Coronado Bridge, San Diego. I drive on it every week.
Christianity is about eternity. ~ a Christian website
Just another day in paradise ~ a sign over a garden gate in Coronado Island, Southern California.
How much the present moment means
To those who've nothing more —
The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist —
Stake an entire store
Upon a Moment's shallow Rim
While their commuted Feet
The Torrents of Eternity
Do all but inundate —
~ Emily Dickinson, # 1380
I have come across this poem by accident, as so often happens with things that startle us. These eight lines made me realize once more how much the culture has changed. Consider how much we hear today about “being in the moment” or “being in the NOW.” And as for having nothing more than the present moment — book after book reminds us that this is the deepest truth: we have nothing but the present moment, so we better fully enter the present.
Living in the present is the current cultural ideal. Cherish the now, luxuriate in the moment. Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” (one of those books where the title says it all, so there’s no need for the rest of it) has sold more than 2 million copies and has been translated into 33 languages. In the 19th century, would it have even been published? The alleged currents of eternity, the claim that only the afterlife really counts, would have indeed drowned out dissent.
It’s stunning to realize that until fairly recently, for Christians the real life, the eternal life, began after dying. Death was the birth into the rest of eternity, be it heaven, hell, or, for Catholics, centuries in the purgatory, where sinners were “purified” through suffering to make them fit for heaven.
Since the purgatory is not mentioned in the scriptures, Catholic theologians had to come up with some evidence for it. We pray for the dead, they said. If the dead went either to heaven or hell, praying for them would be useless. But if they are being purified in the purgatory, then we can pray for an earlier release and admission to an eternity of bliss. We pray for the dead; therefore, the purgatory exists.
This is very wobbly logic, but thanks to it we have the opulence of St. Peter’s, paid for with profits from the sale of indulgences. An indulgence meant that if you paid a certain sum, your soul or the soul of a loved one would spend less time in the purgatory. “As soon as the coin rings, the soul from the Purgatory springs” — ran the commercial just before Luther entered the scene. More money could buy more time off. The right amount could even get “plenary indulgence”: full release, no further purification by suffering required.
Luther rose up against this kind of corruption. You know the story: “Here I stand. I can’t do otherwise.” Imagine, putting one’s conscience ahead of the authority of the church! What shameless individualism!
The church kept both the Purgatory and indulgences, but Protestants developed a different, more individualist theology and liturgy. Volumes have been written about how this changed the entire Western history. Once the monolithic power of the Catholic church was broken, it wasn’t long before the Reformation led to the Enlightenment and ultimately modernity with its scandalous exaltation of human rights and freedom. Lately scholars have been reminding us that nothing comparable to the Reformation took place in Islam.
But let’s get back to the pre-modern sensibility that’s apparent in Dickinson’s poem. Emily’s dates are 1830 -1886. It’s not really all that long ago. We are not speaking of the Middle Ages here. But even in the nineteenth century, which witnessed the birth of the theory of evolution and other great advances in science, for the general church-going public, a person’s “real life” began after death. Even assuming you survived childhood, dying at fifty-six was not considered premature. And what’s a span of fifty-six years — or even the biblical three-score-and-ten — compared with eternity?
THE TOOTH THAT NIBBLES AT THE SOUL
Literary scholars have long debated Emily’s metaphysical beliefs. Some poems express agnosticism; other poems show a belief in the afterlife, but often with doubt tossed in:
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound—
It beckons, and it baffles—
And through a Riddle, at the last—
Sagacity, must go—
. . .
Plucks at a twig of Evidence —
And asks a Vane, the way —
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit —
Strong Hallelujahs roll —
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul —
~ E.D. #501
Being a mystical and ecstatic poet, Dickinson wrote a lot about death and immortality and eternity, without getting too specific. She was an unconventional believer well acquainted with doubt, “the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul.” But “agnostic” is probably the strongest term we could use to describe her vacillations.
Dickinson also complains about the hiddenness of god. Is that just a game, a joke, this absence and silence?
I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!
But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!
