This is part 2. Please read part 1 first. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 3.
Mom heads my way with my cousin Gary and his wife. Gary is Helen's brother. He lives in South Carolina, so I seldom see him. He is one of those people that you can't help but to like. He has a great sense of humor, and a gift for telling jokes. He is 13 years older than me. After a brief session of "how do you do's" and the standard funeral home conversation, Gary hugs my mother and says:
"This lady is great, she taught me every dirty word I know."
That starts a barrage of good natured cutting up between Gary and my mother. This is an aspect of my mother that I seldom see. There is almost a girlish quality about her as she goes to verbal battle with Gary. The amazing thing is that she holds her own, no small achievement with a pro like Gary. On and on they go, launching insults and innuendos and laughing like hell. They clearly enjoy each other's company.
As my mother and Gary go at it, I, as usual, slowly drift off back to my thoughts. I think I have addressed what the "she" is that is missing from Helen, though probably not to anyone's satisfaction--nor to my own. This stuff is difficult material! We had the dichotomy of the real and the mysterious. The real being body and mind, the mysterious being the Soul. Again, we have only hard evidence of the body and the mind. The Soul is something that I want to believe in. I have no proof, only faith. So keeping this dichotomy in mind, lets look at the second question: Where did the "she" that was Helen go to? Here again a profound question with 5.3 billion highly opinionated answers. Bearing in mind the caveats I gave previously, let's consider where did Helen go? I see three distinct possibilities: 1) eternal nothingness, 2) Heaven or Hell, or 3) eternal evolution.
What if there is nothing more to us than mind and body, the first half of our dichotomy. It is a very real possibility. We have no evidence for the Soul. When the body ceases to function--when it dies--so does the mind. When the last neurons quit firing in the dying brain, the mind is forever lost. The totality of experience that was Helen blinks out like a candle flame in a strong wind. Gone forever. The mind of Helen is gone. A dead brain remains, but the mind is gone. It is like pulling the plug on a computer. Without energy, the hardware can not run the software. What is missing in the casket? Helen is missing. Where did she go? No where! Quite literally no where, she just ceased to exist. Eternal nothingness. It is the answer of the atheistic scientist stereotype. Lacking evidence we have to allow for the possibility that nothing survives the death of the body. What is eternal nothingness like?
Is it like sleep? For the most part, when I sleep I do have some awareness about myself. But I have had some really deep sleeps, where time seemed to stop and I, for some period, ceased to exist. Upon waking it took some effort to sort out who I was, where I was, and what I was doing. Yet if one was to take an EEG (electroencephalogram) during one of these slumbers, I am sure that plenty of brain activity would be present. Also, I have never failed to wake from one of these sleeps, or went on for hours sleeping through a blaring alarm clock. Anesthesia for surgery may approach the feeling of eternal nothingness, but not deep sleep.
Well maybe death is like before you were born. I try to think back to a time, a definite point, when I did not exist. Yes, I know this is an odd exercise. I get a mush brained feeling when I try this. The idea is to remember your very first memory and then go back one step further. As I try to determine my first memory, I get lightheaded, an actual physical vertigo. Images swim and swirl through the dusty corners of my mind, but I can't say "well, gee, this is the very first thing that I remember." As I go back in years, time loses its continuity. The further back I go, the more discontinuous my memory becomes. My earliest memories have absolutely no sense of linear time--one event occurring before another. Instead, there is a disordered pile of snapshots. Reach in and grab a snapshot. When did that occur? Beats the hell out of me.
My memory is like a poorly kept film library in an old Hollywood studio that hasn't prospered as of late. As the film lies in its canister, it deteriorates with age. Go back a few years and the films are mostly intact. But go back 10 or 15 years, you'll notice gaps. Go back further still, there are large sections of the film gone. Keep on going back in time, you may have only a few frames here and there. At some point, you will find films in which only a single frame remains, and most of the films are completely gone. It is a waste of time to watch these films--to try to remember--there is not enough footage left to make any sense. On some of the canisters, there remains a description of the film or reviews of it. These are the tales of things that I did which I have no recollection, but have been told to me by my parents. When I was about two years old, I said to one of our neighbors: "Hey Harry, gimmie a beer, and let's sit down and bullshit for a while." I don't recall the incident, but my mother likes to tell the story. Most of my early life is remembered through such external tales.
Suddenly, I look up from the carpet, and everyone is looking at me with an amused sense of expectation.
