What the Hell Was That All About?

DSC_0151 (2)Yesterday I sat in the shade under our blossoming magnolia and finished reading Robert Olen Butler’s novel, Hell.  The author imagines the after lives of politicians, writers, actors, and artists.  His main character is a news anchorman, and his punishments in hell include reading from flawed and obscene teleprompters (“poopy butt, poopy butt”), holding a wooden smile as the camera refuses to pan away at the end of a broadcast, and running stories by Beelzebub, his producer.  I smoked a cigar and enjoyed the cool breezes that stirred the leaves and branches overhead.  The contrast between the suffering depicted in the book and the comfort I felt created a pleasant dissonance.

One of the themes in the book is that we often are the cause of our own suffering.  We choose situations and people who harm us.  We do this repeatedly as if our learning curves are flat lines.  One character in the novel, Anne Boleyn, is still obsessed with Henry VIII and is incapable of loving any other.  She seeks him out, but their relationship is just as dysfunctional as it had been in the mortal realm.  After one reunion she gets so depressed that she removes her head and puts it on a shelf.  But in the end she reattaches and goes back to him.

Another idea that Butler revisits is that our thoughts are often a source of  pain.  When we live in the past and consider things we’ve done we eventually find painful memories and regrets.  The protagonist, after seeking out his three ex-wives in an effort to discover how he ended up in hell, discovers little that provides him clarity.  His exes are just as self-delusional as he.  The newscaster learns that living in the moment, no matter how painful, causes less suffering in the long run.

The author also depicts heaven as a place of sterile perfection.  In the last chapter the newscaster escapes through a back door into paradise, but eventually decides to return to hell.  He realizes that he prefers a messier place where everyone searches for satisfactions they cannot find and seeks comforts that their fellow damned cannot provide.  No one in hell can truly understand the suffering of another person, yet all are united by a common denominator:  pain.  The newscaster realizes that he belongs in hell with the flawed beings parading before him and declares his love.

A man pulled up in an old sedan across the street from me and interrupted my reading when I had just a few pages left.  He delivered a pizza to the house next door.  As he stepped back into his car he grimaced, slung the thermal bag into the back seat, and asked, “Why does it burn?”  He dropped to the hot pavement and began to do push ups.  After twenty he stood up, wiped sweat off his forehead, got into his car and drove away.

I watched his car turn a corner and disappear.  I thought, “What the hell was that all about?”  Maybe I need to reread the book.


Dinosaurs and Heaven: Science vs. Religion

dinosaur angel

When I moved to Orlando I saw decals on cars that carried on a debate between science and religion.  One was a fish, a symbol of Christianity, and letters inside its outlines spelled out “truth”.  Another decal showed the outlines of the same fish, but little feet replaced the fins.  The letters inside spelled “Darwin”.  A third decal came in the form of a “truth” fish eating a “Darwin” fish.  I’m not sure if anyone’s thought up a fourth.

I’ve seen YouTube videos of mothers protesting against public schools teaching boys about dinosaurs.  They believe that a boy’s aggressive tendencies can be awakened by seeing pictures of T-Rexes, that these images “bestialize” their sons.  Some mothers insist that dinosaurs never existed as the Bible does not mention them.  The thunder lizards are a hoax perpetuated by paleontologists to get grant money from the government.

Other groups believe that dinosaurs did exist, but not before Adam.  They ignore evidence provided by carbon dating.   They claim instead that God snapped His fingers, and the earth suddenly teemed with all the creatures that would ever walk, swim, ooze and fly.  (Whoop, there it was!)

The graphics that illustrate this proposition lack imagination.  They usually show kids playing with baby brontosauruses while a volcano puffs benevolently in the distance.  But if you thought about the rampant conditions shortly after this Creation moment, you’d have to conclude that our planet was truly exciting for the species that currently survive.  Elephants would have had to outrun T-Rexes.  Lions and wolves would have  fought velociraptors over kills.  Owls and eagles flew along side pterosaurs, and sharks competed with fifty foot mosasaurs for the rights to seal hunting waters.  (If I were Adam I wouldn’t have lazed about naming this and that creature and pining for a soul mate.  Instead I would have found a dark corner in a cave and hid myself away while the rest of creation sorted things out.)

I once worked with a woman named Mrs. Putterbaugh.  She was deeply religious and did not approve of a coworker, my roommate Dave.  He was a master’s degree student in biology.  Dave believed that science would eventually solve all the mysteries of the universe and that any form of religion was an obsolete superstition.  She complained about his impatient dismissal of her beliefs and said, “The really smart ones have a hard time getting into heaven.”

