Imagine there’s no heaven

This morning’s news of a State of Emergency in Brussels is chilling. Less so than the deadly attack in Mali, but one doesn’t need to be a mathematician to add up the increasing number of threats, deaths, and States of Emergency and conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Whether one calls it Daesh or the Islamic State, we are dealing with something worse than insanity. The killers are not insane. They do not qualify for a pass, as do those who commit criminal acts but are judged as “criminally insane.”

One wonders, then, what draws a young Belgian, Frenchman, or American to ISIL.

The late teens and early 20s are a peculiar stage of human development,  which may help explain, in part, the attraction of idealistic younger people to an organization that promotes an ideal society – the caliphate. Younger men in particular are looking for vocation -a call, a purpose larger than themselves – to which to give their lives and, if necessary, to die for.

In America in the ’50s, ’60s, and early ’70s those of us who were idealistic found a calling in the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement. We marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloane Coffin. We sought to stop the enemies of racism and war, to create a more perfect world without either.

At first the notion that it is idealism that draws young, disillusioned western men and women to ISIL strikes us as a contradiction in terms. But idealism is a grand vision worth living and dying for. That it is illusory or demented does not negate its essential character as idealism.

The 21st Century was supposed to be better than the 20th, the deadliest century in the history of the world. Clearly it is not, and any previous projection of a religionless world at peace with itself – remember john Lennon’s “Imagine” – has proven as unreal as the hope for peace and mutual understanding. Religion will not go away. The only question is what kind of religion we practice irrespective of whether one is Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, Pantheist, or Animist. Do we practice it humbly or arrogantly, confessionally or righteously, as penitents begging for mercy for participation in the evil we deplore, or as righteous crusaders for the Kingdom of God or the Caliphate; as those who accept our mortality as a precious gift, or cheapen life by sacrificing others and themselves for their vision of eternal life?

In a recent presidential debate candidates were asked to name the greatest threat to national security. One answered Islamic terrorism. The other answered Climate Change.

Today defeating ISIL and its extremist counterparts seems more urgent than action on Climate Change, but Climate Change is the more important and longer-lasting threat. But there is a common belief that underlies both crises. It is the illusion that we are immortal, the consequent denigration of earthly life, this miraculous life we experience on this planet between our births and our deaths.

The lure of an afterlife is ludicrously represented by a French imam’s sermon warning children not to listen to music. Why? Because listening to music puts the children at risk of being “turned into monkeys and pigs.”

No monkey or pig has organized for killing in the name of heaven. Neither should we.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 21, 2015



8 thoughts on “Imagine there’s no heaven

  1. Gordon, I had a prof back in 68 who had been a colleague of one of the “death of God theologians”, Altizer or Vahanian, down in Georgia. I kind of understood what it was about at the time but have been looking at it again more recently. It seems their theology was much broader than the popular press gave to it. One observation was that “The Death of God” was a poor choice of terms to describe their idea.
    Some say a better terminology would have been “the absence of God”. As capitalism has forced religion to adapt to its reality God for many has receded from human societies. At least one can see this when looking at the fundamentalist church and its embracing of the status quo free enterprise economy(I forget the catch phrase for this phenomena) as though it was ordained by God. Of course, they practice a lot of Christian love in their interaction with the world & each other but capitalism isn’t questioned very much. The present economy is a given and if people don’t take advantage of its opportunities they are judged as slackers, moochers, welfare cheats, etc. As Tillich said capitalism is the devil incarnate. Is this what he was saying as his way of describing the “death of God”. He also said that atheism was just the beginning of the search for a new definition of God. I agree that your last paragraph in your response to my 1st comment is evidence that Christ is the reason God isn’t really dead and you have moved on to being able to redefine God’s presence in the world. Thank you.


