Proselytization and Cheese

One of the universals of many childhood lives is Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. If I were the financial sort, I would consider investing in it. As my daughter was moving into college, I noticed other worried-looking parents sitting by their unpacked cars, some with corporate-size boxes of Mac and Cheese shrink-wrapped and ready to tide a son or daughter through difficult times. It is a comfort food, a warm and welcoming friend. Some would say heavenly. Eventually, as adults, we learn to view processed foods with some introspection, moving toward the harsher, but healthier fresh varieties. Secretly, most of us would welcome the opportunity to eat like we did as kids when the consequences were unclear and the guilt was still a plucked apple away.

IMG_0960So at a college organizational fair, my daughter sent me a picture of savvy marketing. Christ the King Lutheran Church giving away boxes of childhood. When that warm, gooey, comforting sensation of childhood hits those whom society is suddenly telling they’re adults, they might have their thoughts turn to the Lutherans. Or the many other faith-based organizations eager to recruit among the young and newly independent. This, of course, is nothing new. Religions have long displayed their benefits to convince those with more earthy things on their minds. The evolution of religion is a fascinating study from the days of enforced loyalty despite belief up to the buyer’s market that religion represents today. How do you convince those who legitimately have a choice? What brand of religion is better than the others? Which is the tastiest variety?

The irony of appealing to the body to gain the commitment of the soul is one religions have had to adopt. There was a time when the way to heaven came through self-denial and spiritual discipline. Earning salvation was hard work. Now if we can get you into the pews on Sunday morning, preferably with your wallet, all is good. It is well with your soul, it is well. I feel for the modern, institutional religions. They were once a powerful force in society and by default people believed that they had a special line to God. Up to the 1950’s, even, this perception was especially strong. People learned, as people will, what they could get away with. Turns out, religion is optional. But eating is not. Not if you’re going to survive in this harsh world. And even if you don’t believe in heaven, we will always believe that in the kitchens of paradise they will be serving Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

Human Show

TrumanshowAt least a decade had passed since I watched The Truman Show. Jim Carrey has gone on to achieve an over-the-top kind of fame, but Truman is a thoughtful movie that raises several troubling questions. It is also one of the films of the 1990s that shamelessly cast an uncaring god (the not so subtly named Christof) against the goofy, but serious Truman Burbank. The movie is old enough not to worry about spoilers, so a quick run-down might refresh other hazy memories. Truman is the star of a show where a massive set that includes an entire island has been built around him. The vision of Christof, an unwanted baby is recorded from birth in an artificial, “perfect” world that revolves around him. Until he begins to notice events that, in the real world, would be paranormal. Objects falling from a clear sky, dead people reappearing, fake sets under construction. Determined to learn the truth, he faces his fear to escape by literally walking through a door in the sky.

Christof is “the creator.” From his base in the sky, he looks down on Truman as his star “son” grows to a Christ-like 30 years of age. He is protected from all harm, yet terrified of anything that might aid his escape from the ante-world he inhabits. When he slips the cameras and begins to make his way across the water, Christof, still not wanting to relinquish the ruse, throws a storm at Truman’s sailboat, striking it repeatedly with lightning. “Hit him again,” he growls to his crew. “Again!” It is difficult to watch as the loving god is angered to the point of destroying his only son. When Truman literally reaches the end of his world, he walks on the water to reach the stairway to heaven. Metaphors are flying thick and fast. Christof breaks in as a voice from the sky to convince Truman that his life will be perfect if he continues to pretend that reality is only what it seems to be. His devoted fans cheer as Truman ascends and walks through that door into another reality.

Many books on the theology of film have appeared over the past decade as it has become clear that people are very much affected by what they see on the screen. Our brains resonate with what we are seeing to such a degree that movies participate in our perceptions of reality. In an increasingly secular world, we have come to distrust our gods. This truth has echoed through many movies in the past several years. Although not living up to the hype, The Clash of the Titans—the remake—had classical heroes disputing the power of the gods. Truman doesn’t go that far. We are never informed about what life after the delusion is like. The hole in the sky is black. We know that on the other side, our world, there will be terrible disappointments and tremendous sadness. It may be that there will be no gods at all on this side of the studio. Although showing its age a little, The Truman Show still speaks volumes about the religious experience.

