There’s an old Japanese legend about a man who dies and finds himself in the afterlife. I wonder what the Japanese idea of the afterlife would be? Would Godzilla (Gojira, in Japanese) be there? Do gigantic prehistoric lizards have souls? It’s a mystery, my son. Anyway, I digress. This fellow finds himself in the afterlife and is being show around by his spiritual guide. There were beautiful estates and lush gardens all around. Finally, he comes to a room lined with shelves. And on the shelves were stacks and stacks of ears. The man asks what’s with all the ears, and his guide tells him that these are the ears of the people who listened to the wisdom of the priests, but never acted on what they heard, so only their ears went to heaven.
One of the biggest problems I see with religion in general is that people, being people, use what they find in religion to justify putting one group of people above another. I have no doubt that Cro-Magnon man, living in his cave, thought that his tribe was somehow better than the people living in the cave across the river. Religions, organized religions, seem to divide us all into the good people and the bad people. For some reason, it seems difficult for us to accept that God might love all of us. And that’s why I tell people they should give up religion and go back to God.
No religious teacher ever wanted to establish any kind of organization with rituals and laws. All they ever wanted to do was, in finding God, share that joy and understanding with others. And many times, it was the others, seeing the joy and beauty of understanding in that person, who begged, even demanded, to know the secret of his or her enlightenment. Those people recognized that those people who had come to embrace the divine spirit had something they didn’t. And they wanted it too.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case, they didn’t want to take the necessary steps to gain that understanding. They wanted simple steps. Like the person who feels frustrated when asking how long something should be cooked, only to receive the answer, “When it is ready.” People want an exact time. They want to be able to look at a timer and know exactly when the food will be ready. But the experienced cook knows that the time varies. It depends on the heat of the fire, the thickness of the pan, the consistency of the specific ingredients being used that day. And so the cook has come to learn through many years of practice to tell the dish is ready by that very particular smell, the way the sauce begins to bubble, the color of the meat, that it is ready now, not one minute sooner and one minute later.
People don’t want to have to learn through years of experience. They want to know now. They don’t want to have to spend years of inner searching to find the divine spirit, the Kingdom of God, within. And they certainly don’t want to have to reach out to a bunch of people with whom they would not even speak, let alone embrace. And sadly enough, the early Christian church (although they are not alone in this) was more than happy to oblige. So, according to the Diadache (DIE-duh-kee), and early church operational manual, get baptized, attend the weekly service, and say the Lord’s prayer six times a day and BINGO! You get to go to heaven!
This has led to what I call the magic word syndrome. As long as the priest says the magic words, God has to do whatever he says. So the Mafioso who has just killed his enemy in cold blood can go to the priest and confess and as long as the priest says the magic words, “te absolvo” (I absolve you), the sin is removed and he gets to go to heaven. Now, even from a theological and dogmatic point of view, it isn’t and he doesn’t. The priest would say that the person who confesses has to feel real remorse at the sin and has to have a real desire to reform his or her life. The Mafia guy obviously fails to meet those two specifications. However, there are plenty of people in churches saying specific prayers in the belief that because they have said this prayer the magic number of times, God is forced to comply.
This is why, during the middle ages, even kings were cowed by the church. If the pope were to excommunicate the king, he was damned to hell. God had to do whatever the pope said. No modern Pope believes this. But a lot of people still do, and not just Catholics either. There are many, many Protestants who believe that as long as you’re baptized, you get to go to heaven, even if you’ve changed your mind at some later point. A great many protestant faith traditions claim that the only people who go to heaven are those who believe in Jesus as the redeemer and have been baptized in the faith. And as long as they’ve been baptized, they’re in like flint, even if, later on, they change their mind and become atheists. Once you’re baptized, God has to take you.
