March 19, 2010

Kristen's Dilemma: Eternity or Annihilation

They played Alphaville's "Forever Young" at every junior high dance I ever awkwardly attended. I especially loved the trumpet part at the end. I still do, even though I recognize now that those horns were synthesized instead of real. I admit it isn't the deepest, most poetic piece of music ever put together. In fact, some of it is pretty damn cheesy. But for whatever reason the lyrics and the song still give me the good kind of chills. I think your experience reading this blog post will be enhanced by listening to the song while reading it. (At the very least it will pleasantly increase the cheese factor.) So click play on the embedded player below and enjoy.

"Do you really want to live forever..."  Mormons might answer, "As long as there is something to do there!"

“When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top; and so it is with the principles of the gospel—you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation. But it will be a great while after you have passed through the veil before you will have learned them. It is not all to be comprehended in this world; it will be a great work to learn our salvation and exaltation even beyond the grave.”1

I don't know many people who look forward to death and despite my faith in God and an afterlife, some uncertainty born of ambiguity remains. My wife Kristen says when she was younger she had this thought of eternity being like a never-ending spiral staircase going up and around and up, and she didn't like that at all. She said people like endings, and most people like those endings to be happy. (Which is strange because Kristen likes sad films. She makes me watch them too. Her favorite films have ambiguous endings—she imagines the conclusion, and it's usually the sadder option. We still disagree about the outcome of Before Sunset.) Maybe she just fears the potential for eventual boredom and wishes for something different.

But that's where a little ambiguity might actually help her look forward to eternity a little more. Take the idea of hell, for example. Mormons generally affirm that a classical "hell" doesn't exist. That is, we don't view the fiery lake as a literal place where unrepentant souls burn forever and ever (D&C 19). We aren't alone in that belief, either. There are other Christians who view hell "not as a place of mere retributive punishment but as a remedial and pedagogical place of transformation."2 That's from Evangelical theologian John Sanders, who outlines rationales behind Christian rejections of a classical hell. For one thing, a place where people eternally burned "would have the practical effect of preventing those in heaven from experiencing complete bliss...if eternal damnation existed, eternal bliss could not, since the awareness of those suffering in hell would ruin the blessedness of those in heaven....'heaven can be heaven only when it has emptied hell.'"3

This is where the ambiguity particularly puzzles me. While hell can end for individual people who go on to receive a higher "degree of glory" (D&C 76), we nevertheless believe the state of hell itself remains a possibility for others. I don't know if the "Vacancy" sign in the hell hotel is ever lit,despite the transience of its residents. Can heaven ever be heaven? Perhaps not in the sense expected by the Christians whom Sanders describes.

Sanders offers an answer, although it might not be the most comfortable one (even for Kristen, who doesn't mind a sort of sad ending, or at least a bitter-sweet one):    

"The Bible presents us with a God who makes himself vulnerable by creating creatures who have the freedom to reject him. [I might say God makes himself vulnerable by attempting to enter relationships with other lesser beings, eternal "intelligences," despite knowing the pain involved in the relationship, hoping to elevate and love them nevertheless.] This God takes risks and leaves himself open to being despised, rejected, and crucified. The God of the Bible is not a deity of raw power but a Creator and Sovereign who nonetheless suffers with, because of, and for his creatures. [Those who don't believe hell exists at all] do make a valid point in arguing that it would pain God if any of his creatures chose hell, and hence that he would suffer forever if eternal damnation were a reality. But is it not possible that God might be willing to accept such suffering as the price of being a God of vulnerable love, the God of the Bible?"4

Is it possible that we have to accept some of that ongoing pain ourselves in order to enter into a meaningful and eternal relationship with God? Is there an end to the stream of intelligences who fall under God's declared work and glory, to bring to pass their immortality and eternal life (Moses 1:39), when hell will be empty? If not, will it be fully heaven? "Worlds without number" sounds like a pretty big project (Moses 1:33). It seems that having something to do and having people to be with isn't necessarily the most enjoyable bliss in terms of never encountering pain and suffering, even for God, so what about us? And is that better than pure bliss? Or even non-existence? Does the war in heaven ever fully end for all?       

It's so hard to get old without a cause
I don't want to perish like a fading horse
Youth's like diamonds in the sun
And diamonds are forever...
Do you really want to live forever... 