Near Earth Objects

Even before the Chelyabinsk meteor, Time magazine had committed to the printers with a story on asteroid 2012 DA14. From our terribly parochial viewpoint, such cosmic invaders are in our airspace (or at least in our satellite zone), as if we owned the very heavens above us. They are somehow an affront to our religious sensibilities. Many religions revolve around a celestial orientation. We all know that God is “up there” and the Devil is “down there.” What we’re discovering “up there,” however, is scarier than the Devil for many people. Space rocks are just part of the debris from the messy business of universe creating. Although space may be mostly empty (but dark matter has us reevaluating even that), it is far from tidy. Rocks rain down on us every day, and our user-friendly atmosphere that we’ve polluted so badly still begrudgingly incinerates those that enter at the wrong angle, brightening many a night with spectacular meteors. I’ve even seen some bright ones while driving in traffic in New Jersey. Wondrous indeed.


Back in seventh grade I did a science report on comets. This was a fascination that led me to take astronomy in my Sputnik-era high school—complete with planetarium—and in my older, more conservative college—sans planetarium. Comets were, until fairly recent times, religious harbingers. The Time story even has a detail of Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi from the early fourteenth century, complete with Halley’s Comet hovering overhead as the ersatz Star of Bethlehem. In a pre-Copernican universe signs in the sky had to be divine. There was no other logical way to explain them. Of course, in science class I stuck to the facts. As a religious kid, however, I knew there was something more to it.

Our skies are not our own. The universe isn’t here for us. These scientific revelations are frightening on a religious scale. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where we’re ready to let go of the Heaven above that no telescope can see. We don’t even have any way to spot hunks of rock the size of Chelyabinsk’s unbidden visitor with any kind of accuracy. We don’t even know how many there are. Before the second Russian explosion, Time prophetically noted that about a million stones of a hundred feet or more are near our planet and that one 150-footer could be 180 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Our recent brush with God’s dropped stone was only about 30 times the size of the terrors unleashed on Japan. According to ABC a Father Dimitri of Chelyabinsk said, “This event happened the day of the big Orthodox holiday that means meeting with God and this has to make people think.” I know I’m thinking. I sure hope his aim is good.

God’s Country Club?

Heaven is a sparsely populated place. Considering its vast celestial real estate, vis-a-vis the earth, it must be downright lonely. Maybe that’s the way the elect like it.

Official teaching, as it is often called, for many churches is downright brutal for those who dare explore. This past week the sin of Rob Morris, a Lutheran Pastor (Missouri Synod) who had the audacity to pray for the children slaughtered in Newtown, Connecticut in the same room as—gasp—Jews and Muslims, has been in the news. You see, Missouri Synod pastors aren’t allowed to worship with those outside their brand, and the president of the Synod, Matthew Harrison, insisted on an apology from Morris. Never mind the twenty-six coffins in the room. This is about doctrine!

Exclusion is part of what gives religion a bad name. Yes, there are some people who appear evil—I’m glad I’m not often put in the place of judging that. For some Christian sects, however, the gate is very narrow indeed, and the path exceptionally difficult. More than one Christian denomination, presumably those not so good with arithmetic, officially teaches that only 144,000 will be saved. A thousand gross, and not one more. These poor sinners keep hoping they’ll get in without adding up the hundreds of generations standing in line before them. I get the sense that their heaven wouldn’t exactly be paradise for any of the rest of us who happened to slip in. If the world were full of people like me, I think I’d be on the first space shuttle off to parts unknown.

