The following is a transcript of the sermon written and delivered by Harmony member Steve Cook on Nov. 5, 2023.
All right. Hi, my name is Steve. I actually just joined Harmony officially earlier this year. But I had been coming here for a few years. My wife joined quick, and then I joined slow. [LAUGHTER]
But a couple months ago, I was having a conversation with some fellow Harmonizers about what it’s like to serve on the board here. And we noted how you can’t bribe people with heaven points to serve in this community. And somebody said, that would be a good topic for a sermon. So I said, well, here it goes then.
If the implementation doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.
Since I come from a rather structured religious background, I feel that our official lessons should relate to official church principles. And the UU fourth principle is a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
Now, I’m going to work under the premise that the truth about heaven is inherently unknowable. But we might be able to find meaning while thinking about heaven, which seems like a worthy goal. So that’s why I titled my sermon, “Imagining Heaven.”
(Some places have it written as like inventing heaven or something. I don’t know where that came from. That wasn’t me.)
So imagine with me–that’s the fun and the profit. And after imagining, you might even hope and feel inspired.
So, Plato defies what’s typically referred to as “the theory of forms.” In it, he posits that there are conceptual ideas, forms, that actual physical things attempt to emulate, which sometimes gets translated as substance.
A common reference is that it’s as how you’ve never seen a perfect circle. And this is not a pointer. So that’s what I put a little circle up there. That every circle you’ve seen is an approximation.
But there is a perfect circle that’s out there in another realm. It can be imagined. And we understand it well enough to tell what a circle is and how circular a particular shape is.
Some people have interpreted this ideal as being God’s version of a thing. For instance, they say God’s country. It doesn’t mean that the country belongs to God, because in that theology, everything already does. It means it’s the absolute best.
You could argue that this is God’s sermon because I’m trying to do good. So I’m acting in his service. But let’s not. [LAUGHTER]
I’d prefer to say that this isn’t God’s sermon, because that’s an ideal that doesn’t exist in physical reality. But my point here in putting Plato in a sermon about heaven is that we can see heaven as an ideal that obviously doesn’t match reality, but maybe we can emulate it in some way.
So while preparing for this sermon, I ran into a mess of a frustrating non- Universalist Christian rhetoric. And I realized this is the thing that turns people off from heaven. Toxic Christians. Sad.
A basic principle of Universalism is that all souls will eventually be reconciled with God. So if there’s a heaven, it’s for everyone
One particular article that irked me was from Focus on the Family entitled, Don’t All Good People Go to Heaven? That’s the picture they used for all good people, by the way, up at the top. Such beautiful diversity.
Anyway, FOF’s answer boils down to “nope, only practicing Christians go to heaven. Everybody else goes to hell. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.” [LAUGHTER]
Really? Really? Now, it seems to me there was an acknowledgment there that the system is flawed, but then a doubling down on the answer regardless. It’s hard to respect people who make arguments like that.
Another vexing theme is the second one featured here: “How to guarantee your eternal destination.” Now, it’s a get-saved-quick scheme. To summarize, just accept Jesus into your heart, which can be done in an instant, and you re set for all eternity. [LAUGHTER]
But these two together, you put them, and then the greatest gift you could ever receive is given only arbitrarily and with no recourse. So obviously, that can’t be right.
I debated between referencing utopia and heaven for this service. Some people think of them as very different things. But really, they’re more similar than they are different. The only real difference is that one typically must die to get into heaven. Usually, people imagine achieving utopia without dying. But are they being reasonable?
Heaven has other criteria for entry, generally having to do with living a good life. And we might take issue with how those calls are made. But utopias almost always have a similarly difficult criteria.
For instance, maybe I don’t die, but a lot of other people would have to because we need less people. Or just that there’s some people who have to suffer for the benefit of others, perhaps behind the scenes, at the very least, we would have to change our own– we would have to change our individual lives considerably to get considerably different results.
It’s just that since secular utopias are openly thought experiments, the stakes don’t seem so high. If we could imagine the idea of heaven more as a thought experiment, perhaps we could lower the temperature.
There are some ideas out there that have merits. Looking at the history of heaven, the ancient Mesopotamians, 5,000 years ago, had a system of seven heavens. Gods live in the heavens, including Anana or Ishtar, the queen of heaven.
But ordinary mortals could not go to heaven because it was the abode of God’s alone. Instead, after a person died, his or her soul went to Kerr, a dark shadowy underworld located deep below the surface of the earth.
Judaism also has a system of heavens where God, angels, and other celestial beings live. But like the ancient Mesopotamians, this realm isn’t where the righteous go after death. In a similar fashion, all the dead go to shale, a place of subterranean still darkness.
The ancient Greeks also had gods who lived in heaven, but all mortals were bound for Hades after death. It wasn’t a punishment. It’s just the way it goes for humans. Nothing to be ashamed of or feared.
