John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
When you stop and think about it, the message of Christianity ought to be galvanizing, enrapturing, appealing. God loved the universe into creation. Man, despite his rejection of love, i.e., by sin, warped that creation. But God did not abandon man, again and again offering a covenant to him that culminated in God Himself becoming human so we can become like God. And, as a result of God’s love unto death and resurrection, the final word in universal history belongs to good and God, for eternity, and it’s on offer for free.
We believe this is true. But even if it weren’t true, why wouldn’t man hope it were true? What more could he possibly ask for? And what lesser vision is on offer?
I ask these questions because, just as I wrote that there are impediments to modern man understanding the Christian doctrine of hell, so it seems there are impediments in the contemporary mindset to understanding heaven. Let’s consider them.
Perhaps the most basic is man’s lack of ambition. Are people really satisfied with just a job, a title and a paycheck? It’s disturbing that recent surveys of millennials point to delayed marriage, delayed parenthood (if at all), and total investment in work. But when even professionals fear for their economic livelihood if a paycheck is delayed (consider, for example, the angst among federal workers last winter during the 35-day government shutdown), the question becomes: are people working just to work? Just to live from paycheck to paycheck? To survive?
Is that all there is?
Peggy Lee posed that question in her 1969 hit song and perhaps there one might find an answer. The singer reflects on disappointments and disillusionments. Rescued as a little girl from a blazing house in which everything she had goes up in flames, she asks, “Is that all there is to a fire?” Later, taken to a circus which her father had apparently talked up before they went, she admits, “I had the feeling something was missing//I don’t know what//is that all there is to the circus?” When she experiences the exhilaration of first love, but “one day he went away,” causing her to ask, “Is that all there is to love?”
The chorus sounds hedonistically nihilistic: “If that’s all there is, my friend//then let’s keep dancing//let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”
And yet, throughout the song, the singer cannot abandon hope. She invokes her “friends.” And, disappointment upon disappointment notwithstanding, she admits she’s “not ready for that final disappointment,” which suggests a hope that it will maybe not, in the end, be a disappointment.
So does modern man have hope? Despite the drive within himself to reach further and further, to never be satisfied with what this world offers—a drive that points him toward the Beatific Vision—do moderns settle for a paycheck, a vacation, keeping “on dancing” and eating healthy (because “breaking out the booze” is so Boomer)?
Why is the moderns’ horizon so distinctively flat? So immanent? So ready to settle? So unexpecting of something more permanent than a few passing sensations, a couple of memories, and continuing the grind?
Why doesn’t the Christian message resonate? Why the skepticism about something more than the modicum for which we settle? Is it that man has not experienced love?
Is it—as Teresa says in The Jeweler’s Shop—that we are called “to create something, to reflect the absolute Existence and Love, must be the most wonderful of all! But one lives in ignorance of it.”
Are we ignorant of love? Or are we more content with ennui? Or worse?
The underground Czech priest Tomáš Halík, in his From the Underground Church to Freedom, notes a paradox in modern life: when we believed in heaven (and hell), life in this world was relativized, i.e., we did not expect to find paradise on earth. But when our transcendence grew flatter, when we contented ourselves with the horizons of this world, we also encumbered this world with demands it cannot meet:
Aren’t our exaggerated expectations of the earth, and of life on earth, the cause of disappointment, anxiety, and boredom that the existentialists speak of? Just as Freud tried to gain space for the ego, oppressed by the inflation of the sphere of the superego and the id, could not believe and hope in an afterlife free life to be earthly? I once amazed a certain group of atheists by saying that because we Catholics believe in angels and devils, we do not need to turn people into angels or devils; when we reserve the absolute poles of angelic whiteness and diabolic darkness solely for the world of the spirit, we can perceive people in all their variety and contradictoriness, as a mixture of good and evil. Because no one is for us an angel or a devil, we are able more realistically and kindly to perceive the paradoxes of the natural humanity of each of us terrestrials.
But in the futile quest for an Eden on earth—be it a political Utopia or the “soulmate” from whom one wants to extract one’s fulfillment—have we instead led ourselves to a jaded view of “is that all there is?”
Is it a lack of love?
Perhaps one reason people don’t understand heaven is they are bored by what the imagination presents as heaven: an eternity with folks who seem to be on spiritual Prozac, strumming harps and “not doing very much” other than praying? Does that appeal forever?
Or have we abandoned the idea that man should have been good, that sin is a distortion of humanity, not part of it? Is simple good boring, 99.44% spiritually pure Ivory Soap? Have we not subtly imbibed the anthropology of atheistic existentialism, forgetting that freedom exists not just for its own sake but for the sake of the good? Freedom exists so that the good is my good. Freedom does not exist to make good and evil equally valid choices as long as one is chosen freely. But this forces us to grapple with another problem of our day: the objectivity of good (and the subordination of conscience to that objective good). It’s not my good and your good but the good that I can choose or not choose, but my choosing does not make something good.
In conclusion, Josef Ratzinger comes to our aid. He reminds us of two important things. One, not to pack eschatology into this world: we will never build perfection short of the Parousia.
Two, to remember that Christianity is not about a doctrine but a Person, indeed, Persons—the Person of Jesus Christ, and the Persons of the Trinity. Heaven is not about spiritual elevator music. It is about coming to know and love real Persons. And those real Persons are God, which means that our knowing can never be exhausted because our Love is always invited to go deeper, farther, fuller.
What modern man needs is to understand that Love—however disappointing, however limited we may encounter it in this world—is never meant to be fully fulfilled here. But Love—truly experienced Love—is something that can never be boring, can never run out, and that is the essence, the meaning, the “eternity” of heaven. If sanctification is deification, as the Orthodox are prone to point out, then is heaven an ever deeper love feast, as the Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae suggests? [Stăniloae seems to think that there is room for change after death (including—at least before the end of the world—leaving hell), a position I reject]. But is the dynamism of heaven—the dynamism of love—open to that ever deeper love, because while I may have made myself in this life into such and such a person bringing into eternity such and such a capacity to love, the Person I love is bottomless? My pail may be limited, but the well from which I fill it has no limits.
Is it a question of learning again what is love?