All Things Dull and Ugly
In which I try to show that God is better than we are. But of course he is! you say. Let me explain.
I ran across this on Facebook a couple of days ago, and it is certainly food for thought. I was moving in a certain direction with my last few posts on universalism, but this and some other things have induced me to deviate a bit on the way to where I’m going with the series, since pertinent issues keep arising.
One issue with hell that’s often brought up is this: Those in Heaven experience perfect happiness; and yet if some (or many) are in hell, then some of those in Heaven will have friends and loved ones–even spouses, parents, or children–in Hell. This would obviously seem to make heavenly bliss impossible. So how can the saved experience Heaven if some whom the love are in Hell?
That is the topic of the linked post. As the author points out, many theologians, pastors, and so on, dodge the issue by saying in effect that God takes care of it, we can’t understand it, so shut up. Not a very satisfactory argument. I’m afraid even the great C. S. Lewis does a slightly more apologetic and well-spoken version of this. He somewhat hems and haws about how it does seem a bit contradictory. Then he basically says that that’s how it has to be, without explaining quite how. Here is a quote from Chapter 13 of The Great Divorce in which Lewis (as a character in the book) discusses this with the spirit of George MacDonald, where the latter speaks first, my emphasis:
“I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside. But watch that sophistry or ye’ll make a Dog in a Manger the tyrant of the Universe.”
“But dare one say–it is horrible to say–that Pity must ever die?”
“Ye must distinguish. The action of Pity will live forever: but the passion of Pity will not. The passion of pity, the pity we merely suffer, the ache that draws men to concede what should not be conceded and to flatter when they should speak truth, the pity that has cheated many a woman out of her virginity and many a statesman out of his honesty–that will die. It was used as a weapon by bad men against good ones: their weapon will be broken.”
“And what is the other kind–the action?”
“It’s a weapon on the other side. It leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy…. It changes darkness into light, and evil into good. But it will not, at the cunning tears of Hell, impose on good the tyranny of evil.”
In short, the emotion or feeling of pity is a weakness that is used against the good by the evil, and this will cease in the next world. Without actually saying it as such, Lewis implies that the saved will cease to feel pity for the damned. To put it less elegantly, their attitude towards those in Hell–however much beloved to them they were before–will be, “Well, sucks to be them; that’s the way it goes. Off to heavenly bliss!”
Now there’s a kernel of truth to what Lewis said. There is such a thing as crocodile tears. Bad people do indeed play on the better emotions of good people to get what they want. Pity and compassion can be manipulated. For God, at least, though, pity and compassion are unbounded. At the same time, God is impassible–He cannot suffer. Thus, He cannot be manipulated. Presumably the saved, to the extent that they become like God, also cannot be manipulated. And yet….
The article I linked to ridicules the idea of the indifference of the saved to the damned by saying that “in Heaven we’ll all be sociopaths.” I’m not so sure we aren’t sociopaths–at least a little bit–already. For those of us who’ve been around the block a few times, this is much too easy to see. How many of us have seen friendships, once central to our lives, cool or, even worse, end in acrimony? How many have become estranged from parents or children, siblings or friends? How many of us, in effect, have indeed seen our Pity for one formerly loved–in fact, all of our emotions for them–die? We don’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience what Lewis and others describe–we’re experiencing it now.
From this depressing insight I move to the Monty Python song above, a parody of the well-known hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”. The hymn extols the wonderful and nice things God has created; but the parody mercilessly reminds us of all the nasty things presumably attributable to God, too. This ties back to something I’ve discussed before. I take the liberty of quoting myself:
We cannot know the essence of God, what He actually is like. However, we can know His energies–that is, we can know how he interacts with the world and with us. Everything is a reflection of God, tells us something about God. For example, living things show that He is alive (analogically so, but alive nonetheless). That we are intelligent shows that He is intelligent. The starry night sky shows His grandeur, the flower His beauty, a quiet fall sunset His peace.
How, then, is God reflected in earthquakes that kill thousands, in psychopaths who kill without mercy, in ichneumonid wasps that paralyze caterpillars and on them lay eggs that will hatch into larvae that will eat the caterpillars alive? How is He reflected in tuberculosis, in malaria, in cancer? How does our wrath, our hatred, our ugliness reflect God?
All good questions. My answer there was that some things reflect God more than others, and in different ways than we think. I want to apply that to the matter here.