Hades was referenced as a just, non-tyrannical ruler there. Only mortals related to the gods and other heroes could be admitted to the Elysian fields. So it seems like there’s many ancient religions weren’t all that interested in the afterlife.
The ancient Egyptians, we know we’re interested in the afterlife, sort of in a big way. They famously took great pains to prepare for it. That’s why I have an ancient Egyptian one up there.
The afterlife wasn’t for everybody, though. After death, the soul was judged by the gods. And if one was found not sufficiently pure, their heart was to be devoured by the goddess Amit, permanently destroying the soul of the deceased. She’s that crocodile monster in the picture, just waiting to see how that judgment turns out. [LAUGHTER]
Second Aru, the field of reeds, was the final destination of all souls who had been granted rebirth. I like how this one is one of the cases of a heaven where there is no hell. It’s just “heaven or bust.”
There’s actually even heaven in Buddhism, which I was really surprised about. The highest goal in Buddhism is to achieve nirvana, where one escapes the cycles of rebirth and becomes unbound to the illusions of the universe. In Buddhist cosmology, there are heavenly realms, called saga, where are blissful abodes, where the resident inhabitants, called devas, gain rebirth through the power of their past meritorious actions. You know, good karma.
But those born into saga are still connected with the cycles of life. So they eventually die and are born again into another realm. [LAUGHTER]
But maybe we should focus on the heaven that we’re more familiar with. There’s a popular concept of heaven in the West, generally embraced by lazy Christians, where everyone wears white, lives in the clouds, spends a lot of time singing and playing instruments, praising God, day in and day out for the rest of eternity.
Let’s look at the merits for this setting. It’s above the earth, which is metaphorically good. Also, the clouds make it hidden from view, which is also a nice metaphor. We can’t see heaven from earth. There’s a veil.
The place is clean. I think we’ve all felt the difference between being in a clean place versus a dirty place. Personally, I found myself uncomfortable in some dirty places or uncomfortable because I’m dirty and I’m no germaphobe. I consider myself below median.
Sometimes, if a place is perfectly clean, it can make us feel a little nervous. Like, oh, no, I’m going to mess it up. I don’t belong here. I’m going to take a stand and say that nobody feels that way in this heaven. If you are normally that type of person, it isn’t that you don’t belong in heaven, but that your anxiety will be miraculously relieved. We’re allowed miracles here. This is heaven for God’s sake.
Likewise, you don’t have to worry about maintaining it. There’s no dirt in heaven. Everything is intentional. Some have said that in heaven, all that is not music is silence. Both can be restorative and invigorating. I kind of wish I had more of both.
And of course, people are praising God in heaven. You could say he’s our host, even though we live there. It’s by his grace.
So a great draw of heaven for many is communion with the dead. Now, I’m not old yet, which strangely has come up a few times already, but I’ve still lost friends and family members that I would love to meet with again. At times when we miss them, the thought of a future reunion can be comforting.
Hopefully, when we have these thoughts, though, we can remember to focus and be present for those that are with us in the now.
Another benefit I forgot to add until it was too late for the slides. I suppose because it was just too obvious: God is here. Now, if you believe in heaven, you have almost certainly felt the presence of God at some point and want more of that. In heaven, you can have that all the time.
But if that isn’t your thing, heaven still has another big benefit. There’s no strife here. Everybody gets along and nobody is in need. What a difference from our current earthly state. This, above all, is the peace we try to emulate as we pursue the sixth UU principle, the goal of world, community, and peace, liberty, and justice for all.
There’s problems with this concept of heaven, though. A big problem– a big problem I always saw with this vision of heaven– with this vision of heaven. Wouldn’t it get boring? In the cosmological comedy, “The Good Place,” the philosopher, Hapasha, in heaven, says, “that’s the problem with this place. When perfection goes on forever, you become this glassy-eyed, mush person.”
One of the things heaven is supposed to provide is rest. Rest from persecution, toil, ill health, and suffering. If we’re experiencing persecution for things that are beyond our control, or simply our beliefs that harm no one or living in poverty, it makes sense we wouldn’t be motivated by relief from those things.
Most of us, however, don’t need or wouldn’t even want a rest that was eternal. We just need a break, a shift, a vacation, or maybe a career change. Eventually, we would want to work for things that we care about.
Some religions, like Latter-day Saints, have a fix for that. They believe in a principle called the eternal progression. In that system, the heaven-bound, over time, become more like God, not only in character, but also in power. So they have the means to affect the universe in meaningful ways.
It seems like everybody loves the idea of there being seven heavens. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christian, Hindus, the Gnostics. It’s a very popular idea.
I like to think, as we realize, there are compartments everywhere in the universe, that there’s a place for everyone. And in time, everyone can find their place. But before we can find it, we have to imagine what could be possible and work to achieve it.