Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Conversation About Heaven

Is there a heaven? If there is, how do we get there? And what's it like? What will there be to do? How much, if anything, will we remember from our lives? Will we recognize and maintain similar relationships with loved ones and friends? Will we know if there are friends and family absent? Is heaven a real place or is it meant to be a spiritual place where man is with God?

These are questions that every person who has ever been religious has probably asked themselves or someone else. Assuming that heaven is a real place, those are excellent questions. Every religion seems to know the path to heaven or "enlightenment". That clouds the issue and the ability to answer these questions even more. For the sake of this blog and conversation, we will use the Christian religion and that world view to look at heaven.

What Will Heaven Look Like?

If you believe pop culture and much of the artwork from over the centuries, heaven seems to be a place right up there in the sky where the clouds are. Those in heaven will have wings, a halo, and a harp. And in the clouds they will sit and play music. Now, that sounds like a nice little vacation from the hustle and bustle of this world. But, do we really want to spend eternity that way? How many tunes can one be expected to play? I'm going to go ahead and reject the above notion, on the basis of simplicity.

According to the Bible and the Apostle John, who is supposedly the author of Revelation, heaven is going to be quite a spectacle. An angel revealed to John, what the kingdom of heaven will be like, and John lets us know. First off, according to John, heaven is going to be 12,000 x 12,000 x 12,000 stadia. A stadia is about an acre. That's pretty big. Not big enough to hold billions of people, so by the sheer knowledge that heaven will be a finite space, we can take away that more people are not going to make the big show than will make it. The angel also told John that there will be a wall around heaven. This wall will be partially made of jasper so pure you can see through it. The wall will be 144 cubits solid, which is about 20 inches, give or take. Other precious stones will help make up this beautiful wall, including sapphire, emerald, amethyst, and chrysolite. Apparently, there are twelve gates and each of those is made out of a single pearl. Sheesh, I'd love to see the oysters that produced those babies!! Or maybe I wouldn't. The streets are to be paved with solid gold. Pretty impressive, by any standard. But why a wall and gates around heaven? Who or what is being kept our or in? Maybe it's those big oysters, I don't know.

What's The Purpose Of Heaven?

Heaven is to be the destination of the faithful believer after physical death. According to the New Testament, a human being must accept Jesus as the savior of humanity, who came to die on the cross, like a man, in payment for the sin of all mankind, if they want to make it to heaven. The New Testament teaches about what comes from the heart and mind, while the Old Testament is full of ritual, offerings, and works as a way to the glory of heaven. You may want to consider covering both bases.  And for good measure, you may want to sell off some assets and give the proceeds away, because it's difficult for a rich person to get in the front door. Not that any of this REALLY matters, because you don't choose, God does. More on that later.

What Will Heaven Be Like?

Isaiah 11 says that in heaven all the animals will live in harmony, become vegetarians, and be ruled by a little kid. There will be great banquets with fine wine and all sorts of meats. That leads me to believe that while the animals may become docile and vegetarian, people won't. I also take from this interpretation that folks won't be settling for Boone's Farm or Mad Dog. The chosen are in for a treat. Nothing but the good stuff! Seems as though there will be no sickness, tears, or death. Overall, it doesn't sound too bad, does it? Who wouldn't want an eternity of bliss and wonder, while God foots the bill?

My Perspective

Anyone who knows me, or reads this blog with any regularity (and, honestly, with all the info out there, why would you?) realizes that I'm not inclined to believe very much, if any of the above. And I have my reasons. Not among those reasons are hate or intolerance. I simply don't subscribe to any religion. I do allow for the possibility of God. Why wouldn't I? I don't know any more than anyone else if there is a God or not, so it would be highly hypocritical for me to close the door on that notion. I will continue to use the reason and critical thought that each person is armed with to sift through as much as I can to gain an understanding of why I am here and what created the universe. As of now, I have no reason to believe there is a personal God who is listening to my every thought and watching my every move.

All that said, let's get back to heaven. Great concept....lovely idea. But, there is a bit of trouble with paradise. Once a person dies and they go to heaven, what becomes of their free will? Assuming, we truly have free will, can that be taken away? And if so, won't that reduce the chosen to programmed robots? The Bible says God created us to love and worship Him. We are told that we have free will. That means, with everything we do, we have a choice.....a moment of no return, where we do one thing or we do another. That may not necessarily be true. It seems as though the decisions we make consciously are made seconds before we know they are made. *Studies are showing that your brain calculates likelihood to make the decision before your conscious mind takes over. This means that your mental make up, cultural trends, and tendencies you have leaned towards your entire life, are stored in the brain and like a computer your brain takes that information and knows your decision before you do.

So, if this is true, how much free will do we really have? I would argue that the stimulus you have encountered, along with fears, family relationships, rationalizations, and culture, along with how we interpret those things are the authors of our next thought and/or decision. So, this notion that you choose to obey God is likely programming (just like the notion to obey your parents or the notion that you prefer meat over vegetables). How else can the worship of so many different gods be interpreted, if not through culture and up bringing? It sure isn't spiritual interference. If it was, then there would only be one religion. The one true god would be doing the calling.