Overlooking the gross insensitivity to the fact that Morris was trying to heal his community after a tragedy where children—children! To whom most religions give a free pass into heaven—were being mourned, we must wonder what the paradise of Missouri Synod Lutherans looks like. A heaven without diversity. Smiles must be rare indeed. And long, long, long naps very common.

For those of us committed to the common good, heaven on those terms is no ideal place. In fact, I doubt that God would be tempted to spend much time there. I think that God was present at the interfaith prayer vigil, and that Rev. Harrison has yet to receive an apology postmarked “Heaven.”

Rules is rules.

Rules is rules.

Without a Hitch

I’m not really afraid of dying. All those years of being taught that “to die is to gain” have obviously done their work. At the same time, it is a poignant exercise to read the posthumous memoirs of a dying man. I remember my first funeral. Although I don’t recall the name of the poor, deceased honoree, I still see the reactions of the living vividly. I was under ten at the time, and the funeral home in Franklin, Pennsylvania was in a very somber mood. The man, who had been a friend of the family, “was not a Christian.” Having been buffed and rubbed in the Fundamentalist tub from my earliest days, I didn’t realize that what was meant was actually that he hadn’t been an active member of our particular church. Nevertheless, as a child, you get deeply impressed with these kinds of things. “I’ll never go to the funeral of a non-Christian again,” I remember my mother telling a friend. “The minister couldn’t find anything comforting to say.” While funerals are sad occasions by definition, this one left a crater that is still fresh over forty years later.

MortalityChristopher Hitchens is someone I found through his book God is Not Great. I don’t have time to read magazines, and I hadn’t read any of his previous works, but he raised some extremely valid points in this diatribe. My wife recently bought me his final oeuvre, Mortality. I felt as if I were back in that funeral home. It is not that I still hold to the odd belief system of Fundamentalism—of this my regular readers will have no doubt—but it is the forlorn feeling of reading the words of someone dying who hopes for nothing. Yes, it may be Stoic, and even noble. Certainly it seems far more worthy than visions of living in opulence with lots of available virgins with whom to toy while angels strum their harps overhead, but the certitude that one’s final days will be nothing but prolonged suffering—ouch! Maybe there isn’t a heaven, and if there’s a hell there’s something morally wrong with the universe, but doesn’t some residue of a human life remain? Even if it’s just the memories, the marks that we’ve made on others’ minds, don’t we somehow survive? Dying without hope nevertheless feels like milling about in that doleful crowd of specific Christians years ago.

Hitchens does offer a chapter in his final words devoted to those Christians who responded to his cancer with an unholy Schadenfreude, trying to torture the thoughts of a dying man with the promise of an eternal hell after experiencing a temporary hell of cancer treatments. This chapter made me sick. Anyone who so completely misses the message of compassion that suffuses the Gospels can hardly claim the designation Christian, I would insist. No one, no matter what their eternal plans, has the right to try to fracture anyone’s tenuous tranquility to make their own crown shine a little brighter. Such weekend warriors likely imagine that they are defending their fragile God, but in reality they are demonstrating that some of the criticisms of Hitchens were very well placed to begin with. No religion will live up to its full potential until it succeeds in the most basic practice of all—treating all people with respect and dignity. Until then, death has the final word.

Prayers in Space

Science with heart. That’s one way to characterize Mary Roach’s writing. Uninhibited is another. I began reading her books when I saw Spook on the science shelf at Borders some years back. The nexus between what science teaches us and the magisterium of religion (ghosts certainly, by definition, fall into the “spiritual” category) has intrigued me all my life. I posted on both Spook and Stiff earlier in this blog. Her current work that my wife and I have just finished reading is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The message that has rung loudly in my ears throughout the reading is that humans are evolved for this planet—space is not our native environment (well, at least not in a non-metaphysical sense). So many of the troubles she documents stem directly from the fact that we are biologically programmed to keep our feet pretty firmly on the ground. Weightlessness atrophies our bodies, cosmic radiation destroys our tissues, and there is always the difficulty of finding fast food in space.

