My Way or the Eternal Highway: The Business of Heaven

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Does heaven exist and, if so, will your atheist brother get in?

This is the sort of question that bothers lots of the faithful. And a Christian pastor named Rob Bell has stirred the pot with Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

I guess that would include you and me.

Apparently, what most bothers the more doctrinaire believers about Bell’s tome is that eventually everyone, even those who do not lead fully exemplary Christian lives, can be saved and go to heaven. In other words, “love wins” even for people whose beliefs don’t line up with those who go “by the (good) book” during their lifetime, even including the possibility of heavenly eternity for those of entirely different religions.

No more need to worry about that brother of yours, your mom or dad, or all those honorable people whose religious faith (or lack there of) is different from yours.

This would mean, of course, that there is no longer any need to convert others to your particular way of thinking and believing.

Look for the missionaries to be lining up at the unemployment office.

And it would also mean that you don’t really have to follow the letter of the law as it is written in the old religious document upon which you have been reliant. After all, you will get a chance to go to heaven anyway.

And then there are all the judgmental people who would have to stop passing judgment in earthly imitation of a “Last Judgment” that would no longer be exclusive.

And all the hellfire-and-brimstone preachers who keep Sunday morning TV crackling who would need to update their resumés; as would their cameramen.

Boy, the unemployment line is getting pretty long by now, isn’t it.

Seems like Pastor Bell’s point of view would mean trouble for those individuals whose livelihoods depend on getting even more people to look at the world (and the world beyond) in the same way that they do. After all, in the religious market place there are only so many souls who are interested enough in salvation to show up for worship on the sabbath. So, you’d better round-up whomever you can and get them to “buy-in.”

The cynical among us might just think that there could be a post-prison job for Bernie Madoff in this somewhere. Oh, wait, I forgot that Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker snapped up those jobs some time ago.

But before you line up at my office with a flaming torch in your hand, I do want to make something clear.

I’m not suggesting that all of those who want to save your soul are self-serving. I’m sure that the vast majority do so for the right reasons. But, where money is to be made, where churches and temples require repair and maintenance, where books and religious accessories are sold and salaries are paid, you do need to keep an eye open to motives less pure than your eternal reward.

Earthly rewards have a way of messing things up.

A 1951 movie comes to mind. The Man in the White Suit starred Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton, a chemist and inventor who creates a virtually indestructible fabric that repels dirt. At first he is hailed as a genius and hero. Later, when clothing manufacturers and their employees realize that his invention will put them out of business, he is their target.

Heaven without a well-guarded gate and an earthly admission fee, like a white suit that will last forever, just might create some enemies. Apparently, Rob Bell has a few of those.

Then there is the question of what constitutes heaven. Several possibilities come to mind:

  • A heaven that every one eventually can reach even if they don’t make it on the first try — something like the “love wins” heaven of Pastor Bell. I would guess that such a heaven would be sort of like some grand family reunion, where all past grudges are forgiven, everyone gets along, and Aunt Edna’s fruitcake actually tastes good.
  • The standard-issue version of heaven where there is a judgment and there is a permanent hell for those who don’t pass the evaluation that happens at the end of life. In it, you (if you are anything like your current self) will miss your atheist brother who is in the “other place” for eternity because he screwed up the mere three score and seven years he had on earth — (under)grounded for life and then some. Moreover, if you care about what is going on with your brother while you are in a better place, you just might also be bothered by the troubling events on earth. None of that seems like much fun to me.
  • In the next possible conception of an afterlife, your brother still is in hell, but you don’t care; even though you loved him when you were alive. In other words, you have been transformed into a creature quite different from the one you were on earth, but you are having a grand time. Greek mythology anticipated this, by suggesting that the newly departed were required to drink from the river Lethe, whose waters caused them to forget their lives on earth.
  • The 1998 Japanese film After Life offers still another notion of a posthumous existence. Heaven would consist of living forever in whatever single moment you choose from your life history on earth. To live “in the moment” necessitates that you give up that part of yourself which, like all humans, allows you to look back and remember the past, as well as to look forward and anticipate the future. Experiencing whatever single event is most precious involves sensations and feelings of joy or delight attached only to that isolated slice of time rather than to thought, worry, reflection, or concentration on other things, even including other positive relationships, experiences, and events. With respect to the question of your brother mentioned earlier, unless he was involved in the single moment you choose to occupy for eternity, you’d simply never think about him.
  • Finally, there is the possibility that there is no heaven and no corresponding hell either.

