Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Is This What It's All Come To?

I know a man now in his eighties. He has led a successful and fulfilled life. He rose high in his profession and was widely respected by his peers. He had a happy marriage with several children and now has numerous grandchildren who love him and whom he loves. His life has not been without suffering but, on the whole, it has been a good one. And he's a good and honourable man. But he has no religious belief at all. As far as he is concerned, it's all childish nonsense, wish fulfilment and make-believe.

Now he is wracked with pain from various ailments to do with old age. Worse, his wife may be dying and he won't be far behind. He is frightened. 

He reminds me of my own father who was always a proud (in a good way), independent, self-reliant sort of person but who was brought low by a stroke and became a shadow of himself. He had a vague religious belief but had left it to one side for most of his life, seeing it as something that wasn't really that important compared to the actual reality of life here and now. It wasn't strong enough to sustain him when it came down to the wire. Both these people come to the end, the point to which all lives inevitably tend, and suddenly are faced with the bitter (to them) truth. This is it. There is no more. All pleasures have faded and disappeared, past joys and happiness really are past. They are dust and ashes. There is nothing left but pain, suffering and then darkness. Non-existence. There was never any meaning in anything.

This is a truly pitiful state to be in. It leaves the person in it with few options.  Some might think there is a kind of bleak heroism in defiance, in saying I have lived my life and have no regrets. Death, do your worst! Perhaps there is but I think this is really just bravado. It achieves nothing. And it is prideful. Most people are not able to be like this anyway. They, like the person I describe above, become frightened. The reality of life and death, hitherto not fully thought about, becomes apparent and they risk being overwhelmed and dying in a state of hopelessness though I believe that at the end people are often aided by a feeling of acceptance. God is merciful.

The other option is repentance. Some might say it is cowardly to turn to God when you are dying. I would say it is sensible. You can put all your intellectualising aside and just become what you always have been really which is a naked child. Become a naked child and turn to God and you will not be left comfortless. Choose light rather than darkness.


Unknown said...

"I would say it is sensible. You can put all your intellectualising aside and just become what you always have been really which is a naked child."

Very good. This is true religion.

Just accepting our powerlessness and dependence on God. That's all it takes.

Bruce Charlton said...

Jesus made it as easy as possible for us to attain salvation at the point of death (CS Lewis is very good about this in the later Screwtape Letters, when Screwtape complains about the odds being stacked against the demons).

I suspect that God ensures that everyone has at least a moment of clarity before death - but a lifetime of wrong metaphysics, and a rooted desire for annihilation of the self may well make it unlikely that salvation will be chosen. And, in the end, Heaven is probably not for everyone, and there are probably some (I don't know how many) for whom there never was much chance of them choosing to join the Family of God in the work of creation...

For those in expectation of life to come beyond the next few minutes/ hours/ days, more is needed (we both agree) than 'merely' the offer of salvation, since we cannot help but look beyond the bare decision and ask 'what then?'.

William Wildblood said...

It seems that wilful pride may be the thing that stops people from opening their heart to God. I have the feeling that this is getting worse and more widespread today as more people become more intellectually orientated and more self-centred (as opposed to just being selfish).

Unknown said...

It's definitely willfull pride.

People want to feel like they can save themselves, they don't need God to save them. They can't bring themselves to be humble like that.

Many people cannot have simple faith, but are far too intellectually orientated. They place their faith in their own powers to work out an elaborate metaphysics instead.

Anything less than simple surrender to God, any belief that we can save ourselves by our own efforts, is essentially "modern" - the root of the modern calamity that is unfolding.

But many of is in our pride have lost thus ability.

Eventually, all of humanity will be saved in one way or another. It may take time, but God is all compassionate and merciful.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Nihilism, pursued to its logical conclusion, leads to a sort of "theism." If nothing at all matters, then it doesn't matter if you have delusional beliefs. Therefore, go ahead and assume God exists. I mean, why not? If you happen to be right, great. If not, it doesn't matter. It's a sensible assumption to make, and I have made it. However, I just can't escape the feeling that it's not the same thing as real theism, the kind that is based on hope rather than despair, on actual conviction rather than why-not-assume.

