Sunday, April 17, 2011

Heaven and Earth

Oscar Wilde once said, “In the wild struggle for existence, we want to have something that endures.” It’s a common aspect of the human journey, inside and outside of religion, that we seek things that endure. Within religion, the afterlife is often seen as the enduring hope.

Grand Rapids pastor Rob Bell has caused a stir with his new book Love Wins. He begins the book by hinting that there is no hell and goes on to outline the universalist perspective that everyone ends up in heaven, no matter what it turns out that heaven is. Of course many people have been saying this for years, but it’s significant that a prominent evangelical pastor has gone on record and landed the lead story in this week’s Time magazine. This is big news, and in my opinion good news, a step in the right direction.

It’s going to be fascinating to watch this unfold, as he will inevitably continue on this path of deconstruction and question many other doctrines. His critics are right to say that he is now on a slippery slope to deconversion. When you open Pandora’s Box, you have little idea of the many questions that follow on from questioning the existence of hell. As it says in the Time article, once you open this gate, many other questions follow. With this universal perspective there is no inside and outside group, no saved and unsaved people. There is no doctrinal marker for membership in a church. There is no significant or ultimate difference between the religions. You start to see Jesus as a great teacher and leader, but not the sacrificial lamb for anyone’s sins. There is no carrot for the church to hold over its flock to ensure membership and regular tithing. The Bible is opened to all sorts of questions and revisions to the point where the very authority of the Bible is questioned. At an extreme some would say there is no hope, no meaning in life and no sense of justice, without a salvation system that involves heaven and hell.

Many of us have been there. We know that at the bottom of this slippery slope you can either crash and burn or you can gather momentum for a run back up the hill of reconstruction where your beliefs are more inclusive, more focused on THIS life and more self aware and responsible than ever. Maybe you know both the anxiety and joy of giving up beliefs that used to give you comfort, and skiing free style up and down the hills of life. Maybe, like me, you find more meaning than ever in life. You find glimpses of things that endure in every day moments. Those of us reveling in the joy of our own freely formed spiritual path, know that on the other side of deconstruction there is enormous hope and meaning. Without the fear of hell, you are free to live fully in this life and find meaning where it shows itself without needing to be told by any religious authority what to believe and how to experience the God of your understanding.

Where to Next?

I became a universalist many years ago. It makes no sense to me to believe that some people suffer eternally in hell. I decided a long time ago that whatever heaven is, if there is any such realm, it has to include all people. Any justification for excluding people from heaven is arbitrary and self serving. But now I find myself going a lot further than universalism.

I now find that my circle of concern and compassion stretches well beyond people. I no longer believe that people have a privileged place in the universe. We have greater responsibility because we have become conscious of our ability to make choices that impact the whole universe, but we have no special privilege. Once your consciousness expands to include all species, past, present and future, the notion of universalism becomes too small to hold your love. Whatever heaven is, if there is any such thing, it must surely include all living things.

The second reason that universalism is not an adequate worldview is that it implies that salvation, or the fulfillment of life, is a future reality. I see no reason to wait. Heaven is realized in each moment that your awareness is pure and at peace with what is. Heaven is now, the glimpses of perfect peace that we gain when we live in harmony with all of life. Heaven is also something that we can create in the here and now when we live mindfully.

One of the things that unites many people who aren’t glued together by religious doctrine is the vision we have to make the world a more humane place. We want to make sure the world is in reasonable shape for the next generations. The best way to take care of the next generation is to take care of the place that will take care of the next generation. Get your house in order, leave the world a little better than you found it, and make sure there’s a solid basis for the next generation to work with.

Heaven and Earth Day

What does this discussion of the afterlife have to do with Earth Day? There is a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy has her arms folded and a stern expression on her face. Charlie Brown pleads, “Lucy, you must be more loving. This world really needs love. You have to let yourself love to make this world a better place.” Lucy angrily whirls around and knocks Charlie Brown to the ground. She screams at him, “Look, Blockhead, the world I love. Its people I can’t stand.”

We all feel that way some of the time. Maybe it’s easier to love the earth. In our best moments, we love both the world and its people. These lines from Lord Byron were quoted at the beginning of the 2007 film Into The Wild.

