Friday, November 30, 2018

The Four Last Things

Painting by Mark Rothko

We all will die, and so will everything else; even the space that contains us. Everything we have down to our own bodies is ultimately on loan and will be paid back. Like most other gay men of my generation, I’ve seen too many people die before their time. Life is short and uncertain, and the absurd and the arbitrary happen. We never know how much time we have left, so how we spend it matters. The people we love and who love us are not forever and should be enjoyed, cared for, and cherished now.
I have no idea if there really is anything beyond the horizon of death. The afterlife may all be a big nothing. Much of the ancient world thought so. Hades, Sheol, and Abzu are all places of shadows where all the dead go regardless of virtue or wickedness; all exist in eternal darkness cut off from the living and the gods. These places seem to me not very far removed from the state of oblivion. They may be simply poetic metaphors for extinction. The Egyptians with their elaborate afterlife were the exception, not the rule in the ancient world. If the afterlife is all a big nothing, then there won’t be any conscious entity left to know it, or to regret it. Still, I treasure the hope that extinction is not our ultimate destiny.

Even so, as a friend of mine said, “It doesn’t matter if you believe in God or not; you don’t want to lie on your death bed knowing you’re an asshole.” Somehow in some way we are accountable for our lives and how we spend them. God’s mercy is infinite, and his justice is perfect.

If there is a Heaven, then I don’t believe that anyone pulls themselves up by their own bootstraps to get in it. Heaven is the free gift of God to all of us. No one earns their way into it. No one “deserves” to go to heaven or is “worthy” of it. It’s not an apotheosis. We’re not heroes winning admission to Olympus and immortality. I’ve never believed golden harps and clouds. I don’t believe in any celestial brothel as some believe. I don’t believe in any warriors’ Valhalla either. I don’t believe in anything like that changeless realm of disembodied light that Dante described. I believe that if there is a Heaven, then it is a place where we will indeed live again; live in every sense of that word. If we go there, we go there because God wants us to be there, not because we earned it or won the lottery. Heaven is like the return of the Prodigal; no matter what reason or where or for how long we wandered, Our Parents are always there waiting and are so happy that we’ve come back. Heaven is like the Wedding at Cana; joy like the best wine anyone has ever tasted, and more of it than all the guests can possibly drink. Heaven is the Bosom of Abraham where everyone belongs and is welcome. In Heaven, no one is lonely and no one is without. As Mahalia Jackson described Heaven “It’s always ‘Howdy! Howdy!’ and never ‘good bye.’”

I’ve never believed in hell, at least that traditional concept of it as an eternal torture chamber created by God to punish the wicked. Demagogues, tyrants, oligarchs, and fanatics use the fires of hell to frighten their subjects into an infantile submission. Salvation became a protection racket, a way of staying out of hell instead of embarking on a journey to meet God. Hell was always a little too useful for keeping people in line. Hell becomes an empty threat when people lose their fear of it, and salvation becomes an empty promise. And yet, I believe in free will. The problem with universalism and its very attractive idea that everyone will ultimately see salvation is that it negates free will. Should someone who doesn’t want it see salvation? Slave and master, victim and predator automatically together in the same heaven with no reckoning is not justice. Perhaps Hell is something that we make for ourselves with great skill and industry. We go there willingly, even eagerly, and it locks from the inside. We find our bliss in our own darkness and isolation cutting ourselves off from our neighbors and from God. We put ourselves there and it is up to us to come out. I could see that for some, leaving would be too much to ask. One thing that always struck me about Dante’s Inferno; as I recall, none of the damned asks to leave. None of them ever say “get me out of here” to Dante and Virgil no matter how terrible their suffering.

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