Thursday, July 1, 2010

...fires of hell...

I saw the fires of hell
and people were not burning there.
All that was burning was
what they had refused to let go of on earth.
And the flames were not punishing;
they were liberating.

~Meister Eckhart

Do you recall when burning in hell was a prevelant religious concept for many of us?  When churches actually taught that the almighty, loving, heavenly father would punish us forever in the fires of hell for our sins.
Now, hell seems to be an anachronism

Of all the fears layed out before me in the therapy encounter, no one has ever discussed a fear of hell.  It just seems that it is no longer a relevant factor in anyone's life.  Although, one could hypothesize that those who believe in a literal hell would not be inclined to seek out therapy ... Anyway, I would be hard pressed to think of one person I know who believes in a literal place of eternal fire and damnation. 

It intrigues me why certain religious beliefs just seem to fall away while others retain their grasp on our minds and hearts.  Why would we not begin to question heaven once we have rejected the concept of hell?  If hell can fall by the wayside, are there other presumed truths we need to reconsider?

Have we committed the ultimate act of idolatry by taking the symbol, the metaphor for the reality? 

Joseph Campbell said,  “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.....the imagery that has to be used in order to tell what can't be told, symbolic imagery, is then understood or interpreted not symbolically but factually, empirically. It's a natural thing, but that's the whole problem with Western religion. All of the symbols are interpreted as if they were historical references. They're not....."

Campbell also suggests that to have a real experience of the transcendent we need to ".....get in touch with mystics who read these symbolic forms symbolically. Mystics are people who are not theologians; theologians are people who interpret the vocabulary of scripture as if it were referring to supernatural facts.

"There are plenty of mystics in the Christian tradition, only we don't hear much about them. But now and again you run into it. Meister Eckhart is such a person. Thomas Merton had it. Dante had it. Dionysus the Areopagyte had it. John of the Cross breaks through every now and again....."

In the Bible, God told the Isrealites that they must not fabricate or worship images or idols.  Apparently some Isrealites constructed idols as concrete representations or symbols of what they imagined God to be.  Then they fell into the trap of worshipping the symbol/idol rather than God himself.  

As Campbell suggests, when we take something meant as a metaphor as a concrete representation of truth, we have missed the point and are really committing a form of 'idolatry' in substituting the symbol (a teaching tool) as a concrete reality (just as the worshipper of an image or idol does).


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  1. this posts speaks to me profoundly. it really is noteworthy that the concept of hell and fire is falling away from so many people's perspective of the afterlife, and thus, perhaps, this life. this could be, and i believe it is, a wonderful thing, if only because so much fear accompanied the traditional, old testament vision of hell. some might say some fear is good, and maybe they are right. but i'm in a place where i'm feeling that the less fear the better.

    i consider myself a mystic, and i feel a great wave of this mysticism spreading among the people of all religious backgrounds today.

    very nice to meecha:)

  2. A nice post, Bonnie. (a brief pause here while you go do your back flips in the garden). I greatly value the works of Joseph Campbell because he makes his case so well and helps us to seek out and find what is worth while in all religions, by not tying ourselves down to any single one. Time and again he wrote about how what we call mythology is poetry and the futility of trying to make its core metaphors literal representations of reality, which is what most religion tends to do.

  3. The whole concept of hell, that a supposedly loving god would send you there for all eternity, was one of the things that turned me away from christian theology. And tho I love supernatural movies when the evil bad guy gets dragged down to hell by demons, I don't actually believe that that happens.

    I have a cousin though that believes in it. He used to send me those little comic book style stories about good people whose only 'sin' was not accepting Jesus as their savior and when they died were sent to the Lake Of Fire. When my son was sent to Iraq, he sent a box load of them to him with a little note saying that this might be his last chance (to convert and be saved).

  4. Wow tackled a big one here...I think I understand your point..that we take the words to literally and forget the point of them. That sometimes we get the image rather than the spirit of the thing.
    I think iver the years I have spent so much time trying to do just what you have said...get beyond all the word pictures of God and to the truth of the not looks so mcuh at heaven and hell..but the meaning behind what we are suppose to be learning...being present and aware of our actions. Does that make sense?
    Beautiful thought provoking post Bonnie!!
    Thank you for your words on my blog hon...big hugs!
    Love, Sarah

  5. It depends on where you are looking.

    Firey Hell is alive and well in the heartland. I travel across the US constantly. Christian radio talk show are full of hell fire and damnation. Where public radio stations ought to be, but have not been supported, several punishing Christian stations will crowd in and take over the whole end of the spectrum. All along my drive billboards, churches and barns are warning, 'Repent or Burn.'

    My family had to live in a small town in PA for 2 years and the only day care was 'Christian.' My little 4-5 year old would come home at night worried about my immortal soul. "Was I saved?" The horrors of the burning fires of Hell kept him up at night and gave him nightmares for a half year after we moved to Shaker Heights, OH.

    If you are interested, I wrote this shocking tale while still living in the small town in PA.

  6. Hi Bonnie

    a great post and good feedback too especially the last.

    I was thinking of the idol concept, the buddha statue, the cross, the ganesha...and so on and can see them as a locus, a point of focus to centre our attentions on in a meditative or contemplative state, or one of perhaps they are not necessarily a negative thing.

    Happy days

  7. Hi Lorenzo:

    So true. Campbell also made amazing links between the various religious traditions, demonstrating how they all evolved to fulfill basic human needs for meaning. It is our task to realize when we have outgrown the stories our ancestors used to understand the world and form an orderly society.

