The following is a recycled post from my previous weblog, originally posted in October of 2008.
In a conversation I had recently, I was struck by how religious fervor is so often given over to nearly everything but religion. In this particular discussion, my interlocutor was greatly concerned about people who had no health insurance, because of a frequent interaction with such people, some of whom are genuinely suffering seriously with life-threatening illnesses. My position in the discussion was that health care, while important, is of relatively lower importance compared to questions of eternal significance. What I didn’t know was that that statement would reveal that I “live in la-la land.” Something real has to be done, I was told, and I got the strong impression that that meant it had to be some kind political action.
In all honesty, I regard much of politics as the real “la-la land,” and not only because the candidates usually lie about what it is they’ll do once in office (either deliberately or through a change of course after inauguration). Rather, my concern is that those who genuinely want to see real help for real suffering so often believe that the best (and perhaps only) way to effect such a change is to vote for it. This attitude is directly related to the common (and specious) maxim that “You can’t complain if you don’t vote.” This whole paradigm is based on the diversion of devotion which is deserved only in religious matters to questions of politics.
And yet it was the non-Christian Gandhi who is remembered for saying, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Voting, while a potentially useful measure in a limited way, is in my experience one of the remotest and impractical things one can do in order to effect change for the good. What most of us (including myself) are usually unwilling to do is to meet suffering in front of us with a direct action on our own part. It may not be the case that I will be able to pay another’s health insurance premiums, but I can say a kind word, offer prayer, offer comfort in numerous ways, or perhaps I may have the funds to pay for one doctor’s visit. Or maybe I can try to find doctors who help people at discount or gratis rates. Or perhaps I can work for the reconciliation of that person with the family who were previously helping them with their health needs. Or I may be able to help on a grander scale and put together a private foundation dedicated to helping people in such crises. In comparison with all these sorts of direct and meaningful ways of addressing suffering, voting and all political action seem to me to be a relative “la-la land.” Anything which makes responsibility for doing good someone else’s responsibility rather than my own is a drift off into unreality.
The spiritual problem that we face in our culture is ultimately one of priorities. Most of us say that God is real, and most of us probably believe that what we do in this life matters in the next. Now, either this is true or it isn’t. If it isn’t true, then of course we should live for the next pleasure or (perhaps on a somewhat nobler plane) the “common good.” But if it is true, then that means even living an ethical life can never be “enough.” The reality of God does of course propose a certain ethics to us, but His existence and (especially for the Christian) His interaction with mankind propel us into a realization and an experience far more intense and powerful than mere ethics. For God wishes to know His people and wishes us to know Him. This is what He says salvation actually consists of. “Going to Heaven when you die” is, by comparison, almost a spiritual afterthought.
I’ve been told that it’s a “hard sell” to convince folks that our investments in this life yield dividends in the next. That’s been true from the beginning of the Gospel’s preaching. But what really astounds is that this is a hard sell even for those who claim to believe in God and in an afterlife. True faith, it seems, is a “la-la land” of impracticality.
But what is practical, our praxis, is what we make of it. If our life’s praxis is only ever to pursue goals which will all find their sudden and abrupt erasure at the moment of death, then of course, all that is practical will also be temporary for us. If we have never or seldom actually tried living another kind of praxis, we will not have any concept of what can actually be attained. But those who redirect their praxis in the direction of what is eternal find that what is practical involves a great deal more than what is temporary. And truly, even the temporal can be transformed to have not only temporal but eternal significance.
The ministry of Jesus in the Gospels included a lot of temporal work. He healed many diseases and brought people back from the dead. But in all those cases, those people eventually died. The 5000 hungry He fed all eventually died. The paralytic He healed died. The lepers He healed died. Does this mean that His ministry was useless? Indeed, no, because His purpose in all of that temporal care was to lead people to eternal life. Sometimes, He used it as a “hook” to get people to listen to His words. Sometimes, He used it as a demonstration of the power of God to engender faith. Sometimes, He used it to demonstrate what happens after people show their faith. But in all cases, He used the temporal aspects of His ministry to lead His suffering creation to what is eternal. I cannot imagine Jesus ever merely voting for change.
A well-known statement from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity sums up this whole question well: “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.” I like the rest of that paragraph, too: “It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining that there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more—food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.”
This axiom is true for all of us. If our aim is at Heaven, whether in terms of the charitable and compassionate acts we do for others or how we direct our finances or whatever else, then we will find earth to be “thrown in,” though often not in the ways we initially might prefer. But it’s usually better. Here’s some more from Lewis:
Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all—except in so far as ‘Heaven’ means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.
And, since we are on the subject of “la-la land,” and also because I have always appreciated wit, I couldn’t help but finish up this little reflection by yet another quote from Lewis’s beautiful “Hope” chapter in Mere Christianity: “There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’. The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.”