    • Gary, I was steeped in Altizer, Hamilton and Vahanian in my middler and senior years at McCormick to the point of representing McCormick at the Bellarmine Disputations of the Jesuit Seminary. Vahanian may be the most interesting of them because he was a sociologist as well as a theologian. Taught at Syracuse. As I recall it Tillich was deeply disappointed in Altizer’s work and was highly critical of it. I admired Willem Zuurdeeg’s work (An Analytical Philosophy of Religion and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry) because he really “got it” that the god of Western culture — the omnipotent, controlling God of the he called the Western World Home — was dead. That god was dead because it was the self-serving creation of human cultural imagination, a tribal god. Zuurdeeg built his reflection Nietzsche’s parable (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) of the town crier who comes into the public square announcing that God is dead and that “we have killed him, you and I.” There is no longer north or south, east or west, the world has become dark. But the people laugh at him, calling him a madman. It will take years for the message to reach them. Like Bonhoeffer, Zuurdeeg saw the death of this god as a “clearing of the decks for the God of the Bible who is crucified by a hostile world.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Gordon, thank you so much for making me think again about how I and how our country practices our religion. The refugee situation has upset more that some of the things that our politicians have been saying. At times, I feel there will be no solution, at least not one that I can live with.




    • Hi Cynthia. Thanks for taking the time to comment. One of the things that’s happened over the past 35-40 years is the rising tide of conservative evangelical, fundamentalist, and now Christianity lite megachurches that entertain more than deepen or broaden the soul. We just got home from a dinner for new members at Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior where Kay will be welcomed into membership tomorrow. We love this church. Why? It’s a liturgical church, it celebrated the Eucharist every Sunday, the preaching is really solid. Everything else – education and community engagement – is rooted in its liturgical practice. If one takes the gospel seriously, there is not way to say what’s being said in response to Syrian refugees. Steven Colbert said it great on The Late Show in response to Jeb Bush’s statement that it’s easy to know whether a potential immigrant to the U.S. is a Christian. Google it and read his defining question based on Matthew 25. You’ll love it.


  3. Gary, Thank you for this. Your historian’s eye and geo-political analysis bring forward again the elephant in the living room: the West’s (led by the U.S.) state terrorism in the Middle East, military-economic-political incursions, destabilizations, and military coups for the sake of what? I was unaware of the connection between rural Syrians running to the cities because of draught. The assessment re: Western corporations “hijacking” the Baathist socialized economy of Iraq was confirmed by none other than Alan Greenspan who said the cause of the Iraq war boiled down to one thing:oil.

    The parents, relatives, neighbors and friends of those children who suffered and died because of the American embargo preventing medical supplies reaching Iraq will never forget, just as the people of Iran have not forgotten the assassination of their democratically-elected President in the ’50s. When Jeremiah Wright said that the chickens had come home to roots, he was referring, as you know, to reaping the terror we’ve sown in the Middle East.

    I think there was and is outrage over the bombing of the hospital in Afghanistan, but, as Stringfellow observed during the Vietnam War, the constant assault of bad news night after night has the effect of demoralizing the general population. By ‘demoralizing’ he meant de-moralizing, numbing our capacity for care and compassion. I think the same is happening today in spades. It’s very dark, and the consolidation of the press, cable, and television media by right-wingers like Murdoch serves to elevate the temperature of fear and unexamined response.

    For myself the most important symbol remains the cross of Jesus. The cross as the symbol of the convergence of state and religious terrorism, on the one hand, and the witness to truth, goodness, and the God above God, on the other. That’s where I draw my strength to continue the critique – in the light of the crucified-risen Christ.


  4. There is the evidence that the Syrian civil war was created by the climate change-induced drought in Syria & the ME. The Syrian rural pop was forced by drought to migrate to the larger cities creating huge problems for the Syrian Assad govt. Add to this the successful attempt by Western corps to hijack the Baathist socialized economy of Hussein’s Iraq & now the attempt to overthrow the Baathist socialized economy of Assad. The U.S. Neo-Con/neoliberal strategy of destabilizing the whole ME for the purpose of dismantling the socialized economies & exploitation by the West has been achieved. This is the real evil that has generated a “blowback” of equally debased retaliation by ISIS. We are reaping what we sowed. Imagine the rage we have created in Iraq by the deliberate U.S. strategy of causing the deaths of about 600,000 children during the Iraq War by using an embargo to prevent the medical supplies getting through to Iraqi hospitals. We bombed a hospital for an hour 2 weeks ago, in Afghanistan, manned by “Doctors Without Borders”. Why is there is there no outrage by Americans when their own military commits massive atrocities? As Noam Chomsky says, “The US is the largest terror organization in the world”. U.S.,”state terrorism” has become an accepted form of patriotic terror supported by American citizens.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s