There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.

In the movie, Emile Hirsch plays the part of Chris McCandless who gives up all his possessions after graduating college to hitchhike north and live alone in the wilderness in Alaska. The ironic charm of the movie is that while he is running away from relationships to live a solitary life, Chris strikes up some amazing relationships along the way that seem to nourish him along with the incredible wilderness experiences. In community and in the wild, he finds his own salvation. He creates heaven both in new relationships and in his amazing experiences of nature.

For many of us following an inclusive spiritual path, Earth Day is the most significant day of the year, and more important than the religious celebrations that are closely tied to the traditional salvation system. Why is this? It’s certainly true that Earth Day brings our focus back to the awful destruction of the earth at human hands, and the need to live more mindfully and simply. But there is a more fundamental connection with Earth Day which also may provide a more sustainable response to ecological despair. It is our oneness with the earth. We respect the earth as part of us, and we honor the earth that gives no concern to time and is at peace with change. Nature makes no attempt to control circumstances and offers constant reminders of change and impermanence. Nature gives us a cool summer’s day and an icy cold day in late April as if to remind us that life is unpredictable and to take nothing for granted.

Earth Day is a reminder to let go a little of the delusion of control. This is part of a response to the ecological crisis. Create some sustainable change in your thoughts that gives you peace of mind and then you will feel less need to over consume to fill a hole or try and prove your control by dominating the earth.

Rising Above Mindlessness

I guess it’s no accident that Rob Bell’s book was released so close to Easter. Easter is one of those times that brings up many mixed emotions for people on the slippery slope of deconstruction and reconstruction. More about Easter in the coming week, but for now let me end with a little teaser on the reconstructed meaning of Easter as a symbol of renewed hope. Once again the movie Into the Wild offers a beautiful parable of hope restored. Chris finds his resurrection in the movie, but it’s very much a here and now resurrection, coming to terms with who he is and how he relates to the world around him.

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam wrote the soundtrack for Into the Wild. My favorite song on the soundtrack is called Rise. With the lone Mandolin playing, the song brings to mind a collage of Chris’s adventures of self discovery. Here are the lyrics-

Such is the way of the world
You can never know
Just where to put all your faith
And how will it grow

Gonna rise up
Burning back holes in dark memories
Gonna rise up
Turning mistakes into gold

Such is the passage of time
Too fast to fold
And suddenly swallowed by signs
Low and behold

Gonna rise up
Find my direction magnetically
Gonna rise up
Throw down my ace in the hole

You don’t need to look to heaven and hell for your salvation and you don’t need to wait. Salvation is yours for the taking right now. You find it within as you rise about the self defeating thoughts, forgive your past and turn your mistakes into gold. As Chris says in the movie, “You don’t have to be strong, you just have to feel strong.” There is no one correct path to follow, but you certainly don’t have to follow the path of guilt and shame. Find your direction magnetically. Feel your way forward, knowing that there is always more to come and there is always more to learn. The one thing that endures while all else changes is the inner peace that you have all that makes life whole right now.

The wild struggle for hope within me honors the same within you. Namaste.


Bill Gerlach said...


Thank you for this post. I can't tell you how much it has just hit home.

While I will get my hands on a copy of "Love Wins", the premise -- as you so eloquently elaborate on -- can/will/should be one of the most important seeds to be planted, sprout and bear fruit within our society.

This is where organized religion just fails. Miserably. It's sad to reflect on how humans have built these constructs of ideology and dogma and used it to just drive the entire world into the state we're now in.

Moving past these deep-rooted notions of us vs. them; good vs. evil; my way or the highway and returning to that universal sense of being, purpose and love must happen if we are to change course.

And as you bring to the discussion (thank you!) the basic reverence and respect for the planet that makes all Life possible, it is that return to our deepest of connections with the Source which holds the greatest promise of long-term vitality and prosperity -- not only of human life but all life which we are privileged to share this Home with.

Thanks again. Be well.


Ian Lawton said...

hi Bill, nice to hear from you and well said. You and I will have to meet some day. We have a lot in common. Take care Bill