One of the most telling points Ms. Roach makes, as is frequently the case, comes in a footnote. The note could, with some imagination, have been expanded into an entire chapter. “Religious observations are even tougher in a real spacecraft,” she begins. She points out specifically the difficulties of taking communion on a moon trip or praying five times a day aboard the International Space Station that renders a day a mere 90 minutes in length and staying Mecca-oriented is difficult when moving so far so fast. Religious leaders have to make special dispensations for those who take their religion beyond the bounds of earth-evolved faiths.

All of this raises a question that religions are reluctant to ask directly—what are we to make of petty observances that our belief systems demand when they are clearly based on outdated information? Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all developed in a flat world in a geocentric universe with a dome-like sky above them. The regulations were drawn up for just such a fictional world. When the religious become astronauts they leave that world behind them in a way that must stretch the credibility of a doctrine developed without the input of an astrophysicist. How does an astronaut hope to go to Heaven when some missions take her or him far beyond the realm of the gods into the cold reality of outer space? Looking down on Heaven must be disorienting indeed. If Mary Roach had an equal in the world of religion writing, I would hope that she would ask that very question. In any case, we are fortunate enough to have the one and only Mary Roach to raise the question for us and to keep us oriented toward our true home.

Where is it?

When I step outside to pick up the morning newspaper, I always look at the sky. I think this is a very early evolutionary trick. It may be because there was a time when primates were smaller and birds of prey larger, or it may be because some big cats like to drop on prey from trees. It may be simply that we don’t like to get wet, especially unexpectedly. For whatever reason, the sky is a source of endless fascination. Helen T. Gray, in a piece written for the Kansas City Star yesterday, ponders the place of Heaven in the space age. 80 percent of Americans report believing in Heaven, she points out, and she describes how Heaven has shifted from an improbably physical place to a transdimensional or neurologically embedded place. We, as a people, believe that there must be a better place than this. No matter where we locate it, Heaven is always a decided improvement on this place where too many people suffer too much and all of us suffer some of the time.

I once considered astronomy for a career. My high school, built in the fretful days of the Cold War, had an actual planetarium as the space race was burning over the red line. I took a high school class in astronomy and when I got to college I followed it up with an undergraduate course in the same. While I enjoyed learning about all the strangeness of space, it soon became clear that astronomy was simply another word for mathematics; the class involved intensive equations stressing a regularity that Metamucil would be proud to claim. And, of course, since we live on a sphere every direction is up. The belief in a better place is nothing if not resilient. It survived the knowledge that “up there” is either nowhere or everywhere, depending on your point of view. Most theologians after Galileo’s day finally admitted that. When I go for the paper, I still look to the sky, however.

In Hebrew the word translated “heaven” is the same word that is translated as “sky.” The Hebrew Bible knows no separate place called Heaven, but the latest parts do indicate a life restored after death. I wonder if Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley might not have gotten it right when they wrote the song that would help solidify Belinda Carlisle’s solo career. Maybe Heaven is a place where love prevails. Not just the erotic love of pop music, but the love that sees not a Muslim, an African, a Hindu, or an Oriental, but human beings. That stranger experiences those same feelings, hopes, aspirations that all of us do. He or she should not be left shivering, hungry on the street corner begging for quarters to buy his or her next meal. If it’s clear outside I linger as I gaze at early morning stars and planets, feeling deep yearnings I can’t hope to express. No, Heaven may not be a Mormon planet where you get to become God after you die (ahem). Heaven is not a mansion in the clouds (I’m sure some satellite would’ve picked it up by now). Heaven is not where I get to go and you don’t. Heaven is here and now, but we all have to work for it.

