“Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘why did you tell me?’”
There is certainly a tinge of angst and frustration in this humorous tale of theological dialogue. Annie Dillard wrote it in her Pulitzer Prize winning book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The non-fiction work details her explorations and observations of life and nature in a small cabin in the woods over the course of the four seasons. Dillard herself called the work a “book of theology” as her reflections move in and out of the sacred and the profane, the ultimate graciousness of God’s gift of life amidst the chaotic and inherent cruelty of life down to its most molecular, microscopic level. At one point she observes with the Inuit above that the fragility of life, in the midst of the wonder of life, is sometimes too much to know. After all, she adds, her sons had moved on from their microscopic adventures as children to their more adult pursuits of careers and families and home building and recreation, leaving the tedious interconnectedness of life and death behind. But she adds, “Einstein said, ‘Never lose the holy curiosity.” And so she peers again into the drop of pond water beneath her microscope revealing the mysteries of life and death, heaven and hell.
I can certainly appreciate a little humor in approaching such mysteries. On our refrigerator, we have the Far Side cartoon of heaven and hell where the split image shows heaven above with an angel handing out harps and hell below with a devil handing out accordions. My father-in-law, a first generation German-American and talented accordionist, would read the cartoon with a look of dismay and say, “It’s a perfectly decent instrument. I don’t see the humor!”
I guess it is possible that one person’s hell could be another’s heaven. But there is also a deeply serious side to this conversation about the beliefs that drive people’s behaviors, from the most attentive, compassionate acts of presence toward one another to the most heinous and frightening acts of oppression or violence toward one another – all in the name of religious belief.
In eleven:eleven, we’re continuing our new series, “Who We Are and Why We Think What We Think When We do What We Do,” an exploration of Christian belief in the context of scripture, reason, tradition and experience (John Wesley’s “Fourfold Norm”). This Sunday: “This Could Be Heaven or This Could Be Hell,” with special music by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Iris Dement and Louis Armstrong, a little Gospel and a little New Orleans with an added horn section!
I hope to see you there!