Faithful Friends Who Are Dear to Us
So, try not to read too much into it, but lately I've been thinking a lot about heaven. About what it means to live in the kingdom of God. And what keeps returning to the fore of my attention is this idea that God's plan for redemption of this world, his picture for the Kingdom of Heaven, does not take place primarily in the lives of individuals but in communities. People, other people, other messy, complicated people are at the heart of what it means to experience God's life.
But not everybody thinks so.
French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre is oft quoted as having said something like "hell is other people." And while this may be a bit of a misquote, or at least a mischaracterization of Sartre's larger ideas achieved by plucking this one from its context (the words actually come from a play of Sartre's wherein one character laments his inability to escape the judgment and scrutiny of others), I think it's fair to say Sartre's sentiments toward people were... complicated at best.
Now generally I'm not one to lean on thinkers like Sartre in developing my own theories and philosophies. For one thing, Sartre was a bit of a cynic. Or, more accurately, a nihilist (from the latin "nihilo" for nothing, as in, nothing is real or meaningful). His conception of reality was rather grim. I think back to the decade-old and short-lived Judd Apatow sitcom Undeclared wherein one college freshman learned about Sartre in an intro to philosophy class and was for the remainder of the episode paralyzed by a sense of life's inherent meaninglessness. He stopped eating, bathing, going to class. Because, *groan*, why?
A tempting response to life's weightier questions indeed. Certainly we can all relate to this ambivalence toward others, toward messy people and their feeble attempts to construct meaning from dust. Who among us hasn't grown weary of the constant burdens of social interaction and feigning optimism? Why not just... avoid it altogether?
Hmmm. Can that be true? It seems to gel with some facets of the human experience well enough.
At this point my thought train gets a bit stuck on the tracks.
Enter old British thinker/writer/theologian C.S. Lewis. Now Lewis had a profoundly different idea about what hell is.
In his novel The Great Divorce, Lewis imagines a tour bus full of citizens of hell, able to periodically visit heaven, even able to stay if they so wish, though hardly anyone ever does.
These hellbound souls are actually unaware they live in hell to begin with. They see their home simply as a grey city, where they may move further and further away from each other, procure larger swaths of land, more possessions, more space from their dreaded neighbors. This, to them, is heaven. Heaven is freedom from the mess of the other.
Only, in Lewis' allegorical afterlife, these natives of the grey city are actual citizens of hell, without even realizing it.
Sin, within this spiritual and narrative framework, is the propensity toward isolation, toward a life oriented around self at the expense of human relationship. And left unchecked, this isolation can become hell.
Indeed, according to Lewis, hell is pure isolation. It is the absence of other people. Because, as Jewish theologian Martin Buber would say, we are only human insofar as we are willing to enter into relationship with the other. A "human" in a vacuum is not a human at all. "I" is not "I" without "Thou".
Heaven, then, is other people, just the opposite of what Sartre said. Heaven is the community which teaches us how to be real, vulnerable, loving, and gracious with each other. Heaven is where we learn how to be people, in the fullest sense.
The Carpenters sing a lovely "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". It is by far my favorite rendition of the song, mostly because Karen Carpenter's warm alto takes me to a Christmas place in a way no other voice can. Here, listen closely for the line, "faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more." Listen for the heart behind it. We need faithful friends, and Christmas is as good a time as any to renew those relationships. This Christmas let us seek to be more human with each other, to restore old relationships and in doing so awaken more of ourselves.