Beyond Science

The nature of reality is not easily parsed. As a society we are still under the spell of rationalism, that wonderful left-brain system that seems to explain everything. Until we break down in tears and don’t know why. Like the proverbial chicken-and-egg, reductionists say it all comes down to electro-chemical reactions in the brain, to which non-reductionists reply “believe that if you want to.” Knowledge and belief, belief and knowledge. The truth is nobody knows. So when I see Heaven on the cover of Newsweek, I can’t resist wondering what’s inside. Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard-educated neurosurgeon, has just written a book called Proof of Heaven. In the Newsweek article he explains how during a week-long coma he had the most vivid experience of his life. While his brain was shut down. It might be more accurate to say he had the most vivid experience of his afterlife.

The classic debate for Near Death Experiences—so common they have their own acronym, NDEs—revolves around timing. Reductionists say the thought could have happened very, very quickly, just as the brain was shutting down. We all know how dreams can feel like they last far longer than we’re asleep, and how vivid they are. Those who accept the reality of an afterlife argue that many of the classic symptoms such as seeing your own body from above, or being able to describe in detail what was happening in another room at the time, count as evidence. It is the problem of the occasional phenomenon again. This is something no lab can measure, but it happens just often enough to make you wonder. The shaman might say, along with Inception, that the dream is the reality. That might explain why so much of “real life” is unpleasant.

As comfortable as the belief that reality is solid, material, quantifiable, may be, it does not count for the totality of human experience. Alexander’s heaven may not be the same as mine. Reality may not be one. Maybe Occam was wrong. Reading about shamans over the past couple of weeks, it became clear that some believe humans have more than one soul. (I can hear the reductionists rumbling—one soul is already too many!) Some cultures recognize as many as seven souls in a single individual. These, they suggest, account for the uncanny experiences of human life. Why do some people see ghosts and why are dreams so vivid and how does faith healing work? Reductionism calls them all illusions, tricks of the brain. Until his coma Dr. Alexander would have agreed. Now the newsstands suggest a different paradigm may be emerging. Dare we believe that the truth is out there?

Your Brain on Plastic

“Cogito ergo sum,” Descartes famously, and apparently erroneously, wrote. As technology races wildly ahead, those of us of biological origin are left feeling somewhat insignificant. An article in Monday’s Chronicle of Higher Education on “The Strange Neuroscience of Immortality” touches on many of the issues that are the very pulse of religion. Revolving around the theory of Dr. Ken Hayworth that a preserved brain, sealed in plastic instants before death, may in the future be thoroughly mapped and resurrected, Evan R. Goldstein explores the idea of immortality. Hayworth’s belief is that a thoroughly mapped brain, reconstructed artificially, would be the ego of cogito. The self. Despite all our advances in science, we don’t know what it is.

As Goldstein makes clear in his article, this transfer of consciousness and possibility of immortality is not mainstream science. In fact, most scientists rapidly distance themselves from it. Many cite the unscientific nature of the very enterprise, but I wonder if it might not have a more religious basis. Immortality is the ultimate of religious ideals. Christians generally recognize it as resurrection, and other monotheistic traditions offer a heaven after death (sometimes, to some people). Is that not all at stake here? If we manage to assure some kind of human immortality, have we not just robbed ourselves of heaven? Quite apart from the technological hurdles and uncertainties about what the self/mind/soul is, is not immortality what separates gods from humans?

The problem with gods is that they don’t get to go home at the end of the day. Would Heaven be so great if you just left another tough day in the universe full of sadness, violence, and pain? Hayworth suggests that a reconstructed brain placed in a mechanical body (robotic, probably) would have the potential of lasting forever. It will, however, be expensive. That means that only the very wealthy will be able to afford the procedure, if it ever works. Imagine that world: a planet full of immortal, wealthy entrepreneurs who can spend eons without sleep, trying to acquire yet more for themselves while knocking the competition on its metal rump. It really doesn’t sound like Heaven to me. But then, what would I know? To me cogito sounds like a snack food.