This is what many people believe, but no where in any of the sacred texts or any of the religions does it say this. There are no simple steps to heaven. Jesus said the kingdom of God lies within you. You praise God with every act of kindness, with every act of faith. You praise God in the very joy of living. But then, if what Jesus says is true, then there is no need for an authority to make up rules for you. As Jesus says, it is your faith that sets you free. And the people who make up the rules don’t like that. That’s why they killed Jesus. That’s why they killed John the Baptist. When the temple officials asked Jesus by what authority he taught, he asked them by what authority John the Baptist preached. They claimed they didn’t know, mostly because they were afraid to answer. So Jesus refused to answer them. Instead he told them this story:
“What do you think about this? Jesus asked. “A man had two sons. He came to the first son and asked him to go out and work in his vineyards. This son refused, but later on, felt bad about it and went. The father then went to his other son and made the same request. This son said he would go, but never did. Now I ask you, which son did what his father asked of him?”
They all said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “In truth, I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes will find God before you do.” (Matthew, Chapter 21)
These temple guys followed all the laws of Moses. They kept all the commandments. They practiced all the rituals. But there was nothing holy or righteous about them. They used their positions to gain power and wealth and prestige. They didn’t give a shit about the people. I mean, they cared about “the people” in the sort of generic nation sort of way, but they didn’t care about the beggar in the street. And they certainly didn’t care about the tax collectors and prostitutes. They act like they are doing what God wants. But what they are really doing is following the rules, all the rules except the two that count. Jesus said there are only two rules: love God and love one another.
That is why the modern Roman Catholic Church (if that is not an oxymoron) teaches that any person can enter into heaven, regardless of his or her religion. The church no longer teaches that only Christians and only Catholics more specifically will receive salvation. Any person who lives in divine accordance will enter heaven according to current church teachings. Of course, I think the church misses the point in even suggesting that anyone would fail to be accepted into heaven, whatever heaven is. After all, how could heaven be heaven for a mother whose only child was damned to hell?
So those religious people who say that certain people won’t be making it into heaven are just wrong, that’s all. Getting into heaven has nothing to do with following a recipe. In fact, if you look closely, Jesus doesn’t even say that those temple officials won’t enter heaven. What he says is that tax collectors and prostitutes will “enter into the kingdom of God” before them. So he’s not saying they won’t get there. He’s saying they’ll get there later. In other words, believing that you have to embrace specific rules and rituals will get in the way of you actually finding the divine. They are a distraction.
This is not to say that rituals are bad. They are good. You perform the rituals in order to focus your divine spirit. You practice your rituals AFTER you’ve found understanding, to focus your thoughts and prayers. The ritual is not the way. It is what you do AFTER you’ve found the way. Or, to put it another way, an artist may have a creative spirit and a lot of good ideas, but an artist also needs a medium in which to express those ideas. You feel the creative urge and you better be able to make music or dance or paint or write or take photographs or do something to focus that spirit. Otherwise, the creative ideas melt away faster than a Popsicle on a hot summer day. In the same way, your spiritual side needs a focus to manifest itself.
I don’t begin to have any clue as to what heaven is or even if it exists as a place in the way that religions have described it. But I’m pretty sure everybody’s going to be there, whatever it is. And I’ve read nothing in any of the holy books that indicates otherwise. I don’t think people with religion get to heaven any easier than people with no belief in God. But I do know that people with no spiritual beliefs spend a lot of time worrying about things. They also often end up pretty unhappy, having put their faith in things that eventually let them down. People with faith have the same problems as people without faith. They’re just more at peace, that’s all. I don’t think believing in the divine gets you where you’re going. I think it just makes the trip easier.
That person with true understanding, according to Christ, does what God requests. They may do it kicking and screaming. They may only get around to it after a lot of procrastination. They may bitch about it all the time they’re doing it. But they do it. And the case that Jesus makes over and over again is that what God wants is for us to nurture and comfort one another. God wants us to love and to be loved. God wants us to be loving people, to be the image of God, because God dwells in each one of us. And that means God dwells in you. So go bless yourself!