William Wildblood said...

That's Pascal's wager isn't it, Wm Jas? But it's not the same thing. That kind of belief is like a photographic negative. Eventually it will have to become animated by love. But at least it is giving oneself the potential for that to happen and so much better than non-belief.

Unknown, you're a Universalist then. I'm not so sure about that. Some souls will never give up their pride because they have become so identified with it. At least, that's what I think. I may well be wrong. But universalism is not implied by Jesus in the Gospels as far as I know.

Unknown said...

Excellent point, Wm.

That's also true if you look very deeply into how we know anything - you begin to discover that we can't really know anything for certain, and our only guide is experience, and that opens you up to faith of some kind.

Nietzsche also said that one must first taste the worst of nihilism before one can become optimistic about life.

And my belief is that one must first exhaust every last avenue if self help, as the modern world is doing, before turning to God.

All these are interesting examples of the paradoxical nature if reality.

Unknown said...

William, perhaps I am.

I feel that recalcitrant souls will just delay their ultimate salvation, it may take them much more time. Did Jesus specifically address this issue?

The idea that some souls will never do so, but we in our superiority have just made the right choice, seems to me a serious temptation to spiritual pride.

William Wildblood said...

By that token the idea that we are saved at all may lead to pride! I do take your point but the fact that something, wrongly reacted to , may lead to pride, doesn't mean that it's not true. After all, it is the fact that we have a self that leads to egotism but that doesn't mean that having a self is a bad thing.

Unknown said...

Ok, fair enough - but thinking we are all saved does not lead to the kind of pride where one person thinks he's better than another. We're all in the same boat ultimately. However, it doesn't entirely eliminate that either, because those who accept God now are obviously in a better position now, even if ultimately all can rejoice in God.

I just feel intuitively that the main reason people like to emphasize ultimate salvation for some is so they can feel superior to others. And I feel a truly compassionate God will eventually save all his creatures.

But I agree that just because people nay react poorly to things does not mean we should discard it altogether.

The truth, I cannot really claim to "know" here - just follow my intuitions.

Faculty X said...

Jesus sayings on supposedly recalcitrant souls are in the Parable of the Sower. In bringing the word some will have the knowledge snatched away by Satan so for some there is no individual choice at all, which is a modern universalist notion, as if all people are the same.

There are powers and principalities that are more powerful than a person and they will interfere, as Jesus says:

"The sower sows the word. And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them"

Mark 4:15

Unknown said...

I think problems start when you begin over thinking things. It just builds the ego and you end up in endless debates.

What we need is to recover the simple faith of our forefathers - its an unintellectual thing. Its exceedingly simple.

We know that if we accept God now we are saved now. Speculating about whether those who don't accept God now will suffer eternal damnation or eventually be saved also, is not significant.

Out of our own joy at being saved by God, we are likely to intuit an all compassionate God who leaves no one behind. But it does not matter so much that we take any view on the matter.

Keep it simple, no need to elaborately intellectualize, and no need to pretend to certainty about things you cannot know.

We need to get past the modern - bringing modern wats of thinking to religion will just kill it.

Unknown said...

To add to the above, if anyone still feels a great inner need to elaborately intellectualize then they should do so.

It is only after you try everything and fail that you can find peace in God. If you are not there, and still need to try and save your self through over thinking, you still have your path to travel.

Unknown said...

I think this is where the modern world is - it is still trying every last crazy thing. It now thinks denying gender will save humanity lol.

But eventually the modern world will have tried everything. Probably crazier things than we are even seeing now.

Only then will we be able to find peace in God, and return to the simple faith of our forefathers. Already our great mental models are failing us, and science is ceasing to progress. And people abandon what doesn't work.

Faith will be possible again, as the path of intellect did not save us, as we thought it would.