[awesome trumpet fanfare]


See Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (2007), 268, citing History of the Church, 6:306–7; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Apr. 7, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards, Thomas Bullock, and William Clayton. Incidentally, the Community of Christ's temple in Independence, Missouri has a spiral tower patterned after the nautilus shell in the center of the main sanctuary. It looks somewhat strange from the outside, but from the inside it is quite beautiful. When I toured the temple several years ago, the guide noted it reminded her or eternity the way it seemed to keep climbing. The nautilus shell has also been used as a symbol of creation, expansion and renewal, as well as the beauty of nature.

John Sanders, No Other Name: An Investigation Into the Destiny of the Unevangelized (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 96.

Ibid., 96-97.

Ibid., 112.

March 15, 2010

Review: David Bentley Hart, "Atheist Delusions"

Title: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies
Author: David Bentley Hart
Publisher: Yale University Press
Genre: Religious History
Published: Paperback ed., 2009.
Pages: 253
ISBN: 9780300164299
Price: 17.00

David Bentley Hart describes his latest book as an engaging "mediation" or "historical essay" on the influence of Christianity in western history. He provides a corrective to other modern revisionist views espoused by Christianity's fashionable enemies (ix, x). Hart's message is a call to re-call; a thoughtful request for Christians (and anyone else who will listen) to think more deeply about the past and how it has impacted our current moral sensibilities. He believes the past is a foreign country and that the veil drawn between the present and the past "protects us from the burden of too much memory." At the same time, "to live entirely in the present, without any of the wisdom that a broad perspective on the past provides, is to live a life of idiocy and vapid distraction and ingratitude" (xiv). Clearly, Hart is not impressed with new atheist writers who he believes generally misunderstand and misuse the past for their own objectives: “[T]he tribe of the New Atheists is something of a disappointment. It probably says more than it is comfortable to know about the relative vapidity of our culture that we have lost the capacity to produce profound unbelief” (220). Strong words, those. What is it about the past that he thinks people are overlooking?

Hart makes "no attempt here to convert anyone to anything," religion-wise; rather, he wishes to "raise objections to certain popular calumnies of the church [and] call attention to achievements and virtues that writers of a devoutly anti-Christian bent tend to ignore, dissemble, or dismiss" (x). The book's title is a throwback to Richard Dawkins's 2006 hit The God Delusion. Hart is aiming directly at the so-called "new atheist" movement without attempting to refute their arguments point for point. Instead, he address their now-familiar tale of the arc of Enlightenment sweeping the west, burying dangerous (or silly) religion in the dust. The dim and dark domination of Christianity, its cruelty and barbarity, is said to give way to the modern secular world with its greater potential for human advancement. In the face of such modernist myths Hart wishes to “score as many telling blows as I can against what I take to be false histories and against dishonest or incompetent historians,” which he believes requires substantive argument and documentation, something that isn't found in the works of atheists like Christopher Hitchens (xiv). 

Hart begins by describing his own method, approach, and premises with a blunt admission in the opening sentence: "This book is in no sense an impartial work of history" (ix). It isn't straight academic history—though he insists on assessing historical evidence fairly and responsibly, his footnotes are few. Hart's prose is conversational and clever—sometimes a bit pedantic, occasionally snarky, but more often erudite. The straightforward tone makes the book engaging and fun to read:
Stated in its most elementary and most buoyantly positive form, my argument is, first of all, that among all the many great transitions that have marked the evolution of Western civilization, whether convulsive or gradual, political or philosophical, social or scientific, material or spiritual, there has been only one—the triumph of Christianity—that can be called in the fullest sense a ‘revolution’: a truly massive and epochal revision of humanity’s prevailing vision of reality, so pervasive in its influence and so vast in its consequences as actually to have created a new conception of the world, of history, of human nature, of time, and of the moral good. To my mind, I should add, it was an event immeasurably more impressive in its cultural creativity and more ennobling in its moral power than any other movement of spirit, will, imagination, aspiration, or accomplishment in the history of the West. And I am convinced that, given how radically at variance Christianity was with the culture it slowly and relentlessly displaced, its eventual victory was an event of such improbability as to strain the very limits of our understanding of historical causality (xi).
At the same time, Hart does not shy away from discussing problematic aspects of Christian history, including Crusades, the inquisition, slavery, and various political maneuverings. He also eschews the simplistic argument that believer = good, atheist = bad. Following a particularly stinging paragraph early in the book he steps back:
A note of asperity, though, has probably already become audible in my tone, and I probably should strive to suppress it. It is not inspired, however, by any prejudice against unbelief as such; I can honestly say that there are many forms of atheism that I find far more admirable than many forms of Christianity or of religion in general. But atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism (4). 
Hart opposes fundamentalism, both religious and secular (for a darker, less sympathetic look at new atheism and fundamentalism, see my recent review of Chris Hedges’s When Atheism Becomes Religion: America's New Fundamentalists). In four parts, the book relates fascinating historical insights regarding aspects of Christianity prior to the Restoration. Of course, Hart, of the Eastern orthodox persuasion, doesn't discuss Mormonism. However, Latter-day Saints can benefit from a more nuanced view of the development of Christianity. Comparing Atheist Delusions with Noel B. Reynolds's Early Christians in Disarray: Contemporary LDS Perspectives on the Christian Apostasy would be quite fruitful.

