Universal Translator

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hell: Perspective and Eternity

Well, I'm a bit late getting to this topic, but it is one I have spent some time thinking about and it was discussed a bit over last Easter Weekend, so I thought I'd spend a little time opining. On the episode that aired Friday before Easter, Chris Matthew's Hardball apparently convened a roundtable to discuss whether or not "Hell" exists. As Digby pointed out over at her blog, this is an extremely silly topic for a "news program" to spend time debating, but there you are.

Then, on Easter Sunday, The New York Times ran a column by Ross Douthat arguing - as I understood it -- not only that Hell exists, but that Hell must exist because if there were no possibility of error, no potential for humans to be punished for making the wrong choices, then human endeavor would have less meaning: "If there's no possibility of saying no to Paradise then none of our no's have any real meaning either. They're like home runs or strikeouts in a children's game where nobody's keeping score."

This type of reasoning underscores how difficult it is for us humans to tell ourselves narratives that are not inherently solipsistic. We have virtually no capacity to view Life, the Universe, or Anything other than on our limited scale, and that leads to some pretty skewed thinking.

* * *

Believe it or not, I first began thinking about this sort of stuff way back when I was a child, probably less than 10 years old, and what got me started on it was a comic book. My grandfather, who owned a bookstore, gave me a book of Marvel comic reprints of stories published back in the 1960's. One of those stories involved Namor, the Submariner (basically, Marvel's counterpart to DC's more widely-known Aquaman). I don't remember anything about the story itself, but to this day I can remember the last three panels of the story, which simply showed Namor striding purposefully back into the ocean and eventually submerging himself. Something about the artwork made this exit seem profound and compelling.

The thing was, though, I lived near the beach and went there with the family on a fairly regular basis during the summer. And the next time I was there I remembered that story and those panels, and I imagined what it would look like to watch a man stride purposefully into the surf like that. Short answer, it wouldn't be very impressive. The ocean is simply too vast for any image like that in real life to be spectacular. The only way it could appear that way in the comic book my grandfather gave me was because of the framing that each panel could use to highlight the man, and not the ocean. When your view is restricted to the man, the man can seem impressive. When you have to take into account the vastness of the sea . . . not so much.

The same thing explains why comic books and films can get away with having flying men (Superman) seem impressive. They never show the man in the vastness of the sky, they always focus on the man himself. Now, if a man could fly that would of course be impressive, but I don't think if you saw a hovering man that would be your first impression. I think your first impression, seeing a small figure etched into the huge sky, would probably be to freak out at the alienness of the sight but not to believe the figure was impressively spectacular. He would just look too small.

To a very similar degree, we see the same thing in science-fiction books and movies involving interstellar travel. The incredibly large volume of empty space that comprises the Universe has to be ignored in order for these stories to be gripping in any way. In order to make the narrative compelling, the focus must be on the relatively tiny, tiny humans and almost always is limited in scope to events on starships or other planets, but not to events in space itself. (I recall reading a novella some decades ago -- perhaps by Heinlein? -- in which the main character had accidentally been cast adrift in space and had floated for hours and hours, not knowing if anyone knew he was missing or if they did whether they could find him, before being rescued. This direct confrontation with how small he was in the emptiness of the Universe so traumatized the character that he spent the rest of his life under the sea, where he would be at all times surrounded by water.)

Humans are not built for intuitively understanding quantum mechanics, because we can't directly perceive events on a sub-atomic scale. Similarly, humans are not built for intuitively understanding how space itself can curve, because we can't directly perceive the curvative of space itself across the huge expanse of the Universe. (Hell, we have a difficult enough time envisioning the curvature of the Earth, and we live here.)

And humans are not built to intuitively understand or relate to stories and narratives that are not focussed on us, that are not told from the human perspective and at the human scale, and for exactly the same reason: because that is the scale at which we live our lives, and we have no direct perception of Life, the Universe and Everything at any other scale than the human one.

* * *

Which is not to say that this is a bad thing. Obviously we live our lives at this scale, obviously this is the scale with which we should be most concerned. I'd be willing to sacrifice a whole lot of scientific knowledge about the workings of sub-atomic space or the underpinnings of cosmology if I could get instead a society the principle focus of which was to spend a lot of long hard thought trying to work out how we could simply be decent with each other, how to provide for each other, and how to live meaningful, worthwhile lives.

The problem, though, comes about when we attempt to tell stories about concepts like Eternity and Infinity and God (Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Omnibenevolence) that are so far outside of our direct perception as to be almost inconceivable, because we always end up trying to force these alien concepts into stories set at the human scale.

