I saw a bumpersticker once that said, simply enough, “Live the Life you Love.” This reminds me of the quotation attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” One of my working definitions of mysticism is “the art of living in heaven here and now.” Bolstered by Biblical passages like Luke 17:21 and Romans 8:35-39, I believe that Christian mysticism is all about going to heaven before we die.
Growing up as a nice liberal protestant Lutheran in the 1970s, I was taught that “hell” is “a state of separation from God,” which of course is what you get when you strip all the mythology away from hell. But Psalm 139:8 pretty much blows that one out of the water. “If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there,” as the King James Version so succinctly puts it. Other translations more squeamishly render this verse as talking about “Sheol” or even “the depths,” but I don’t see how we can avoid this fundamental syllogism:
A. God is everywhere
B. Hell (aka Sheol, or “the depths”) is somewhere
C. Therefore, God is present in hell
Hell is not the absence of God. Hell is experiencing the fires of God’s love as judgment. This, clearly, begins right here on earth. And it seems to me that there are only two responses to this experience. We can either do everything we can to make ourselves worthy of God’s esteem, i.e. we can try to earn God’s love… or we can humbly acknowledge that we can’t do it ourselves, and we can open ourselves up to simply receive the love, forgiveness, and grace which we cannot control and cannot earn.
Frankly, I believe the first option — trying to earn or engineer God’s love — just pushes us deeper into hell. I have yet to meet the person who, at least by midlife if not much sooner, hasn’t made an unmitigated disaster of their life, whether through addiction, self-involvement, environmental wastefulness, consumerism, sexual objectification, unconscious or willing participation in the unjust systems of our economy, violence, cruelty, self-hatred, obsession, spiritual pride, just plain normal pride, or cynicism and despair. And yes, many people’s problems are not necessarily entirely of their own making, but while such an observation might be an analgesic to alleviate feelings of guilt and/or foster feelings of self-righteous victimization, it hardly does much to actually transform suffering into healing.
So if our lives are disasters, what do we do about them? It seems to me that many people try to assert control over their sense of spiritual chaos by focusing on one manageable aspect of ethical living or morality. A widely-held caricature of conservative Christians holds that they obsess over sexual morality while ignoring questions of economic or environmental justice. But it seems to me that there is a similar one-dimensionality to folks who are crusading against war, or against white or male privilege, or against [insert your favorite sin here] and who seem to meanwhile just let all the other problems and injustices of life, whether individual or social, just kind of float on by. If we fight our favorite sin (both within ourselves and by crusading against it in society at large), are we then justified before God? I really don’t think so. And that’s because I’ve yet to meet a moral or ethical crusader who seems to be living joyously in heaven-here-and-now. I know that when I’ve gotten onto the crusader carousel, I wind up in the funhouse of judgment and condemnation. It’s hard to forgive those who perpetrate the one sin I’ve sworn to fight with all my heart.
So when we focus too hard on trying to earn our way into heaven, we end up playing God, which is hardly a heavenly place to be. Back to living the life you love, and being the change you want to see in the world: if, by contrast, we can actually, radically, unconditionally, joyously, faithfully, trustingly, simply, peacefully, just accept God’s love and grace and forgiveness, then all the beatific splendor of heaven is ours, right here and right now.
Then, of course, we chop wood and carry water. Living in heaven here and now doesn’t mean we forget about such things as fighting injustice or letting go of our addictions and compulsions. If anything, the urge to do such things only intensifies. But it is an urge borne of love, not fear. It is a joyous repentance. Instead of crusaders fighting the hell within us, we become ambassadors sharing the love the overflows through us and around us. Which kind of reminds me of another famous bumpersticker: “Make Love, Not War.”