~ E.D. #365
She can even cry out in despair:
Of Course — I prayed —
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird — had stamped her foot —
And cried "Give Me” —
My Reason — Life —
I had not had — but for Yourself—
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb —
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb —
Than this smart Misery.
Such outbursts are disconcerting to those who’d like to see Emily as a nice Protestant girl.
And yet, like most mystics, Emily did know about the joy of being in the now:
I think to Live—may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try—
Beyond my limit to conceive—
My lip—to testify—
. . .
I think the Days—could every one
In Ordination stand—
And Majesty—be easier—
Than an inferior kind—
No numb alarm—lest Difference come—
No Goblin—on the Bloom—
No start in Apprehension's Ear,
No Bankruptcy—no Doom—
But Certainties of Sun—
Midsummer—in the Mind—
A steadfast South—upon the Soul—
Her Polar time—behind—
But she decides that would be choosing this world, this life, this paradise — clearly an error that will be rectified by the Almighty. Still, the first line — “I think to live may be a bliss” — does resonate with the modern reader. I stress “modern,” because it’s vastly easier for us to experience the bliss of sheer existence, since, despite the headlines, we luxuriate in less hardship and more security than ever before in history.
TOLLE AND THE APOTHEOSIS OF “NOW”
Still, Dickinson was certainly no atheist. “The Fop — the Carp — the Atheist” — this grouping makes it plain that she disapproved of atheists as much as of fops (dandies) and, if I read the word “carp” correctly, those who dare complain. All three types of persons strike her as shallow, interested only in the moment, unconcerned about eternity. They are this-worldly, seemingly unconscious of the infinite vista ahead (hazy as that may be).
(A shameless digression from the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.” Why would people long for the resurrection of the body — after the Second Coming to be sure, which seems a long time to wait — when we are told that the body is a prison of the soul? I agree that it’s a bother to have to eat, sleep, brush the teeth, and so forth. Even with perfectly healthy bodies, wouldn’t being blurs of light be weightless and transcendent? Is it for the sake of the pleasures of the senses? Here we see — again — that logic will get us nowhere — which is likely our final destination regardless.)
Contrast this with Tolle:
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
In the modern era, this is what we find deep — not the least bit shallow. The “Now” has gained the dignity that the eternal life used to hold.
Tolle also says, “The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”
Tolle’s central message is that when we stop the internal chatter, which is mostly about the past or the future, we can finally focus on the present and thus find bliss in simply Being — or, if you prefer, the Eternal Moment. But don’t think about this apparent oxymoron — thinking is a no-no. Stop thinking NOW.
He regards cats as ideal “Zen masters.” In fact Zen has probably been Tolle’s greatest influence, though he is freely eclectic, and would certainly not call himself an atheist. He is “spiritual” in a quintessential New Age way. My favorite Zen saying is “When you stand, stand. When you sit, sit. Above all, don’t wobble.”
Dickinson does not renounce wobbling. She admits to not-knowing (“I could not see to see — ”) She goes on a ride with Death and Immortality, but doesn’t arrive — in the last stanza she’s still in the carriage, continuing the journey, her bonnet still on.
While Tolle’s books sell in the millions, his fame is, ahem, momentary. Dickinson, writing in an era in which most Christians believed that “real life” begins at the moment of death, created powerful lines that immortalize her work, delighting us every time we return to her poems.
Some ancient Zen masters in their current reincarnation
THE SECULARIZING EFFECT OF LONGER LIFE EXPECTANCY
The old evangelical pick-up line, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” doesn’t work in the modern era. People live longer, don’t expect to die a sudden death, and apparently don’t spend much time thinking about eternity. If they do give it thought, many strongly suspect that eternity would feel just like the time before they were born.
But don’t writers and artists want to be famous also (and even especially) after they are gone? Isn’t their fondest and most foolish hope that they are creating “for posterity”? But it's important to stop deluding oneself that you are writing for posterity, much less eternity. 99.99% of us are of the moment and our art is of the moment — so it's OK to lie down. And if there is a treasure in the unconscious, it will well up again. I trust the unconscious. What is of true value in our work will not be lost — at least to us. To posterity — most likely it will be lost, but we won’t be there to lament this loss. Other art will replace it, more relevant to whatever the future moment turns out to be.