  8. Hi Ed:

    Welcome ... and thank you for your comment. It is true that so many of the religious traditions had a component of fear imbedded into them. All the better to control a population.

  9. Hi Ellen:

    It seems that all fundamentalists have trouble opening their minds and hearts to any other religious points of view - 'believe like me or you are surely damned' ... So divisive.

  10. Hi Sarah: It does make sense. Who was that great thinker ... oh yea Don Henley, who said, 'time to get down to the heart of the matter' - spirit of the matter is the same thing to me. Thanks for your comment.

  11. Hi Butternut Squash: Yes that is true - I was speaking from my perspective which is not a fundamentalist Christian right one. Not sure I could live surrounded by that all the time. (Well, I did actually in my youth and that was enough!)

    I read the link to your Eye of the Beholder post.
    Fundamentalists are quite willing to break the law of the land, because in their minds they are following the law of God which trumps everything else.

    You handled that situation beautifully - and in a way it was a blessing to have all that time that you spent so profitably with your son.

    It's hard for a child to conceive of God, but once they do and are inculcated with all kinds of frightening do, don'ts, or ifs, it is hard to extract those fears from their little minds.

    How much better when we can teach our children to be open, inclusive and yet discerning.

  12. Hi Delwyn:

    I so agree. My home is full of beautiful buddhas and a kuan yin here and there. But I do not mistake the symbol for the reality. I don't see all symbols, idols, representations as negative - I just could not be seduced into worshipping one or praying to it.

    Every time I pass a symbolic representation of a buddha, I am reminded to be in the present moment, to love what is, and to live with compassion. The symbol is a reminder of truths I value ... not negative in the least ... but a path rather than the destination.

    Thank you for making that important point dear friend.

  13. nice. way to stir the pot bonnie...smiles.

    i grew up in those flames and felt their lick when i grew my hair me they are not dead...

    funny i was working on a poem about similar the other day...seems to some that following God means being a republican that only has sex, missionary, on saturday, so they can repent on sunday...and God forbid you have slipped into an alternative lifestyle because you are in for a chicken frying...

    sorry, i still got a bit of a sting in me...

  14. Hey Brian of WaystationOne: Thank you for your comment about hell and the many times you have been sentenced to go ...

    I don't think the 'blog police' like it. First each time I clicked 'publish' I got a notice that my request could not be processed. Finally it said that your comment had been moderated - but I come here - and it is no where to be found.

    What have I done? .... Daring to question the fundamentalist god .... enticing you to participate .... and now this strange blogging limbo .... Oh, isn't that a holding tank before hell?

  15. Oh Brian - you have appeared. Phew!

    You are correct. I love to stir up the pot. Sometimes we really need something to get our teeth into, don't you think? Well, yes I know you think that way, for you offer so much to think about daily on your blog!

    Thanks for commenting and adding your sense of humour!

  16. A friend passed your blog on to me several months ago and I immediately became a follower. Every post I read is an Ah Ha moment for me! You touch on subjects that I'm all too familiar with (I've always been the outsider due to not being religious), yet enlightening in their complexity because you've also lived it, and you "get it." So many people I've encountered take the Bible so literally, they're dumbfounded I would even admit I'm not a Christian, or a member of any organized religion. Your blog is the right blog for me!

    I especially loved Campbell's description of theologians. Makes total sense. When we begin to look at ancient writings without putting into consideration translations over the years, customs during the time period they were written, or how words have morphed into new meanings, you would think it's a no-brainer to not take these words so literally. But that's the job of theologians not mystics.

    Great piece, Bonnie. Happy Summer, by the way :)

  17. I grew up Catholic and it was pounded into me about heaven/hell and even "limbo". Then I learned that if you asked for God's forgiveness, all would be forgiven. If that was the case, then why the need for hell?

    I believe if you are a good person, are good to others, accept others no matter what race, creed, etc., that you will go to heaven. Amen!

  18. glad i was not black you thought i was joking? smiles.

  19. I'll dare the consequences to agree with you!

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral

  20. Hi Gwynnie B: Oh now you've made me blush! Thank you for the kind words.

    Sometimes we all need a little nudge to think twoice about our assumptions. I believe many have been nudged over the years and, like you, have walked away from primitive religious beliefs.

  21. Well, Bonnie, you could really get me started on this one, since getting beyond form to essence has been one of the driving principles of my life -- in every sphere of activity, especially in theology and cultural traditions. I will be brief, however, and simply repeat what Meister Eckhart said: If you want to find the kernel, you must be willing to break the shell. Here's hoping that hellmakers will become shellbreakers.

  22. Pat: Well alrighty then! :-)

  23. Good post, Bonnie, and I agree with everything in it. I've just been reading in a book by James Harpur called 'Sacred Tracks' about the Reformation - Luther, Zwingli, Calvin etc - and the Protestant/Catholic split. One of the main points of the dissenters was that the Catholic church was becoming more and more idolatrous in its veneration of icons and images, and in its literal belief in transubstantiation, ie the bread and wine actually turning into the body and blood of Christ during the Eucharist. How Christianity has lost its way, and become corrupted, since those early mystics and Celtic saints!

    Its important for us to be able to distinguish literal truth from metaphor and symbol. Though all those arguments that literal-minded religious people use to try and prove the historical veracity of this or that bore me to death.

  24. To hell with hell.

    There is only light to walk towards.

    Symbols are many. Good intentions and giving spirits will always lead the way.

  25. I don't understand how someone can believe there is no hell but still believe in heaven. Seems to me they go hand in hand. Can't have one without the other. Personally, I'll pass on both.


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