OK, at this point, I realize that if we only think we have free will here, then if there is a heaven, we'd never have that ability there. Aside from science, a philosophical way to look at heaven is that there is a contradiction in the notion that God knows your heart, which says you make the decision and what the Bible (Romans Chapter 9) says about God;

10 Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. 11 Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: 12 not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.”[d] 13 Just as it is written: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”[e]

14 What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! 15 For he says to Moses,

“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy,
and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”[f]

16 It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. 17 For Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”[g] 18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.

As you can read, it's God's decision. Your "free will" may be to choose God, but at any point in time that can be changed by God. He knows all. He controls all. Nothing happens without His knowledge.  And don't just start or stop with the above. Continue to research from here if you are interested, because I may have not copied that right. I may be trying to deceive you (I assure you I'm not, at least not purposefully). So, do your own research.  Read your Bible. Use your mind critically.

Another problem with heaven is eternity. That's simply a notion that can't be grasped. Try as I have, in many different capacities and mindsets, I really can't get my mind to settle on what that means. Yeah, it's forever. But it's also forever behind us as well. The thing that strikes me in thinking about eternity is how little of a role that I play in the unfolding of it. If eternity was more than a combination of all the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, ponds, and streams on the planet, each of our lives would barely be a drop in all of it. Consider the cosmos. We are one of TENS of MILLIONS of galaxies. So, I'm really supposed to believe that God is going to hold human beings to how they were, as individuals, each living in different eras and under different cultures, with differing educations and means for survival) in a 15 to 100 year period of time, up against eternity and the cosmos? There is nothing loving or compassionate about that, nor does it seem as though that period of time is a good indicator of a life and the meaning that may have been discovered. And neither would there be in the opposite. Which is, flip the above sentences around and think of it from the standpoint of damnation. Would what we are supposed to hold as true for heaven be the same for hell? Would an ultimately good and great God really give a soul so little time and then sentence it to hell for all of eternity? There is no virtue you can attribute to God that would make that seem possible. Extinguishing a soul he created? Sure. One thousand years in hell? Sure. But eternal torture of something you created and profess to love? How different is the Heavenly Father from you as a father or your dad as a father? I helped create my children and there is no scenario in which I can comprehend where I would choose burning them alive for eternity over grace.

And, here I am, still on eternity. What would the chosen do? I mean, I'm not sure if there is a day or night or even a clock in heaven, but eternity is just what it means. No end in sight. You could let me choose between eternal life or a decent 70 year life span and I'd take the 70 years. Some religious views of heaven believe that there will be eternal worship. At all times. For all times. "Glory Be To God" over and over.....forever. Jeez, that's going to get to be a bit much after a couple hundred thousand years, am I right? Can I get an amen? No. Fair enough.
Alright, so even if the above isn't the way it's going to be, there are those who maintain that we will have work to do. We will have play time. All the usual jazz, but without the REALLY fun stuff. Even at that.....forever? Come on. Not for me. Would I love to add another 10 healthy (20-something) years to my life? Sure, but not forever. I can imagine me calling my cousin about 20 billion years from now;


COUSIN: Hello?
FREDDY: Hey, what's up?
COUSIN: Nothing. Same old same old.
FREDDY: Yeah, I hear ya on that. Say, I've been at the same job now for...well, going on 20 billion years. Do you know what retirement age is here?
COUSIN: There is no retirement age?
COUSIN: Yeah, we are living forever, so what would you be retiring to?
FREDDY: Really? I thought that was more of a metaphorical thing.
COUSIN: Nope. Here we are.
FREDDY: Well, I guess I never thought it through. Can I just opt out?
COUSIN: No. You can't be in heaven if you are not already here.
FREDDY: I'll just use my free will.
COUSIN: You already did that. For 50 years on earth. Remember?
FREDDY: Not really. That was 20 billion years ago. What am I gaining? Heavens, what is God gaining?
COUSIN: Those are the rules. But don't blame me, I didn't make 'em up.


See? That's gonna suck. It's nothing but light. No darkness at the end of the tunnel. Trust me, after 100 million eons, I'm going to want a shot of bourbon or a good old fashioned PG rated movie....and you will too!

I guess I'm going to have to continue my rejection of religious faith. Even when considering heaven, there doesn't seem to be very much sense in it. Why a hell if you have a heaven? Why the need to punish those who are born into a different culture and chose another religion? Why have hell for eternity? Why create beings with attributes that could only lead to the fall of man and ultimately to torturing, suffering, and death over a vast amount of unending time? Why give a creature curiosity and then create something to forbid them from using, and giving absolutely no good reason for it? To further this, why create an entity of deceit which will prey upon the mind of the creations that were made to love? If the Christian religion is true, there is no doubt that God created us to fail. That in itself would be evil. To create something, with weakness and subject it a constant barrage of veiled reference, evil, punishment, and limited information can't be described as love in any true capacity or sense of the word.