A few years ago I had the following conversation with my brother-in-law, Marty:

"Do you think everybody gets to go to Heaven?" he asked me. After I explained that Heaven isn't really a concept for which I have much use I opined that, yes, if you believe in a Heaven then pretty much everybody who ever lived gets to go there.

"Even the worst people who ever lived?" he asked, "even people like Hitler?"

"Yes, Marty, even Hitler gets to go to Heaven."

"But what kind of sense does that make? What's the point of trying to live a good and decent life if everybody gets to go to Heaven? Where's the reward?"

"Maybe just, y'know, in not being a dick? Maybe because living a good and decent life is reward enough?

"Listen, when you start talking about Heaven, and Hell, and Eternity and Infinity and God and all the other concepts that necessarily go along with Eternal Damnation or Eternal Salvation, you are talking about things that just don't translate well to our scale. Can you conceive of what Eternity is, really? Or what Infinity is, really? They aren't just really, really big numbers, they are beyond numbers. Any finite number, no matter how insanely large you want to make it, when divided by Infinity is zero.

"Now, you want to talk about Hitler's crimes, yes, of course they were heinous, but they are heinous only on the human scale. If you believe in an Eternal, Omnipresent God, Creator of Heaven and, yes, of Hell, you have to realize that -- on God's scale -- Hitler's crimes don't even register.

"And if, as you conceive, Hell is God's punishment, then nobody is going to be punished because no crimes are ever committed. In fact, on God's scale, nothing at all ever happens."

* * *

Now, I know, I know . . . there are plenty of people out there who will respond with the bit about how God marks every sparrow that falls from the sky, and that God sure did put a lot of restrictions in The Bible for someone who can't be concerned about what we do. But I just can't follow those people there.

If you want to ask me about Eternal Damnation and Eternal Salvation, I'm willing to entertain the question, purely in a theoretical way, and give a rationale for why nobody ever goes to Hell even if it exists. But you can't also ask me to entertain the idea of a petty, vain, vindictive deity, concerned with what humans do to themselves, to their fellows and in the privacy of their own bedroom -- not if you also want me to acknowledge this same deity as the Architect of the Universe, Creator and Sustainer of All Things. That just cannot possibly be the case, not least because if your God truly is like that then that is no God I can respect.

I've said many, many times before that the principle problem I have with any organized faith -- and by "organized" I mean a faith that imposes "god-based" rules, restrictions, proscriptions, a clergy, or even a dogma -- is that such a faith makes of God too small a thing. To the extent I can believe in a God at all, it is a God that must be bigger than the Reality that God created. Which means it is a God that encompasses all things that are, and all things that are not. (And maybe a few things that don't fall into either category. Hey, when you're talking about these sort of concepts this is the sort of nonsensical statement you have to be willing to make).

But if you are going to insist on speaking about concepts that occupy a scale this vast, you have to also recognize that - at that scale - us and everything we do are necessarily and ultimately meaningless.

* * *

Which brings me to my final point. The fact that our lives and what we do with them are meaningless on God's scale doesn't mean that they are meaningless on our own. At the scale that we live our lives we have the ability to infuse our lives with great depth, passion, meaning, purpose. But we must be the ones to do so. It is pointless to look to an outside entity, unknowable by us, ultimately incomprehensible to us, and believe this entity can explain our lives to us. Only we can do that.

Which is why, ultimately, I can't understand Douthat's concern that eliminating Hell will also eliminate meaning in our lives. Seems to me the choices we make in this life are more meaningful if we make them because we think they are the right choices, not because we expect to get a sky-prize after we die.

1 comment:

  1. I always find myself going back to the ants, watching them lead meaningful ant lives, unaware and unconcerned by things around them on so vast a scale as we humans lead ours. A car comes along and drives over an ant hill, temporarily sealing the entrance. Unperturbed, the ants dig out and go again about their ant business. They are miracles of creation no less than we. Is there an ant heaven? Doubt it. But when we picnic in heaven my guess is they will be there along with the butterflies, flowers, trees, herbs, shrubs, lions and tigers and bears.

    There is in Fundamental Christian thinking and in some non-Christian religions as well a sense of an afterlife so dazzlingly wonderful in its fusion and union with God as to be the ultimate bliss and joy. That is heaven. What would be its antithesis then? Darkness?

    These are the things the ants don't worry about as they go about their ant business.

    Nor perhaps should we.