Remembering the future
At the end of the Church’s year our attention is focused on the Last Things. Sean Connolly, author of Simple Priesthood, who recently became parish priest in Wymondham in Norfolk, looks at the teaching on heaven and hell with the help of C.S. Lewis, on whom he has just completed a doctorate.
Heaven loomed large for C.S. Lewis. That might seem a strange thing to say of a man who famously, during the early years of his adult life, dismissed any such belief as wishful thinking or mere mythology. Perhaps it is stranger still of one who, for the first year after his conversion from atheism, continued to reject speculations about immortality and ever afterwards – even once a committed Christian – remained suspicious of organised religion’s penchant for using paradise as some sort of a moral bribe. Nevertheless, in Lewis’ fiction, poetry, apologetics, and even in his English criticism, heaven loomed large. Indeed, if heaven is to be believed in at all, he argued towards the end of his life, then how can it loom less than large? ‘How can it, except by sensual or bustling preoccupations, be kept in the background of our minds? How can the “rest of Christianity” – what is this “rest”? – be disentangled from it?’1
Better times here
I often wonder if the deepest spiritual malaise of our contemporary culture (for which read our Western, consumerist society) isn’t the loss of that heavenward gaze. We no longer need – or at least we don’t think we do – the promise of a better age to come because we are all too busy building those better times in the here and now. How can our want of heaven compete with our want of winning the lottery when the latter seems so much more tangible, so much more real, so much more likely? How can we be expected to hope for a hereafter when we live in such a scientific and technological age and much of the mental furniture that went alongside heaven’s traditional imagery has been brushed aside? At worst we’re left with featureless white rooms and floating about on clouds; at best, with the anticipation of some sort of syrupy family reunion or the intellectual’s nirvana – the abyss, or Nothingness, which seems to appeal to so many in today’s product-stuffed world.
But can these really compete with the ‘Be this’ and ‘Buy that’ pressures of the everyday life we live? Unless we’re particularly prone to the spiritual, or unless we’re facing imminent death or suffering the loss of a loved one, heaven has become an anachronism: the realm of the religious, and no one much else. The danger is that in our concern to secure the present moment we have forgotten the future. Or, to put it more precisely, in our everyday efforts to make safe our own futures, we have stopped thinking about – I ought to say, stopped desiring – the only real Future there can be: life with God.
The biblical data tell a very different story. So much of the Bible speaks about our relationship with God in terms of longing, of desire, of yearning. God’s reign is depicted by our hunger and thirst being satisfied, by rich harvests being reaped, by luscious pastures and flowing waters springing forth, and by safety and security being provided. Isaiah, in particular, presents the Age to Come as a time of mountains overflowing with wine, of banquets (basically, freebie parties) being thrown, of free corn given in abundance. This imagery arose from a people living in a desert culture, whose nation state was constantly under threat, and whose livelihoods – and, indeed, lives – could be wiped out by a single bad harvest, or a plague of locusts, or a drought, or a war. Their future with God was not to be a bodiless alternative to their corporeal experience here and now, but the very fulfilment of it: the giving, by God himself, of their every desire and need.
Then there is the sexual imagery: the erotic love poems of the Song of Songs, for example; the relationship between Yahweh and his people being described as like the intimacy of a husband and his wife. Again, all far removed from the sort of cerebral, disembodied search for meaning so popular with many of the New Age trends that pass for spirituality these days. The religion of ancient Israel was unashamedly a religion of the heart, the stomach and the loins.
In the New Testament, too, we find a similar focus on the future: on the hope for an age when God will come to reign and be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28), when wrongs will be righted and the downtrodden be lifted up (cf. Luke 1:51-55), when death will have lost its sting (1 Cor 15:55) and the whole of creation as we now know it will be made anew (Rev 21:5). And in both Old and New Testaments what is significant is that this future is longed for. It is surely no accident, then, that the Church’s Advent antiphon speaks of the coming Christ as the ‘Desire of all nations’.
Mother Teresa once identified the West – by which she meant those of us living lives of comparative affluence – as suffering from a far greater poverty than anything she and her companions had experienced in Calcutta. We face a poverty of spirit, she believed, because we have lost our pressing need of God and become self-sufficient. Using the language of the Old Testament we might say we find ourselves living in the Land and being secure – always a fatal first step to following false gods. And she has a point. When we have so much – and let’s face it, compared to those who have to walk six miles a day just to find water, we do – and when we are told that it is the world that offers us our every desire, what meaning can religion’s hope for heaven ever hold? What future can we expect?