"You remember, don't you?" Mom says to me.
Gary is looking at me, ready to bust out laughing. I have no idea of what the hell they are talking about. I have to try to pay more attention to the conversation at hand when I go off into these daydreams.
"Sure, you remember!" Gary says.
"Well ah. . ." I mumble. Everyone starts laughing like hell and Gary slaps my back. I still don't have the vaguest idea of what they are talking about, or what is so funny, but I laugh too. The conversation continues with Gary telling some stories on his wife. She must find herself a frequent target in his stories and good naturedly reacts with mock anger. I slide back into my thoughts.
Try as I may, I can not recall any first memory that would mark the point of me being a rational conscious person. There is no firm line in which intelligent rationality begins. It is like looking down a very long and progressively darkening corridor. You can't see the end, it's totally black. In fact it could be endless, you can't really tell. And you can't see any definite demarcation between light and dark. There is no line that states "Rationality starts here." If we take a solipsistic view of our memories--disregard any external view or external history, we have in a vague sense lived forever because we can not determine, internally, a beginning point to our lives. Our intellects, of course, tell us that we did have a beginning, that we did not exist before the point of our conception. Yet we must rely on an external source for that information.
The point that I am trying to make is that we have no idea what eternal nothingness would be like because we can not remember of any point in which we did not exist. It would be a pretty good trick if we could remember not existing! We have no conscious memories of conception, life in the womb, being born, or being an infant. Somewhere in our early years, toddler to age three, we begin to retain some conscious memories. Human consciousness is not like a light switch, where snap, you come up to a full 100 watts of consciousness. No, it is like a slow dimmer switch that comes up to full power gradually over a period of years. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it won't snap off like a light switch, or at least a very fast twirl of the dimmer switch at our deaths.
Perhaps the eternal nothingness of death is like how things were for us during the Civil War. The battle of Shiloh didn't bother any of us, now did it? This notion has a certain intellectual appeal, but it does not tell us what nothingness is really like. What we imagine eternal nothingness to be like is probably infinitely richer than the hard reality of being stone cold dead, with no mental function, no experience, no past, no present, no future, no time, no love, no spirit, no God, and no existence. We can't imagine what that is like. How would we detect it, how would we experience it, how could we observe it? It sort of goes back to the observer idea in quantum mechanics. With no observers, how does this state, eternal nothingness, exist?
I have to allow that eternal nothingness may indeed be our fate. If we are nothing but mind and body, if the entire universe is nothing but an anomaly busting out of the vacuum for no apparent reason, if there is no God, then we are doomed to the black, still, quiet of eternal nothingness. I don't want this to be our fate, nor do I believe that it is, but I have to allow for the possibility of it. In moments of doubt, it is a fear of mine. I fear that we will close our eyes and . . . nothing. If you look at all the senseless tragedy that occurs in the world: the terrible loss of life among the innocent, the horrors of war, the devastating natural disasters, endless poverty and hunger, then it all makes sense. Maybe there is no God, and we are nothing but accidents--statistical improbabilities that exist for a moment in an unlikely universe for which there is no reason. The loss of life of one person or the entire planet is of no consequence what so ever because we are nothing but glorified electro-chemical computers. We have no rights, no reasons, no high purpose. We are nothing more than chemical processes, why all the fuss?
We are such beautiful beings with our intelligence, our emotions, our mysteries, and our wonder. We live in such a beautiful world. Is art, science, mathematics, music, tenderness, passion, love, and God just the worthless firings of some accidentally created collections of neurons? Is a kiss no different than murder in the overall scheme of things? While there is a certain intellectual fascination to be had in the idea of nothingness Big Banging, congealing, and evolving into human consciousness, I find a profound sorrow in the notion that we could be nothing more than meaningless little chemistry sets. Everything that is important to us is phony. We have no Divine Mandate. I have to reject this idea in my heart. Even my cold rational intellect has to reject that we are nothing but accidents. There has to be something more than just body and mind. Sure the world is loaded with senseless tragedy, but it is also loaded with beauty, love, justice, and I think the Divine Spirit. The body in the casket across the room is experiencing eternal nothingness. But not Helen, she left the body, she is not in the casket.
Mom and Gary's wife have gone over to talk with Lynn. Gary and I are trying to convince Barry that New York City is not fit for human life. A couple, about my mother's age, approaches Gary and shakes hands with him. Gary then introduces me to them. Neither they nor I have the foggiest notion of who the hell we are to each other. Gary then explains that I am Jim's boy.
