Friday 10 March 2023

God offers nothing less than what is best for us: but we need to think That through, in a context of eternity

I think that most people, including most Christians, short-change themselves in terms of what they hope-for from God. 

Since God is the creator, and regards us each as His most ideally-beloved child, He surely wants for us whatever is Best for us - and 'best' over the timescale of that eternal life which has been made possible by Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, we can measure our aspirations against possibilities by rigorously and honestly attempting a thought experiment - an imaginative fantasy, if you like - in order to understand what kind of life would be the best imaginable over an eternal timescale. 

And do this on the basis that surely God (the loving creator) would, in principle, be able to create some such situation. 

(Whether the imagined situation would be good-for-us, or for others, is a consideration we can leave until later - at first, the experiment is to consider only our personal gratification - but through an everlasting lifespan.) 

The problem and pitfall with this kind of thought experiment is that there is a tendency to look only one step ahead from our current situation, and therefore see no further than a situation that is better than now. 

Eternal life is then seen as nothing more than an 'improvement' on our present life. 

This is easy to do; but such improvement may entail no more than a relief from present suffering, a relief from boredom, or indulgence in some favourite pleasure.

But if we stick to the task, and imagine an eternal timescale, we will soon see that very few such 'improved' situations will satisfy us for very long. 

Once we were used-to a suffering-free existence, or even a used-to static state of blissful well-being; we would surely want to Do something! 

And nearly all of the imaginable pleasures of mortal life (sensual, sensuous etc) lose their enjoyment and eventually become boring upon repetition, especially when that repetition has no end... 

I regard this as a very important, perhaps a vitally important, exercise; as a means of testing whether we really want that which we habitually tell ourselves we want. 

And it is an experiment which each person needs to do for himself

Yet, the only near-example I have ever come across of this experiment - and where I got the idea - is William Arkle; firstly in Letter from a Father; and then, more fully, in Equations of Being. In fact, Arkle goes a step beyond what I am suggesting, and takes the stance of God, the Creator, who is trying to design a world that offers the best possible life for his Children (i.e. us). 

Here is the start of the experiment, in Equations of Being: 

We could, for instance, design a scheme, as many of us would, which would be like a continuous, perfect, summer holiday situation. We would all begin our designs with the idea of ease and happiness in mind. We would all find that our schemes did not contain responsibility or difficulty. I think we would find that our plans would take for granted that it was easy to include other people in our perfect world. 

I think we would find that we would make up a perfect and easy world where everyone was like ourselves and where all the things that really mattered to us were simply put into the picture, ready made, as though the reality of them could be programmed into them. All our schemes would contain other people, for none of us would want to be lonely, and all of us would soon begin to realise that other people were an integral part of all that we enjoyed about ourselves. 

We would discover that a sort of mythical ‘deckchair on golden deserted sands’ situation was a trap that we all fell into. A little would be pleasant, but only because it is what we are most short of in our experience of life as it is on Earth. 

Even if we allowed ourselves a companion, or even a family, we would find that there was still a lot wrong. The family who sat about with us would get restless as we would. 

 So we would want to explore a bit, go for a walk, see something new. We may go for a swim. Swimming and short walks, on a perfect beach in perfect weather, with all our loved ones about us; such might be a beginning. But the walks would have to get longer and the swimming would have to include diving. The diving would lead to exploring the seabed and the walks would become voyages of discovery. 

We would wish to feel that the family or friends were on the sands for us to come back to, but we would want to feel free to explore, we would want to feel free to experiment with different sorts of walking and swimming, different combinations of walking, swimming and sitting in the sun. 

We would wish to talk to our companions, we would wish to enjoy their company. We would wish to laugh and have a bit of fun. 

We would wish for them to be real in their own right so that the laughter and fun was real and full of surprise and the unexpected. If we had programmed the other people to be like ourselves we would find it very difficult to keep up the pretence of enjoying their company, their fun and their affection. For pretence it would have to be, since we were really entertaining ourself in other guises.

I hope you can see what Arkle is doing here. He first posits the first step of such a fantasy - which is often something like the deckchair on golden deserted sands situation. For anyone who is currently suffering, this is an improvement.  

Then we might realize that 'other people' would be required; and, at first, we might be tempted to put into place companions who were idealized 'automata' - beautiful friends and lovers who would do only exactly what we wished. 

But, on further consideration, this is revealed as merely a reaction to this mortal life, in which we are often at the mercy of other people who wish to exploit or harm us; and that an eternity of living among obedient 'androids' would be without any interest - since we would be doing no more than try to entertain ourselves. 

Therefore, after several more steps, we might eventually realize that (for us) nothing less than a world with other 'real people' and a life of both solid family love and open-ended creativity and new friendships would suffice.

And we could continue to explore and test such a world, probe its constraints and possibilities; and so the thought experiment might proceed. 

Each individual would have a different first-step or starting point, and a different path through the later options - and maybe (or maybe not) a different final resting point when our idea of 'Heaven' seems to have stabilized and taken some clear and comprehensible form.  

