Friday, May 28, 2010

Two Types of Faith: 1, Tears in Heaven

A Facebook friend from my high school days posted this as her status today:
God saw you getting tired and a cure was not to be
So He put His arms around you and and whispered "come to me"
With tearful eyes I watched you, and saw you pass away
Although I loved you dearly I could not make you stay
A golden heart stopped beating, hard working hands at rest
God broke my heart to prove to me He only takes the BEST
(Repost if you have a loved one in Heaven)

This makes painful reading, and I'm not denying her loss, or telling her that she should feel differently. I just want to try to sort out why I find this kind of talk so disturbing.

Begin with "He only takes the BEST." It's obviously false. Everybody dies. People are dying all the time, all around us. I understand that grief makes it very hard to pay attention to matters outside our own painful circle, but for me the best remedy for grief is to remember that it makes me part of the human community, to look outward instead of only inward. But if Yahweh takes only the best, whoever they are, then the worst would never die. The spiritually advanced die, the corrupt die. Which makes me wonder why people say such palpably ridiculous things, and why they find them comforting.

Second, this verse isn't very flattering to Yahweh. even leaving aside the notion that "a cure was not to be", not even for an omnipotent deity who could heal the sick and raise the dead. In Greek myth, Crete imposed a tribute on Athens, requiring the best, the most beautiful, most graceful of its youth to be sent to die in the labyrinth in the jaws of the Minotaur. The Minotaur also "took the best," but no one would see this as a sign of his great goodness.

War also takes the best. It's a pious cliche to say so. Countries select only the healthy and strong young people to go to kill, die, and be maimed. People are more ambivalent about war than about their gods, but they romanticize the brave youths who die so gloriously. This may be partly a symptom of guilt, and one situation where the traditional fear of the dead could be halfway rational. Why not flatter the young people whose lives you've squandered? If there were some kind of afterlife and the dead are watching us, it might well be prudent to praise them, to appease their resentment.

I'm not the first to notice that people who believe in life after death are often more afraid of it than those who don't. It does seem odd that people who claim to believe that we are really immortal should be so reluctant to go home to their god -- but they are. Sappho, who wrote that we know death is evil, because if it weren't the gods would also die, hit the nail on the head. Christians may protest that their god did die (though he wasn't the only one), but he cheated and came back to life. Whatever meaning the Jesus myth may have, it isn't that death is a good thing -- one orthodox interpretation is that Jesus conquered Death, after all.

"If you have a loved one in Heaven..." What about our loved ones in Hell? It isn't polite to say so, but everyone must have such people, including the most devout Christians, though they don't like to think about it. Even the very devout will, if pressed, admit that it impinges on their god's sovereignty for them to say who will or won't go to Heaven; they usually say brightly that they are just expressing a lively faith in their god's mercy. From what I've seen, Yahweh's mercy and a token will get you on the subway, but that's beside the point. These people don't know their loved ones' eternal destination; they are whistling in the dark.

I understand the wish for a world without suffering, because I wish it too. I understand why people invented the fantasy of a place where there will be no tears, though I also think that for human beings, tears are a good thing. Which reminds me that what believers want is to shed their humanity, as they show too often in the life we have. The same friend who posted this status, for example, complained soon after the Haitian earthquake that "we" should be taking care of "our own" instead of fussing about the Haitians, though she wanted some kind of national health care system, she was also adamant that she didn't want it to take care of illegal immigrants. The sheer hatefulness of such people, which violates crucial teachings of their own god, never ceases to fascinate me.