When my editor friend suggested that I blog, I balked. Mostly because I didn’t know what it really was all about, but also because I never anticipated it would be this much fun. Maybe I’ll burn out with this and someday just stop but for right now this has been a wonderful ride with others on their journey of faith.
If you looked at Books and Culture to see the piece by Corcoran, and then looked above it, you will have seen my piece on Alan Segal’s new book, Life after Death. Segal, surrounded by many fine things with which I do agree, contends that “heaven” and “hell” need to be deconstructed — though he doesn’t quite say it that way.
In essence, he sees language about heaven and hell as warrants for how life should be lived on earth. It is the language we need, he is saying, in order to get what we want in this life — both from ourselves and from others. If we threaten, because we have power, others with hell for certain behaviors, then maybe they’ll knock it off and be on our side. Such, but not in his terms, is what the historical description of beliefs in the after-life ultimately teach us.
Lo and behold! this evening, after a perfectly lovely walk and dinner with Kris, I sat down and read two chps in McLaren’s The Last Word and the Word After That and Neil (Neo) expresses just this deconstructionist view: to wit, Jesus used hell language, which he borrowed from the Pharisees, who had absorbed it from the ancient cultures discussed in Segal too — Jesus used hell language as a counterforce to get the Pharisees to see that goodness had another meaning other than the one they used. In other words, Neil thinks hell language is a warrant for a moral code for life on this earth. (I haven’t read chp 11 yet, and don’t know what will become of this character or this idea in McLaren’s book.) Maybe he thinks they are more than that, but I could care very little what Neil thinks — since he’s one of those fictional guys who don’t have bodies.
Now, here’s what I’d like to say: hell and heaven are warrants, and the postmodernists see them as nothing but that. They are rhetorical language-games exercised by persons in power in order to get others to toe the line.
What we are learning from the postmodernists is that far too often traditionalists (Evangelicals, Roman Catholics, etc) are using hell/heaven language for little more than warrants to prop up or raise the stakes in evangelism. In the case of Bunyan, of course, hell rhetoric dominates the entire Christian life leading to a rigorous sense of perseverance. Apostasy was real for Bunyan, though his Puritanism led him to the view that true believers would remain and that anyone who didn’t remain was not effectually called and saved. That is beside the point: the point is that hell is used as a warrant.
Is it more?
Here’s where the modern discussion gives us an absolutely wonderful opportunity to discuss hell/heaven as more than warrants and to discuss them in the context of a robust (if also generous) orthodoxy.
I’ve been reading up on perichoresis lately, and my Orthodox friend speaks of theosis, and my Evangelical heritage speaks not so much in these terms but in terms of heaven as worship and the like. In light of these forms of Final Eschatology, what would hell and heaven be then? To be sure, it is a warrant — but so much more.
What might they be?