Stab of ‘Joy’
For C.S. Lewis, like many before him, the very concept of desire was itself the key to appreciating heaven. In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis spoke of the stab of ‘Joy’, a romantic desire that was never quite fulfilled and pointed to something beyond itself. ‘The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us,’ as he described it. ‘Longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.’
There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in reality. I think everyone knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.2
What this desire is actually, Lewis came to understand, is a longing for our heavenly home. ‘Most people,’ he believed, ‘if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.’3 Lewis came to realise that all human desire ultimately points to God. And the dissatisfaction that we feel at times, that sense of longing or an aching for some kind of fulfilment, is characteristic of a pilgrim people. We are on our journey still and we have not yet reached the end. ‘The settled happiness and security which we all desire,’ as Lewis put it, ‘God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast . . . Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.’4
This understanding of human desire has helped me enormously in my own appreciation of the seasons of the heart. All my life I have been plagued by the feeling that the grass is greener over there – wherever ‘over there’ might be. ‘There is no greener grass,’ a close friend chides me often. In other words, get on with your lot and stop complaining. Most probably it is good advice. But still there is that niggling doubt. Still I find myself afflicted with a restlessness and a longing, even though I am happy in most of what I do and exercise a much blessed and fulfilling ministry. Just lately I have come to the conclusion that such restive desires are not to be ignored. The problem, I’ve decided, is not so much the greener grass bit but the ‘over there’ part. In the end I will always find myself longing for something new, something extra, something more satisfying, because in the end (although I usually don’t realise it) I am actually longing for God – for a future life with God. I suppose I could say that he himself is that greener grass. God is the green pasture on which I was made to graze.
In one way this is no more than St Augustine’s restless heart. But, I wonder, do we need much more? What I’m suggesting is that one of the ways our modern, materialistic world can recapture something of a hope for heaven is to recognise that sense of dissatisfaction, that longing which is undoubtedly the leitmotif to everyone’s life. The fact that we hunger and thirst points to our need for food and drink. The fact that we, for want of a better word, ‘spiritually’ hunger and thirst points, I believe, to our need for a heavenly home. When we have had our fill and find ourselves still dissatisfied then, perhaps, we can begin to remember the future; then, perhaps, we can turn our gaze heavenward.
Feuerbach and Freud (amongst others) heavily criticised such an approach, suggesting that this heaven was nothing more than the product of wishful thinking. Furthermore, they argued, this wish-fulfilment becomes a stumbling block, preventing people from pulling their socks up and transforming their own lives. But I disagree. Just because I wish for heaven doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And for many of the great and good of history such longing hasn’t in fact meant wasting their time in this world but spurred them on to achieve the most remarkable feats in the sciences and the arts, in philosophy and writing, and most importantly in their own moral lives. Smelling the scent of heaven in every flower, hearing its celestial choir in every sound, and seeing the whole of our present creation suffused with the glory of the new – letting heaven loom large in this way in no way implies a betrayal of this world and all therein. If you ask me, it actually means giving creation a future beyond what we can plan for it; indeed, giving the world its future back. ‘Aim at heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”,’ C.S. Lewis once said. ‘Aim at earth and you will get neither.’5
All of this only takes us to the need for an eternal home, however. We are not yet at the door of Christian doctrine, with its apocalyptic inclusion of the end of the world, the Second Coming, and the general resurrection. Interestingly, one of C.S. Lewis’ great bugbears was what he called, ‘Christianity-and-water’, in which ‘all the difficult and terrible doctrines’ are left out in favour of the ‘view which simply says there is a good God in heaven and everything is all right’.6 It is probably true to say that, at the parish level at least, there is a real danger of our understanding of the ‘Last Things’ becoming diluted, often simply because of the perceived difficulties of presenting such doctrines to the ordinary person in the pew. Judgement, purgatory and hell, in particular, these days run the risk of becoming Cinderella subjects in the light of our preached hope for heaven.
Back in 1992 the International Theological Commission raised just such a concern with its criticism of those funeral homilies (and how many of them I have preached!) that treat eternal salvation as some kind of a quasi-automatic consequence of death.7 Certain contemporary theologians have pointed out that such homilies are probably nothing more than a reaction against the exaggerated emphasis on hell of earlier times. Undoubtedly we turn God into a sort of juridical monster if our accent is only on hellfire and damnation. But ignoring the process of judgement, purification from sin, and the ultimate possibility of perdition is just as inaccurate. If we’re not careful we can end up demoting the reality of human free will and underestimating the seriousness of sin, thus diminishing the immensity of God’s saving love for us and of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. For if human freedom isn’t taken seriously, and if hell isn’t a very real condition of the possibility of that freedom, then the salvific act essentially becomes a game. This is in no way to discount the discussion over universal salvation – the belief that eventually everyone will be saved. But even Hans Urs von Balthasar, perhaps the most famous of recent proponents of such a theology, allowed for hell as a ‘remainder’ concept.