The greatest intellect of Western Christendom, Thomas Acquinas, discovered at the end of his caterer that his intellectual exertions were futile, and put down the pen for good.

edwin faust said...

The difficulty with universal salvation is that it makes free will an illusion. Ultimately, we have no choice; it is God's will that binds us, not our own, and God's will is that all should be saved, no matter what. It is a variation on Calvinism, i.e. determinism, except in this instance I enjoy a limited time in which I imagine I am making decisions with real consequences.The idea of salvation has to be more clearly thought out: what precisely does it mean? What is saved? And how? If we have no choice but to be united to God in the end, what purpose is served by the creation and why even talk about salvation, which presupposes the possibility of being lost.Christ clearly expresses a sense of urgency about our salvation and warns that many will perish: "Strait is the way and narrow the gate, etc." Universalism, I believe, has something to do with sentiments about democracy and equality, which do not hold true in the spiritual world.

Unknown said...

Edwin -

The Jewish idea is that bad people go to hell, where their souls are purified, and eventually they him God in heaven. Hell isn't punishment.

The Buddhist idea is that we are given endless chances to make it, until we do, with the help of various Buddhas.

From your perspective, what is the point of Jesus dying for our sins? Doesn't that render human free will irrelevant on a massive scale?

Your perspective is the quintessence of modernity - by our own efforts, by our own willpower, we shall enter heaven. All true religion tells us that we cannot gain heaven through our own will power, but must depend on God.

That was the good news of Jesus - that we are saved, that we don't "earn" heaven by following extremely difficult laws that no human can fulfill.

We have to acknowledge dependence and accept God's gift - but we prefer to feel that we earned it, through our own efforts.

Until we get last that attitude, we are just moderns, and lost.

William Wildblood said...

Jesus dying for our sins wouldn't render free will irrelevant if we still have to accept that he has done that to benefit from it.

I believe in reincarnation so I don't think it's all decided in one life. The soul has the opportunity to grow. On the other hand, mercy can't completely override justice. The demands of justice can't be ignored even if they can be tempered.

It may be that the fires of hell (metaphorically speaking) exist to burn out the recalcitrant ego and are not eternal.

And then again, there is salvation but there is also theosis or sanctification. Although we can't achieve either of these through our own efforts nor can we achieve either without making efforts. That's the apparent spiritual paradox.

Unknown said...

William -

Yes, eventually one way or another we are going to have to do our part, to take that step and accept God's gift, surrender our pride and accept our dependence on him like children.

That cannot be done for us. But I think God will give us endless chances through reincarnation, or provide us with opportunities to purify ourselves in the afterlife, until we all make it.

I think this is the promise of Jesus having died for our sins. What else could it mean?

Before that, salvation depended on following the Law - our own efforts. But God saw that didn't work. Instead of abandoning us, he made a new program
- where he promised to help us no matter what.

Its easy to condemn modern people - but even the best of us believe every now and then that we can save ourselves, with or without God.

The experience of life is to show us this is impossible - we all depend on Him.

So I am not inclined to condemn these poor moderns who don't yet understand as evil and destined for eternal damnation, whereas I in my wonderfulness have seen the light.

I may be better situated than them now, but we were all without exception saved by Jesus death.

edwin said...

Without experiential knowledge of life after death, we are restricted either to speculation or accepting statements of others as authoritative based on the trust we allow to them. Christ talks about souls perishing, not souls being punished forever. It would seem we have, through Christ, been offered a possibility of a new kind of life, but we can reject it. Such rejection does not make Christ's death on the cross irrelevant. And Christ's death need not be regarded as the paying of some debt owed to an exacting God. This view is what George MacDonald decried as a legal fiction. All that we possess is given to us from others, including those who exist in worlds beyond our own earthly one. All that I can claim as my own is my will, which is also, in its origin, a gift, albeit one that is ceded to me to use according to my desire. The exercise of my will does not render Christ irrelevant. On the contrary, it is only with reference to Christ that my will becomes truly consequential. The creative Word is in me, and I have the power to create in my own way through my word, through what I choose to bring about. If I choose in this life, or in several lives, to satisfy my lower nature and ignore the possibility of a life in Christ, then it seems reasonable that there should be consequences for such decisions, not merely an endless series of do-overs that render my decisions only provisional and ineffectual.

