. I don't want a long delayed death either and sometimes I think the purpose of the medical profession at the end of life is to prolong death. I would prefer a quick death too. In fact I would prefer to die doing what I love: preaching. The congregation might freak out or might think, "well now he has finally shut up!"