“Beyond happiness and unhappiness, there is peace.”
There is some controversy over how long one “should” live:
The most striking point that the interviewer makes is the value of slowing down, smelling the roses, enjoying la dolce vita — for some people the retired years, as long as they are healthy, are the happiest and most fulfilling years of their lives (and studies unanimously confirm that older means happier). The later years are the reward, the "paradise now." Emanuel doesn't seem to grasp that. But he does have a good point about the late old age (onset differs, but on the average it's the late seventies; for the lucky, the mid-eighties). That's where torturous medical treatments like chemo make little sense (or so I say at my stage of life). But as long as the person is able to enjoy life . . . he or she has the right to the last crumbs and sips of the feast.
There is nothing you can ever do or attain that will get you closer to salvation than it is at this moment. This may be hard to grasp for a mind accustomed to thinking that everything worthwhile is in the future. ~ Tolle
I remember when my life was almost entirely about the future. Unfortunately youth consists pretty much of trying to prepare for the future. It’s not easy to to let go of the future — you might as well try to let go of the horizon — and realize this is it, the future has arrived, and it has little or none of the promised splendor. But we must still make the best of it.
Bishop Shelby Spong:
The theistic deity, we now suspect, is nothing more than a projection of a human need into the sky. From the same skies modern knowledge has removed the mystery and the intrigue. There appears to be no place in our universe for heaven. It has been radically dislocated from its ancient spot just beyond the clouds. If heaven is no longer a locatable concept, then we have to recognize that neither is God, since heaven was God’s abode.
We can and do rationalize this by saying that heaven is not a place and God cannot be thought of spatially. That is of course true, but a god who cannot be located or envisioned begins to fade into an oblong blur. Once God has been removed from the position beyond the sky where divine judgment, to say nothing of personal intervention, was believed to occur, then the major pillars upholding the concept of heaven were removed and the believability of heaven collapsed. That is why heaven is not spoken of today. Evangelical Christians do not speak of it, for it no longer makes sense even to them. Neither does the theistic God who reigned from that same heaven, but they have not yet come to that awareness.
My thanks to Jason Mashak
As our knowledge increases, it’s more difficult to cling to the old myths, Judeo-Christian mythology included. Heaven and hell have receded, or else have become included in the now as states of mind. In this moment, some people feel blissful, while others are experiencing the inferno of negative emotions.
New Age adherents, however, do speak of heaven, except under a different label: the astral world, or the spirit world. Or else it’s simply a different frequency. But above all, New Age is about NOW. If you can’t enter the now, you’ve missed it all. After much delay in pursuit of the future, and subsequent depression contemplating the past, I am beginning to sympathize with this viewpoint.
I think to Live — may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try —
At this point, most of us dare to try.
Still, I never choose Tolle for my bedtime reading. Emily is still the Queen — not the Queen of Calvary, as she once named herself, but of the bliss of poetry.
But I want to end on a bold embrace of this world as the only paradise we’ll ever know. For this we need a modern sensibility.
I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
~ Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes”
And though age and infirmity overtake me, and I come not within sight of the castle of my dreams, teach me still to be thankful for life, and for time’s old memories that are good and sweet; and may the evening’s twilight find me gentle still.
~ Max Ehrmann
BE HERE NOW (RAM DASS CAME BEFORE TOLLE)
So many good ideas in The Present Moment and Eternity.
My Christianity forced me into the future — it was all about pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. As far as this world, I'm a stranger and “just passing through. My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue” and I must be careful, the good book warns, to not love the things of this world. This explains why, until recently, evangelical/fundamentalist Christians didn't care about the earth or the environment. God was never green. The world doesn't matter because one day soon God is going to torch it.
