The Personalist Project

There'll be no more gentiles, there'll be no more Jews, / And we'll all sit together in the same kind of pews.

                 --Bluegrass song from my early childhood, which was nothing if not eclectic

...Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.

                 --I Corinthians 2:9

There are only a few activities in life that are purely, solely, and inevitably about God and God only, and those are the activities many Christians enjoy least of all. 

                  --Matt Walsh

"You might not want to go to Heaven" is the title of blogger Matt Walsh's latest post. Let's start with what he gets right, which, credit where credit's due, is a lot.

  • Heaven is not "some kind of trinket" you win for playing the game. It's not a trophy for good behavior. You can't earn Heaven
  • Heaven is not the automatic consequence of "believing in Jesus." As Matt recalls "even the demons believe." Intellectual assent to the proposition "There is a God" won't get you there.

But then things get murkier. The more I read about what it means to desire Heaven, and how to "condition ourselves" into becoming the kind of person who does so, the more vexed I am by an inchoate dissatisfaction--a sense that this piece, though it seeks precisely to strip away the nonessentials, misses that whole point. 

Tell me if you think so too.

Here's what Matt says:

Heaven is...for those who truly wish to do nothing but love and serve Him for all eternity....We only want to go to Heaven if we want a life that is completely consumed by Christ and nothing else [emphasis added].

Here's where it starts to get interesting. God encompasses all goods--not as in pantheism, where He's dispersed throughout nature without transcending it--but in the sense that all creation is permeated by His goodness. Whatever exactly the promised "new heavens and new earth" means, it hints at the redemption and transformation of all earthly goods, not their annihilation. 

Take horses, for example. I remember eagerly asking my mother, as a horse-obsessed little Protestant child, "Will there be horses in Heaven?" She answered, "Well, you won't care about horses anymore, because you'll be with God."

I was crushed. When I reminded her about that conversation a few years ago she was horrified and very apologetic. She was a new convert at the time and had meant to teach me something true--that the charm of horses was nothing compared to the glory of God--but ended up leaving me thinking of Heaven as a stripped-down kind of place, carefully emptied of everything but the "religious stuff." (The song about sitting together "in the same kind of pews" hinted at the same fate: Sit in pews for all eternity? And like it? Was that what being "spiritual" was all about?)

I think what troubles me about Matt's piece is that he sets up the same kind of dichotomy: "the kinds of things you enjoy now" vs. "spiritual things." Here's what he says:

Many of us think we desire Heaven because we imagine it as a place of self-centered pleasure. We believe that the happiness of Heaven is much like the happiness we find on Earth. So, if we enjoy eating good food, watching movies, playing sports, whatever, we fantasize that Heaven will be like some sort of resort where we can eat all the cheesecake we want and have access to an infinite Netflix library.... And if this is the only kind of happiness we desire--a selfish, indulgent kind of happiness--then we clearly do not desire the happiness of Heaven.

He juxtaposes this "selfish happiness" with his preschool daughter's answer when he asked what she imagined she'd be doing in Heaven. "Hugging Jesus," she replied--an answer "far more profound, far more beautiful, and far, far more accurate than what you normally hear from adults" because we "love the pleasures of the world too much."

He's right, of course. So is his daughter. Heaven is about union with a Person; it's not an everlasting Netflix 'n chill binge. And yet...

What seems to be missing is the way God is present to us in our pleasures as well as in our duties and our sufferings. He's even present in our fun, if we let Him in. Pleasure and fun can be fatal distractions from the eternal welfare of our souls, but then again, they were created by God Himself--not only as temptations, but just because He loves us. It's revealing that Matt chose Netflix and cheesecake rather than, say, being immersed in a good book, or reunited with a beloved friend--because they fit the point so neatly. On the one hand, selfish indulgence; on the other, the Alpha and the Omega. A no-brainer.

But pleasures are not just for those who want to avoid God. "The world is charged with the grandeur of God" and cannot be written off as His rival. There's more to the world than worldliness, and many pleasures are more noble than sinking into a cheesecake-fueled Netflix coma.

I'm not trying to cheat here! Matt's right: you really do have to choose between God and all else--between His will and yours--between pleasure and duty. But in the end He transforms it and gives it all back. 

Here I can't resist a quick account of Fr. Bouna Antonio, a Lebanese priest who heard God's call to enter the monastery but balked because he enjoyed raising chickens so much. He finally resolved to give up his chickens for love of God. When he stood at the monastery gate and announced his wish to enter, he was met by a man who welcomed him heartily and then announced, unprompted, "I'm putting you in charge of the chickens," Father ended up with a larger and more splendid flock of chickens than he'd ever had before.

I'm not saying it always works out so neatly! We really are called to give up everything, with no guarantees of obvious earthly reimbursement.  But Fr. Antonio's story is a better illustration of what God is like, what the whole "economy of salvation" is like, than a simple either-or predicament.

C. S. Lewis makes a point similar to Matt's about desire for Heaven: What sense does it make, he asks, to think that people who had no taste for spiritual things on earth desire Heaven, or would even enjoy it if they got there? In the end

There are two kinds of people: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "All right, then, have it your way."

Maybe that's what Matt had in mind when he wrote his conclusion. God will ask each of us what we want, and:

I fear that a great many of us will have no choice but to look back at Him and say, "Myself, Lord. Only myself." Yet I pray, and I have hope, that you and I will be able to answer, with gratitude and joy, "You, Lord. Only you." And no matter what answer we give, God's response will be the same: "So be it."

It's true: we have to make a real decision, with real consequences. But in Lewis' imaginative representations of Heaven, it's always "further up and further in!"--the beginning of the real adventure. It's not that God (or Aslan, or Maleldil) has stripped away all the "selfish" and "secular" stuff: Instead, He transfigures it in glorious and unimaginable ways. For Matt, it's a matter of developing a taste for worshipping and serving God--but what's oddly missing is the one thing you'd need to develop such a taste: knowing and loving Him as a person--and not as a means to the end of developing a taste for "religion" Does that make sense? As the old Baltimore Catechism has it, the knowing and the loving lead to the serving, and then it all leads to the everlasting happiness.

Matt quotes Cardinal Newman, who he says remarks that

we cannot expect to find happiness in Heaven if we detest going to church, praying, and reading the Bible. If we find religion to be a crashing bore, and are stimulated only by what is selfish and secular, how do we think we'll fare in a place where the only things we really love are obliterated, and the one thing we always avoid must now be the center of our existence forever?

The quibble I have is this: A person might very well find church a crashing bore if the church is aesthetically wanting and intellectually superficial. A person might take no pleasure in the Bible if he's reading a bad translation with no real guidance. A person might be bored during prayer for lots of reasons, including a misguided idea of what exactly he's supposed to be doing, saying, and expecting from it. That person might be just as horrified by the idea of doing "religious things" everlastingly as I was about "sitting in the same kinds of pews" and no longer caring about my beloved horses.

But it doesn't mean he's choosing Hell; it could mean he's as clueless about the nature of the real thing as I was. This is not the same thing as opting for self-indulgent enjoyment over the love of an all-merciful God who, after all, promises "pleasures at [His] right hand for evermore." 

Matt has a point. I don't exactly disagree with anything he says. But this is what made me uneasy about his post.

What do you think?

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