Lunchtime in Midtown

It was a brilliantly sunny day and there seemed to be rain nowhere in sight. It wasn’t even hot. Days like this have been rare this spring, so I went out for a lunchtime walk in my neighborhood. I’d been by the United Nations with some visiting family the day before, so I went down again and pondered the words attributed to Isaiah carved in the wall across from one of the largest intentional organs of peace in the world. I was reminded that a copy of the Edict of Cyrus resides in the UN; as a historical text it is often considered to be the first document promoting religious tolerance among lesser powers allowed by a greater power. The world could use a few more like old Cyrus the Great these days. I think Deutero-Isaiah would agree. So with biblical thoughts in my head, I strolled back toward Grand Central.

Along the way I saw a phrase from the Eucharistic Prayer on a building and it was like meeting someone from college that moved halfway around the world to disappear from your life. I saw that I was standing outside 815 Second Avenue. To the majority of the world—even the majority of Christians—this will mean nothing. At Nashotah House, however, “815” was regarded as the source of all evil. It is the headquarters of the Episcopal Church in America. It is hard, as a disowned son, to describe the feelings that assailed me there. Those good Christians who intended me such harm did not seem to realize all I had sacrificed to join them. Some of the clergy whose daggers remain in my back are well-paid priests right here in New York. Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look, I thought.

With that cloud in my sky, I turned the corner back to work. Parked in the street was a truck labeled “Divine Moving & Storage.” That sounded an awful lot like a trope for my life. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s God reaching to Adam contrasting with a phone number ending in 666, this bundle of contradictions might just have been a small sample of the human experience. Caught constantly between Heaven and Hell with doleful prophets and profit-loving dolers of sacramental grace living one next to the other. New York is a religious city in every sense of the word. Somewhere off in the shadows I think I hear Isaiah whispering, “I make weal and I create woe…” I love a sunny day in Manhattan.

Final Flight

Back in the day before CD players, let alone MP3 files, my mom had a squat, boxy rectangle of a cassette-tape player. (Remember, I am a student of ancient history.) The cassettes we had were home recorded, scratching and hissing like a disgruntled cat, but they were the latest in technology. And, of course, they were religious in nature. One particular tape I still remember with terror. Narrated by a optimistically doleful bass male voice, it recorded the events surrounding those climbing aboard a plane bound for heaven, along with authentic jet noises. It was, of course, a thinly disguised metaphor for death, something I realized even as a child. As the passengers climbed aboard, anticipating that meeting with Jesus, I trembled in fear. They were all about to die.

I have never been particularly afraid of death. Not that I’m in a hurry to go there, but I have always sensed it as inevitable and therefore not worth worrying over excessively. I was one of those who grew up thinking quite a lot about it, viewing it from different angles, trying to make sense of it. I still do. While I was in England, Time magazine ran a cover story on Heaven. Now that my feet are back on the ground, I have been reading the story with interest since I’ve just been spending several hours on a jet in the sky. One of the most surprising elements in the story is the fact that some evangelical preachers are beginning to inform their flocks that heaven is what we make it here on earth.

This may not sound shocking to you, but having grown up evangelical I knew that the only reason we behaved so well all the time was so that we could get into Heaven when we died. This was the economic basis of salvation—you paid for Heaven in good deeds and correct belief. Not that you exactly earned it, but you did invest in it. This was the defining characteristic of Christianity. The suffering that is so obvious in the world (I saw three homeless men curled up together inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal just this morning) can harsh anyone’s paradise. The traditional “Christian” response has been to look past that to a shimmering, if imaginary, kingdom in the clouds. I am very surprised that some evangelical pastors are willing to risk their entire campaigning platform in order to help those in need. It’s getting so that it is hard to tell which way is up any more. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend too long on a plane bound for a mythical destination.

Master Cat

Okay, so I’ll confess having gone to see Puss in Boots yesterday. The movie had been getting good reviews and I’ll admit to really liking the first Shrek movie. The second Shrek movie, with Puss’s debut, was not bad. After that something changed. Anyway, it looks to be an intense week ahead, and I needed a little mindless release. Often on this blog, I mention horror movies and how fear ties into the concept of religion. Since working at Routledge—a publisher noted for its many books on religion and film—I’ve taken a renewed interest in finding the religious imagery in many different genres of movies. This is something I regularly undertook as a religion major in college and beyond, but it is an area of renewed interest in my mature years. So it was off to the theater.

