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The Afterlife

Posted on 2010.05.02 at 23:23
Location: tir's room
Mood: contentcontent
 Thanks to a long car ride with some pretty neat folks, I was inspired to write down some of my thoughts about the nature of God, spirit, and life after death. To quote from the end of it, "I am rather amused to notice that, while having no conviction of God's existence, I manage to have a detailed set of convictions concerning God's nature."

It's long, so I've placed it in a  cut.

I just had a great conversation during the course of which I formulated several ideas that have been coagulating in my mind of late concerning God and spiritual life after death. I wish I were inspired to rearticulate the ideas I communicated over the past several hours, onto this page, adequately.

Because I was speaking to two people who are essentially Swedenborgian, I particularly teased out several places where my theology distinctly differs from the New Church – besides the obvious ones of Swedenborg being given the dispensation of the Second Coming and so forth. And I could see where my conversation with the Baha'i woman had affected my thinking by affirming some thoughts and tendencies that I'd been developing already.

In particular, we were discussing the way in which where you spend the next life (that is, for instance, heaven or hell) is determined. In the Writings of the New Church, it depends on what your deepest love is, whether serving others, serving God, serving yourself, and so on. After death, you choose “where” you want to live (I use quotation marks because people have different views on the literal applicability of natural concepts of space to spiritual life) according to your loves, and end up in a community that values similar things. So, if you love yourself above all things, you will move towards a community in which you can practice that love and where others who love themselves also reside. This, however, is hell, and does not allow of the higher joys of selfless love and closeness to God. My two friends were arguing between themselves about the process by which an individual comes to choose a community, i.e., to choose between heaven and hell. While both believe that a person makes most of their progress towards that decision in their natural life (by choosing which loves to develop during life), one held that at death, they are then given fuller knowledge of God and ethics and then given a relatively clear and direct choice, while the other argued that by the time of death, one love has become supreme and will guide them intuitively to their heaven or hell.

I think both have valid points (though I am simplifying their arguments almost beyond recognition here); I also think both have serious shortcomings. My strongest intuitive disagreement comes from the idea that, once chosen, one's community or place in heaven is eternal (to my mind: static). I was somewhat mollified by the response that, though one's deepest love – and therefore one's home in the spiritual world – remains constant, one may travel when other affections take a dominant place in one's heart at the time; and that one's use, or job, may and probably will change although the love, or motivation, remains constant. Still, the idea of a single place in a single afterlife somehow chafes. The soul, it seems to me, is by nature progressive. It is that very thing which learns to be good, upon which the lessons of life are imprinted. In the next life, then, it must continue this process of learning, of refining, and hopefully of becoming closer to God. In my mind, heaven is not a place but a state, a state of being close to God; and hell is a state of being far from, or very unlike, God. I do appreciate the idea that it is one's deepest loves that most truly reflect, or determine, this state. However, there is something missing in this philosophy to distinguish that which makes you uniquely and permanently you and none other from that which you choose and/or become – either of which could be referred to by one's “deepest loves.” Since I did not even begin to reconcile this deficiency in our conversation, I will not try to address it now. Instead, I want to make the point that, if our souls are able to continue progressing in the next life, we must be able to move from hell to heaven during that progression (otherwise, what is progress? Meaningless).

It is my opinion – or, to be more honest, my conviction – that if there is a God, we as humans cannot contain that Being in our conceptions of Them. Especially given our physical and intellectual limitations in this natural world, it is impossible to capture the essence of God – especially within the confines of language, but also utilizing our limited capacities of emotion, intuition, and all the rest. We are to God as a mole is to us (but not, incidentally, the other way around, since our understanding of a mole's internal life is exceedingly limited, whereas God's understanding of us is unlimited); the mole has no means to quantify or fathom the nature of our existence in any clear or complete way. Although the mole may comprehend that we are creatures from which to flee, it cannot tell that we are humans with families and jobs and fashion trends, that we are five or six feet tall, that we have brown or red or black hair. It has no hope of knowing that we want it to leave our garden so that we can eat the plants slowly growing there.

How can you explain the concept of color to someone who has never experienced sight?

Just as we have senses and cognitions the impressions of which are incomprehensible and even incommunicable to those who do not possess them, God – the infinite and perfect spiritual Being – has attributes that our senses and beings are not, in our current state at least, equipped to understand. It seems reasonable to assume that when we shed our physical bodies, we shed at the same time some of these limitations, acquiring new abilities of sensation, cognition, and other abilities we have no precedent to even begin imagining. I sincerely hope we are freer to live in accordance with our deepest loves, because the limitations of our natural lives and understandings make it a daunting task to even approach any sort of alignment while on earth.

I cannot believe that our experience of spiritual life, after death, is in any literal sense the same as our experience of natural life. Neither can I believe that we are immediately granted perfect knowledge and ability, for those qualities belong properly to God, to a Being which is also morally perfect, rather than to morally flawed human spirits. It would seem, then, that we are granted greater likeness to God in the next life, and that those tools enable us to grow closer to God in our inmost beings, in the state of our souls. It also seems logical to imagine that the next life is not the last, but leads to another life in which we are granted still greater likeness to God (i.e., still more abilities and perspectives) and may achieve still greater closeness to Them. Each subsequent stage could be literally or analogously like living in the next higher dimension. This process could continue infinitely as we approach but never reach godliness – or it could continue until we as individuals become truly a part of God.