William Wildblood said...

I think the distinction edwin makes between a soul perishing and a soul being punished is an important one. Souls are not punished by a vengeful God. They bring their own fate upon themselves by their own wrong thoughts and actions. That can be a teaching experience. But I do believe that the persistently sinning soul can perish; that is lose its individual consciousness and have its being returned to God whence it originally arose but without sanctification

Unknown said...

Thanks for the explanation Edwin and William.

Your positions are reasonable.

For myself, I believe God created me, with my sinful inclinations - and all of us. The idea that any of us "won't make it" seems wrong to me. And the idea that any of us are really "good enough" to have "earned" heaven also seems wrong to me :)

I think the concept of Grace - which is unearned - covers this.

However, that is just my feeling.

The important thing is, entrust yourself to God, do your best, and be confident you are saved. This is what it means to rest in God.

JMSmith said...

My wife attended a semi-secular funeral the other day, and was deeply disturbed by its grimness. As with the old man you describe, the overwhelming impression was, "it comes to this?" The deceased was by all accounts a sweet lady, but "nobody special, and her semi-secular funeral resembled one of those grim retirement parties that are given for ordinary employees. Coffee and cake in the break room; turnout lower than hoped for; attendees trying without success to recall some humorous or heart-warming memory from the retiree's thirty years of service. People feel there is a need to do something, but have a very confused idea what that something is because they do not know (or cannot bear thinking about) what the event means.

My parents live in Florida, where retirees are, of course, very thick on the ground. Everywhere you look there is an old guy with a "what happened" expression on his face. As I am well on my way to becoming an old guy, I imagine that I know what is going through their heads. "Once I was full of life, and dreams, and the assurance that I was 'going places.' Now I am tired, hopeless, and find the place I was going was nowhere at all."

There is, of course, a lesson in all of this. The world is a cheat and human life is mostly vanity. But learning this lesson does not entail liking this lesson.

One last thing I've noticed is that secularists try to redeem old age and death with "memories." A religious imagination redeems old age and death with "hope." Perhaps my years of happy retrospection are ahead of me, but I have so far found the promise of memories pretty hollow. Don't get me wrong, I have many good, happy and sweet memories, but they are not nearly so meaningful or consoling as I was led to think they would be. I have yet to read all those old letters I saved, or those old diaries; and I seldom pull out (or up) old photographs.

One reason for this is that every prospect is not pleasing when one takes a trip down memory lane. Even without truly traumatic memories, the whole picture is darkened by regret, remorse, and repentance. A secular "memorial service" falsifies this true and shadowed memory by reducing it to recollections of humorous or sentimental anecdotes from the life of the "dearly departed." I suppose we all anticipate our ultimate (grim) memorial service when we scavenge our past for funny, sentimental or harrowing stories.

I just came back from a short trip with my oldest son. We were waiting in line to enter a state park when I was accosted by a a fellow my age who appeared to be drunk, and who regaled me with what he took to be a humorous story from the days when he was a hippy. He was just picking over old bones, so far as I could see.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, to have to rely on memories shows a sort of despair. It's all gone now so I may as well look back to a time when there was some sense of optimism. I would much rather look forward in hope. Hope is not a naive thing, a hoping for the best or refusal to face reality. It shows a sense of trust in a higher power. In some respects, it even shows humility. There is something better than me. I'm not all there is.

I can see why hope is regarded as a virtue. Apart from saying 'yes' to the universe (that's a kind of secular version), it is opening oneself up to the reality of God and therefore allowing him to give you something of himself. Large or small depending on one's capacity to receive but at least the door is open and not barred shut as it unfortunately is with the man I mention in the post.

Hope will be tested but only, no doubt, to make sure that it's the right sort