A Rich Life of Joy and Beauty
~ an alternative to philosophical and religious totalitarianism ~
Feb 10, 2008
One of the questions facing the world today is how to mesh the moral imperatives of religion with the rights of all individuals to pursue happiness in a free and democratic society.
Religion, in its efforts to curtail moral degradation, has too often become totalitarian and repressive. Lives of spiritual joy are sometimes replaced with the dull grind of duty, and adherence to traditions that insist that we must comply with standards that have lost their meaning. Taken to the extreme, religion can become cruel and godless. The Taliban in Afghanistan are an example of the physical oppression that can occur when extreme religious beliefs are codified into law. Far more common are the individuals in various religious societies who are suffering under the mental oppression of a loveless doctrine.
How bleak and unattractive life becomes when the threat of hell is the overriding theme! Yet hell and damnation are regularly dragged out and presented as the main reason that we must be good. In the satirical movie, Cold Comfort Farm, based on the novel by Stella Gibbons, Sir Ian McKellan gives a rousing performance as Amos Starkadder, the itinerant preacher of the Church of the Quivering Brethren. As his congregation quivers and moans, he spells out their doom, saying, “You know what it’s like when you burn your hand, taking a cake out of the oven, or lighting one of them godless cigarettes? And it stings with a fearful pain, aye? And you run to clap a bit of butter on it to take the pain away, aye? Well, I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in hell!”
However, not even the threat of no butter in hell can stop a person’s stubborn desire to experience joy in their physical life on earth. When Mr. Brocklehurst asked the ten-year old Jane Eyre what she must do to avoid going to hell, she boldly answered, “I must keep in good health, and not die.”
Some may feel that it’s better to live hedonistically in this life and risk going to hell, instead of suffering through the disciplines of a judgmental religion. Others reject the concept of eternal hell as an affront to the ideal of a loving God. The Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, wrote, “Sadism is evident even in Christian doctrine, for instance in that of endless punishment in hell.”
Even a person who firmly believes in everlasting hell must sometimes wonder if there is a better motivation to be good than the impetus of fear. Will the Kingdom of Heaven be a realm of fear and force? What a cruel and insensitive kingdom it would be if billions of unhappy souls were abandoned in the lower realms, condemned to writhe in agony forever! Can one actually believe that God could be so heartless?
Such selfishness in the face of the unending agony of His children would contradict the very essence of love that makes God what He is. An integral quality of God’s love is freedom. A response of love is never forced. One cannot force love, just as one cannot force faith or piety. Religion that is forced becomes hollow, for no one can dominate the mind and spirit of a person against their will. No one can make a person love, but at the same time, no one can ever stop a person from loving. God created us as free beings, and because of that the potential of our love for Him and for each other can never be destroyed. It is our freedom to love unselfishly that gives us the opportunity to escape from hell.
Has not history shown us that God has come to us, over and over again, and expressed His love for us through His many messengers and saints? His refusal to give up on His recalcitrant children on earth should convince us that He will never give up on His children still suffering in hell. All He needs is a glimmer of a response to reach down and save a person.
Angelus Silesius, the seventeenth century German mystic and poet, wrote, “Hell-fire will ne’er be quenched, you say. Now hear: Repent, and quench it with a single tear!”
One great gift that God has given the world is the teaching that we should love our enemies. It has proven to be a power that dissolves hatred and selfishness. It is a love that never tries to force a response, and because of that it is the absolute opposite of totalitarian systems and religions. During World War II, Sir Victor Gollancz, a British publisher and a Jew, helped to found the National Committee for Relief from the Nazi Terror. After the war, he lead a massive drive to convince the British government to end the severe mistreatment of Germans; many of whom were being systematically starved in prison camps.
In a direct refutation of the theory and practice of forcing people to be good, Gollancz stated, “There is really only one method of re-educating people, namely the example that one lives oneself.” Reeducation camps will never work, whether organized by communists or religious fanatics. They don’t work because they are forced, and thus violate and contradict the essence of love. Gollancz’ approach in Germany worked, as it did in Japan under General MacArthur. Enemies were turned into friends through the power of love.
In 1951, Victor Gollancz created an anthology of spiritual and ethical writing, called Man and God, a book that Daphne du Maurier called “The bedside book of all time.” On my wife’s birthday, Kim and I spent a few hours browsing through the huge selection of used books in Hardings Books, in Wells, Maine. As I sat there on the floor in the far back corner of the store, the book Man and God kept pulling my eyes back to it until I decided to buy it. It is a true gem and was the inspiration for this essay. Some of the quotes that I have used came from that book.
If we cannot be forced to follow the precepts of religion, and cannot be deterred from our inalienable right to pursue happiness, what methods of moral and spiritual regeneration should we adopt and recommend to others? Is there a middle ground between rank hedonism and the Church of the Quivering Brethren? Can we create an external “Kingdom of Heaven” without resorting to a religious government that bans everything pleasurable and beautiful in its efforts to prevent sin?
In his letter to the Colossians, Saint Paul wrote that a person's efforts to submit to regulations “have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh.” An iron-willed monk covered with scars from the scourge may abandon his life of sacrifice at any moment if his heart is moved by a more powerful desire.
We cannot remove our desire for love and beauty, nor should we try. It is not love and beauty that is the problem, but rather the purity of our hearts and our eyes. An internal reformation is required if we are to see with new eyes; a reformation based on the power of true love, for it is a heart of true and unselfish love that creates and perceives beauty.
Rabindranath Tagore wrote in his book Sadhana, The Realization of Life, that God “gives his love out in music in his most perfect lyrics of beauty. Beauty is his wooing of our heart; it can have no other purpose.” He wrote that beauty “seeks for love in us, and love can never be had by compulsion. Compulsion is not indeed the final appeal to man, but joy is.” He went on to say:
Our hearts are wooed by beauty and by love, not by law, not by force, and not by grim truths that say we must be good. The Christian existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, wrote in his book Being and Having that it was his conviction that “it is not God’s will at all to be loved by us against the Creation, but rather glorified through the Creation and with the Creation as our starting-point. That is why I find so many devotional books intolerable. The God who is set up against the Creation and who is somehow jealous of his own works is, to my mind, nothing but an idol.”
The nineteenth century naturist, Richard Jefferies, wrote in his essay “Wild Flowers”:
Instead of creating institutions and governments run by fallible people who attempt to create a moral world through the imposition of joyless laws and traditions, religious leaders should focus on teaching people to unite their minds and hearts with the beauty of God’s love. A rich life of joy and beauty is a life that can never be forced or legislated. It is a life of freedom based on a pure desire to promote goodness wherever one goes. It is an internal and meditative life, a life that is fully aware of the scintillating beauty that God has created all around us.
Most of all, it is a life centered upon love and kindness and compassion and respect. A rich life of joy and beauty is a life inspired by the certain knowledge that God’s children will always respond to unselfish love.
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