Incidentally, I can only accept the latter with a certain stipulation (which, perhaps coincidentally, reminds me strongly of the overarching concept of heaven in Swedenborgianism): to be a part of God, one does not have to lose oneself, give up one's individuality, and become part of a homogeneous abstraction. (What is pure Love, after all, without its many varied objects?) Rather, one maintains a specific identity and role but takes their place in a perfect, communal whole. For example, you are a whole – granted a rather imperfect – being. Yet, there are many components of which you are made: organs, tissues, molecules, limbs, depending on how you break it down, and those components are not exactly the same as one another – indeed, if they were, you would be a non-functional being. It is in fact necessary that each performs its natural, distinct function in order to contribute to your overall purpose. There is no cell type that is innately perfect for your body; instead, it is having a diversity of cells that creates (or anyway approaches) perfection.

It is by having and living our own distinct loves that we contribute to the perfect Love that is God.

To explore the distinction I intentionally brushed past earlier, that between the deep loves that are innate to our Selves and the deep loves that determine our closeness to God, let me flesh out this idea of “having and living” our own distinct loves.

As we grow and change and try to become better or more successful or more mature people, there is something core to our beings that remains constant. There is something that is definitely, innately, and unshakably you. I like the idea that this is your deepest loves, that you are defined by what it is you love with the depth of your soul. Though I wouldn't outright claim that these loves are definitely constant, yet I am inclined that true loves are – just as “true love” is. The relative emphasis you place on each of your several loves may shift, and certainly the degree to which you live out each love will change dramatically, yet the loves will remain – they are the constancy of Self.

Life is a process of learning how to apply our loves. If we love our friends and their happiness, then we discover what it is that makes them happy, and we discover the effort we sometimes have to make to not do something stupid that will make them unhappy. If we love the holistic health and beauty of the planet, then we discover the resources required to generate more enlightened practices. We learn to encounter, fight, disassemble, tunnel through, curve around, avoid, or be defeated by obstacles. We learn to place strength of will behind our loves, to cultivate determination, resolution, loyalty.

Some loves are, by their nature, closer to God. This heirarchy is the basis for Swedenborg's heirarchy of Celestial, Spiritual, and Natural heavens ( in the first, angels love serving God directly, I think, but I can't recall the distinction between the latter two) and the mirroring levels of hell. I think similar ideas have pervaded Christian thought in various forms, and rightly so. To love wisdom is better, more God-like, than to love prestige. Perhaps – I would imagine it so – the love of beauty is between the two. Some, it is generally accepted, are downright antagonistic to God (the love of others' suffering, I suppose, though I can hardly imagine such a love to exist). To abide in these loves – to live them, to focus on them – is to abide in hell. It is hell in two senses: one, that you are far from God; two, that you cannot experience true joy. I think that there is enough of God in us that we are in fact made to love most deeply and well those loves which are characteristic of God. If we do not recognize or practice those loves, we create a separation between ourselves and our true Selves, the inmost ideal which we are ultimately striving to become (and which is a part of God). Thus, we are seeking to shed “natural” – i.e., non-spiritual – loves, which are transitory, selfish, and counter to our true natures (which are in this sense “in God's image”) and to cultivate deep spiritual loves, which are eternal, selfless, and godly, and which in their specific character truly and positively define who we are as individuals.

At the same time, we are seeking to more fully align our actions with our loves, and this too brings us closer to God. The more fully we overcome our limitations to embrace a life of pure Love, the more like to God we are – or, to put it another way, the more we are embracing God in our Selves.

We become close to God by the quality and by the quantity of the love that we live.

Thanks for listening to my thoughts about God. I am rather amused to notice that, while having no conviction of God's existence, I manage to have a detailed set of convictions concerning God's nature. However, I should point out that I found myself repeatedly saying things like "I like the idea that..." rather than "I believe...." I would not actually characterize the above as my beliefs. I called them my convictions about God's nature because, though I am not in fact convinced they are correct, I feel certain that opposing ideas are incorrect. It is also interesting to note that my dream, several years ago, of the lightbulb god, and the (imagined? inspired? intellected?) conversation with said god that followed, has filtered more and more into my conscious ideas about God and the world and ethics. Although in this essay, I used the analogy of your body and its constituent parts to show how different, specialized components contribute to a unified and functional whole, it is the image of a silver sphere that keeps me in its thrall. That, though, is probably an image that would make little sense to most people – but to me it's a striking image of wholeness, completeness that requires every single part however small or seemingly contrary.


mashabelle at 2010-05-03 17:23 (UTC) (This entry is lonely)
I appreciate your thoughts, especially your analogy about the mole. You do quite well at imagining the unimaginable, a skill I think we should all strive to develop. I also really liked your thoughts about our "loves". Reading your essay was like being back with you for a few minutes-- I still disagree with you very strongly, and love you all the more for it. Thanks.
flyingpinkllama at 2010-05-03 20:36 (UTC) (This entry is lonely)
I love the mole analogy - very well put. And I agree with Masha, it was like being with you for a bit. It also made me think of your Mom, and reminded me of when she told us about the loves at your house that spring.
The 6th Happiness
the6thhappiness at 2010-05-03 23:21 (UTC) (This entry is lonely)
The funny thing is that I was going to use a "slab of granite" instead of a mole... but, of course, the mole works much better.

My heart feels warm to hear you felt you were with me while reading this.

P.S. I realized I left out a couple sentences of the last paragraph - that's rectified.
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