One could argue that definitive and life-long estrangement from those we formerly loved we often experience in this world is a reflection of the ultimate and eternal estrangement of the saved from the damned. What we experience now is a reflection of what we’ll experience then; and thus decrying this makes no sense as we ourselves do it now. I can respect that notion, but I disagree.
I don’t remember where I read this, but years ago I came across something to the effect that we see doublets in the cosmos that are very similar and yet opposites. The example given was a parasite and a child. An unborn child, like a flea, derives one hundred per cent of its sustenance from another being–the child through the umbilical cord from its mother, the latter by sucking its host’s blood. Each lives from the blood of another; and yet these phenomena, so seemingly similar, seem to us as opposites, or at least as distorted fun-house mirror reflections of each other. The mother carrying the child in her womb, or later nursing it at her breast, is the archetype of self-giving love; whereas the parasite, which takes without asking with no concern for the host’s well-being, seems to be a twisted image, a perversion of self-giving. The idea was that in the fallen world in which we live, it seems as if some things are evil, distorted parodies of good things. I’m inclined to agree.
I’m not going to go as far as the more extremely dualistic accounts (such as those of Manichaeanism and some forms of Zoroastrianism) in which the good thing and its evil parody are created by different beings altogether–that God made the woman and the child, and the Devil made the flea. I do think, though, that the notion of perversion is a logical one. As I’ve said before, I think that the physical universe in concept was perfect (at least to the extent that any created entity can be), but that it was distorted by lower spirit beings. To put it in more traditional, albeit mythological, language, God created the world good; but the demons and the Devil through their actions distorted it. What I suggest is more subtle than that, and more in line with the (fictional) creation account in the Ainulindalë chapter of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. In other words, lower created beings which had fallen away from God somehow marred the creation of a material cosmos; a creation in which they were supposed to participate with God as harmonious co-workers, but which they botched by willful desire to do their own thing with no regard to others or to results.
This is to be understood ontologically, not temporally. That is, it’s not the case that God made the universe all nice, perfect, and sparkling new, and that the demons descended and messed it up. Rather, this process occurred atemporally–outside time as we know it–and thus the cosmos as we experience it has “always” been this way. The flaws are baked in from the beginning. Analogy: I write a great novel, but the editor re-writes it and screws it up. From my perspective, I had it right first, and it was spoiled afterwards. From the perspective of the characters in the novel, though, things have always been two-bit and messed up.
The fallen entities–demons, devils, archons, the Kenoma (Emptiness), however you want to put it–have botched the world. However, even a botched artwork began as art. The Creator shines through, however dimly. Even a slipshod cut of a movie that vitiates the director’s vision might let glimpses of genius show through. Likewise, the concept of giving of one’s own body for another shines through, however dimly, when a flea feeds on its host. Even twisting and distortion cannot completely destroy the underlying good.
Thus, regarding the saved and the damned, I propose this
1. The saved indeed cannot be manipulated by the not-yet-saved, from whom they may be for a time separated. This is the image of which estrangement in this world is a distorted reflection.
2. Pity does not die, however; it is just very, very patient. The “damned”–the condemned–do not suffer forever, but only to the extent that is necessary for their ultimate purification. That could be a long “time”–some souls will need vast amounts of purification. During this time, no amount of pleas and crocodile tears will sway God or those in Heaven. To this extent, Lewis is right, as is the blogger I linked to. During the purification of the wicked, it may indeed seem to them that the saved, and in fact God Himself, are all sociopaths.
3. However, this is not the last word. Eventually, given enough “time” (as above, I use scare quotes to remind us that this is not time as we experience it now), all will be saved and restored to their loved ones in Heaven.
4. Thus, estrangement in this world is a reflection of the purification process, not of eternal damnation. All estrangement here, after all, is limited–if nothing else, we all die in the end. Just as estrangement is limited here, it is so much the more limited there. Thus, in the end, none of us are sociopaths in Heaven.
This seems to me to preserve the valid insights of people making arguments such as Lewis makes without turning God and the saved into monsters of psychopathy. Since such a view assumes an ultimate reconciliation of all, it also doesn’t have to deal with the issue of loved ones eternally in Hell. Hell there is, surely enough–all too many of us experience it here. It won’t be forever, though. Heaven won’t be held hostage by a dog in a manger, because even the dog will eventually hear his master’s voice, and return to his true place. Thus, at least we hope and pray.
Posted on 30/03/2014, in Christianity, theology and tagged Aesop, All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Dull and Ugly, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, dog in the manger, heaven, Hell, Monty Python, salvation, theodicy, theology, universalism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.