I never really believed in Hell, but had I been taught that hell was real from childhood, I would no doubt have believed in it for some period of time.
I am probably more of an ethicist than a theologian.. my quest is not so much for answers about the great mysteries, which I am happy to leave in the realm of mystery, but for answers to the questions of how we humans can live, with more dignity, more integrity, and perhaps most importantly, more JOY.
This is not a homily about the afterlife. To the extent I believe in or even think about an afterlife, I agree with Bishop Spong: what I call God is the human experience of expansive and expanding love, and to enter into eternity is to enter into this love without fetters. (Spong, Eternal Life) It is also truth. The eternal is available to us in this lifetime, and while it can never be fully articulated or scientifically proven, those who touch the mystery through experience will know it exists. I do not have to know whether or not there is anything more for me after my own personal existence. This life, lived fully, is enough. To count on more is a kind of greed I cannot participate in.
Still, humans appear to be driven by greed. That greed appears to extend even to the refusal to let go of life; hence, the vast popularity of religions and expressions of faith that focus upon and promise something “more” and “better.”
Whether you understand it as Darwin did, survival of the fittest, or Richard Dawkins, “the selfish gene,” or as Eastern religions do, “grasping, tanha, addiction,” there is no denying the greed that lurks within each of us and also in groups and institutions. Indeed, to deny it within you is to doom yourself to Hell on earth, the hell of living in delusion.
The Universalist faith, of which most of us profess to be a part, was founded upon just this issue. Early Universalists, among them Ballou and Thayer, as well as Unitarians like Emerson, rejected a Calvinism that proposed a God who would relegate a large number of his followers to eternal damnation. Placing themselves in a tradition with Origen, 3rd century theologian who taught a form of universal salvation but was displaced theologically by Augustine from whose teachings damnation, original sin, and partial election were largely derived, these men & women risked censure and scorn for standing up to the widely prevailing doctrines of Calvinism during a time when the Great Awakening was making them ever more widespread. According to Hosea Ballou, “hell was not a place of punishment but a state of rebellion against god and against the unity of humans and God. Heaven is the accomplishment of that unity. To argue for endless punishment would be to argue for a permanent division in the fabric of the cosmos, a dualism so monstrous that it would rout any claims on the omnipotence of God." (Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists, 65)
Thomas B. Thayer wrote that the whole doctrine of eternal damnation was a pagan corruption of Christianity, based as it was upon Egyptian and other Eastern metaphysical schemes. But it was Thomas Whittemore who in the Plain Guide to Universalism, described Universalism as the religion of “Those who believe in the eventual holiness and happiness of all the human race as revealed to the world in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Robinson, 71)
To Whittemore, sin is itself Hell, which “is not delayed until future existence… but is swift, sure, and inevitable.” (72)
And Emerson, who went farther than Ballou and the Universalists who remained committed to Biblical truths, wrote in Compensation, “you cannot do wrong without suffering wrong.”
As Spong counsels, it is only Fundamentalism that today claims to have the inerrant truth about matters like God, death, and Heaven & Hell . Mainstream religion and virtually all thinking people have moved beyond biblical literal interpretations. Universalism would not thrive today as it did in its heyday because it has become a part of moderate orthodox faith.
So it is really just the courage to say what everybody already knows when Spong declares that Hell was created by religion to instill fear. He turns to Meister Eckhart and the mystics to demonstrate that some have always recognized the oneness of God & man and the artificial nature of religious institutions, which he says were meant to “control life in the here and now” with its “weapons of hate and fear.” The real question is: can humans behave well without an external system of reward and punishment? We seem to require laws and criminal justice, flawed though it is. I doubt many of us would choose to live in anarchy. But could it be that it is precisely the acceptance of a “monstrous dualism” in our faith tradition(s) that keeps us from re-imagining humanity and re-inventing our human communities in ways that promote peace, justice, harmony, and joy?
To explain, let me turn to a gardening metaphor:
Whenever I mention the word “organic” in relation to church life, organization, or faith development, a few people cringe, because to them, organic is all about messy, disorganized, and perhaps even chaotic.
Yet the reality of organic farming suggests something quite distinct.
And I think it can tell us a great deal about how we live, now and forever, if there is a forever.
Soil is the key. One does not plant things that aren’t suited to the soil. One works with, not against or in spite of, the given conditions. Just as inorganic farming has led to disastrous effects upon the environment and people, so can forcing and twisting solutions and external controls lead to toxic and poisonous effects upon humanity. What I mean by that is that our modern age of depression, drugs for every malady, addiction, consumption, and the virtual 1984 control of thought and action through electronic means is an evil that all of us participated in and still participate in every time we shop, watch certain TV shows, and ingest certain substances. We ignore the soil of our lives, and the punishments are already here, manifold and manifest.
Second, once planted, seeds require careful cultivation. Most of us do not want to get dirty enough to tend our own spiritual gardens. Just as it is easier to spray poison on plants and to engineer plants to resist disease, so we humans find it easier to attend drive-through churches, read self-help manifestos, and take pills than to dig deep into the soil of our own lives, our own experience, our own self-awareness. The latter can be painful. It ought not be done in solitude. It is risky; there will be loss. Everyone who gardens knows that organic farming has its risks.
We really do reap what we sow. A harvest that is bountiful, tastes like real food, and is healthful both for the individual and for the environment, now and in the future is the result of patience, care, and “affection.”
So it is with organic living and organic faith. Working with, not against, the resources we have, we live moment to moment, cultivating truth, awareness, patience, and most of all, generosity.
As Spong states, Every act, individual or corporate, must be judged as right or wrong based solely upon whether it enhances or diminishes the life of another. If my action diminishes another, it also diminishes me. A diminished life is never the place where holiness will be found. Diminished lives will never be loving lives. (Eternal Life, 162)
Spong argues convincingly that Christianity (that corporate entity we might equate metaphorically with factory farming or GMO farming) must “change or die.” I would expand that to say the entire realm we call “faith,” religion, spirituality must evolve.. in some ways, even take a step back to its former iteration in which Nature and humanity were closely aligned, just as farming must step back while maintaining awareness of the present.
But what about disasters: the potato famine? Tornados? A late freeze? All the blights and misfortunes that destroy crops and thwart harvests? It is the same question in Theology: How do we explain tragedy, torture, terrorism of man and nature?
I believe we must accept these mysteries as part of the bargain that was made for us when we entered this earthly existence. Bad things happen; in organic faith &/ life as in organic gardening, accepting this is essential. I recall a conversation I had with an Irish farmer who is mostly progressive but did not buy the European aversion to genetically-modified crops. “Look at the potato,” he said, and being in Ireland, immersed in that history of grief and loss, I understood. Still, it was equally clear to me that had the potato famine not occurred, the world would be vastly different in ways we could not even imagine. For it is the diaspora of Ireland that has brought untold beauty, wisdom, and talent to our shores and to the world. Not the least of which: JF Kennedy, Wendell Berry, and Barack Obama!
That doesn’t make the potato famine a good thing; it simply means that we can not hope to know what beauties can be born of even terrible tragedies and it is only ours to avoid them within the bounds of human dignity and humanity.
Evil is not always its own punishment and good does not always guarantee immediate reward. There is if you will, no such thing as instant karma. There is a random and arbitrary quality to life. But there is also order, mystery, and immense beauty. We really choose between Heaven and Hell every day, every second, when we choose gratitude and hope over despair and misery. AMEN