"Oh! Of course, Jim's boy! Well, how do you do?"
I do not get an explanation of who they are; I guess I am supposed to know by their names. They stick around until the conversation gets a little strained. Then with a "Well it is very nice meeting you, we really should go over and see Annie and Ruth", they thankfully leave. I don't know who in the hell Annie and Ruth are either. In fact, I wonder if they even exist. Boy, I hate these things. Talking to people I don't know, listening to a bunch of mindless small talk. Yes it does look like rain, so what? And no, Helen does not look natural, she looks pretty damn bad to me. So why do we keep on dwelling on how good Helen looks? Hells bells she's dead, why does she have to look good? It is getting hot in here.
I have a friend who claims that about 20 years ago, he overdosed on some chemical sounding something or other--a drug overdose. He has an incredible story about the events that followed. Shortly after taking the drug, he experienced a severe pain in his chest and couldn't get his breath. He collapsed to the floor, and an instant later found himself high in the room, near the ceiling, looking down on his body. On the far wall near the ceiling was a doorway, similar to an elevator door. A beautiful golden light shined out of it. He says that the light was blindingly bright by not painful to look at. The light was more than just light, it had a profound and deep sense of love about it. He wanted to experience the light and know the love. The love was very intense and he wanted to go to it, join with it, and be with it forever. He looked down at his body and felt disgust for it. All he wanted was to get to the light; his body was worthless.
His friends tried to revive him and tried to make him stand up. It seemed that his friends were somehow preventing him from getting to the light. He yelled for them to leave his body alone, that he was ok up here at the ceiling. They couldn't hear him and started to drag his body outside. He wanted more than anything else to go to the light that was shining from that doorway. The sense of peace and love was so powerful and the light so intense that all he could think about was to go and be with that light. There it was, just across the room, beckoning, but his damn friends were blocking him somehow. He frantically pleaded with them to leave him alone, but they ignored him.
Once in the fresh air and standing, my friend seemed to revive and slowly returned to normal consciousness albeit probably higher than a kite. He does not recall of actually returning to his body. He says that the experience changed him. He is not very religious, but says that the experience more than anything else has given his life meaning. He doesn't fear death and looks forward to joining with the light. My friend believes that there is life after death, and that it is a much better life than our mortal existence.
I can not vouch for this story. All I can do is pass it on to you. I can vouch for the fact that my friend is not a bull-shitter. He tells no other incredible tales. He is very earnest in telling us that it was a drug overdose, but he does not feel that the drugs caused the experience with the light. He says that the experience was different--much greater clarity--than being high. Today, he is a sincere person with an intense interest in science. He enjoys life immensely and no longer uses drugs.
This phenomenon had been dubbed the "near death experience" by Dr. Raymond A. Moody Jr. The experience has been studied by Moody and others for better than 20 years. Moody has written several books on the subject, and cites a Gallup poll in The Light Beyond that would indicate that about 1 person in 20 has had some sort of near death experience. The experience is common enough that no one seems to question its existence. What the experience represents, however, is under considerable debate. There are those who say that the experience is a look at the afterlife. Others say that it is the final defense mechanism of the dying brain. Carl Sagan gave a persuasive argument in Broca's Brain that the experience is a recollection of birth.
Again, who knows? There definitely seems to be some phenomenon that people from all the various cultures on Earth have experienced. Yet every one of us has experienced birth, and we share the same brain chemistries. So yes, it could be the brain's last hurrah. But it also could be a preview to the afterlife. My sentiments, of course, lie with the latter. If it is nothing but a defense mechanism, we can at least take stock in the thought that death will be a pleasant experience. Before the infinite depths of nothingness set in, your mind will arrange a pleasant fairy tale to help your transition. While that may sound disappointing, you must admit that it is a whole lot preferable to a physically painful and psychologically miserable realization that THIS IS THE EN
Again emphasizing that I have no proof, I think that the near death experience is the beginning of the afterlife. While I have no proof supporting the afterlife, no one else has any proof against the afterlife. These questions remain a matter of faith. This brings us to my second possibility: Heaven or Hell. This is the fate that awaits us in the Judeo-Christian tradition. And here I enter a slippery slope. Trying to describe what these religions believe is a task not to be attempted by a guy that works in a factory. First, we are dealing with very different religions, each with major schisms, denominations, sects, and cults. Next we are talking about faiths that are found on every continent and a wide range of cultures. Last there are billions of adherents. Trying to describe what several billion people believe with a few paragraphs is a foolhardy venture. So what I am about to say will please no one.