But maybe not - maybe, for Christians, we would find that our ideals converge upon a single kind of 'ideal world' - which could be the real Heaven - and which all Christians might aspire to share. 

At this point we might examine our idea of eternal Heaven; and consider whether this is compatible with the hopes and ideals of our loving creator God for his children. And, if our idea of Heaven does conform to such ideals - how such a situation might be achieved? 

Then, whatever we conclude, we would surely want to seek spiritual guidance about whether or not all this was true

We would seek confirmation from our deepest and most sustained intuition; from contact with the Holy Ghost; and from whatever external sources (scriptures, persons etc.) we intuitively regard as most authoritative, understandable, and reliable. 

This is a path of discovery, an individual quest and a spiritual adventure; and if we don't do it for ourselves - it will not be done. 

But if fully achieved; we will have the great advantage of a clear and comprehensible - therefore motivating - understanding of Heaven. 

Looking back, we will then know know if we had-been settling for less - perhaps much less - in our life-aspirations, than God has made it possible to achieve. 


Serhei said...

Interesting. As you may know, I have recently been going through a similar exercise. I found the suggested task rather more harrowing than the post or Arkle's description might suggest, because as a starting point I felt obliged to take all of my desires, including the childish or bizarre desires I would rather just avoid thinking about, and then separate out their various components (sinful from non-sinful) and aim them at the correct goals and determine how the components would fit into an intelligible paradise or heaven. The Catholic saw of 'sexuality can only be properly enjoyed in its proper context of child-bearing' is just the start of it, I think. I would love for someone else to attempt the exercise -- I do not think my version or set of desires is optimal -- but it requires tremendous integrity not to skip over things you want but are rather aware you oughtn't be wanting.

I found the result-thus-far rather more Mormon than I expected, on the one hand, with a lot of prior questions about the value of physically-embodied existence / technology / learning / culture answering themselves quite naturally. I also answered a lingering question about souls of particular inclinations that seem markedly unsuitable to mortal thriving. I would point to Jane Jacobs are a facetious-seeming but entirely serious example: a reading of her passages on how the ideal city-street works or on minimizing the number of automobiles or not relying on rigid top-down planning reveals a mind that is looking at the city as something of a spiritually-educative environment that allows the 'juveniles' to express themselves and observe how their individual labours combine to produce an organic and rich environment. This set of ideals strikes me as futile for a mortal city planner, but oddly fitting if, say, an 'exalted' mother (or consultant to an 'exalted' family) were concerned with arranging dwelling-spaces for millions of children at a highly-collaborative stage of their learning that must balance harmony and independence. The 'not too many automobiles' ideal is precisely matronizing in a very deep and constructive way -- it is best to have fewer toys that the children learn to share properly, than to eliminate conflict by providing everyone with a personal toy. Needless to say, the city-planners Jacobs was up against never understood this insight and thought of such impulses as humourless communism. At the same time, this analysis also validates the insights of homesteaders who correctly perceive the 'city' as a rather adolescent environment and try to escape it for frontier or rural living. And of course, Jacobs' insights were ultimately spindled and distorted in the service of Sorathic forces that deliberately wish to keep people from progressing beyond a 'juvenile' stage.

In contemplating this example, I alleviated a surprising sin of my own in that regard, since I also had a fruitless and time-wasting obsession with imagining how my own city or various other cities on Earth ought to evolve, while understanding perfectly well that will never happen!

On the downside of this exercise, I have a very clear idea of which litmus tests I am still failing. For a non-humiliating example, I found that I understand intellectually the superiority of dyadic-monogamy, and practically the unsuitability of anything else on a mortal world especially in light of Christianity, perfectly well. However, I don't intuitively understand the importance of dyadic-monogamy for constructing Heaven as a constellation-of-dyads. This points perhaps to at least two gaps in my understanding: lack of understanding of the male role, and lack of understanding of non-family friendship -- both things being considered in their perfected state.

But, well, if a fool persists in his folly....

Bruce Charlton said...

@Serhei - It seems your first step was for something extremely complex, which would presumably take that bit longer to 'think through'.

But if you wanted to do the Arkle sequence, I think you are supposed to realize the that the early, and selfishly hedonic, steps would not suffice over the long term of forever.

The business of " separate out their various components (sinful from non-sinful) and aim them at the correct goals and determine how the components would fit into an intelligible paradise or heaven" is, I suppose, more of a later phase check.

I think Arkle's implicit point (and mine) is that even when we are selfishly hedonic in terms of what we *think* initially we would want, an honest and rigorous consideration often leads (quite naturally) towards something loving and creative in its nature.

Major exceptions may include those who are incapable of love or rate it low (who would choose the hellish options); those whose love is impersonal and abstract (and would choose 'nirvana' - blissful minimal consciousness), and those do not desire any active participation in divine creation (who might nonetheless dwell in the Heavenly state, and perhaps in families, but as de facto children).