Saturday 7 March 2015

Is this mortal life an assault course, or a moral gymnasium? What do *you* think about Heaven (post-mortal life)?

Mortal life is usually considered to be some kind of trial or ordeal or experience. But what kind, and with what purpose?

Two Christian, and indeed more broadly religious, views of this mortal life are as essentially 'a bad thing', maybe a punishment - a vale of tears, and time of suffering, which we must get through as best we can ("an assault course"); or life as overall 'a good thing' and a privilege - an unique opportunity to gain experiences and strength, and to make choices ("a moral gymnasium").

(There are other possibilities - these two do not capture the whole range of views concerning mortal life.)


These two conceptualisations are very different, and lead to a very different flavour of Christianity.

Christ said that he was 'not of this world', and all types of Christians have been instructed to strive to live that 'unworldly' way, in the sense that the ultimate and structuring goal and purpose of mortal life is outside of mortal life, beyond mortal life.

However, there is disagreement among Christians about the proper attitude to this life - should it be seen overall negatively or positively?


At one extreme, it can seem that mortal life is a cruel assault course. If we complete the assault course successfully, if we do not fall into damnation, then our main reward is simply not to be punished.

This kind of Christian is very vague about the joys of Heaven, and in truth seldom thinks about it - their primary motivation is terror of Hell.

Since life is about bodily incarnation, this view is usually anti-bodies; the body is a source of temptation, the body is weak, finite, limiting... it is hard to understand, in that case, why Men exist in the first place, and then why after death Men are resurrected, since an un-incarnated spirit seems to be superior. 

This model of Christianity can be defended by a large number of specific scriptural passages; but not by the overall flavour of the message of Christ being 'good news' as presented in the New Testament.


At the other extreme, mortal incarnate life is seen as a framework intended for spiritual progression - mortality provides a certain unique set of challenges and experiences, and is a positive (albeit risky) opportunity for enhancement.

This kind of Christian is likely to be much more specific about the joys of Heaven, and to be motivated by desire to share these joys: because the primary motivation is getting to Heaven.

Indeed, since life as a moral gymnasium is quantitative (i.e. we can be either more, or less, built-up by life) - then this rather clearly-visualised Heaven is not seen as unitary (the same Heaven for everyone) but stratified, hierarchical and quantitative - analogously to life on earth.

So the motivation for Man is not just to get to Heaven, but to build himself up in the moral gymnasium to become suited to the highest possible level of Heaven.


And, for this kind of Christian, to have a body is better (at least potentially) than to be an unembodied spirit; because it is the body which engages with mortal experiences and indeed itself provides many of the most fundamental and educational experiences.

This explains why Men are resurrected, but it is not immediately obvious why the body is imperfect and subject to disease, or why Men must die (before resurrection) to move further along progression.

To explain death (when life is a moral gymnasium) entails assuming that God is significantly constrained, and can only achieve His goals for Man by this risky sequence of incarnate birth, mortal life, death and resurrection.


So if life is seen as an assault course - the fits with one kind of Christianity and concept of God and attitude to the body; but if life is seen as a moral gymnasium then all these matters will probably be differently conceptualised.

And one way to know which kind of Christian you are at present, is to ask how much you think-about and are motivated-by post-mortal life in Heaven, and how specific are your Heavenly hopes and expectations.



Leo said...

I submit for your consideration these lyrics, sung by Little Red Riding Hood in Sondheim's Into the Woods.

Mother said,
"Straight ahead,
Not to delay
or be misled."
I should have heeded
Her advice...
But he seemed so nice.
And he showed me things
Many beautiful things,
That I hadn't thought to explore.
They were off my path,
So I never had dared.
I had been so careful,
I never had cared.
And he made me feel excited-
Well, excited and scared.
When he said, "Come in!"
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared-
But he drew me close
And he swallowed me down,
Down a dark slimy path
Where lie secrets that I never want to know,
And when everything familiar
Seemed to disappear forever,
At the end of the path
Was Granny once again.
So we lie in the dark
Til you came and set us free,
And you brought us to the light,
And we're back at the start.
And I know things now,
Many valuable things,
That I hadn't known before:
Do not put your faith
In a cape and a hood,
They will not protect you
The way that they should.
And take extra care with strangers,
Even flowers have their dangers.
And though scary is exciting,
Nice is different than good.
Now I know:
Don't be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn't it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not...

Anonymous said...

It could be one or the other, depending on the person. (DL- my comments for some reason come up as anonymous.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - Nevertheless, it must have been 'set-up' as one or the other. The same design would not work equally well for both purposes.