Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Afterlife In Popular Opinion

I told a story to a friend/acquaintance about a person who had done wrong but was now deceased. "Boy, his wife is going to have a few things to say to him when she sees him, huh?" came the head-nodding comment. The acquaintance is not any kind of churchgoer, as far as I can tell. I concluded that his comment is something close to the American Average.

I tried to tease out what was in this.  He sees the afterlife as a place where one primarily sees the people known here.  All truths are now laid bare. You receive an accurate judgment of your actions. But the judgment does not come from God, it comes from other humans. Perhaps God is in the background as a sort of backstop to the whole affair.

From what I read in the American Average, those who suffered, suffer no more. Their bodies are strong and healthy, their evil oppressors have no more power over them, their weaknesses are turned to beautiful strengths. But God is rather absent from this as well.  Every tear shall be dried, but by whom? Deity implied at a distance perhaps. As with Christmas and Easter, some of the essential themes are recognisable, but the major player has been removed.

Apparently God is too intense, and we prefer to look away, put on sunglasses. In that, the rest of the world is only exhibiting in exaggeration what even the best of Christians cannot help but do. It's all very CS Lewis and The Great Divorce.


Texan99 said...

It's what I call Hollywood Heaven. Even people who profess no belief in the afterlife are very strongly invested in it and will respond to stories framed that way. Think of all the Pearly Gates jokes. Most often God is not present at all; at most there's some contact with angel administrators who make oblique references to the Big Guy Upstairs, a CEO no one has ever met. If God is present, He's treated ironically, as Alanis Morisette or George Burns or Debra Winger--someone who turns all expectations on their heads, and that'll show those silly church people. Funny that this works dramatically for God but never for Jesus. Even "The Last Temptation of Christ," about the most iconoclastic representation I can think of, treated Jesus pretty seriously.

The strong Hollywood trope is that heaven is a state of mind, so it appears as whatever you're capable of embracing as heavenly, and it's all about you. There's also a Purgatory strain, where the POV characters have some unfinished business, after which they go on to some more mysterious level out of our sight.

I can think offhand of only one movie that expresses the afterlife as a pure and simple burning desire to be with God: "Critical Care," a really excellent movie that almost no one seems to have seen. Very Catholic.

jaed said...

I don't think God is concrete to the American Average. Even if they believe in God, it's as an abstraction or an idea, not a concrete reality. You can't really meet an abstraction in the afterlife, but you can meet people you have known.

(I do not consider this necessarily a bad tendency at all. We can limit and delineate the concrete in our thoughts. An abstraction is less intimate, but also bigger. In some ways it's better to think of God as an abstraction because abstractions are larger and less controllable.)

I think this is also the reason for Texan99's observation that you can't do this with Jesus, because it's harder to have fun with a tangible human being. (On the other hand, the cliche is "Jesus Is My Boyfriend", not "God Is My Boyfriend". Speaking of abstractions being less controllable. ;-)

Retriever said...

Agree with both comments above. I'd add also that it isn't entirely the "fault" of Hollywood or some lightly demonised "popular culture" (much as could snark for hours and have been known to do). I'd argue that these kinds of views are just as prevalent in the Church,and even held by people professing to be devout Christians.

In my view this partly stems from clergy (and I speak as someone who graduated from a decent seminary that gave literally ZERO attention to discussion of the afterlife, let alone to Christian education on same, let alone to pastoral care to the sick, the dying and their families in light of same).

I remember one time during my first week on call as a CPE hospital emergency room chaplain, drawing on distant memories of what a Pennsylvania Sunday School teacher had taught me about Heaven and some mishmash of ideas from CS Lewis and assorted less accessible writers (long since forgotten, Lewis is easier to explain to people) in my inept efforts to comfort a distraught widow of a man who had dropped dead of a heart attack while mowing the lawn early one morning. She wanted to know what would happen to him. What I remember was struggling to comfort, but also to communicate in some humane and not vile evangelical or preachy way that the Jesus who died for us, will raise us from the dead and that her beloved husband's death was not the end. That death IS a thief in the night, but not the end, that all those cliches about a Good Shepherd who will dry every tear are true, that we are not snuffed out like a candle, but that we live forever with God, who loves us and enfolds us to Him. And that those of us bereft now, will be enbraced also and understand after we die (assuming we haven't become evil and left God's path irredeemably).