Of course, it’s not as if I really know.

Do you?

The top image is Ascent of the Blessed ca. 1490 by Hieronymus Bosch, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Who are You to Judge?

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Judgment is problematic. We need it, but not too much of it. Sort of like food.

While I will say more of a secular nature, the most famous comment on judgment comes from the New Testament — the Christian Bible — and is attributed to Jesus:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

The point here is about the potential hypocrisy: for us to judge others by a standard that is harsher than the one that we apply to ourselves. It is akin to the famous late addition to the Christian Bible about Jesus turning away the men who were about to stone a woman who had committed adultery, with the comment “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” He later advises her to go and “sin no more.”

We judge lots of things. We need to judge the accused in the court room, lest wrong-doers do wrong with impunity. We judge ourselves and, one hopes that it improves our future behavior and helps us make good decisions.

We judge for self-protection, too; to comfort ourselves with the belief that the misfortune of others is due to their bad decision-making. By implication, if we make better decisions — display better judgment than they did — fate will be kinder to us. If we are careful, thoughtful, smart, do our homework, live by the Golden Rule, and so forth, good things will happen to us and we will avoid bad things.

This view seems to look at misfortune as some sort of anomaly, something that is outside of the normal course of events when, of course, it is not. All sorts of bad things happen to the innocent or unlucky. This is a troubling thought and our negative judgment of others — our attempt to make sense of their troubled lives or bad luck — makes it easier to sleep at night.

I’m not trying to justify all poor decisions here, many of which surely lead to disaster. Rather, it’s simply that not every bad thing is the result of some fatal flaw in the nature or conduct of a man or woman. Sometimes you can do everything right and have a bad result. Sometimes things just happen.

Judgment serves, too, as an attempt to guarantee immortality. Since most people see death as the worst possible outcome in any life, it shouldn’t be surprising that harsh judgment is often characteristic of religious fundamentalism. For the “by-the-book” parishioner, following all the rules of his or her particular religion guarantees a heavenly reward. And, for those who violate the doctrine, the faithful believe that there will usually be a trip to a darker place.

Judgment in this instance provides some comfort that death is not final; and perhaps the self-satisfaction of believing that in visiting judgment on the unfaithful, one is only trying to move them onto a path that will lead to heaven. For some of the religious fundamentalists I’m sure that it is; for others, however, it might only be a justification for venting angry condemnation of those who are different and who do not believe what the self-righteous might wish they did believe.

Judgment is often made by those who have no experience of the situation or circumstance in which the “judged” behavior occurred. To take a current example, consider Tiger Woods (or some other celebrity) reported to be unfaithful to his spouse. I am certainly not here to apologize for, or attempt to excuse Tiger Woods’ behavior. But I would say this: I suspect that non-celebrities have no idea of the temptation available to a man or woman in Woods’ position nearly every day of his life. And, as Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything but temptation.”

But, let us move away from the always controversial area of sex to give this idea a different look. I once asked the great Italian symphony conductor Carlo Maria Giulini about his judgment of the behavior of the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler. Furtwängler chose to stay in Germany during the period of the Third Reich, although he was not a Nazi. While he was helpful to some Jewish musicians, he also was used (and allowed himself to be used) as a propaganda tool by the Nazis.

