24 October 2011

Why We're Still So Miserable (with no end in sight)

The world today is awash in religion. But is it any closer to God?

The question is not as presumptuous as it might sound at first to many Christians ("Gasp! How can the world ever be close to God?"). To be sure, the world in and of itself is very likely incapable of ever getting closer to God. But that doesn't mean we should welcome the prospect of its drifting ever farther away. "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! to what end is it for you? the day of the Lord is darkness, and not light." (Amos 5: 18 - KJV)

My point is that none of us really likes looking at something hideous, even when that thing is just "being itself," or acting according to its nature. It may be the intrinsic nature of that thing we call "the world" to make itself more and more repulsive, even as it strives more and more to separate itself from the beauty of God. But the fact that this is the nature - or natural bent? - of the world doesn't mean we have to like it that way. Or even that we will like it, bad as we ourselves may otherwise be. Man without God - and isn't that, after all, what most of us Christians mean when we talk about "the world"? - Man without God has never been a pretty picture to look at. Not even to those who think he's better off without God. For instance, I've yet to read of many atheists (apart from the really dogmatic Marxists) who actually enjoyed visiting or reading about the glories of that supreme atheists' utopia, Maoist China. Indeed, I wonder if many of them weren't frankly bored or even revolted by the spectacle. Which, if true, should come as a surprise to no one. It is only as Man steps "out from behind" God - or worse yet, starts seriously thinking that God is behind him - that he begins to look naked and ugly, sore-ridden and pestilent.

Of course we may think we have every good reason to step "out from behind" God. We may think of our Maker as bad, or primitive, or unreasonable, or unjust, or tyrannical. But even then, how often do we become better than He is by trying to move away from Him? Notice how it is precisely those most eager to throw aside, or strip away, some yoke they perceive as tyrannical - be it Divine or human, Godly or governmental - who so often end up becoming the worst, most hellish tyrants of all. (What was it Orwell said? "All animals are equal, but some . . . ")

No doubt everything that is exists for a reason. Even Hell. Indeed, what is any human tyranny if not a kind of anticipatory hell? If I may paraphrase Voltaire: If Hell were not subterrestrial, man in his ceaseless ingenuity would have found a way of making it terrestrial. And I do mean that. I don't believe we humans have ever been very good at accepting the really easy way out - much less making it easier for any of our neighbors. And least of all when that same Way has been God-provided.

I know it probably seems just the opposite today, what with all our hyperpoliticized Religion-on-Steroids. But the fact that many people talk about Hell (mostly as a place where other people should expect to go) doesn't mean that on the whole we believe in it in quite the ways we used to. For example, suppose it were true that record numbers of people today - as contrasted with, say, the previous three or four generations - believed that the single most important thing in their lives was where they were going to go after they die. And maybe that is the case today, especially in our unabashedly religious America. But if that's so, then perhaps you can tell me: Why do so many of us live - yes, even here in America - as if the most important part of life were how much we leave behind us when we go? Or even as if how much we've accumulated - goods, honors, profits, etc - will determine our precise elevation in the place where we go?

We forget that there are many ways of disbelieving in Hell, or discounting its relevance. Or indeed the relevance of any place or life beyond death. One of the most popular is to try to prolongue your conscious physical existence by any and every means possible here on earth. Another, already mentioned just now, is to try to leave as many things as possible behind you on earth (marks? legacies?). Remember - as our glorious Early Twenty-first Century never fails to remind us - you are what you acquire. And how much more what you pass on? (Cf. Psalm 49 passim for an alternative view.)

Certainly Man wouldn't be the first creature of God who, in finding his Creator to be a tyrant, a suppressor of legitimate ambition, or even a devil, only succeeded in becoming his own devil, tyrant, etc. Maybe that's why it so often happens that, the more reluctant we are to believe that Hell is "down there," the more successful we become in bringing it up here.

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