My point is, modern clergy end up scrambling to comfort people in extremis about Heaven, and they avoid the subject of death ordinarily because (my pet peeve) Americans are more sqeamish about their own mortality than just about any nationality of people I have ever met or lived with. I don't know why. But all our insane lingo about people "passing" or "going to the other side" or whatever...Why can't we just say "she died?" It reflects our desire to euphemise something deeply terrifying to us, perhaps because so many people really have no concept of the afterlife, as noted here by others. Circular...

Significantly the Bible says very little about the afterlife except those references to Sheol for people who are truly wicked (the rich guy who goes there for being wicked not sharing with a beggar, ends up burning in Hell, and then wants to come back to Earth to warn his brothers---take that, those who think income inequality is NOT a moral issue). And Greek mythology talks about Hades which NOBODY would want to go to. Most popular culture ideas about Heaven (I think) derive from desperate Victorian attempts to develop a sentimental culture narrative for parents and relatives losing child after child or other relative to diseases, wars, in the new unhealthy life of industrialised Europe. Angels in white nightgowns,
"she was too good to live' all that nauseating Tiny Tim type stuff...

Personally, I find I don't find myself exactly WANTING some white hot passionate communion with GOD in Heaven nearly so much as I want a permanent reunion with all the beloved dogs and cats whose loss reduced me to abject misery over the course of a lifetime.

I can't say I am walking around incomplete and desperate to be reunited with THAT many people by contrast, except possibly my beloved maternal grandmother. But I've always thought that people from families like mine would probably find eternal family reunions more like Hell than Heaven (with the exception of the few Proverbs 31 types like said grandmother).

Retriever said...

(second verbose comment, as first one had to be split)
I remember when I was a chaplain later to abused kids, the most ferociously intoned sentence the day or our orientation was NEVER TALK TO THE KIDS ABOUT HEAVEN.

We served a brutally mistreated population, and were trying to care for and help them heal, and part of that included trying to get them in touch with their own religious heritage, even if (as was 95% the case) their home congregations had rejected them--abused and neglected kids are often viewed as unclean or blamed or the congregations just don't know how to deal with them or find some of their responses to trauma to be too threatening (at least in the impoverished NYC communities these kids came from). Anyway, many of the kids were depressed and potentially suicidal, so you didn't want to paint a rosy picture of Heaven as a place where all would be right, and pain would be gone, and God would love you, and you would be reunited with those you love. Lest the kids decide it was better than the hell on earth that was their human family on earth, and kill themselves.

As I write this, I still don't know what I believe. I spent a lot of time in my early profession (before this secular day job) comforting people in extremis, on the point of death. And I believed the things I told them,and they seemed to help them. I would read them passages like Jesus saying Be not afraid, I go to prepare a place for you. And say that we have Someone who is with us now. Who will be with us through whatever we face, in this world and the next. Someone who has prepared a place for us even tho we don't know exactly what it is. But that it is there. In my Father's house are many mansions. And talk about how it doesn't mean a palace or somebody sleeping with a zillion virgins as other faiths promise, but simply that we have a home, are not condemned to vanish, be extinguished or wander like ghosts immaterial across the universe.

I say that it's like some of my Jamaican friends and coworkers who work all their lives in this country, as maids and homemakers, office workers, working three jobs, exhausting themselves working 3 jobs so their kids can go to college, and finally their work done, they can retire to the home in Jamaica they have been saving up for (and putting up with so much for ) in a paradise.

I say that our lives here are like working three jobs in a grey and frozen climate, like a ferocious work ethic for love of family, but that Heaven is finally being able to rest yourself and hear Well done, thou good and faithful servant (if it is deserved), heaven is being able to feel sun and warmth again, Heaven is no longer being yelled at and insulted and sneered at. Heaven is waking up in the morning without bracing your shoulders to be abused again by a boss because your children must eat so you put up with anything.

Heaven is where you can worship God with your Ifriends from other denominations and friends without division.

Obviously I could be even more of a bore and go on,and obviously, my own mushy thinking needs refining.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

It is good to be reminded that the Church also does not have widespread correct teaching about heaven. CS Lewis may actually be the best modern source for contemplation - and he wrote it in fiction.

I continue to find it intriguing that the notions of judgment and final truth persist. I don't think we see this in most of the world's other heaven. It is indirectly there in reincarnation, I suppose.

Texan99 said...

