Imagine There’s No Heaven?

A friend of mine complained recently about how the Catholic school where he teaches celebrated “Remembrance Day.”

He was particularly distressed by the inclusion of a John Lennon song, entitled “Imagine,” as a way of honoring those brave soldiers who fought and died for the freedom we now enjoy. The lyrics were the reason for his distress, together with a sense that his school is adrift in a kind of New Age wishy-washiness.

First, Lennon invites us to “imagine there’s no heaven ... No hell ... Imagine all the people living for today.” Needless to say, people who live only for the day would have no interest whatsoever in remembering those who lived yesterday. Nor would they have the disposition to grasp the pertinence of George Santayana’s celebrated phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat its mistakes.”

A staged denunciation of the very concept of Catholic tradition at a Catholic institution should be a horrifying spectacle for anyone possessing even the most meager Catholic sensibility. One great justification for the Catholic religion is precisely to rescue people from the prison house of the now.

People who live only for today, who are oblivious to their debt to the past and their obligations to contribute to a better tomorrow are narcissistic, ungrateful and visionless. They are hardly friends of humanity, let alone good Catholics. The notion of heaven is not intended to distract us from the importance of the moment, but to enlarge and transcend what we experience and link it to a lasting future.

Do high-school students get a better education if they are told that universities do not exist? Do minor league ball players enjoy their game all the more once they know that they will never make it to the major leagues? Do couples in love consummate their affection for each other only when they have no hope for marriage?

We are inescapably creatures of hope. We exist on the horizon of time. We can know both our grandparents and our grandchildren. We are historians and prophets. Any attempt to restrict our consciousness and our concerns to the moment does violence to our nature. Poor John Lennon had trouble imagining who he was, namely a human being who is part of a family that has both a past and a future. We cannot imagine anything better unless we can see what is before our eyes. Imagination builds on a foundation; it does not replace it.

Next, Lennon invites us to imagine there are “no countries.” Nationalism is presumed to be the cause of war. Then, we are asked to imagine there is “no religion.” Religion is presumed to be a cause of conflict and therefore a barrier to “living life in peace.” Finally, “possessions” must be done away with so that the problems of “greed” and “hunger” can be abolished.

The road to peace for John Lennon, so elusive to mankind for so long, is discovered quite simply through a process of elimination. Just eliminate heaven and hell (and all morality implied by this distinction), as well as politics, religion and all personal possessions, and we have, not sheer human bankruptcy, but “peace.” Such an emaciated, impoverished, barren peace, however, is hardly worth singing about. I really think that Lennon’s paean to peace is an invitation to death — requiescat in pace. Lennon is really an architect of the culture of death.

In the last stanza of “Imagine,” Lennon presents himself as a “dreamer” who should be taken seriously if the world is to “live as one.” But talking about his “hope” that some day his dream will come true contradicts everything he urged in the previous 20 lines about living exclusively for today.

The notion of “dream” is very broad, and its meaning ranges from “vision” to “illusion.” Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” may be regarded as a “vision.” He understood how much work is necessary in order to realize a particular dream. Lennon’s “dream” is an illusion. It is an illusion because he thinks that peace can flower in a vacuum.

To realize a dream that is a vision takes hard work. It requires choosing good over evil, truth over falsehood, and finding a common ground so that diverse nations can enjoy mutual respect and live in peace. It is a challenge, an adventure and a struggle because it deals with very real existential forces. Our anti-Catholic minstrels who gaily denounce everything that common sense affirms would have been far wiser to recite the following words of the poet Edwin Markham:

Ah, great it is to believe the dream

As we stand in youth by the starry stream;

But a greater thing is to fight life through,

And say at the end, ‘The dream is true.’

Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus

at Ontario’s St. Jerome’s University

and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles

College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.