If you could be a gatekeeper for Heaven, whom would you welcome? Whom would you deny?
This is one of the many theological questions that struck me as I contemplated Anthony Bartlett’s literary tour de force, Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. Now, as I prepare for the live book chat with Tony to present him with the 2014 Raven Award and discuss his powerful novel, this question returns to my mind. While doing my best not to spoil the experience for those who haven’t had the pleasure of reading the story and exploring the mysteries hidden therein for themselves, I’d like to take a little time now to explore this theological rabbit trail. I invite you all along for the journey!
So, again, if you could be a gatekeeper for Heaven, whom would you welcome? What would be the determining criteria for who is in and who is out?
If you have sensed that this is a trick question, you are wise. It took me a while to recognize the flaw behind the question when I began to ask it to myself. In the world Tony creates, some are judged worthy of immortality based on criteria that struck me initially as superficial. It was only when I started pondering the criteria I would use to determine who should or should not be privileged with eternal life that I realized I was taking the wrong approach. Whatever criteria are used to judge the worthiness of immortality is not the issue. The issue is judgment itself. Judgment – judgmentalism – can turn heaven into hell.
Pascale’s Wager made this truth abundantly clear to me. It helped me explore fundamental questions of faith — questions of judgment, immortality, and what it could mean to become “like God” — from a new angle. Here I wish I could delve into the particulars of the book to explore the ideas it gave me, but because I don’t wish to spoil the content, I must take another approach. So instead, I want to do a thought experiment. I’d like to look at Genesis 3, the story that has become known as “The Fall,” and ask what might have happened if Adam and Eve had never been expelled from paradise but rather had expelled God instead.
Genesis 3 need not be taken literally to be frightening. For many, whether it speaks in literal or metaphorical terms, it demonstrates the severity of God and the harshness of punishment inflicted when people fail to obey. Upon first reading, it appears that God is uncompromising and unforgiving, as a single act of disobedience results in expulsion from paradise, hardship and toil for men and women ever after, and mortality and eventual death for all living things. I wrestled with this interpretation: a source of frustration, anxiety, and fear. But there are other ways to understand this story.
Let’s examine the exchange between the serpent and Eve. Eve doesn’t seem to have much interest in the fruit until the serpent suggests that God is withholding the fruit to keep an advantage over her. “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” he hisses. When Eve explains that she may indeed eat of any tree, with one exception, the serpent seizes an opportunity to sew doubt:
You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3: 4-5, NIV)
As the desire suggested by the serpent sinks in, suddenly the need to be “like God” becomes appealing, as if being made in the image of God were not enough. Eve wants to discern good from evil. The interesting thing, of course, is that up until this point we are given no indication that evil exists at all. Everything that had been created was pronounced good or very good. But Eve perceives that God has a knowledge that she lacks, that she desires. Trust and harmony have been broken. God has become a rival.
The rest of the story is familiar enough. Adam also partakes of the fruit, and they become ashamed of their nakedness, no longer willing to be vulnerable in front of each other or God. Accusation is introduced into the world; Eve blames the serpent for her actions, and Adam blames Eve… and ultimately God. As the story goes, God declares lives of pain and hardship for the first humans and banishes them from the garden, promising that they will one day return to the dust from whence they came. On the surface, these are the consequences of failing to obey a powerful God.
But what if God does not punish acts of disobedience with harshness or cruelty? What if the consequences Adam and Eve experienced – the distrust, the accusation, the difficult labor so to speak – what if these are consequences not of disobedience, but of a flawed perception of God, a failure to recognize love, a failure of trust? Looking at this scripture through a Girardian lens, it becomes clear that once the desire to be “like God” took hold, the first humans saw God as a rival, one to form an identity against rather than receive an identity from (i.e., one in whose image they were no longer content to be made). In their desire to receive the gift of judgment in order to be like God, they severely misjudged God’s character. Perhaps the attribution in Genesis of the pains of human existence to God as punishment for sin is part of humanity’s very same flawed judgment. Perhaps we only perceive that God cast humankind out of paradise because humankind turned paradise into a world of suffering and misery by misjudging and casting out God.
In fact, scripture itself says as much in the Gospel of John, in verses 9 – 11 of the first chapter:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
We have not recognized or received God among us; we have cast him out. We cast him out in flesh on the cross, but before and since then we cast out God unwittingly through poor judgments, through the making of “outcasts,” through creating boundaries and divisions determining who is “in” and who is “out.” Our poor judgment is written in blood throughout history in wars and lynchings. We have taken it upon ourselves to determine who is worthy of being amongst us and who must die for the good of all. We may not consider this god-like, and in fact it is not, for God is not cruel and violent as we are. But our failure to recognize God’s unlimited grace and mercy skews our vision of each other as well. If we turn Love itself into a harsh, severe, cruel punisher, think what we do to each other!
If we understand the hardships of life not as punishments for disobedience but rather as consequences of our poor judgment, let us further imagine that we can engineer our own paradise, cultivate our own Eden, a garden of earthly delights. If God is not holding us back, we may create our own heaven. We may even harness the elements and fashion medicines that greatly extend our lifespans and our vitality, preserving youth and beauty indefinitely. All of this may be possible. Yet if we continue in our judgments over and against others, casting out those who disrupt our sense of order, violently expelling whomever does not “fit,” we can turn heaven into hell as surely as our first parents did.
Heaven can only be found in the relinquishing of judgment for love.
***This meandering theological musing has been brought to you by Pascale’s Wager: Homelands of Heaven. There is time to register for the live book chat up until it begins on Tuesday, Feb. 3rd at 7:30 Eastern Time, where we will discuss a variety of other theological reflections with the author of this fascinating novel, Anthony Bartlett!