As this approach tumbled downhill across my soul I found that I couldn't appreciate anything in the present — I couldn't describe the taste of food, the fragrance of flowers, or the beauty of music. I could not dance because I could not hear or feel in the present.
Rilke wrote (I hesitate to quote this because I know this translation is sandpaper on your nerves):
No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused. (II.25)
In other words, the non-existence of an afterlife should drive us into the present. It has for me. Now the task is to maximize the present — no easy task in our world. Voices from the past and the world of “should” are persistent.
I appreciate our evolution toward the present. It really is all we have.
“Somewhere beyond the blue”! The shock of reading religious texts as an adult is the discovery just how childish most of them are. Or, to put it more gently, they belong to another era, one in which people never flew in airplanes, and had no inkling about what lay “beyond the blue.” Imagine the shock if you told them that the air becomes thinner and thinner until we enter the “nothing” of space (a simplified description, but good enough). Sure, today an intelligent theologian could turn it all into a metaphor, but I don’t think the typical church-goer has ever been quite as skilled at juggling metaphors and abstractions and a diversity of perspectives.
“Beyond the blue” was a real place. Somewhere over the rainbow. In earlier centuries, in the clouds; then, with the growth of science, somewhere safe from science: above the clouds. There was a river flowing from under the jewel-studded throne of god; there was a city with a wall of jasper and buildings and pavements of gold.The name of the place was heaven. There was a wall around the city because two thousand years ago cities had defense walls around them; back then writers could not imagine an unwalled city.
A walled city was constrained in space and had to be relatively small. By contrast, hell had no limits.
Our world has become amazingly different from the biblical world. Technology aside, I’ve been trying to trace the important revolutions. One of them has certainly been the evolution of a psychological rather than theological approach to human behavior. When we stop seeing people as evil and fallen, when we see them as traumatized and damaged rather than as sinners, the idea of punishment becomes questionable. Another revolution has been the radically different orientation toward time: the present moment is all we have. And books like The Power of Now celebrate this fact.
Rilke was right on (and the translation of this particular stanza is just fine) — and ahead of his times. Remember that he was born in the nineteenth century, when only some intellectuals dared to be openly secular. And even in Rilke’s case, it was the journey of a lifetime to detach himself from Christianity and begin to “belong to the earth.”
Thank you, Michael, for this personal portrait of how a religion centered on the afterlife makes us waste the only life we’ll ever have. The denial of death and indulging in fantasies of a “better place” — never mind an eternity of boredom — degrade this life and this world, which will indeed soon be torched — I love the way you put it. The Catholic variation added “mortification of the flesh”: it wasn’t just that it was a sin to enjoy food; the saintly thing was to fast. Besides, there is no food in the Christian heaven. There is no sex. It’s constant daylight and eternal sunshine. The only activity is 24/7 praise of god.
Religion thrives on misery. If this world really is a vale of tears, then fantasies of “somewhere beyond the blue” have an escapist appeal. When life becomes secure enough and pleasurable enough, we see what it is we need to create heaven here on earth. We need beauty, kindness, affection, meaningful work. Disasters would still happen, but we’d get plenty of help and empathy. Though many chide me for optimism, I think the collective thinking is evolving, and we are moving toward that kind of world.
Christianity won’t entirely perish within our lifetime (maybe by the end of this century), but I see it evolving into more and more rarefied metaphor until the Christianity of the past is remembered mainly as a kind of psychopathology, a set of attitudes that were peculiarly anti-life and anti-human.
The pain and active harm that Christianity and other religions have caused will pass away, but the beauty of the best of religious art will survive. Below is the White Temple in Cambodia.
I may be wrong but I imagine The White Temple built out of fear, as I think most of the churches in Italy were. I can't feel a disinterested love in those vast buildings. I see fine craftsmanship, creative designs, and I marvel at the administration and resolve each building required. But a gift of love from human to God? Not feeling it.
You are optimistic that Christianity may one day go away. I wonder — would that be a good thing? I found it toxic. Yes. But what panacea would take its place? It is the palm wine of the religious world — easily accessible, intoxicating enough for a life-numbing buzz — good for those who can’t find another way to live.