All stick or all carrot
I noted at the beginning of this article that C.S. Lewis was, from the very outset of his conversion, rather critical of the perceived carrot-and-stick approach to our eternal future: that heaven should be dangled before us as a bribe to moral behaviour, or, that not succeeding, hell be heightened in our consciousness to instil in us the fearful consequences of our actions. One might argue, of course, that carrot and stick have rarely been seen together in the preaching of the Church. It has tended to be either all stick or, more recently, all carrot. What, perhaps, we do need to achieve in the preaching and catechetical life of our Christian communities is the correct theological balance between the two. The ‘eschatology of salvation and of loss are not on the same plane’, Karl Rahner famously once wrote.8 Putting it another way, heaven and hell are not simply different sides of the same coin: there is an utter chasm between the two. Heaven is our unalloyed promise and goal. Hell, at most, is its necessary footnote: an addendum allowing us, should we insist, to persist in our wrapped-up earthly lives. In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce there is the wonderful description of hell as being so shadowy and insubstantial that even the tiniest blade of grass cuts through the feet of its inhabitants. ‘All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world,’ we are assured, ‘but it is smaller than one atom of this world [heaven], the Real World.’ If a celestial butterfly were accidentally to swallow it, ‘hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste’.9
Similarly, it seems, the notion of purgatory gets scant mention these days, except perhaps in November and the rush to have Masses said and souls sprung from their temporary torment. This mechanistic approach to mercy needs constant challenging but, yet again, ignoring the topic throughout much of the liturgical year is not the answer. The language of indulgences and the idea of a time limit to perdition is largely redundant in the minds of most of today’s congregations. But the sense of unworthiness, the feeling that even for the holiest in death there might be more work to be done is quite common. The need to grieve and pray over the loss of our loved ones – all of this lends itself practically and pastorally to the doctrine of purgatory. Writing about the death of his wife, Joy Gresham, Lewis observed: ‘I never believed before – I thought it immensely improbable – that the faithfullest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat.’ And again he said:
[She] was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients not yet cured. I know there are not only tears to be dried but stains to be scoured. The sword will be made even brighter.10
Following the rich tradition of St Catherine of Genoa and John Henry Newman, C.S. Lewis (much to the chagrin of many of his evangelical supporters) proposed an understanding of purgatory in which the soul itself, saved and invited into the company of heaven, chooses to be purified. The image Lewis used was of a man in filthy, stinking rags, being invited to sit at the banquet of the king. In such circumstances, Lewis asked, who would not want to avail himself of the opportunity to clean up and dress more appropriately?
The real issue in all of this, I suppose, is the need for an accessible and popular presentation of the full range of Christian doctrine, and in particular the whole of eschatological doctrine – not just the bits we’re partial or prone to. The theologian Dermot Lane once pointed out that contemporary theology must aim to proffer hope to a fallen world. The work and writings of C.S. Lewis serve to remind us that genuine Christian hope – remembering the Future in the light of the Judaic Christian tradition – is not always the same as secular society’s search for some ultimate panacea. In the end we just have to accept that, sooner or later, those ‘difficult and terrible doctrines’ have to come back in.
1. C.S. Lewis, Prayer: letters to Malcolm (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964; HarperCollins, 1998), p.114.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1952; Fount, 1997), p.112.
3. Ibid. Cf. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1940; Fount 1998), p.120: ‘You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven – namely, that we do not really desire it. But that may be an illusion . . . There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven ; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else.’
4. The Problem of Pain, pp.93-94.
5. Mere Christianity, p.111.
6. Ibid., p.33.
7. Cf. International Theological Commission, ‘Some Current Questions in Eschatology’, in The Irish Theological Quarterly, 58 (1992), p.237.
8. Karl Rahner, ‘The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Assertions’, in Theological Investigations, Volume IV: More Recent Writings, trans. Kevin Smyth (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1974), p.338.
9. C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce: a dream, (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946, Fontana, 1972); p.113.
10. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London: Faber & Faber, 1961, 1966), p.37. n