Here we go. The above religions believe in God, who is the only God, and He is one God. And here is where I should stop, but on we go. God created the universe and man. In order for man to be able to fully love God, he had to be a free moral agent. That is man had to be able to decide for himself whether to love God or not. Being a free moral agent allowed man to fall to the ravages of sin. Man has embraced sin to the point that it has become an irrevocable part of the human condition. While God loves man, He abhors sin. God offers man redemption from sin through His grace, but it must be actively sought after by the individual during his or her mortal life here on Earth. For those who have believed and atoned for their sins, God offers eternal bliss in the kingdom of Heaven. For those who fail to believe and atone, their fate is eternal damnation in the fires of Hell.
So where is Helen? No one can know what Helen truly felt in her heart. So we have to allow for the possibilities that Helen could either be in Heaven, Hell, perhaps purgatory, or even on hold for Judgment Day. But let's create a scenario for Helen's passing, Helen was a Christian, at least she attended church. How she faced her last moments, I don't know, nor do I have the courage or the audacity to go over and ask Bill. But let's simplify matters and assume that Helen did one of two things: 1) she asked God for redemption of her sin, or, 2) being totally angry about her condition, she railed against God for allowing this to happen to her.
So now it is the moment of truth, Helen's tired heart has beat its last beat. All efforts to resuscitate her are failing. Darkness is sliding into Helen's consciousness, the pain in her chest is starting to wane. Suddenly, Helen seems to slide out of her body, her pain and fear ceases. Rising to the ceiling, she looks down at the doctors and nurses frantically working on her body. She no long cares about it. She rises up through the ceiling effortlessly passing through the upper floors of the hospital. Hearing a rushing noise, she finds herself in a dark tunnel. Helen begins to rise rapidly through this tunnel toward a distant beautiful light. Approaching the light, Helen departs the four dimensional space-time of our universe and enters a realm that has no time or dimension. She continues to rise toward the light. Along the way are long departed relatives and friends to welcome her. She sees her mother and father, her grandparents, and her Uncle Jim. Helen continues to rise in the bright golden light feeling love and peace.
So far these events are typical of the near death experience described in Moody's books. But at this point, I am going to depart from Moody's standard description and incorporate my own fictional account of a fearful judgment day conducted by the stern just God of the Old Testament and my religious upbringing. Please note that Helen's sins are fictional as are the events regarding Lynn's former husband.
Suddenly, Helen finds herself sitting in an austere courtroom brightly illuminated with a harsh white light that has no apparent source. The room is empty except for a large oak judiciary bench. Behind the bench sits a stern old man with a long white beard, steely eyes, and white robes.
"Helen Lynn Donnoly, thou stand in judgment for thy mortal life. Doth thou understandeth these proceedings?"
Helen replies "yes."
"WHAT?" bellows the figure in white.
"Er, ah, ah, well, ah"
"Speak woman, doth Lucifer have thy tongue? Doth thou understandeth these proceedings?"
"Good, let us proceed."
In a flash Helen's entire life appears in the court room. There are many scenes that are surrounded by a red flashing border. At the bottom of these scenes the word Sin flashes on and off in red. Good grief, Helen is amazed at how many sins there are, was she that bad? Holy hell, this guy has the goods on her entire life. She starts scanning the red bordered scenes. She sees herself as a little girl pulling Gary's hair. She advances up a few thousand frames, and there she is cheating on a history test in eighth grade. She continues forward. Oh no! It is a year before her marriage, and she is in the backseat of Bill's old Dodge at a drive-in theater--neither her nor Bill are watching the movie. Helen watches in fascination as the red bordered scene unfolds before her eyes, occurring just like it had over three decades ago. She is swept up in the passion of the memory of her first time. She is so in love with Bill. Bill's hand is now sliding down her . . .
"HELEN! Doth thou want to bloweth thy chances of getting into Heaven? Take pleasure not in thy sinful mortal passions."
