Time asked an interesting question on last week’s cover: “What if there’s no hell?” Was this supposed to be one more thing to worry about?
Easter is when the press gets metaphysical, finding matters to meditate on that we usually won’t touch with a ten-foot pole. Like a royal wedding, it’s an indulgence, and I’m as ready to get swept up as the next posturing scrivener. I didn’t actually read the Time article, because its question doesn’t keep me up at night. But I was pleased to see Ross Douthat pick up the ball the day after Easter with a New York Times op-ed, “A Case for Hell.” Douthat wrote, “To believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either.” Douthat’s for-instance was Tony Soprano, who “traveled so deep into iniquity—refusing every opportunity to turn back—that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out.”
As it happens, I’d just finished reading a book that grapples with the idea there’s neither hell nor heaven nor even God. Obviously, this isn’t a new idea, and Douthat wasn’t making an empirical case for hell, simply observing that a sophisticated set of metaphysical suppositions should find a place for it. But the charm of The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty is that it returns us to Victorian England, when the absence of God was a new idea—a new idea, at any rate, to a number of intelligent people raised in the Anglican Church who would happily have continued subscribing to their realm’s official faith if science hadn’t lately posed so many inconvenient contradictions.
By our day, however, religion has broken into a thousand palliative illusions. We anthropomorphize feral animals. We fight disease with crystals. We watch Tony Soprano and think of sociopaths as somewhat charming.
And we bask in our “spirituality.” David Brooks took his turn at bat in the Times on Good Friday. He’d just seen the new Broadway hit musical The Book of Mormon and thought it was wonderful. Its message was that religious doctrines tend to be rigid, silly, and harmful, but religion itself “can do enormous good” so long as people don’t take the doctrine literally. For “all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars.” The Book of Mormon teaches this lesson so triumphantly, Brooks wrote, that it took him a while to realize it isn’t true. For “vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last,” he observed. “The religions that thrive have exactly what ‘The Book of Mormon’ ridicules: communal theories, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.”
Which is why it was so wrenching to a Victorian Anglican to be unable to still accept that claim. Christopher Lane, a professor of literature at Northwestern and the author of The Age of Doubt, offers as an example “The Doubter’s Prayer,” written by the third Brontë sister, Anne. Brontë tells God she’d like to be a lot more certain of Him than she is:
. . . If e’er thine ear in mercy bent,
When wretched morals cried to Thee,
And if, indeed, Thy son was sent,
To save lost sinners such as me:
Then hear me now, while kneeling here,
I lift to thee my heart and eye,
And all my soul ascends in prayer.
OH, GIVE ME—GIVE ME FAITH! I cry . . .
If Anne Brontë, who died of tuberculosis at 29, had lived in our era instead of hers, and if she’d hankered for a soul mate, she might have shown up on the Reader‘s Matches site describing herself as “spiritual, not religious.” It’s a popular choice; for a long time I’ve wondered if it’s either a pickup line or an attempt to hang on to faith by a fingernail.
Still, spirituality is real. Christopher Lane tells us Freud puzzled over it. Freud’s friend Romain Rolland, a writer who’d win the Nobel Prize, said religion offered a “sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded.” Freud allowed “I cannot discover this ‘oceanic’ feeling in myself.” Even so, “This gives me no right to deny that it does in fact occur in other people.”
I’ve had two conversations with Matches patrons who call themselves spiritual, not religious. “I’m not religious but I believe in a higher power, I suppose,” says Becky Masters, a 39-year-old massage therapist. “The closest to prayer I think I’ve ever experienced is in a yoga way where you kind of let go and open up a little bit. I don’t think yoga is a religion but it maybe fulfills that world for me. Maybe religious people are looking for the answers outside of themselves whereas I’m looking for the answers inside of myself.” Still, she believes in “the possibility of reincarnation, multiple lives, things like that.” Heaven, she has her doubts about.
Fredrico Casiano is “absolutely” sure of God and heaven. If religions weren’t so quick to open fire at each other, perhaps he’d subscribe to one of them; but as things stand his advice is to seek the spirit above and beyond. An aspiring screenwriter, Casiano, 29, says, “As long as you believe in something or have some faith, the spirit will be more accepting of that rather than following one god. I would describe heaven as—it's endless, a kind of second universe. You will be judged by how you lived in the actual world, and when you get to the spiritual world you’ll be judged by Jesus, by Buddha, all the gods.”
He says a few years ago, “I went through a really bad breakup. I didn’t rely on religion to get me through it, but all kinds of sayings I found in books, TV shows, music. I needed something to make me feel better. I had a couple of dreams too, and after that I was a full-fledged spiritual person.”
At the moment he’s reading The Meditation Year, a book that says “it is possible to learn to meditate without becoming part of any particular faith,” and assures readers, “you will learn meditation easily and experience the benefits quickly. All the meditations in this book are safe and easy to practice.”
If there are no more sacred texts, there are useful texts. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Bible Is Dead: Long Live the Bible,” holds that when “Bible debunkers and Bible defenders” insist Christianity stands or falls on biblical inerrancy, both miss the point that the Bible “canonizes contradiction”—and that’s its charm. It’s a “cacophony of voices and perspectives.”
Victorians were anguished, not charmed, by this idea, and a lot of people today simply deny biblical contradiction. They have too big a stake in what Brooks calls a “rigorous theology” that allows them to feel grounded in “the eternal logic of the universe.”
Next Easter the press will resume the discussion.