At times the book strays from what a reader might expect from its title, although I found such side roads enjoyable. For example, one section begins with a particularly striking description of an early Christian baptismal rite in which the candidate renounced the world and turned to a new way of life. Hart explains why baptism was momentous, dramatic, perhaps terrifying and joyous for early Christian converts from paganism. Here is part of his moving description of the early ritual in the greater Byzantine world:'s baptism would come on Easter eve, during the midnight vigil. At the appointed hour, the baptizand (the person to be baptized) would depart the church for the baptistery, which typically housed a large baptismal pool or (if possible) flowing stream. There, in the semidarkness of that place, he or she would disrobe and--amid a host of blessings, exhortations, unctions, and prayers--descend naked into the waters, to be immersed three times by the bishop, in the name of the Father, then of the Son, and finally of the Holy Spirit. The newly baptized Christian would then emerge from the waters to be anointed with the oil of chrismation, the seal of the Holy Spirit, and to don a new garment of white, and would return to the church to see the Eucharist celebrated--and to partake of it--for the first time. On that night, the erstwhile catechumen would have died to his or her old way of life and received a new and better life in Christ (112-113).
There is too much of interest in this book to hope to cover in a short review. Hopefully a brief overview of the sections will provide enough to spark interest: In part one, "Faith, Reason, and Freedom: A View From the Present" (1), Hart outlines then responds to two popular prejudices he finds among new atheists:  "first, that all religious belief is in essence baseless; and, second, that religion is principally a cause of violence, division, and oppression, and hence should be abandoned for the sake of peace and tolerance” (10). He contrasts some classical and modernist views of  "freedom" and explains why he believes views shifted over time towards a creeping and somewhat clandestine nihilism.

Part two discusses "The Mythology of the Secular Age: Modernity's Rewriting of the Christian Past" (27). It begins by countering one historian's assertion that the early Christian Church largely failed to care for the sick by relating a brief history of early Christian hospitals. With interspersed commentary on historiography he goes on to discuss Christianity's relationship with science, politics, persecution, and war.

"Revolution: The Christian Invention of the Human" is the subject of part three. Hart outlines why he believes Christianity helped bring about fundamental changes in the way human identity itself was understood. As with other sections of the book, Hart does not attempt to cover for or omit embarrassing aspects of Christian history. After a difficult discussion on race relations, for example, he notes: “Nevertheless, what should really astonish not that so few Christians behaved in a way perfectly consistent with their beliefs but that such beliefs had ever come into existence in the first place” (175).

The final part, "Reaction and Retreat: Modernity and the Eclipse of the Human," concludes with a haunting assessment of modernist sensibilities in the face of what Hart senses as a general fade in Christian belief. Hart sees a rise in what he calls "Post-Christian magical thinking" (a take on the "magical thinking" accusation of new atheists), where technology and science are treated like special knowledge and power, to be separated from old notions of human nature or moral truth. Hart believes that new atheists present a false dichotomy when they pit reason against faith. “Reason, in the classical and Christian sense," he adds, "is a whole way of life, not the simple and narrow mastery of certain techniques of material manipulation, and certainly not the childish certitude that such mastery proves that only material realities exist. A rational life is one that integrates knowledge into a larger choreography of virtue, imagination, patience, prudence, humility, and restraint. Reason is not only knowledge, but knowledge perfected in wisdom” (236). For Hart, reason involves the ability or willingness to acknowledge blind spots.

I agree with Hart's belief that understanding (or trying to understand) the past is critical to understanding and appreciating the present. This is a book I'll return to in the future and one I strongly recommend for anyone interested in a counter-perspective to popular new atheist writers.