Sunday, November 1, 2015

That's The Hell Of It




Monrovia, California

November 1, 2015


In heaven there is no beer.
That's why we drink it here.
And when we're gone from here,
Our friends will be drinking all our beer.

Let's take a look at heaven.  When people consider death they frequently talk about a the existence of the dead in some realm where they can look down upon us living folks with approval, or perhaps with disapproval.  "I can't help but think that Uncle Joe is smiling on us right now as we barbecue and watch football."  Or "Your mother is up there watching you two fight right now, and you're breaking her heart." You know the drill.  But it's not so much what Uncle Joe or Mom are supposed to be doing from the afterlife that interests me as the fact that we "can't help but think" about it.

Evidently, as the human brain evolved we acquired the capacity to wonder about the answer to the ultimate question of "life, the universe, and everything," as Douglas Adams so succinctly put it.  And as deep as our thinking has taken us, most of us have not been able to accept that the answer, while perhaps not "42," is equally pointless and beyond our reach from a purely utilitarian perspective.  We have, for some reason, been given the ability, and indeed the compulsion, to ponder an essentially imponderable thing. Maybe it's to help us wile away the time.  Maybe it serves a species-wide behavioral purpose, as though we've had some drivel-filled motivational seminar by a headset-wearing snake oil salesman hardwired into our brains.  Whatever the neuro-chemical basis of the phenomenon, we do tend to dwell on the hereafter.  And because there's no precisely correct answer, we manufacture answers.  Our natures apparently abhor an information vacuum when it comes to the idea of an afterlife.

Some say we think about all this because God puts the ideas into our heads.  It is not to such people that I address this posting, though of course they are invited to read on if they wish to.  Whatever the prime mover of our curiosity, internal or external, we humans have for most of our existence spun out the most outlandish theories of which we're capable--heavens, hells, purgatories, beliefs in ghosts, spirit worlds, reincarnation, and the presence of ancestors in our daily lives, to name just a few.  First it was because we didn't understand jack shit about science and nature.  We had little understanding of chemistry or biology (not that we've reached any pinnacle there).  When people died, we knew they were done for, of course, but we didn't know much more than that.  Today, armed with a better knowledge of the human body and the role of the brain, not to mention of the basic elements that make up life, we still don't seem to know, or to wish to know, jack shit about what happens when we die.

Why?  Probably because the truth is simply too simple, and too brutally final, at least from a local terrestrial perspective.  What we have no trouble believing about the end of the lives of animals other than us--dogs, chickens, goats, fish, bugs, microbes--we cannot or will not apply to ourselves as a species.  We're different and special, we think, and figure that God, or the gods, have some Special Purpose for us.  Surely our own lives can't end with just a whimper and a final exhalation and then ,,, nothing.  Food for the worms.  I don't think that such finality--the fizzling out of the human spark into nothingness and ultimately into the elements of which we're made (carbon and oxygen primarily)--is such a bad thing.   The fade-to-black scenario is certainly a form of eternal life; just not one that most people care to embrace.  Better than burning in hell and having devils stab you with a pitchfork every couple of minutes, if you ask me.  But some folks, perhaps most, would rather imagine risking an eternity in hell than to imagine no eternity at all except for an eternity of oblivion.  The anticipation of a real, lifelike afterlife tends to motivate them in some way, and also to take their minds off the more immediate and mundane tasks at hand.  Well, I'm not about to deliver some explanation for this rather singular phenomenon of the mind, either in religious terms or Jungian terms, or in any terms at all.  As usual, my job isn't to come up with the answers, just to bitch about the facts.

The western scriptures, always maddeningly contradictory and only occasionally insightful, do anticipate the physical nothingness of humans--dust to dust, ashes to ashes.  Where they veer away from reality as we know it is in postulating that the "soul" exists on a nonchemical and nonbiological  plane, and also in propounding the idea that the dead will rise.  But once the dead do rise, and are judged or whatever, and sorted into the keepers and the losers, what happens?  The most common images of the afterlife perpetuated by the world's religions are, if you ask me, sorely deficient as positive motivational tools.  These images, whether they are of the so-called "good" postmortem life or its painfully bad opposite number, are hardly designed to inspire confidence, or comfort, or fear, in any intelligent person over the age of ten.  Religion really hasn't kept pace with either scientific knowledge or political evolution.  Religion used to be out in front, inextricably merged with science and politics to form a solid truncheon with which to beat all of humanity into submission and obedience, leading and scaring us with its eerie sophistication.  Wise priests, witch doctors, the infallibility of the Pope, the divine right of kings--they're all gone except in fiction.  Priests are now drunken pederasts, witch doctors belong in Abbot and Costello movies, and wise kings are the stuff of Disney cartoons and Broadway musicals. The Pope, well he's just a laid back guy in funny clothes who wants us all to get along, like the Dalai Lama.  During our centuries of progress in science, politics, and the arts, religion has remained steadfastly and stodgily ancient in both its view of mankind and its depiction of eternity.  While we've been busy streamlining our physical lot as a species, nobody has been modernizing our conception of the hereafter.    

