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 pnoposition "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 such a person is choosing Hell; it could mean he's as clueless about the natrure 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?

Comments (10)

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#1, May 27, 2017 9:10pm

I'm inclined to say that if "the only things we really love are obliterated" then we aren't with God. All things--all that has substance, all that is good--has God as its source. We might not find the goods we love in the same form in which we love them here, but the goods are there, in God, Who is all good. 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, May 27, 2017 9:29pm

I haven't read Walsh's post--it's painful for me to read Walsh, it makes the hand that hold my editor's pen itch--but doesn't it run into a kind of dualism if we pit the created world against the Creator, as though loving creation is opposed to loving Him who made it? 

I don't have the attention span for hours of ecstatic prayer, and while I generally know myself to be better, happier, more whole for attending Mass, I usually spend the Mass exhausting myself mentally trying to stay focused. Worship is not recreation for me--but I believe recreation is from God and can reflect God. More than that, it can prepare fertile ground for loving Him. A love for story is ground for learning to love the one Story that matters--and some would say all good stories are a reflection of that story anyhow. How many hobbies are an expression of what Tolkien called "subcreation"? 

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#3, May 27, 2017 9:29pm

And where in all this is room for inviting the presence of God into our daily lives and duties? Where is fulfilment in parenting or service or mission? Where are all the other things that human beings do that they might find--very humanly--more attractive than sitting on a hard pew? 

I think you are right, Devra, that Walsh has the wrong end of the stick in this. It's love of God which makes religious acts attractive, not the  other way around. 

Rhett Segall

#4, May 28, 2017 10:06am

I think it was CS Lewis'  who responsded to the boy who said  if he couldn't have chocolates in heaven then he didn't want to go to heaven. Said Lewis:

"If you want chocolates in heaven you can have chocolates in heaven."

When I was a child I thought as a child reflected St. Paul. He also tells us in 2 Cor. 1:20 ff that Jesus is the Father's great "Yes"  to all God's promises, eliciting the great "Amen" from us.

"Eye has not seen, ear has not heard , nor has it entered in to the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him." 1 Cor 2:9



Katie van Schaijik

#5, May 28, 2017 10:32am

Matt Walsh's writings nearly always make me think of the verse, "not many of you should be teachers."

Katie van Schaijik

#6, May 28, 2017 11:05am

I think von Hildebrand's distinction between the value-responding attitude vs.  the merely subjectively satisfying (brilliantly elaborated in Jules' doctoral dissertation, btw) is much more helpful than a distinction between worldly things and spiritual things.

What is our soul's inner dynamism, so to speak? Does it seek transcendence toward goodness, beauty and truth, or does it appropriate things to pleasure or aggrandize self?

Self-transcendence can animate the smallest gesture of appreciation or gratitude for even very modest goods, like the taste of cheesecake, the sound of birds, and the scent of a flower. Likewise, our outwardly religious and charitable acts can be permeated with egotism.

Devra, I love that you point out that one reason persons may dislike liturgies is because they can be badly done—not like heaven at all, except by an act of faith.

In heaven there won't be anything tacky or banal or dumb or boorish or ugly or sentimental.

Devra Torres

#7, May 28, 2017 1:44pm

Kate, yes: I appreciate Matt's willingness to tell hard truths, but sometimes when that's your stock in trade, you make them harder than they are! God is a jealous God; the Gospel is the Pearl of Great Price; you really do have to make up your mind--and yet...

Devra Torres

#8, May 28, 2017 1:47pm

Rhett, yes, I kept running into my own ignorance about what Heaven will be like, exactly, since I'm objecting to Walsh's explanation. I don't know for sure that there will be horses or chocolate or cheesecake in Heaven, or if the goodness of those things will be present in some way that's unimaginable to me now. But nothing will be "missing"!

Devra Torres

#9, May 28, 2017 1:54pm

Katie, yes, I was going to go into subjective satisfaction, but then realized that it was already a lot longer than my usual posts!

And maybe what you say really gets to the core of it--it's not ultimately a question of whether we respond to cheesecake or something more "noble," but of our inner dynamism: what's going on inside the subject: "Does it seek transcendence toward goodness, beauty and truth, or does it appropriate things to pleasure or aggrandize self?" A soul that's seeing and responding to things rightly can be led to desire the glory of God by the way it's revealed in a piece of cheesecake or even a movie on Netflix, and a soul that isn't will find a way to turn even prayer and church services into self-aggrandizement. Again, it's not that the objective reality doesn't matter! It's just that without good things going on within the person, it can't play the role it's meant to.

Max Torres

#10, May 31, 2017 2:45pm

I think you've made a number of fine distinctions and have a good point.  You've been fair to him, and stated your variation on the theme without resorting to discordant notes.  

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