Fearfully, Helen returns to looking at the other scenes. Everything is there, every moment of her life; even the thoughts are there. She sees her wedding. There is a red border around the scene of her opening a wedding gift from her mother-in-law. The thought "cheap flatware from a cheap old bag" is flashing in red. She advances up through her life noting that the intimate moments between he and Bill are no longer bordered in red. Whoops, here's a red one. Wow, it's the fantasy she had about a good looking neighbor guy in 1966. Moving up through the scenes, she come to a very painful incident involving her hateful thoughts for Lynn's former husband. She feels the pain and hatred tug at her heart. She continues on up through the years, amazed at the detail and clarity of the scenes. She finally get to the hospital scenes.
Here, we must consider the two possible endings, which depend on what Helen felt in her heart in those last moments of life. Let's have a look at each possibility.
ENDING # 1. There is one scene bordered in white near the end of her life. It is Helen lying in the hospital bed with the knowledge that the end is near. In this scene, the near dying Helen says:
"Dear Lord, forgive me for all my sins and please give Bill the strength to continue on without me. Please watch over Bill and the girls. I give my spirit to you, oh Lord, have mercy upon me."
She then recites the Lord's prayer.
Helen looks at the remaining scenes of her life after the white bordered scene. To her surprise, there is another red scene after the white one. What is this? She looks at the red bordered scene. It is her hateful thoughts for Lynn's former husband.
The figure in white softly says "Helen, you have asked for forgiveness of your sins. This I am prepared to do yet in your heart you have not forgiven this man of the hurt that he has caused your daughter. Remember, Helen, the words you spoke in the Lord's prayer, 'and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.' Helen, you must resolve this conflict in your heart before you can go to Heaven."
Helen is very fearful at this moment. She loves God and seeks forgiveness, Yet how can she forgive that son of bitch for the terrible way he treated Lynn. The hatred and the fear well in her heart.
"Help me oh Lord in my moment of weakness! Try as I may, my hateful thoughts continue!" she cries.
Suddenly, the life of Lynn's husband appear in front of Helen. She sees the death of his mother, the cruel treatment from his stepmother, and the beating from a drunken father. In his marriage to Lynn, she sees moments of genuine love and tenderness between he and Lynn. She also sees some unkind things that Lynn did to him. Lynn wasn't entirely blameless in the failure of their marriage. Helen begins to understand that while Lynn's husband did some terrible things, there were some reasons for his behavior. With understanding comes forgiveness, it wells up and flows through Helen's soul. She feels the best that she has felt in years. It is good to be rid of the burden of hatred that she has carried for so long. Helen looks up and notices that the red bordered scene at the end of her life is gone. The final scene is the white bordered scene before her death. The figure in white smiles and says:
"Congratulations, Helen, you have made it to Heaven."
Pearly gates immediately appear at the right side of the courtroom and once again Helen is bathed in a beautiful golden light. . . .
Now, we must return to the final scenes of Helen's life and consider the other possibility.
ENDING # 2. There is one scene bordered in black near the end of her life. It is Helen lying in the hospital bed with the knowledge that the end is near. In this scene, the near dying Helen says:
"God how can you let this happen to me? You know I think back on all the shit that I have taken in this life, and to think that it has come t this. What about all the damn money that I gave to the church? Didn't that account for anything? And that son of a bitch that Lynn married, the no good bastard made off with half of our savings. Lord, goddamn it, how could you let this happen to me."
The figure in white now bellows at Helen:
"How dare thou, mere mortal, blame me for thy problems! It was the cigarettes that put thou in that hospital bed, not I. Had thou given as much wealth to thy fellow man as thou spent in the evil of tobacco, thou would not find thyself here. The pittance that thou gave to the church was only to satisfy thy quilt. Thou can not buy piety! Instead of giving Lynn and her husband love and understanding, and help them through their problems thou gavest them a hard time and some pieces of silver, again to help not, but to alleviate thy guilt. And further more, Never! Never! say goddamn to me. I hate that word!"
The figure in white then puts on his sternest face and slams his gavel into the bench top. Lightening shoots down through the bench and Heaven and Earth shake with the thunder. He then says:
"Helen Lynn Donnoly, because of your sins, you are condemned to eternal damnation in Hell beginning immediately."
The river Styx appear on the left side of the courtroom. Charon, grinning from ear to hideous pointy ear appears in his boat. Helen takes a seat in the boat, and Charon, with a flap of his repulsive bat like wings, fires up the engines, a pair of 150 horse Mercury outboards. . .