Plenty has been written about hell already, and it's easier to imagine than heaven is.  Hell is a lot more lurid and interesting than heaven is because it includes things we already know--pain, fire, stench, deprivation, isolation--carried to the nth degree.  But still it's your grandfather's hell--full of old fashioned images, at least for more affluent westerners.  Yes, we're always being warned about how bad and nasty hell is, but when it comes to describing heaven, we fall far short of creating enticing incentives.  Maybe at times in history (or even in parts of the world currently) where just offering someone a clean realm free of the smell of excrement, the sight and feel of open running sores, death at the hands of soldiers and hemorrhagic diseases, and the drudgery of the wheel sufficed (or now serve) to get people to behave themselves and strive for paradise, a cloudy fluffy white city of gold in the sky is enough of an enticement.  But for most of the developed western world our comparative removal from such daily horror and wretchedness ought to encourage the purveyors of heaven to kick things up a notch.

I was at a Christian funeral not long ago, and one of the preachers talked about the departed being with God forever, sitting at the feet of Jesus, grooving on salvation, and all that.  It sounded boring, particularly because the guy who was talking about it was sanctimonious and dull and a lot more judgmental than he probably thought he was being.  I definitely wouldn't want to spend eternity with him; that would be pure hell.  Jesus might be a great guy, but the thought of spending eternity with him sounds a little like being at an endless Bernie Sanders rally.  There's something lacking in the human imagination when it comes to picturing absolute bliss on an incorporeal plane.  Being in the presence of divine light sounds like maybe the beginnings of a good acid trip or that first snort of cocaine, but in order to appreciate such things you have to be able to contrast them to the mundane.  Otherwise, if there's no end to the joy (particularly if you have to share it with self-righteous hymn singing TV evangelists, or Mother Teresa, or your old aunt Minnie--the one with the moustache) the fun goes away pretty fast and it becomes the norm.  Where's the bliss in that?  If there's going to be a heaven, can't we make it at least sound more heavenly in human terms?

Heaven shouldn't just be the lesser of two evils--the devil we know versus the God we really don't know.  Christian heaven is sometimes spoken of as a beautiful city where God dwells, and where there is no more pain and sorrow.  No more pain and sorrow?  Is that the best we can do?  We have drugs for that right here on earth.  And on top of all the bliss, we're told we get to worship and glorify some absolute Master.  All the paradigms of religious worship are based on a pre-modern Hobbesian social model involving benevolent dictatorship.  Ultimately, whether we're on earth or in heaven, we seem destined to prostrate ourselves at the feet of some all-powerful being.  To kiss his ass, to adore him, to love him, to do his every wise bidding, whether we want to or not, because it's for our own good.  As Mel Brooks said, "It's good to be the King."  But how good is it to be the King's subject?  A very uninviting kind of cosmology.  Satan, we're told by John Milton, got tired of all that, and lit out for greener pastures.   In theological terms, that was a horrible rejection of all that was good.  In human political terms we'd call it a fight for the Rights of Man.  Indeed, our own country was founded on such a rebellion, and we keep insisting that it's the Greatest Country on Earth.  If any of that is so, then you have to wonder why the absolute hierarchy of heaven is so great.

So how is any human being expected to imagine such a place as heaven, and if it is unimaginable, why is anyone expected to aspire to it?  As best described in Christianity it almost sounds like living in a sensory deprivation chamber, and it lacks all we have as a species that keeps us striving and moving and progressing.   For God's sake, promise us some pleasure to which we can relate.  Here the radical Muslims have an edge, (at least according to rumor) in that they promise martyrs a large number of virgins with which to copulate in the afterlife.  This concept of Muslim heaven is of course sadly adolescent in both its promise and premise, as is, I'm afraid, the entire religion from which it stems.  But at least it promises something palpable.  The far Eastern idea of death and reincarnation on the great Mandala, coming back as other animals and all that until at last, after many such rebirths, one attains some sort of blissful nothingness, sounds a lot more like repetitive punishment than reward.  In Christianity apparently we don't even get to enjoy any carnal pleasures after death--one of the reliably fun things we have, along with eating, drinking, taking drugs, watching TV, and sleeping.  In the religion I grew up in, if we're virtuous enough to make it to heaven, we're supposed to be above all that earthly stuff.  But to my way of thinking, the prospect of spending eternity surrounded by nothing but virtue is a little like promising a kid that when he grows up he'll actually love green beans and want to eat them at every meal.  Makes you want to avoid growing up, doesn't it?

Each culture's conception of heaven seems to reflect the values of the religious group that dominates it.  The radical Muslim heaven to which I referred (accurately or not) incorporates the profoundly immature misogyny of the entire culture from which it springs.  The far eastern heaven reinforces the set-in-stone caste system that yokes all humans to the same lot, good or bad, for their entire lives.  To escape from it you have to expect to be stuck in some other, maybe better and maybe worse, existence for another lifetime.  The western Christian heaven incorporates our denial of the validity of the enjoyment of normal human impulses.  If heaven is such a great place to aspire to be in, why can't we make it at least sound inviting, not just for frustrated young men strapped with explosives and stinking of tobacco and coffee, but for all humans?

All this, I'm thinking, is what makes it so damned difficult for the clergy to keep their would-be subjects in line.  If life is so bad, rather than just trying to scare us with something that sounds comparatively worse, entice us with something that seems immeasurably better--in solid human terms, not just in abstract wispy images--dudes in halos standing on clouds in New Yorker cartoons.  Offer us a heaven we can sink our teeth into, and I'll consider believing in it.  Promise me pleasures and palaces that sound interesting and tasteful, and foretell good company and good times, not to mention good food and good sex for all, and I'll behave myself.   Otherwise, leave me the hell alone.