To Hell with Heaven
David R. Weiss – August 16, 2022
NOTE: I do not write these words lightly. I write them because I believe them to be true. And because I believe them to carry hard grace that we can ill afford to be without.
Near the start of Griefwalker, a documentary about Stephen Jenkinson’s work accompanying those who are facing death, he says: “There’s kind of a hole inside most of us—approximately in the shape of a soul. You can’t know what the soul looks like until you feel for yourself around that hole, that wound. We don’t really know what we’re missing until we put our finger in it. Until then it’s just a rumor.”
The image is overfull. Putting a finger in a wound? It recalls Jesus’ disciple Thomas, who (in John’s gospel) insisted on placing his finger into Jesus’ wounds to confirm the resurrection. But, as Jenkinson soon makes clear, the wound he’s talking about is coming to terms with the certainty of our own death. Not resurrection, but its absence. The unconditional finality of death.
Specifically, mine. Specifically, yours.
Moreover, Jenkinson says this “mortal” wound is our soul: it haunts us at the very core of our being. He regards our dying—more precisely the moment our death becomes more than mere “rumor”—as the crucible in which our living is made real. Only when we dare to touch the wound of our own mortality—”to feel around that hole”—do we begin to live. Prior to that, our living is mostly a running from death, which is the furthest thing from living life.
Unfortunately, that running from death, that refusal to reconcile with the wound that is ours, has given us a badly wounded planet instead.
When I began writing and speaking about faith and the climate crisis in earnest (in 2015), I chose as my overarching theme, “At Home on Earth.” I wanted to suggest that finding ourselves at home here on Earth, embracing the grace of finitude, is crucial in meeting the challenge of climate change. I still believe that. Only more so. Except not.
Only more so. Finitude is the path that leads us “home.” Jenkinson’s wound—which is not “the prospect” of our death entertained as mere likelihood or “rumored” eventuality, but the damming certainty and absolute finality of it: our own personal encounter with finitude—is the only trustworthy door to whatever might yet be for us as a human society. This is not simply learning, begrudgingly, to live within the limits of a finite planet, but to affirm the goodness of those limits alongside the inevitable grief tied to our own death and the deaths of those we love. Finitude is a hard grace, but a grace nonetheless. For death, as Jenkinson reminds us, is the womb of life.
Except not. I no longer believe that “meeting the challenge of climate change” falls into the category of “whatever might yet be.” It probably didn’t fall into that category even back in 2015; I simply didn’t realize that at the time. Another hard truth, this one less gracious: we won’t “meet” the challenge of climate change.
Today “whatever might yet be,” particularly if we pick the pathway of embracing finitude, navigating our way forward by moving into Jenkinson’s mortal wound and feeling our way around inside it, is, at best, surviving with our humanity more or less intact, even as our world, both ecologically and societally is left in tatters. Tattered because of decades of governmental negligence, political obstruction, and highly cultivated personal indifference (though far from individually innocent, we’ve also been carefully conditioned to consume much, care little, and dismiss science). But tattered also as the result of corporate determination to make one last dollar before things go south. (Actually, as things are going south—fast.)
Tattered. That’s our best-case scenario. There are worse scenarios out there. At this point, tattered is a real grace. We dare not dismiss the gift of tattered.
So, I say it’s time to plumb Jenkinson’s wisdom. And to be even more clear about my own conviction regarding what it means to be “at home on Earth”: it’s time to say to hell with heaven.
I don’t definitively deny the possibility of something next … after we die. An afterlife? A rebirth? Sustained self-awareness? A persisting glow within the life of God? Personally, I’m skeptical of any ongoing individual awareness. I don’t expect a glorious reunion on the far side. And I don’t really lament that. I don’t regard an afterlife as central to vibrant, meaningful, profound Christian faith. But I admit the final truth of the matter is above my pay grade. Color me “willing-to-be-surprised” when I die.
But I will say—definitively—that, for NOW, living with integrity on a finite planet requires that we embrace our own finitude. Absolutely. Unconditionally. NO HEDGED BETS. In a world misshapen by More—an addiction to accumulative consumption—and bereft of any widespread notion of Enough, the gospel truth that scandalizes us most of all is this: we die. Each one of us. Specifically, me. And specifically, you. This is the good news, and we need to embrace it as precious wisdom if we hope to live.
