Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Christian Myth of Hell

Ok, so I did what I said I wasn’t going to do. I complained about the current state of our national health. It’s hard not to. Jungian psychiatrist James Hillman was heard to say at a recent Bioneeers’ Conference that “the Economy is the Moloch to which we sacrifice our children.” When we begin to devour our own people for the sake of financial gain, we are truly lost. Dante tells us that when we’re that lost, the only way back out is through Hell.

Hell is not a place I particularly care to visit. Too many people I love have already been there: John West, Nadia and Vselvolod, Anna and Marina, Stella’s grandmother who spent her childhood in the woods while the Nazis hunted her like an animal.

The Christian legend of Hell tells us that Hell is forever. Hell is the sacrament of perfect stasis. In Hell, nothing ever changes. Sinners suffer in the flames of their torment for all eternity, separated forever from God. Never mind for the moment that flames are the most transformative of all elements: stasis as fire is the paradox of the Christian legend of the damned. Like all paradoxes, this legend says something about this culture's obsession with security, our rise to power and our market forces marking "the end of history." It's only another way of saying, we're above change. But to believe oneself above change is only to sink into the lowest depths of ignorance. That's Hell.

When Dante lost himself in the Dark Wood, he was so reduced that he had become his own universe, the only spot of awareness in a blind, unconscious place. A successful poet, he was trapped inside his own self-esteem. He was alone. Even as he was reduced, so was otherness reduced to a trinity of predatory beasts, panther, lion, wolf. They chased him through the inner darkness all the way to the jaws of Hell.

He did get out. But only after a harrowing journey. And not without reliving and healing all that on the Mountain of Purgatory. In another Christian legend, Jesus, too, released those imprisoned in the underworld. Both these tales contradict the official teaching. Hell isn’t really forever; it is but part of its evil to make us think it is. Another paradox is this. The beasts Dante saw as predators loped off to other forests. Only Dante was left to burn.

Dante reminds us that change is a word we humans greet with ambivalence. By midlife, which is when Dante’s adventure begins, most of us are tired of change, of growing edges, of the solicitous advice of others. We wish simply to have arrived, to be done with all that, to enjoy the summer days of household and child rearing. Change in midlife portends aging. Change threatens us with the loss of our hard won gains. It is no accident that Dante was thirty five when he lost his way.

On the other hand, in the world of politics, change is a positive word. “America needs a change!” shout the candidates. “A vote for me is a vote for change.” Knowing that change provokes both hope and fear, Barak Obama linked change with hope in his recent presidential campaign. Hope and fear are but another way of saying yin and yang, front and back. They are cut from the same cloth.

But if our political discourse, at least at its highest levels, claims to be progressive, the human person, as Dante suggests, is far more conservative. As if change in public is one thing and change in private quite another. It makes me wonder if, for all our faith in progress, we understand change at all. As a young girl during the ‘sixties, excited about riding the waves of change and believing that it was possible to build a just world, I thought change was wonderful. Growing up was exciting, full of hope and fear, at least until I crashed. More than forty years later, I see change as simply inevitable. I can no more manage change than I can manage the weather, but if I am wise, I’ll have a rain coat.

“Those who would save their lives will lose them and those who lose their lives for my sake and for the sake of the Good News will find them. What does it profit us to gain the whole world and to lose our very souls?”

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