Friday, March 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad God?

As one of the three progressive Christians with a robust theology of hell, recent conversations require me to explore if my heckology counts as a form of coercion.

Hellfire and damnation tend to be the bludgeons that drive a significant portion of Christian "evangelism." You reach out because of your deep love for the unsaved unbelievers, knowing that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, they will be cast eternally into the Lake of Fire. This is what leads Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron to get out there with their bananas. It's why Jack Chick is still in business. It's why that guy with the bullhorn is yelling bellowing scripture passages on your campus. And though this bugs the bejabbers out of most human beings, the folks who do it think they're doing right. Why?

Because as folks approach that tension between 1) the central ethic of love for God and neighbor and 2) the many warnings of the eternal consequences that come when you don't listen to Jesus, they become fixated on door number 2. You've got to save the sinners! Save 'em from HEEELLLL! Hell becomes the focus, and the Gospel becomes all stick and bad cop, as the masses run screaming from Jeezilla and into church as he rains atomic hellfire breath down on unbelieving Tokyo. Fear can be a powerful motivator, and folks are happy to use it to coerce belief.

Thing is, my transpersonal spirituality is completely compatible with eternal judgment. I view the existential boundaries between us as ultimately meaningless, and creation as the canvas onto which our eternity is painted. If we hurt others, that's our pain. Forever. If we seethe with hatred towards our ex, that hatred will burn in us permanently. Everything we do is, for all of the protestations of this Heraclitan age, etched forever into the face of being, of which we are a part.

So... does this count as coercion? Does my spiritual awareness of my connectedness to the beings around me and to creation "coerce" me into being more gracious and kind towards them?

Well, yes and no. There are times, particularly when I'm ragingly cheesed at someone, that my monkey-gut-response is to bare fangs and go for the jugular. At those moments, my cognitive and heart assent to the idea that the universe is not meaningless and without justice holds me back. Yeah, it might feel good at that moment to let 'em have it. Rip 'em a new one. It might even have immediate practical value. But ultimately, such actions have profound and permanent consequences. So I steer away from destructive actions with the same aversion that one might feel for a yawning precipice or that guy on the corner who's shouting obscenities at no-one in particular and brandishing a Glock. Go that way, says the tightness in your gut and the rapid beating of your heart, and bad things will come of it. In some sense, then, I do have a fear of hell, and it does occasionally guide how I act.

On the other hand, I don't really feel that as coercive. The love-ethic imperative that Jesus taught is just an inescapable part of the fabric of all being. That there are ontological consequences of living by it is, for me, no more forced than the breaths that I must take to maintain consciousness. Sure, I could resent breathing. I could be annoyed that I'm forced into the process of respiration, and shake my fist at my Maker for coercing me into filling my lungs without ever first consulting me or respecting my free will. I could fight the power, hold my breath, and pitch a defiant hissy until I pull a total faceplant.

But that would be pointless. Stupid, even.

Just as organic life is maintained by the processes of breathing, so justice, peace, and our place in the fabric of God's creation are established by our participation in the ethic of love that radically defines us. That's not coercion. It's just the Way of things.