So, what would it mean … to touch the wound that is our soul? Jenkinson suggests we only uncover and truly enliven our souls—our Selves—beneath the weight of our absolute finitude. But—crucially—not as curse or punishment; rather, as the simple fact of ecology: life bequeaths death bequeaths more life, and so on. Living deeply in the visceral awareness of our death—our place in the circle of life—is what it means to be “at home on Earth.” To acknowledge we are not “destined” for some other, better place. We are bound graciously to this “best of all places”: from bones to blood to breath … to death … we … are … home.
But heaven tries to tell us otherwise. Heaven lets us “face” death without ever really facing it at all. And because we imagine we carry some sort of “get-out-of-death-free” card, we never take full account of our actions and inactions here and now. Heaven sets us (and typically us alone) outside the circle of life. And that move comes at a dreadfully dear cost to everything left inside the circle. It betrays the whole of creation.
It isn’t heaven alone that will leave our world in tatters. But heaven is an accomplice. It dulls our anguish, moderates our resistance to the wanton destruction of life, and lessens our respect for the Sacred Circle of All That Is. I don’t suggest we give up heaven because it’s easy or comfortable; surely not because it’s a popular suggestion to make. But because doing so may be the difference between tatters … and extinction … in the generations ahead.
No doubt there are plenty of folks who’ve dismissed heaven and are all too eagerly despoiling the planet. They’ve found other ways to deny the full truth of finitude and its gracious claim on them. But finitude is an inescapable law of life. They’ll have their own “Come to Jesus” moment in due time. My argument is not that giving up heaven with necessarily save us or the planet. It’s that holding onto heaven necessarily undermines our best efforts to tend this world well, both for ourselves and for those who will receive it from us. Embracing the full, hard, gracious truth of finitude (which in my mind necessarily means setting aside an afterlife) is now our only chance of navigating the tatters up ahead.
“Except a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die it cannot bear fruit” (John 12:24). With these words Jesus (or John, the evangelist who scripts these lines) is foreshadowing the resurrection. But is it possible these words carry a wisdom less ethereal? That John’s gospel intimates that this is how we claim life-after-death before we die? That only by owning the inescapability of death—in very personal terms—do our lives bear fruit.
Indeed, in the Fourth Gospel the notion of “eternal life” actually suggests infinitely deep-rich-meaningful-compassionate life right now. Scholars call it “realized eschatology”: that the “last things” (in Greek eschatos means “last”), the end, the fulfilment of all that is meant to be, begins NOW in the moment we come to faith. For John’s community, it seems, one of the central gifts of faith was the fulness of “life-after-death” while still alive. That abundance was not reserved for another life but intended for this finite life.
Thus, the first and final Enough by which our lives are plumbed—the Alpha and Omega of all that is—is to embrace enough with loving regard for our own lives. To confess, Life until death is enough. Those five words are the womb for an ethic framed by awe and gratitude, grief and mourning, outrage and struggle, vulnerability and empathy, solidarity and compassion, justice and joy. I suspect that’s what John’s community knew as “eternal life.”
There is an undeniable grief in the awareness that we were made to die … and yet also an immeasurable awe in realizing that death feeds all that lives. Jenkinson says, unapologetically, that it is grief—not hope—that may yet gift us a future. Not the one we imagined. But one we might yet make ours.
Gandhi titled the autobiographical sketches of his Experiments in Truth. I suggest the rest of our lives be conducted as experiments in truth. Facing death, touching that wound, finding our soul between grief and awe—that’s an experiment in truth. Our lives are the lab. And the planet and the future hang in the balance.
If communities of faith desire to be centers of humanity and compassion in years to come, we will do so by finding ways to bear a gospel that is as finite as we are. As this glorious planet is. A gospel that does not “overcome” death, but offers the wisdom and compassion to honor it, embrace it, and nonetheless call us to love … extravagantly.
NOTE: This post carries me to the outer edges of orthodoxy. No apologies. I blog under the heading “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” I expect to pen two follow-up blogs expanding on the ideas introduced here. If you have a question you’d like me to address, please post it in a comment! ~David
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at ww w.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.