I am telling Gary what I can remember of him before he went to South Carolina in the late fifties. I like Gary; I like him a lot. On the surface, he is a dry humored wise guy--minor league wise guy. He has a quick wit that strikes like lightening, but it is not a mean wit. Make a blunder and Gary gets you, but he usually will take two or three cracks at himself as well. Gary likes to have fun with his wit, but he never makes you suffer. Underneath, he is a very complicated sensitive man who has known more that his share of sorrow. Gary can talk about the painful incidents of his life, and how he feels about them with a sincerity that I envy. Gary gives me the impression that he can handle anything, not because he is tough, but because pain and sorrow are a part of life that he has come to accept. I gather that he and Helen were close and that he will miss her. Gary is a person that I could learn from. I wished we lived closer together. As Gary and I continue to talk, I notice that the temperature in this place is getting hotter than hell.
And just how hot is Hell? Could Helen tell us? She may be there. Dualities bother me. On/off, right/wrong, white/black, one/zero, good/bad, righteous/evil, life/death, Heaven/Hell . . . it is all so cut and dried. It doesn't leave any room for gradients, for some good old analog shades of gray. Is running a stop sign the same as murder? Should we execute shoplifters? In our lowly system of justice, we mortal humans seem to recognize that there are degrees to the severity of ill behavior. We match the magnitude of the punishment to the crime, at least in theory. We don't execute people who double park their cars, nor do we fine serial killers 25 dollars. Yet God in all of His wisdom can not make these distinctions. Adulterous thoughts about your neighbor's spouse is a sin. Axe murdering 29 children is a sin. Is there no difference? It seems very easy to get into Hell.
It could be argued that it's extremely easy to stay out of Hell also. Just ask for redemption for your sins and all will be forgiven. That sounds great. Hey all I got to do is occasionally ask God for forgiveness of my sins and I got it made. What could be simpler? You know, it is one thing to say "God forgive me of my sin", and it is another thing to feel genuinely sorry for your sins and to want to improve. Those who think they can pay lip service to forgiveness play God for a fool. Why bother to even say it, why not video tape yourself asking for forgiveness, and play the tape daily while you go about your more important business. Redemption through the modern convenience of your VCR. Like Don Corleone, many of us think that by spending an hour on Sunday morning, we can go about business as usual totally absolved of any responsibility of what we do. Sorry folks, God ain't that stupid.
Try this. Think of all the rotten things that you do--all of them now, petty as well as big. Now try to feel genuinely sorry for these wrongs and promise yourself that you will no longer do them. No lips service here, you must be genuine. Now think of all the rotten things that people have done to you. Can you forgive these people of their trespasses? Could you now offer them your friendship, love them like a brother? Can you turn the other cheek when they lash out at you again? Hey, getting into Heaven is tough.
I mentioned earlier that there are many different divisions in the Judeo-Christian tradition. They are radically different religions that share some general concepts. Within each religion there are many further divisions. We find ourselves like birds flapping about a huge tree with several main trunks, many limbs, and a tangle of branches. In which branch do we build our nest? How do we choose? An almost universal constant in these various religions--if not stated overtly with pride, then at least felt in the hearts of the majority of the adherents--is that "Ours is the ONLY True Way". So we are faced with a truly important question here. Which way, which branch is the True Path to God's heart? How does one choose? This is crucial, your fate for eternity depends on you making a correct choice. How do you choose? What really is the determining factor to the True Path to God?
Geography! Yes, for the most part geography is the deciding factor in the quest for the True Path. What is the True Path to God? The average citizen of Rome, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Salt Lake City have very different answers based primarily on geography. Not many of us go about finding a religion like Vladimir the Great who reportedly studied all the great religions and decided that all of Russia would be as moved as he with the beauty of the Orthodox Eastern Church. This beauty affected Vladimir so much that he dumped 800 pagan wives and settled down with one respectable woman. I am not sure whether Vladimir was trying to civilize his country or his domestic life. But unlike Vladimir, most of us are born into a religion and stick with it for life.
Yes but this is America, we have freedom of religion here. One can choose. Me? I was brought up Lutheran. Why? Were my parents from a long line of Lutherans that could trace their ancestry back to sixteenth century Germany? Did some great, great, great, grandfather hold the 95 theses on the Castle Church door while old Martin pounded in the nails? No. Well then did my parents, like Vladimir, study all of the various religions and make a conscious decision that the Lutheran way was profoundly beautiful and indeed the True Path? No!
