The best way to sum up what irks me about Stephen Hawking’s statement that heaven is for “people who are afraid of the dark” is that it stingily generalizes thousands of years of diverse cultural and spiritual inquires in our shared human experience. Progressive folks wouldn’t tolerate this kind of talk from self-styled “religious” people, nor should we embrace it from Hawking. Embrace his belief that there’s nothing to the spiritual all day long. That’s fine. But let’s not confuse an irresponsible soundbite for some kind of meaningful blow against the forces of reactionary religion. It’s not. Neither are all the people who hope or believe they’re engaged in some kind of spiritual life a bunch Bible-beating, Koran-beating, whatever-beating fundamentalists who can’t cope with some scientifically provable rejection of their schema. But we all know that, don’t we?
“go and tell it to the man who lives in hell.” (Noel Gallagher).
Now, friends, listen. When I was a youth group leader, we used to talk about “hell monkeys,” by which we meant people who tried to prop up Christianity with appeals to the fear of Hell with a capital H. So when I say “hey, Stephen, I love your righteous mind, but as far as there being no heaven, friend, go and tell it to the man who lives in hell,” I don’t mean “go and tell it to the man who’s on fire for eternity.” Rob Bell alert: I don’t actually believe there’s a place of eternal, conscious torment. I just don’t. Do you? Do you really? Even if you do, I bet you wish you didn’t, and I don’t say that with any particular relish.
When I heard that Dr. Hawking thinks there ain’t no heaven, my first thought was: in other news, it’s been confirmed that the Pope, is, indeed, Catholic. My second thought? Oasis quote! “Go and tell it to the man who lives in hell, good sir.” Go and tell it to the woman who’s been to hell and back, friend, go and tell it to the gent who knows there’s a heaven like he knows he’s in hell now. Maybe I do mean that heaven is a place like I’m saying hell isn’t, or maybe I mean heaven is Reality as such, in other words, that God is Reality, the grounding of our being, and that there’s a surprising narrative arc to the story of history, and to our personal stories.
I can’t say I’d be upset to find out I’m wrong about all of this. I’d never know, of course. But it strikes me that heaven is the opposite of not knowing, a state of spirit, union, reality, what have you, where we may know fully, even as we are fully known. That’s my hunch, anyway.
Hawking said heaven’s a fairy tale for people afraid of the dark, and that passes the muster of “Everything I’ve Been Told About Reality is Totally Wrong 101,” but I expect something a little less glib from a mind like his. And anyway, I hope for heaven, but not because I’m scared of the dark. That’s just silly. When kids are scared of the dark, it’s because of what they imagine is creeping around in it, not because they sense the impending dread of annihilation. In fact, kids don’t get scared of the dark until someone tells them they should be, long after they’ve established skills like object permanence by which they understand that things don’t disappear when the lights go off.
The good professor’s recent “there’s no heaven” moment of “Imagine”-esque aplomb is what it is. It’s not really news, any more than it was news when the USSR said Yuri Gagarin didn’t find God in low orbit. We’re talking about physical apples and spiritual oranges. A entirely materialistic cosmology amazes and enthralls me. The vast expanse of the universe does things to my soul I can’t explain. Maybe that’s akin to some innate fear of heights, maybe there’s an evolutionary edge to feeling things like awe, epiphany, transcendence. And maybe heaven is in these details even as I don’t expect the Hubble to send back any pictures of the Holy City coming down. Even as I don’t expect pristine, cogent metaphysics from the leading scientific minds of history.
I’m one of those saps who’s always been interested in the theory of The Thing In Itself. My impulse to sit and appreciate a moment, a painting, a puddle, to find some unifying string in all of it or even to appreciate it for what it is, well, this borders, at times, on obsessive compulsion. Maybe so, maybe so. Maybe we’re only talking about chemicals. In my silly, time-bound mind, I have to wonder, though, who the hell put them there. And why.