She smiled at me as she said that, and I knew that she included me in the heaven bound elect.  She assumed two things:  1) I was not as smart as Dave; 2) my faith in scripture outweighed my belief in science.  My roommate was smarter, but my attitude toward religion at that time was almost identical to his.  If he and I had been plastered flat on I75 by a jack-knifing semi, we both would have been consigned to the flames.

I didn’t tell Mrs. Putterbaugh that it’s foolish to cling to myths disproved by science.  And I didn’t explain to her that the earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, that creatures gradually evolved over millions of years, and that T-Rexes never lay down with lambs.  She would have closed her ears and begun leaving Bible tracts at my work station.

Now I might fare better in a discussion with her.  I believe in the ability of science to describe and predict reality, but also believe that the practice has its limits.  We are puny creatures with limited means of exploring the vast reaches of creation.  It’s arrogant to assume that we will know and understand All if given a enough time to smash subatomic particles and balance equations.

Only God knows why He (She, It, The Cosmic Transcendence) bothered to let the universe be in the first place.  Science is good at figuring out what and how, but usually avoids why.  There are no equations that answer this question:  what’s the point of existence?

The Roman Catholic church has overcome it’s past of suppressing science, and generally embraces the idea that religion and science can coexist in harmony.  My fifth grade teacher, a nun named Sister Joseph Marie, commented, “The Catholic Church has no problems with Darwin and the theory of evolution.”  A classmate asked, “But what about Genesis?  Doesn’t it say that everything was created in six days?”  Sister replied, “What is a day to God?”


A Perfect Day: Vestibule of Heaven

Folks who have returned to this world after a near death experience often report that they were given a taste of heaven.  Some say that it featured beautiful gardens, celestial music, mild weather and a landscape backdrop of Alpine meadows framed by snow covered mountains.  They were given a glimpse of a perfect day.

My perfect day would be a bit different.  I would wake up on a Saturday morning with my wife Judy beside me in bed.  We would both have our twenty something bodies and sharpness of intellect, but would be as emotionally mature as we are now (late fifties, early sixties).  Sunlight streaming through partially open blinds would wake us, but we would linger in comfort and warmth beneath our blanket.  She would stretch and yawn, roll over and give me a hug and a kiss (neither of us suffering from morning breath), and we would chat for a while and plan our day.

Breakfast would be pancakes topped with strawberries and whipped cream.  Judy would sip on a cup of mint tea, and I’d have strong coffee with sugar and cream.  Pages from a newspaper would be passed back and forth, and the stories would be about new discoveries in science and would be reviews of wonderful books and beautiful art exhibitions.  News items about political, religious and economic strife would not exist as folks throughout would have finally come to the realization that no one benefits if someone suffers.

After breakfast we would do a few light chores, then go out to a nearby park to go hiking.  Judy took me to Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania when we were first married, and I’d like to return to its paths and climb upward through forests of pine, maple and oak and past stands of flowering rhododendrons.  Near the top we would walk out onto a broad ledge and look at hawks soaring in slow spirals on thermals above a checkerboard countryside of farms, forests and small towns.

After our hike we would stop off, magically of course in this version of heaven, at Junior’s Diner in Orlando.  I would order a cheeseburger, fries, cole slaw and more coffee, and Judy and I would split a hot piece of apple strudel for dessert.

It would rain on the way back home, and we would get sopping wet.  After hot showers and a change into dry clothes we would nestle together on a comfortable sofa and watch a Cary Grant and Jean Arthur movie.  We might fall asleep and take a nap before getting up to make a salad, grill salmon, and toast garlic bread.

After supper we would take a walk in our neighborhood and visit with our loved ones as we strolled from house to house.  We would sit in my grandparents’ side yard beneath a lilac bush and watch the fireflies come out.  A few rabbits would make a timid entrance near sunset and munch on clover, and Grandpa would tell me stories once again about what it was like to grow up in Dayton in the early 1900s when delivery wagons were still pulled by horses and the Wright Brothers could be seen flying new biplanes over the town.

When we return home our children would be waiting for us on our front porch with their children and spouses in tow, and we would go inside and make popcorn.  The grandkids play on our carpet while we grown ups discuss work and the weather.  When Judy and I get sleepy our guests take their leave after promising to return soon.

As we lie in bed Judy and I talk about how we met and when we knew that we were in love.  We might recall a few hard times, but would look at them from the reassuring perspective that we had weathered many storms together and that things had eventually turned out all right.  The last thing I’d hear before drifting off would be the sound of Judy’s breath slowing down and taking on a steady rhythm as she falls asleep beside me.

*After rereading this a few times I realized that many elements of my perfect day were a close match to what Judy liked to do when we were in our late twenties and early thirties.  As time goes on our tastes and preferences have grown closer.  When I was a younger man I would have changed the hike into a baseball game, the simple meal at the diner into a lobster fest, and the movie into The Godfather.  What can I say?  Judy won me over, and I don’t care.