Giulini , who began his career as an orchestral violist, had played under Furtwängler in Italy before the war. Moreover, during World War II, Giulini, never a fascist, had defected from the Italian army into which he had been conscripted and went into hiding for nine months, during which time he was a “wanted” man. But when I asked him about the controversy surrounding Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany and to allow himself to be a representative of a corrupt regime, Giulini was hesitant to judge:

It’s very, very difficult to judge the position of a man. It’s difficult for you in America to understand the problems we had in Europe. It’s difficult to put yourself in a position, in a special moment (in history), that is absolutely impossible to imagine if you didn’t live in that time. That last thing I should do is to express my opinion on this point. I had my personal political opinion, I took my position — very precise. I was not a fascist (laughs), and at the moment that I had to make a strong decision, I took it. But I am not in a position to do any criticism of another person.

We judge ourselves and others, to the extent that we do it, with the perfection of 20/20 vision that only comes in looking back, in hindsight, at what was done. We sometimes say “he should have known better than to” (make that business deal, marry that person, visit that neighborhood, smoke, drink — take your pick). Well, it is sometimes true. And, after all, I’m in the business of trying to help people to make better judgments. But mostly, that experience tells me that all people make mistakes and, assuming that they don’t mean to injure others, they mostly pay for those mistakes with their own blood, tears, and sweat.

As much as I recognize that judgment has its place, as a therapist, I try to meet people on their own terms, not coming from “on high” as a stern taskmaster or a fundamentalist-style religious figure “laying down the law.”

No, if you want that, you shouldn’t consult me. I am not here to condemn, although I don’t shy away from identifying right from wrong when it can be clearly seen.

Instead, I am here to help, to understand, to provide a bit of solace, to be a guide to a better way, if I can.

The gavel at the top of this essay is the work of Glentamara and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

A Few Relationship and Dating Tips

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What can one add to the guidance that people are always looking for in finding a mate? Here are a few things you might not have considered:

1. Don’t ignore all the little things. People often betray important disqualifying characteristics early in a relationship. In the heat of the sexual attraction moment, we might want to ignore those things that appear to be small problems. Does your new friend call when he says he will call? Does he show up on time? Is he really listening when you are talking? You might be able to forgive such failures now, but they can signal problems that will appear larger later on.

2. Are you attracted only to “bad boys;” or to women more concerned about how every inch of them looks in the mirror than to take the time to look at you? If so, you’d better ask yourself “why?” If you keep having bad relationships, perhaps it’s because of some of the people you are choosing to partner with. In that case, reflection on your decision-making process is in order.

3. Get past the small talk. Do you want to know someone well? You will have to ask them about more than their opinion of Michael Jackson’s death and the Cubs’ chance of getting to the World Series.

What things might you ask? If your date represents a good opportunity for a lasting and satisfying relationship, eventually you will need to know about his politics and religion, how he handles money and debt, whether he has made good decisions in life, and his capacity for emotional intimacy and openness; does he hold onto old friends and how does he treat them? How does this person deal with frustration, disappointment, and anger? Is he charitable and forgiving?

How does your companion explain past relationship failures? Can he be appropriately assertive? Is he too dependent on you and others? What are his relationships with parents and siblings like? How was he raised? Is his humor too often at your expense or the expense of someone else, perhaps including himself? You don’t have to know about these things right away, but you do need to know about them before your heart starts running the show and leaves your head behind.

4. Don’t expect your date to make you happy. You are looking for a partner and not a caretaker or parent (I hope). Don’t look for someone to make up for past injustices and misfortunes. Don’t expect him to shoulder most of the burden of bringing home the bacon (or rearing the children) alone. Don’t encourage him to make most of the important decisions for you or to expect you to make those decisions on your own.

5. Since most of you reading this are probably relatively young, its important to realize that people change. The person you are with today is not going to be the same in 10 or 20 years or longer. (It would be troubling if he is unchanged by the passage of time. Surely, in 10 years or more one should learn something new from the experiences of life).

