We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too. Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.
Some people have a problem with that.
Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.
This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him). Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves. If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth. Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”
I always omit that line when “Gather Us In” is sung, as I rather would like God someday to gather me into heaven, even if I have to travel light years to get there. In fact, I think we as a Church need to be a bit less overawed by Nietzsche’s rather wobbly charge and a bit more assertive in speaking about—and ordering our lives around—our hope of heaven.
I am a bit surprised that Nietzsche repeats the old argument about the hope of heaven detracting from earthly life because his own philosophy provides the resources to counter it. He really should have known better.
Contrary to popular caricatures, Nietzsche has a fairly mature view of the role pain plays in human life. He’s not really a sadist, as some critics paint him, but he does realize that human growth requires discomfort, a certain amount of asceticism, and, yes, even pain. He’s critical of the bourgeois Christianity around him which seems mostly concerned to protect its comforts and insulate itself from challenge. In this respect, he’s not all that different from Søren Kierkegaard, who critiques the same people but with greater nuance and entirely different intentions.
Nietzsche sees belief in the afterlife as enervating, and, for some, I agree, it could be that at times (more on that in a moment). But for the saints belief in heaven has always been more catalyst than palliative. Look at the tremendous energy expended by the missionaries Paul or Xavier; or the marshalling of earthly resources accomplished by the founders of religious orders; the artistic achievements inspired by belief in heaven; the enduring examples of heroic integrity we see in, say, St. Thomas More. Subtract belief in heaven, and Thomas More is just another British bureaucrat.
The hope of heaven gives us the perspective to live beyond our momentary comforts. It gives us the courage to do what is right instead of what the buzz of public opinion tells us is realistic. It gives us a sense of the big picture of our lives, putting our focus where it should be, on God and life in him, instead of on the minutiae in which we otherwise find ourselves bogged down. It prevents trivialities from growing into idols. In doing so it should, in fact, make us more attentive to our earthly duties.
But even though I find Nietzsche’s critique rather limping and unpersuasive, it does alert us to the ways in which we sometimes get belief in heaven wrong. Belief in the afterlife should be a spur to live better lives, not a comforting fairy tale we mutter about only at funerals. When we only talk about heaven if somebody dies—instead of making it a part of our daily living—we fall into Nietzsche’s trap and make eternal life seem like a soothing myth.
We can trivialize heaven, too, through what in the old days was known as the sin of presumption and today might be described as a “mentality of entitlement.” Quite often the four last things (death, judgment, hell, and heaven) get reduced to only two last things, death and heaven. And when that happens heaven becomes something we take for granted, a sort of divinely instituted Medicare program in which everyone gets automatically enrolled at death.
Heaven is, in fact, an earth-shattering reality, God’s offer to share his life forever, which begins in the concrete choices we make every day of our lives. It is a shocking gift. If we take it for granted—or are embarrassed to speak of it because we’re intimidated by the likes of Nietzsche—then we do risk becoming the sort of “mutterers and nook counterfeiters” he mocks.
A month or so ago, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago shared a wise and honest reflection about heaven, which I think is worth repeating here:
Often the official prayers of the Church presuppose that we long for eternal life, that we have a desire for heaven. As I say them, I sometimes ask myself if that is true, because most of my prayers concern things I want now, in this life. There may be a nod toward that moment of our last breath, but it doesn’t occupy the place in my imagination that relativizes all other desires.
It seems to me that I crowd out what is ultimate because my prayer is not filled enough with simple listening. If we give God the chance, he’ll put our soul in order. For that, we need to be silent.
As we move from the end of November, with its remembrance of death and the dead, toward Advent, when we wait quietly for the Lord’s coming, the Cardinal’s words seem particularly apt. When it is filled with God, silence can be earth-shattering too.