You have a point there about the role of fear in the creation of splendid temples. Human life was precarious, and gods needed to be appeased with gifts and sacrifices.
Another factor was the clergy’s need to impress the flock, consisting mostly of simple and illiterate folk. The church was pretty much the only show in time if we don’t count the public executions, one of the main forms of public entertainment. Small towns would borrow convicted criminals from larger places that might have an excess. Fear, cruel punishments and grand cathedrals had an uncanny way of going together.
Living as I do in a Hispanic neighborhood that also appears to be quite secular — the nearest Catholic church is small and faraway, in an old part of town — I don’t see my neighbors having any trouble enjoying life without religion. Family life is central: lots of visiting, birthdays, holidays. Babies, dogs, sports, TV, and the social media for the young. It’s a happy culture, a happy people. (The brutalities of the conquistadors likely evolved from cruel child rearing and yes, a toxic religion. That really was a different world.)
The educated have culture and travel to enjoy, as well as communion with nature. Again, I see no hunger for the otherworldly among my educated friends. Those who talk about the transcendent usually practice meditation. Some have studied Buddhism; one woman lived for a while in an ashram. Some fusion of Buddhism with “Christ Consciousness” may be satisfying for those who want a non-toxic religion.
There is of course meaningful work — for me that’s the most important part of life. More and more people are now able to have some sort of fulfilling work — if not full-time, then on the side. For some, it’s being of service. For others, it’s creative projects. Any artist or scientist will admit that their work is the essence of their life. Such work is as demanding as it is satisfying; it leaves little room for metaphysical preoccupations.
As for those who currently appear to need the “buzz” of fundamentalist religion, their numbers will probably continue to shrink. Fundamentalist churches, including the Catholic church, feel threatened; part of the reaction is digging in and making lots of noise. Some interpret this as the death rattle. Utter extinction may not come, but marginality is likely. The trend is already obvious.
The concept that the body is a prison of the soul seems so archaic. Do people actually still believe that?
Religion and love of life don’t generally go hand in hand.
Most religions are anti-body and anti-life. Asceticism is prized. Repression of bodily desires is preached — practice may be a different matter.
I don’t know what percentage of people still believe that the body is a prison of the soul, but some do. Improved medicine seems to have decreased the hostility toward the body, just as improvements in safety and technology have decreased the hostility toward this world as the “vale of tears.” Yet even New Age adherents can come across as anti-body by placing so much value on “spirit” and “transcendence.” I’ve met some who have a strong belief in the “spirit world” and express a wish to “dis-incarnate.” To them, real bliss means having no body and just floating around in the astral regions.
But that’s relatively mild next to the Catholic cult of suffering and deliberate mortification of the flesh. That’s where pathology really comes in.
PS. NO DOUBLE STANDARD, PLEASE
One reason Spinoza is so dear is that he didn't hold a double standard promoted by certain Enlightenment writers: philosophy for the elite, and the "consoling lies" of religion for the uneducated masses. Spinoza didn't believe in dispensing consoling or noble lies to anyone. The task of the philosopher was to educate; Spinoza held all human beings to be educable.
Some argue that atheism or agnosticism or pantheism (spirit and nature are one) or a metaphoric understanding of religion is fine for you and me, but what about the semi-literate Joe Six-Pack? Doesn't he need traditional religion? Isn't he going to fall apart if we tell him that he won't see his dog in heaven? (The reason I chose a canine companion here is that in my experience many people are not really that happy about the prospect of meeting their parents in heaven.)
My view is that Joe is not that fragile, and his private view is that those are just fairy tales, just as he suspected when first told of Eve being made from Adam's Eve or Jonah and the Whale. Let’s high time to acknowledge that Joe is not devoid of intelligence. Besides, he likes sports and whatever hobbies he may have, and if he’s like most men, he doesn’t like going to church. If religion perishes except for marginal groups, Joe will be just fine, and society won’t collapse either.
The less seriously religion is taken, the more people are able to enjoy life. Here’s to life!