One aspect of Puss in Boots, however, proved a distraction to me. The character of Humpty Dumpty scrambled in my mind with the same off-color image of the egg man in Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy, a book I read this summer and blogged about earlier. In both stories, the egg was not what he seemed to be. A foodstuff with a decidedly darker side. In both stories, however, Humpty Dumpty was somehow vindicated, more a victim than a perpetrator of crime. It is not always easy to be a good egg. In Puss in Boots, however, this is where the religious imagery came in. The fractured fairytale storyline has Puss and Humpty (and Kitty Softpaws) growing a giant beanstalk and stealing the golden goose’s gosling. This is part of a twisted effort at revenge by Humpty; a kind of egg’s Benedict Arnold moment. Well, this is a children’s movie, so nobody is really bad. Humpty repents and sacrifices his own life to save the town. When he falls to his death, a golden egg is revealed inside. Mother Goose flies the golden Humpty up to the castle in the sky, disappearing in a blaze of heavenly sunlight. Life after death, the eternal reward. Heaven, Hollywood style.

Movies often serve as a source for and reflection of social values. Thus watchdog groups keep a close eye on what the silver screen reveals. Puss in Boots passes the test on highlighting the redemption theme. Although he is still a wanted criminal by the end, Puss (as well as Humpty) achieves redemption by making good on all the wrongs he committed against society. Almost sermonizing at points, the movie is another example of how mainstream media ends up on the side of traditional values. A deeper truth, however, may lurk beneath the celluloid. The true hero here is the Spanish Puss rather than the Angelo Humpty (and decidedly red-necked Jack and Jill). The religion it underwrites is, naturally, the civil religion expected by American audiences. Just maybe there is an awareness of social justice here as well.

The original

Expanding Universes

If you’re one of those people who has trouble finding your car keys, it looks like things are only going to get worse. We all knew the universe was expanding, but now that the smoke has cleared from this year’s Nobel Prizes (there was smoke, wasn’t there?) it is now common knowledge that instead of slowing down, the expansion is actually accelerating. Kind of makes you wonder who’s driving. Being somewhat of a science news junkie, I already knew of the increasing rate of expansion, but seeing it in the news again made me ponder the theological implications of it all (despite not being a theologian). Where do we locate Heaven in a rapidly expanding universe that is ripping itself apart? Why didn’t the prophets in the Bible see this coming? What is anybody doing about it?

Physicists have had to postulate a new culprit in this unexpected scenario. Dark energy must be driving the expansion and the universe most be mostly composed of dark matter. Besides apparently being the substance between the ears of Tea Partiers and certain public officials, nobody really knows what dark matter is. The darkness of the name here is to be understood as “unknown.” We can’t see it or sense it, but it can be weighed—at least on a universal scale. Not only are we not the center of God’s universe, we are vastly outnumbered by something that we can’t even see.

Of course, it will only be a matter of time before some religious specialist suggests that God is the dark matter or the dark energy of the universe. Classic god-of-the-gaps thinking. If we can’t explain it, it must be God. That God, however, suffers the embarrassing phenomenon of shrinkage. At one time that Gog (God-o’gaps) was in control of the weather, until NOAA came along. At one time that deity held the nucleus of atoms together, until the strong and weak nuclear forces were discovered. At one time that God knocked off the dinosaurs. Well, maybe the jury’s still out on that one. The danger of conflating God with science is the inevitable effacement of divinity. Our universe has proven unfriendly to deities. Depending on how medieval we’d like to get, we might suggest that dark matter must be all those angels dancing on the heads of pins. While you ponder that one, I’m going to look for my car keys while I still can.

There it goes...