I suppose, at least for me, heaven can wait.


Dances With Wolves: A Look Back

Where does the time go? It has now been twenty years since Kevin Costner's epic and winner of multiple Academy Awards, "Dances With Wolves" was the toast of Hollywood. 

Twenty years later it's still a fantastic film and holds up well. So well, in fact, that James Cameron's "Avatar" is pretty much "Dances With Wolves In Space". They both have a similar theme. A group of harmonious people are infiltrated by outside forces whose only goal is to take. But that's something entirely different, so back to "Dances With Wolves".....on earth.

Sure, the movies are dramatized, but they are also romanticized. So, when I watch this film, I can't help but feel like our (human beings) ability to see things as they really are, isn't very good. After we hit the continent by storm and started our own nation we really let it rip when it came to claiming territory. We "discovered" a land that already had people on it, we destroyed their culture and stole what was theirs. Before you think I'm on some sort of liberal rant here, I'm not. It's what we do. Groups of humans conquer the weak or technologically inferior of their own species. Hell, the Native Americans did that to each other as well. It's part of the way things are, to this very minute you sit here reading. But, it doesn't have to be.

Costner pushes the Native American "good", white man "bad" thing, but he also tells the story of how there were massacres and "regime changes" among the Native Americans (the Pawnee and Sioux in this case), even as white settlers were heading their way. In the history of cinema, how often do you get to see a film shot almost entirely from the view of the Native American side?  Costner's character, John Dunbar, is the subject and yes, most of the film is shot from his viewpoint, but that viewpoint is fluid. He comes to the western prairies with a notion that we (Americans) will swallow it up just as we did the east. Dunbar sees the disregard that the "white man" shows for the new territory, in the way that the land, animals, and people were treated. He knows killing and power struggles from having fought in the Civil War, but begins to tune himself into the Native Americans, as he becomes friendly with them.

For the first time, he sees a battle between tribes and recognizes that it's not only the settlers and Americans who can be savage to one another. All things being equal though, he sees that the Native Americans share a commonality even when they are in battle. They respect the land and nature. They know that they are only temporary visitors to the land and that it's their responsibility to ensure resources are used, but not wasted. Nothing in the film brings this home the way the buffalo slaughter scene is shown. We don't get to see the hunters killing the buffalo. We see what the Native Americans and Dunbar see. A small valley with the bodies of the buffalo left rotting in the sun. Only their tongues and skin were taken. Late the film shows the Native American hunt. For them, the hunt is about a way of life and the necessity for survival. They do not hunt for sport or profit. They hunt and take what they need, not just what they want.

Besides the themes that are touched on (misuse of land and resources, racism, greed, imperialism) the film is also visually stimulating. Many times during the film, the director of photography, Dean Semler, is able to capture how the open territory must have looked and felt to early settlers. My favorite shots are the ones that show the characters in the film against vast backgrounds. Pit that against the urban sprawl and the lack of natural space we have for any sort of meaningful distance today.

While Costner's career, in both directing and acting, surely peaked with this film, it doesn't ruin its' legacy. Not even "The Postman" or "Waterworld", both of which seemed to want to show us what human beings could do to the world and civilization on a larger scale, tainted the legacy of "Dances With Wolves". The entirety of the film, could really be summed up in the relationship between the wolf and Dunbar. Early in the film, Dunbar sees the wolf studying him. He raises his rifle to shoot it, but hesitates, and decides not to. He recognized that the wolf was not presenting a problem. The wolf was existing in his habitat. Dunbar was the outsider and he needed to be the one to act with humility and trepidation. This is a lesson that he also realized, as he started interacting with the Native American, Sioux tribe. More than one type of organism could share and use the same space, if they respected one anothers needs and way of life. The native people, the animals, and white men could all survive together. There didn't have to be a conquered or conqueror.

If you have not seen the film or if you have not watched it in a long time, I urge you to dust off the VHS copy, your DVD, or go pick up the blu ray version (which looks beautiful on an HD television). Contrast the underlying message with our world today. Overall, it seems we (the human race) never learned that we could all survive together while maintaining tradition and respect. The survival of our species depends on us being able to see each other from another point of view. What does it cost to show respect for another persons (or people's) way of life? What does it cost to look for a solution that doesn't involve the domination of one culture for the survival of another? It shouldn't be hard to learn from our past, nor from films such as "Dances With Wolves". Film can be a great way to expand a person's mind to looking beneath the surface and understanding what's really at stake in our relationships with other people and our environment. Costner can go to his grave knowing that he created one of the most entertaining and thought provoking movies of the modern era. Twenty years from now, I'll bet the film will remain just as highly thought of.

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin' on the ground
But the firesticks
and the wagons come
And the night falls
on the setting sun.

Neil Young