The Gospel of John (Lennon)

Yesterday John Lennon’s Imagine popped into my life twice. Twice in one day…

  1. While driving home from mass, suddenly I was singing it. Which was a little odd, since I don’t typically sing John Lennon songs, and I don’t recall having heard it lately. But there it was, rolling off my tongue: “No hell below us… above us only sky…” I thought about how bizarre it was when about five or six years ago or so I attended a funeral at a Presbyterian Church of a former boss of mine, and a soloist sang this song, since it was Rich’s favorite song. Right in the middle of a church, a song about imagining a world without religion. What an unusual moment that was.
  2. Later in the evening last night, I made a connection through Facebook with an old high school buddy. I visited his profile, and he described his religious views as “Imagine there’s no heaven.” As Neo would say, “Whoa!”

What a weirdness, to have that song show up twice within a span of a few hours. Especially for me, since while I love the song, I also am clearly a religious person; I love being a person of faith. In fact, maybe I love this particular song because I am a person of faith. Let me explain.

The more I think about it, the more I think Imagine is not at all inimical to faith — at least not to authentic faith. Perhaps it’s an attack on superstition and fundamentalism, on the kind of childish cosmology that really does posit a heaven “up there” and a hell “down below.” But I pray every day that I might be delivered from such a superstitious religiosity (so no wonder John Lennon was no fan of it, either).

But as a person whose faith is (hopefully) somewhat transgressive of the narrow boundaries erected by superstition and fundamentalism, I actually think John Lennon’s sentiments can support a truly mystical spirituality. As readers of this blog know, one of my favorite quotes comes from Meister Eckhart: “Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep the truth and let God go.” Lennon’s subversive song about no heaven, no hell and no religion isn’t about God turning from the truth so much as it is about how we human mortals have turned from the truth. Listen to the song carefully: Lennon never asks us to imagine a world without God, or Christ, or love, or truth. Regarding spirituality, he only asks us to imagine no heaven, hell, or religion (he also goes on to suggest we imagine no countries, no possessions, “nothing to kill or die for”). Wow. What would it be like to love Christ and live a mystical life without heaven, hell, or religion?

I was brought up in a middle-class setting where going to church is all about how hot the thermostat will be set in your personal cubicle in the afterlife. Right out of the box, this creates several problems:

  1. It sets up a religious mindset organized around pleasing God rather than grounded in responding to his love. Rather than the prodigally loving creator who continually pours life and blessings into us, God becomes the heavenly watchdog, making his list and checking it twice to determine if each one of us makes the grade or not. It doesn’t matter whether “making the grade” involves being born again, being justified by faith, confessing our mortal sins, or whatever. Every religious framework built around heaven and hell has some sort of distinction between “heaven behavior” and “hell behavior,” with always a hint of existential fear that you just might make the wrong choice and suffer the consequences — forever;
  2. Since it’s based on the idea that there will be eternal winners and losers, it reinforces a “membership” consciousness in which the human race consists of insiders and outsiders (implying, among other things, that it’s okay to treat people differently based on where they fall). This reinforces a tendency to treat others judgmentally, since we’re always evaluating if you’re one of “us” or one of “them;”
  3. This perspective devalues the world we live in (both in terms of the environment, and other people) because the real action happens after we die. Anything on this side of death has value (or not) only insofar as it aids (or hinders) our efforts to get to heaven. This panders to the most basic strata of self-interest, subtly encouraging us to love the “sheep” and ignore, or resent if not hate the “goats” in our life.

In other words, maybe John Lennon was on to something. Maybe the unholy trinity of heaven, hell and religion actually could represent a subtle departure from the truth. Which means that to really and truly love God, perhaps we just might be called to let them go.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the father but through me.” Notice he didn’t say that belief in heaven or hell (or membership in the right religion) is a requirement. Granted, he’s not saying you shouldn’t believe in heaven or hell or that it’s wrong to be a member of a religion… He just challenges his followers to organize their spiritual lives around him, not around an institution or a set of dogmatic mental concepts.

In an important mystical treatise from the middle ages, Theologia Germanica, the anonymous author suggess that those who make progress in the mystical life will become less and less concerned about heaven and hell. I think the point the author was trying to make is that as we move deeper into loving God in response to God’s love, we just stop worrying about our reservations in eternity. We’re so deeply in love right here and right now that we just think about the future in terms of a deep and abiding trust.

I think John Lennon invites contemplatives to take this a step further: as we move more and more deeply into the love of God, not only will we stop worrying about our own eternal destiny, but perhaps we’ll be called to let go of worrying about heaven and hell for anyone else as well. This doesn’t mean we let go of a commitment to salvation. But perhaps we begin to think of salvation in terms of the original Greek word — soterion — which is not just about salvation in a “keep your soul out of hell” sense but also implies health and wholeness. When we Christians serve as ambassadors of Christ’s salvation to the world, doesn’t this simply mean we do all we can, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, to bring health and wholeness to all who need it?

Maybe when we let go of such metaphysical notions as heaven and hell, we can begin to open ourselves up to the idea that the kingdom of heaven is within/among us (Luke 17:21) — and be agents of soterion here and now, creating wild love and amazing healing in the present moment. The more I think about this, the more I think that John Lennon was right.

And that Imagine is, from a mystical point of view, a profoundly Christian song.

I had just finished writing this post and was ready to publish it when I remembered that tomorrow — December 8 — marks the 27th anniversary of Lennon’s death, felled at the hand of a confused and disturbed young man who thought Imagine was blasphemous. There’s a morality tale in there somewhere. I’ll leave it to my readers to consider what that might be.

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  • phil foster

    I heard “Imagine” on the radio while working out yesterday morning.

    Lennon’s call has always reflected the Cloud of Unknowing for me. The continual surrender (even of our religion and metaphysical concepts) to the Unfathomable, Infinite Love of God. I don’t think that was Lennon,s intent or orientation, but clearly he is seeking an heart based understanding of life beyond categories. The best example I know is that of Jesus – his relationship to his religion, his minimal concern for metaphysics, etc.

    “Imagine” also reminds me of a song by Lou Reed, “Bus Load of Faith:”

    You can’t depend on your family
    You can’t depend on your friends
    You can’t depend on a beginning
    You can’t depend on an end
    You can’t depend on intelligence
    You can’t depend on a god
    You can only depend on one thing
    You need a Busload of Faith to get by…

  • Darrell Grizzle

    Once when I was a student at a very conservative Presbyterian college (I only lasted there a year), I was in the restroom behind the chapel. It was a weekend and I thought the building was empty, and for some reason I started singing “Imagine” rather loudly. When I came out, I was face to face with the president of the university, who was standing in the hallway, looking at me with a decidedly worried look on his face. I respectfully said Hello and kept walking.

    I have long imagined “Imagine” as a beautiful depiction of the Kingdom of God, what Dr. Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. I love your exegesis of the song, Carl. Many thanks.

  • Jon

    I definitely agree with you about Imagine. I really got a kick out of hearing my teacher –who’s a Protestant minister, among other things–sing it once at a karaoke bar.

    I made a series of five posts on Imagine in 2006, starting with this

  • Baba

    Well said.

  • Mark

    What a wonderful world this would be free of organised religion and dogma. I don’t think this song by Mr Lennon can be viewed in any way as Christian. Or should I put it another way, that it is as much about Christianity as it is about Scientology or any other ‘ity or ‘ology.

  • Carl McColman

    See, I think in many ways Jesus would have agreed with John Lennon in his desire for a world where brotherly (and sisterly) love comes before religion. That’s the sense in which I think this is a profoundly Christian song.