My parents were vaguely protestant. That is more a statement of what they were not rather than what they were. Specifically, they were not Catholic, Jewish, or one of those "holy rollers". So how did we end up Lutheran? Well, geography mostly. There was a Lutheran church within walking distance of home. My sister and I could make it to Sunday school and the religious instruction classes ("You know Jim, they call that Catechism up there. It sounds so Catholic." my mother used to fret to my dad) on foot. Well nobody wore a yarmulke or hollered during the service, and there were no statues around the place. It wasn't quite Methodist or Presbyterian but it would have to do--"Mickeys that forgot their Latin" lamented my mother. Within a five mile radius of our home, there were probably a dozen Presbyterian and Methodist churches, plus any other flavor that you care to mention. But the Lutheran Church was within walking distance, so I am Lutheran. Geography!
So I have been Baptized, Sunday Schooled, Catechismed, Confirmed, and Communioned into a Lutheran Heaven by geography. Walking distance from home--you sure wouldn't pick an investment banker or even a car dealer that way. But in matters of the eternal, what the hell. How can I be sure that the Right Path was chosen for me? With so many voices declaring that they are indeed the Only Way, how can one be sure? For the most part, you or geography makes the decision and then you maintain great faith that you are correct. It helps if you think about how all those other infidels will broil in Hell because they don't do the this or the that which defines the True Path to God. Of course, one is struck with an occasional late night doubt, "what if I am wrong?" Maybe I should try the other church down the road.
Alas, by conscious decision, I have been condemned to a Lutheran Hell. I don't have a piece of paper declaring this, nor does my name appear on some computer list within the church files that I know of. I just know in my heart that the church will not approve of my lack of attendance in the past 25 years, my ecumenical beliefs in all religions, my belief in the Divinity of the Soul, my dabbling in Eastern mysticism, and a few lusty thoughts, words, and deeds for which I am not sorry about and thus seek no redemption. For these sins I will, no doubt, spend an eternity in Lutheran Hell.
Being condemned does have its liberating side. A guy on death row is not particularly worried about tax audits, termites, the movement of the Dow, proper etiquette, or arthritis. And so it is with me. A number of ecclesiastical worries went right out the window with the realization that I couldn't make it to Heaven. There are too many problems, too many things that don't jive in my religious upbringing. Surely, if you look at the entire Judeo-Christian family, it is hard to believe that the True Path was provided to me by virtue of the church being 847 feet away from my parents house. What of all those poor Souls in Rome, Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Salt Lake City--not to mention Bombay, Shanghai, or Tokyo? Why are the chosen people of antiquity always in the mid-east? Doesn't God love people elsewhere? What happened to all the Souls in Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas before there were missionaries? What happens to all the Souls that through conquest or repression were not given the correct faith? What happens to a guy that has most of it, say 95 percent correct, but misses out on some dogmatic detail? If one looks at history, it appears that many of the divisions were political in nature rather than ecclesiastical. Should we canonize slave traders for bringing the infidel savages to the True Path? Think of the Souls they saved. What ever happened to the concept of turning the other cheek? Does God really give us the right to Inquisition, Crusade, Jihad, enslave, plunder those who do not believe as we do? And why is God so mean? We don't hold ourselves to the same standards that God holds us to. We seem to understand that we are human. But God demands perfection even though we are helpless to do anything but sin. And why all of this preponderance on sin. God never seems to recognize any of the good that we do, only the bad. Do you berate your child for getting a D in physical education on an otherwise straight A report card? Why does God look down on women? Women can't do this and women can't do that. Why is God so thin skinned? Any doubt or question you may have is a terrible sin. Throw your intellect away and have faith. To get into Heaven you must have faith, you must believe. There is no room for private thought. And within an individual church, why does God seem to love certain people more so than others? You know who I mean, those certain people who seem to get right into the middle of things and push the church in the direction that they see fit. Salvation always seems automatic for them, yet the rest of us have to labor at it. Why out of a population of 5.3 billion Souls, only a small minority (you choose who) will make it to Heaven? And why, why above anything else does God allow us to spend an eternity in Hell for the mistakes of a lousy three score and ten years of miserable mortal life?
This is the end of part 2. Please go on to part three. Click here for Part 1 , and here for Part 3.
1. A Soul Brought To Heaven, William Adolphe Bougouereau Brian Yoder's Good Art
2. Charon The Ferryman Middleschool of Astrology