Imagine a man who, disgusted by his flawed human neighbors, moves away to a monastery on a mountaintop. He lives out his days alone, in a simple room, reading and re-reading the Bible, safely removed from all temptations of the flesh. Cold and isolated, he avoids thinking about any other living creature. Is such a “godly” man a prime candidate for heaven?
As will be discussed further in this series, the way our actions make us feel in life are a good indicator of whether they are leading us along the road to salvation. (Some things may feel nice at the time, but leave us feeling empty rather than satisfied and happy.) Do you suppose that this hermit would feel a sense of joy? It seems unlikely. His participation in the joys God offers is aloof and sterile. He may manage to avoid great sadness or the kind of consuming material desire that characterizes sin, but he does so by avoiding the warm joy that flows from virtue. God operates within the world. This hermit has removed himself from the world, and in doing so has removed himself to the cold fringes of divine bliss.
Imagine further the type of ostentatiously church-centered Christian that many people think of as a religious zealot. He moves through the world with an air of hard superiority, loudly condemning the faults of others and criticizing those who display signs of worldly joy. Does such a man display the symptoms of divine bliss? Hardly. Like the Pharisees, he turns his face towards the outward trappings of religion and in doing so turns away from the true concerns of God, the welfare of His creatures. His stern coldness turns others away from his brand of Christianity, for they immediately recognize that he does not represent the warm, humane love of Christ. The path of such a person does not lead towards heavenly joy and fulfillment.
We live in a world with other people and non-human creatures. All creatures, great and small, are within the compass of God’s love. They are part of the very being of God. When we speak of being part of God’s Church, we are not referring to the church building, but rather to the people who make up the Church. When those who take Holy Communion take the body of Christ into their own, they are reaffirming their union with the being of God. When Christ said, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me … Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me”, He was confirming that we are all, to the very least of us, a part of the divine being of God. If we do not love others with the warmth of true love (not the chilly and condemnation-ridden substitutes that sometime pass as pious love), we cannot claim to love God. If we isolate ourselves from our fellow creatures, we thereby isolate ourselves from God. True joy flows from our relationships with those fellow creatures, for it is through our love of them that we come to know the love of God.
Our connection with our fellow creatures is essential to our Christianity. The significance of our actions often flows from its effect on others. Without an appreciation of our place in the world of other living beings we cannot fully understand the workings of Christianity, or find the answers to some of the most difficult moral dilemmas that humans face. It is through our fellow beings that we find fulfillment. Without others to benefit the greatest works of any person would be as the colossus of Ozimandius, a mere forgotten rock in the sand, pitiful in its uselessness. In a world without others there is no distinction between the greatest man on Earth and the moss beneath his feet, for both are without consequence. The significance of our lives flows from their effect on others. Devotion to the self is futile, for without others to appreciate it the self is mere mist, a fleeting shape of less substance than a phantom, for even a phantom depends upon another to observe its transit through the world. Pride of self, pride in this passing mist, is the height of stupidity. The only concern of consequence lays in our interaction with others.
If the significance of our lives rests in its effect upon our fellow creatures, then, we only have two choices. We can try to have a good effect, or a bad one. We can try to be good, or choose to do evil. To choose to have no effect is to choose oblivion. I trust that the reader, given this choice, prefers the idea of trying to be good. This simple point provides the compass by which we can keep to the path of virtue. Always steer towards the course that, as best as you can determine, will have a beneficial effect upon your fellow creatures. Learn to take pleasure in this, realizing that the whole substance of your life flows from the good you do for your spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, society, and other creatures. Nothing else matters.
An understanding of this connectedness, of the communion of all conscious beings, is essential to a full understanding of the process through which we can take responsibility for the choices offered to us by our free wills and bring ourselves into alignment with God. Meditation in the desert may be good for the soul, helping us to clear our minds of the noise that can make us lose track of what is important, but our moral choices lay in our interactions with other creatures, and it is in the community of the world that virtue is lost or found. The character of Angel Clare, the parson’s son in Tess of the d’Ubervilles, pictures himself as a godly man because he coldly rejects anyone that he regards as impure, but we can see that in God’s eyes he is just the opposite, a man who opens the door to evil by working against love. Jesus, the defender of the woman taken in adultery, showed us that vain and vengeful piety is not God’s work. To find God, we must love His creatures, flawed though they may be.
The three key principles discussed so far, alignment with God, free will, and connectedness, are the foundation that we can use to understand all of the seemingly difficult concepts underlying Christianity. The next article in this series will apply them to the understanding of Heaven and damnation, hopefully helping to counter some misconceptions that make people think of God behaving like a vain or petulant human. The truth – as is usually the case with truth – is much easier to digest.