“I’m going to have the time of my life when my life is over,” goes a gospel song refrain. Another assures us: “I’m going to get carried away, when I get carried away.” This is the message of the Christianity I was raised with: life is a vale of tears, but if we’re good, when we die we’ll go to heaven, a place of never-ending enjoyment. In other words, this life is just preparation for the real life that begins when we die. We’re suffering sinners now but we’ll be celebrating saints when we get to heaven.
Because I was raised with this theology, maligning the physical seemed normal to me: truly spiritual people deny the flesh through ascetic living—eating minimally, being chaste, living in Spartan quarters, even scourging themselves.
As I learned about other religions it became clear that this denigration of life was present in them also. Islam promises such a wonderful heaven that believers are willing to blow themselves up to get there. Eastern religions talk about reincarnation and the wheel of life and death—the goal is to become enlightened enough to get off the wheel and never incarnate again.
But it wasn’t until I read Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday that the problem with these philosophies crystallized in my mind. He called them “world-rejecting” philosophies, which
assert not only that there is an after-life, but that it’s even more important and long-lasting than this earthly life, and that the overriding goal of earthly life is to obtain salvation and prepare you for the afterlife.
Diamond says that not only is this sentiment strong in Christianity, Islam, and some forms of Buddhism, it’s even present in some secular philosophies such as Plato’s Divine Forms.
Diamond points out that these world-rejecting philosophies are a rather new development in human history. They arose when large-scale, stratified societies came into existence around the time agriculture was invented. He writes,
If everybody around you is suffering as much as you are, then there is no unfairness to be explained, and no visible example of the good life to which to aspire. But the observation that some people have much more comfortable lives and can dominate you takes a lot of explaining and comforting, which religion offers.
Life was harder for early farmers than for hunter-gatherers: they worked longer hours, had worse nutrition, suffered more from infectious disease, and lived shorter lives (studies of human stature, which is a good indicator of nutrition, show that wherever agriculture took hold, average height dropped dramatically and took a long time to recover). These farmers were in definite need of comfort.
So religions developed which promised believers that their suffering would be redeemed after death, in a place where they would enjoy all the pleasures that the rich around them enjoyed—“in my father’s house are many mansions,” we’ll have “pie in the sky,” we’ll enjoy dozens of virgins, etc.
Recently I learned of a French philosopher, named Michel Onfray, who is an advocate of ethical hedonism—pleasuring yourself and others without harming anyone.
In his book Atheist Manifesto Onfray enumerates many problems caused by monotheistic religion. Rejection of the world is just one of those problems, and it includes:
hatred of life coupled with a passionate and unshakable obsession with death; hatred of the here and now, consistently undervalued in favor of a beyond, the only possible reservoir of sense, truth, certainty, and bliss; hatred of the corruptible body, disparaged in every aspect, while the soul—eternal, immortal, divine—is invested with all the higher qualities and all the virtues; and finally, hatred of women, condemnation of liberated sexuality and sex for pleasure. Religion sets up the Angel, a bodiless archetype, in preference to real women. Chastity is a virtue common to all three religions [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam].
Onfray envisions a
post-Christian morality in the West—a morality in which the body is not a punishment; the earth ceases to be a vale of tears; this life is no longer a tragedy; pleasure stops being a sin; women, a curse; intelligence, a sign of arrogance; physical pleasure, a passport to hell.
Onfray, being an atheist, thinks that we’ll have to reject religion in order to enjoy this new celebration of the physical. But recently I heard a nondenominational minister (Howard Hanger, of Jubilee Community Church in Asheville, NC) speak about embracing the physical as holy. He said:
Somewhere along our rocky religious road we have picked up the notion that physical delight is somehow wrong, or if not wrong, at least superfluous. We have been taught that serious prayer, somber meditation, solemn contemplation is more holy than a deep belly laugh, or a dance with your sweetie in the kitchen, or the taste of a chocolate cream pie. We have been trained to think of God as a stern and strict judge who is more concerned that we follow religious rules than enjoy the life that God has given…
We teach and have been taught that physical pleasure on Earth will lead to physical misery in the afterlife. And we’ve also been taught that not having physical pleasure on Earth will send you to eternal physical pleasure when you die. What if we’ve gotten it all wrong?
The conclusion of his message was that “sex is the way that God planned for life to begin. Humans did not invent sex. Sex was created by God and is therefore a holy act. And it may well be that physical delight is a way of honoring our creator.”
This resonates with me. We don’t have to throw out the divine to experience pleasure in the flesh. We can have a world-affirming religion, one that celebrates life and the physical as an aspect of the spiritual. As Alan Watts said, “Matter is spirit named.” There is no difference. To love God you must love the world.