Stephen Hawking’s Heaven

CNN’s Belief Blog, apparently open to contributions only by “successful” (i.e., university employed) religion scholars, nevertheless occasionally comes up with a thoughtful story. One of yesterday’s posts focuses on the fact that Stephen Hawking says Heaven is a “fairy story.” First of all, I have admit being surprised to see that Hawking is still in Cambridge—I could have sworn he was working in the Princeton public parking garage because it is his voice that comes out of the ticket machine. (Times being what they are for academics, I figured he might have needed a second job.) Ah, but appearances can be deceiving! I have had great respect for Stephen Hawking for many years. My own scientific interests must be relegated to a decidedly lay position among the collegiums of scientists, but Hawking writes books that people like me can (mostly) comprehend. Echoing an idea I stressed earlier—we came to the same conclusion independently—Hawking noted in a recent interview that Heaven is an idea devised to cope with fear.

Cosmologists, such as Hawking, speak with authority on the literal heavens. Ironically, the word “heavens” continues to retain its usefulness, even among scientists, for describing everything that is out there. Humans are assuredly small and our place in the universe is miniscule. In our heads, however, we conceive lofty ideas that seem to place our own consciousness outside the unlimited bounds of this universe. Is it any wonder that we can concoct gods? As deeply as they peer into the cold, dark recesses of outer space, astronomers and cosmologists find no room for Heaven. This cosmic inn, no matter how many aliens there may be, is largely empty.

What I find interesting is that journalists of religion find skepticism among scientists newsworthy. While being a rational thinker, as science demands, does not necessarily forego divine entities, using gods as explanations and having trans-dimensional heavens tucked away behind some far asteroid does somehow devalue the power and majesty of our eternal home. We expect our scientists to be skeptical—we wouldn’t often visit a doctor who sacrificed a goat on every office visit to consult its entrails concerning our health. And yet it is newsworthy when a scientist says in a forthright statement that Heaven does not exist. It would be like an evangelical preacher saying evolution never happened. The biggest miracle of all may be that whether it is Dr. Hawking’s doing or not, I actually manage to find parking in Princeton.

Billions and billions, but no angels with harps...

Probation in Hades

Yesterday I received an email in my Rutgers account with the title above. It was difficult to determine if the message was directed at me or was a piece of spam that had gracefully navigated around the powerful university filters. In either case, the sender had mapped out to an impressive degree the goings on in the afterlife. I am not qualified to comment on the correctness of the assertions, having never been to the Underworld myself, but I was hooked by the preference for the name Hades over Hell. This particularity took me back to revivalist sermons I heard as a youth when preachers, apparently fearing the swear-like quality to the word “Hell” – which the church gave us – deferred to the use of “Hades.”

As I have described in one of my podcasts, Hell is a Christian construct derived from Judaism’s confrontation with Zoroastrianism. The idea is distinctly Christian in its formulation: Hell is the afterlife for those who side with Satan and his angels and therefore are blocked from Heaven (also based on Zoroastrianism). Nobody wishes to go there, but those who choose the powers of darkness will be sentenced to an eternity of burning and torment for their choice. The idea is so odious that eventually its very name came to stand for a curse-word in many Christian contexts. In the pietism of the Evangelical tradition, the word itself is to be avoided. Thus I heard sermons warning of the somehow softer sounding Hades.

Hades is not Hell. I tell my mythology students that the classical Greek conception of the afterlife is not necessarily a punishment. It may be for some notorious sinners, but generally it is the fate of all the dead, like Sheol in the Bible. The choice of Hades as a stand-in for Hell is not in keeping with standard Christian teaching. Hell is Hell. Hades is somewhere else. Both lie underground, but they inhabit completely divergent conceptual worlds. I wish to thank my sender for this carefully crafted Underworldly roadmap, but in the interest of full disclosure, I must insist that a Hell be called a Hell. Hades is best left to Pluto and his retainers, so Satan needs a realm of his own.

Hades, slightly influenced by ideas of Hell