What we tend to forget is that in the end we stand as naked souls before the overwhelming Light, and there is nothing else. And not only at the end of time, but fundamentally even now, all that we rely on here on Earth is just the overflowing Light coagulating for a brief time into the forms we find comfortingly familiar.
Those who are unfamiliar with religion, often perceive it as needlessly ascetic. It is as if religious people want everyone to suffer in this life, is the impression. Is it really necessary to suffer as much as possible in this life in order to have joy in the next? Is it so that the sum of suffering in one world equals the sum of joy in the other, in some kind of karmic equation?
That is not how it works, I would say. The best explanation of how I see it is actually by Johan Oscar Smith, a Christian here in Norway, who wrote this about a century ago. (Translation by me, although I believe it is possible to buy Johan Oscar Smith’s writings in English from Brunstad Christian Church.)
“The enemies of our inner life are the forces that will distract the mind by leading the attention outward. These enemies are therefore desires of all kinds, which seek to split the concentrated mind to make it attach to outward things, things that will perish. And just in this lies perdition, that what the heart relied on ceases to exist, whereas itself as eternal being is left with the emptiness, which ought to have been filled by God himself. For this reason it is now very important for God to get the mind away from everything outward, that which shall cease to exist, and turned inward toward the source of life, that which shall continue as the soul continues, so that joy and inexpressible delight can fill us beyond the era of mortality and into the unknown eternities.”
OK, lots of commas there, but I hope you see what he says. The reason why religion begs us to not get attached to outward things is that they are perishable, whereas we are not. That is a leap of faith indeed, for our bodies are more perishable than some of the things people attach to, such as houses or gold. So the basic question of religion is whether we have eternal life, at least potentially. If we don’t, then religion does not matter all that much. And neither does anything else, for everything is fleeting, everything is subject to change and eventually destruction. If this is so, the human awareness is a cruel joke played on us by chance, and animals are better off than we are.
But now we are created with an opening to eternity in our heart. Unlike our furry friends, our minds can travel the paths of time, and not merely the horizontal timeline that goes into the past and the future, but even the vertical line that connects Heaven and Earth. Because we believe this, we do not want the heart to rely on temporary things for its happiness. For these things come and go, but the soul itself is looking toward a time and place where none of these earthly things exist anymore. If they were our sole source of happiness, then perdition would be sure. Then the best we could hope for would be to be utterly annihilated along with the things we relied on. That is not much of a hope, but some have it.
But for those whose hope goes beyond that, it makes sense to avoid attachment. I do not mean avoid using the things of the world, but avoid basing our happiness on them. Chocolate tastes delicious, but it would be pretty sad if an adult were to base all his happiness on chocolate. For a toddler, chocolate is heaven. While he enjoys the chocolate, nothing else matters.* But once we are grown up, we cannot go back to that. We know that this small enjoyment, while true, is not enough. In the same way, when we grow up spiritually, we realize that the joys of the world are not enough. It is not so much that they are not real – they are real to our senses – but they are small and temporary.
(* From my childhood, I remember a vivid fantasy I entertained for some length of time, about being able to buy a whole kiosk full of chocolates and snacks. Now I might afford to buy something like that, but it would only make me sick.)
There is a heresy called “gnosticism”, in which the religious person believes that the world is inherently sinful. The early Christian gnostics, for instance, insisted that Christ could not possibly have been incarnated, since bodies are sinful and not fitting for an awesome person like Christ. He must have just pretended to be in the flesh. Spirit is good, matter is bad, is the theory. But we do not say that. What we say is that spirit is eternal, matter is temporary. To hang onto matter and forsake spirit is to shorten our horizon dangerously. Even in this life, things fall away. As the Buddhists say, it is sure that we will lose our youth, our health, our material possessions, our friends and loved ones, and even our life. Either we will lose them over time, one after the other, or all at once. But we will lose them. The Buddha’s final words were reported such: “All things that have form, are subject to decay. Strive diligently!” Namely, for that which has no form and is not subject to decay.
Because of our natural tendencies or animal nature, we easily attach to things in this world even when we should know better. We have to correct ourselves. Well, most of us do, at least. It may be just a fairly innocent liking for something, but may grow into a fully grown attachment, which has the form “I cannot live without you”. When we say this in our heart to anything on Earth, anything that is limited in time, then we are attached, and we are in a sense already perished. For we will have to live without all such things, at some point, whether we want to or not. Or die trying, I guess, if God is merciful and powerful enough to simply obliterate us. There are some who believe that there is no eternal suffering, because God simply destroys those who are not saved, or rather he stops perpetuating them, stops giving them life. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this. It is a very attractive theory, and I am not sure it is wrong. But as a hope, it is pretty bleak.
The opposite of saying to someone or something on Earth: “I cannot live without you”, is to say (as is said in the psalm): “Who have I besides you in Heaven? When I have you, I desire no one (or nothing) on Earth.” The saints have it this way. Death is not a big deal for them, since there is nothing on Earth, nothing temporary, that they particularly miss. Everything they wanted was in Heaven anyway, so once they have fulfilled their tenure on Earth, off they go with a smile.
I am not a saint exactly myself. I am pretty nervous about my own transition. I don’t look forward to making account for my wasted life. But on the other hand, I can think of nothing on Earth that fills my soul to the point where I think: “No, I cannot die from that! I cannot leave that! I must go back to that!”** It would be a sad note to end a life on, don’t you think? That is how I see perdition.
But I may be wrong. You see, you hear these funny voices, in the Tower of Song…
(** When I was much, much younger than today, I remember worrying that Christ might return before Christmas, which I thought would be a real downer. In my defense, the Norwegian word for Christmas does not actually mention Christ.)