You don't have to watch many people die before you realize that the standard picture is not someone resting comfortably on clean sheets with a gentle smile, murmuring "I'm going into the light." Jesus wept at Lazarus's death, and He didn't treat His own impending death as a minor hurdle. Death is terrible, and any religion that treats it as a non-event is setting up its believers for a last-minute loss of faith, aside from those lucky few who die in an instant without forewarning, in the glad performance of their duties.

But it's not the prime evil: it's something that we all have to get through, and that Christ went through first for us, assuring us there was a point and that there was something--though He didn't feel constrained to give us detailed information about what--on the other side. Whatever it is, I doubt it's what we imagined, any more than life is what a fetus imagined.

Retriever, I know what you mean about saying people "passed." Drives me nuts. Makes me want to break into the Monty Python routine about the Choir Unseen.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Retriever I explicitly say death and die on purpose because the way our culture tries to hide it. C S Lewis had something about it in The Screwtape Letters.

from AVI's wife

Donna B. said...

I think the "afterlife" exists only for those of us still living. Call it Hollywood if you wish -- it's a real comfort for those left behind... or whatever you want to call those of us still alive.

My mother died 15 years ago. In fact, we (my sister, daughters, and I) have been discussing exactly when she died -- was it the 1st or the 10th of May?

What matters to us is that we can imagine how she would have reacted to what we're doing now, how she would have been ecstatic about her beautiful great-grandchildren... and how she might just be rolling her eyes at the difficulties my father is currently presenting to us.

We tell stories about her to her great-grandchildren while we're rocking them in her rocking chair. She is alive in our memories and we share those memories with the next generation.

My father is dying now. We've put effort into seeing that his great-grandchildren know him. Some of them are not old enough to remember, so we take pictures. We'll show them the pictures and tell them about him.

Y'all probably know that I'm not a "believer" but may not know that I'm not a "disbeliever". There is a difference!

I'm truly disgusted with all the chaplains and pastors that have visited my father since he's been in hospice care. None of them seem interested in his peace or acceptance of his impending death. They are praying for healing and recovery! It would be a miracle and I suppose there's something to be said for miracles... but my father is agitated and grumpy after their visits. I do not think that result is their intention.

Texan99 said...

From a book about linguistics I'm proofing:

"In the lines of the hymn--

"Teach me to live that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed--

"I supposed that the words 'as little as my bed' were descriptive of my future grave, and that it was my duty according to the hymn to fear the grave."

Donna B--from your description of the chaplains' behavior, all I get is that they are afraid of the concept of death. They probably have no idea how much that calls their faith into question in the minds of the patients and families they are trying to help.

Donna B. said...

Texan99 -- thanks for understanding my frustrations.

Texan99 said...

I should have added: I'm sorry to hear your father has reached the point of needing hospice care, though I'm glad he's getting it now that he needs it. This must be a very hard time for you, too. I will be thinking of you.

Donna B. said...

My Dad will have his 92nd birthday June 1. He's lived a long and interesting life and will gladly tell anyone who will listen (and we all do) about it. He thinks he's dying prematurely because his mother, grandmother, and sister all lived into their late 90s and he planned to beat them by living to 100. (Competitive, yes!!)

He's mentally very much with us. He says he's not through living and does not want to put on his traveling shoes... yet.

He says God put him here to help other people and he has. He's employed people that could never have got a job anywhere else and just yesterday paid toward an electric bill for a mentally impaired woman living in his small town. He finances houses for people who can't get a mortgage at any bank. He won't give the shirt off his back, but he does help a lot of people in a lot of ways.

While typing this, it's occurred to me that my sister and I need to let him know that we will continue his rather unorthodox charity. We plan to, but maybe we haven't let him know that.

Hospice care is wonderful. They see the whole person -- as one would wish a primary care physician would do -- and they are not stingy with pain medications. Yet... I hope that doesn't change, but I'm hearing so much about over-medicating the elderly that I'm afraid it might.

Texan99 said...

Hospice workers are excellent about balancing the need for adequate pain relief and the danger of over-medication. They listen to the patient's preferences for how alert they want to be and how much discomfort they're willing to trade for that. They don't have the temptation that, sadly, institutional staff have, either to overmedicate in order to keep a patient more compliant, or to avoid medication for fear of being accused of abetting addiction.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

That was exactly the tradeoff I was going to mention.

It does seem painful and unfinished when a person is still mentally lively but their body is about to shut down. But the alternative is worse, trust me.