There is an old saying that men expect their wives never to change, while women expect that they will change their husbands. If you subscribe to this theory, you are in for trouble. People change physically, and should grow in experience, knowledge, self-awareness, and compassion, but don’t always transform for the better or in a way that is compatible with the alterations that you will make yourself. Does the hot young person sitting across the table from you right now have the ability to grow and to adapt to your own growth? While you can’t know for sure, it would behoove you to have some opinion on the subject.

6. How much self-awareness does your date have? Does he understand what he does and why he does it? Does he know (or care) about how others perceive him and when (and why) he injures someone else? Can he look into the mirror and see himself for who he really is, not for who he might want to believe that he is?

7. Recognize that you are not going to change your new partner. People don’t change because others want them to, they change because they have come to recognize that their behavior isn’t working for them and the cost of continuing in the same way is too high. If you think the relationship will only work if your new love can be altered, think again.

8. How much of a role, if any, do alcohol and drugs have in your life and that of your romantic partner? People tend to minimize or deny the extent to which substance abuse is present. This is especially likely to be true if you come from a family where this kind of behavior was routine. Alcohol, for example, tends to fuel arguments as well as depression.

9. Recognize that the honeymoon always ends. The nature of new love is to see the other in an idealized state. Your friend’s self presentation, attentiveness, and kindness are not likely to increase over time. The flame of sexual intensity will not always burn so bright. Something more will need to be present for the relationship to continue to be satisfying.

10. What do your friends really think about your current romance? Sometimes they can see things that you can’t.

11. Are you looking for someone stronger than you are? Or are you looking for someone docile who won’t challenge you, but simply be devoted and doting? In either case you are almost certain to be in for trouble. Relationships based on this sort of inequity typically become fractious and unsatisfying for both partners. They can transform into hostile dependencies, where the strong, dominating partner feels unappreciated, and the yielding, self-effacing individual morphs into someone who is aggrieved and simmering, or shuts down.

12. Are you insecure? Can you bear to be without a girlfriend or boyfriend for very long? Do you need regular reassurance that you are “the one and only?” This gets old quickly. While that reassurance will temporarily calm your fears, your friend will almost surely tire of it, leaving you less secure if you don’t ask again for a sign of his devotion, and him feeling put-upon if you do.

As with a number of the concerns mentioned above, therapy is suggested if your self-worth requires the presence of an escort; along with constant bolstering and a tendency to lose yourself, forget about your friends, and give-in to your new love for fear that he will otherwise leave you.

13. Are you still in love with someone else? Is your new date on the rebound himself? The presence of strong feelings which are still attached to someone else can complicate your new relationship. You are discouraged from entering into a “rebound romance” for good reasons.

14. Do your values match up well with the your potential love? Do you share the same vision of life, the same goals; the same stance toward integrity, devotion, loyalty, work, and children? Not just in what you say, but in what you do.

15. Do you tend to be drawn to partners who are much younger or much older than you are? In the former case, this can suggest the need to dominate the less experienced partner or simply to be looking for good looks rather than something more lasting. In the latter instance, its possible that you might be unconsciously trying to find a parent figure or someone to rely on and take care of you. In either case, some honest self-reflection regarding this pattern is worth your attention.

16. If commitment is what you want, beware of the man or woman who says that he or she is not ready for a serious or long-term relationship . To date someone like this is rather like buying a shiny, dashing new car that will start to fall apart after six months.

17. Watch out when you hear yourself thinking that, although you can see that there are problems in your burgeoning twosome, you will stay a while to see if things get better since you aren’t (yet) risking a broken heart. Often your heart leaps ahead in situations like this and you discover that you are in love with the wrong person only too late.

18. Take your time! You might hear the clock ticking on the days of your life (or your life since your last relationship), not to mention the time left on your fertility, but rushing things out of desperation will prevent you from making the best possible choice. Remember, the point of this is not only to win the affection of the other individual, but to determine whether he is worth the winning!

The top photo is an Austrian Road Sign photographed by Pirosko. The second image is described as a “short animated gif with 2D-boy.” Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.