/ Cosmo … Theo /
When I was a kid, Sunday School age, we’d hear references to inquiries about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Invariably it was understood, kids not famous for understanding, adults neither, though the latter are regularly cast as teachers, parents, leaders, nevertheless, invariably it was understood that the querry was idle, unanswerable: we on earth, mortals, don’t know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It was sort of like those similes in the Bible about camels and eyes of needles. Kids in Rockville Centre, Long Island had no more experience with camels and desert sewing than we had about pin heads and dancing angels. So it made me guffaw in college when I first heard of some medieval wag answereding practically, Well, bring me some pins, put out a cast-call for dancing angels, and we’ll start counting. Har, har. That answer makes sense. These Biblical conundrums weren’t supposed to make sense. Making sense was cheating. What would the world be like if people ever thought anybody in authority was making sense.
Well, it influenced me, once I knew the response of that nominalist, pissing off the Church-Realist majority.
Now I was baptized, as I’ve mentioned before, by my godfather, the bishop of Brooklyn, in his Episcopal Church. But once we’d moved to Rockville Centre and my father, all hungover every Sunday morning and wanting to sleep late, our mother too probably not in much better condition, my sister and I were allowed to walk ourselves to Sunday School if we chose the Presbyterian Church right around the corner. We had to cross only one trafficked street that way and my sister was trained to hold me back while she looked left and right. And, let me assure you, the sign may have said “Presbyterian”, in parentheses it was understood to mean “Protestant”, but at base, every inch, every micron, was Church-Realist majority, and not a shred nominalist. The Realists you see said that only God was real. You just got raped? buggered by a red hot poker up your ass? evicted? demoted for honest testimony about the mayor? No, no: none of that really happened: only God is real. The only thing real is infinitely loving, perfectly blissful, perfect, perfect, perfect. Ignore experience; believe.
That’s the theology that any authority will gravitate toward, no matter how secular seeming. Lincoln freed the slaves, without actually freeing a single slave: and when the Allies came upon the death camps the soldiers stood there, outside the barbed wire, staring. Inside the matchstick-legged Jews, breastbones showing, shoulder bones like wishbones, stared back. For three years the Allied soldiers stood outside the barbed wire, keeping Hitler’s detainees detained. No one can live in a world like that, not out loud, not in their minds they cant. No, no: that’s all illusion: only God is real.
So: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Bring me some pins, bring me some dancing angels, and we’ll start counting. No, this is alien. No church can tolerate such practicality. No church does. And schools don’t either, neither Sunday Schools, nor state schools, nor universities. The monopolies are near absolute.
But never mind, be that as it may. I want to report how I’ve changed my view of a parallel question. Once upon a time I used to ask How many Christians are actually in heaven? And I used to answer, Simple, go to heaven, identify the Christians, start counting. But no longer. I no longer believe that it’s that simple. For one thing, the residents of heaven may not actually be in residence!
It’s like you can’t count American citizens merely by situating yourself in Brooklyn and starting to count. Some American citizens are in Afghanistan, in Paris, on a cruise …
Jesus we are told in the gospels was killed, and buried, and after three days rose again. We are further told, by priests, over and above the gospels, that Jesus went to hell for three days: then Jesus proceeded to heaven. Realize, we are told this by people we have no reason to believe actually went to heaven and actually counted. Regardless, if Jesus went to hell for three days, to atone for his sins, how long is St Augustine going to have to spend in hell to atone for his? How long you? or me?
How would we confirm any of this? Well, here we are, on earth, mortals: we think we can count what we see. Let’s accept that, for the moment at least, as true.
And hell. That’s no problem: every one of us knows what hell is like: every one of us knows some parts at least: so we can count some parts at least …
But how many of us have been in heaven? for sixty consecutive seconds?
That’s not so easy to count, there are problems.
I know the problems better than most. I know the problems well enough to be near certain I don’t know them all. Not just particular problems, whole classes of problems. I see lots, but they may be, the whole classes as well as the individual problems, infinite.
Goodness is infinite? love? mercy? How about complexity is infinite?
We didn’t know what we were talking about before, we don’t now either: even though we may be better and better and better at it. Bravo Russell who, referring to math, said, “We know how to talk, but we don’t know what we are talking about”.
Back to our task: I take an example: It’s a familiar myth that babies come from heaven, isn’t it? Let’s accept it, for the sake of argument. Shirley MacLaine remembers past lives, right? Queen of Egypt … Whore of Babylon … ? Some people remember being in heaven before they were born. I do. Almost. Sort of. Can’t altogether swear.
Apropos, I must explain. I remember things people say I can’t possibly remember. Experts havn’t looked in my head and started counting: no, purely on faith, they simply contradict me, say I’m imagining things. Now I do imagine things, I imagine things all the time, that’s what I do, I’m a write, a novelist, story-weaver. I remember lying on my back in the bassinet, wanting to get up, at least to elevate my head, look around, being unable to to, crying in frustration. How old might I have been? Six months? a year? I tell the experts. They don’t look in my head, don’t start counting. No, they just contradict me. No, no: no body remembers anything from that far back.
I remember being with my sister in the basement of the house in Jamaica. We moved when I was three, Beth was four and a half, or five. Middle aged, Beth tells the story: we were in the basement, it was dark, we were like making movies, looking at magazine pages from the light of a toy machine gun I had … And I say, No, it was a toy tank. It had a big key. I turned the key, the tank shot sparks from its guns. Beth says you can’t possibly remember that! But admits it probably was a tank.
Experience has long been the same. The woman says And then my female body told me, and the priest interrupts her. No, No, that was Satan! And then Satan told you …”
All atheists? It doesn’t matter: the peasant says, I was hungry so … and Stalin interrupts him and says, The historical dialectic was telling you you wanted revolution!
Anyway, I could be wrong about remembering heaven before I was born. Just because I remember the bassinet, the sparking tank reliably doesn’t mean that I remember heaven reliably. I could remember back to six months but not before six months: remember life but not before-life.
But I’m not wrong about remembering heaven as an adult. God gave me a little peek at heaven when I was twenty-one: he was chastising me, but then he also gave me a little pet: told me my last chance was now just coming up; it hadn’t already been spent and wasted. That pet was a little taste of heaven, a small reminder. Small? It was bigger than the grand canyon, bigger than that great red storm cloud on Jupiter.
this’ll need more than one draft
Some guys in jail, in jail in Jesup, that’s Georgia, guys from East New York, Booklyn, Gee, my grandfather lived in East New York, it was all Germans then, if I was saying that God had given me a glimpse of heaven, like a promise, a foretaste; I said, Yes, exactly, God takes me into heaven for fractinos of a second, to long moments, to recharge my batteries and relax a moment. How do you think I get along so well in jail? a smile on my face? surrounded by morons? wife-beaters and gang-bangers from East New York? The guard had recently asked something similar: How come you don’t look all beat to hell? like you’re supposed to? like everyone else? I answered the guard only with a smile, but I answered the friend of my zip-gun warring bunk mate with words. Yes. God whisks me to heave to recharge my batteries. A microsecond of heaven can correct a life-time of torture.
All that begs another question: if God has whisked me to heaven then, and then, how come I’m in Sebring FL right now? not heaven at all, except among memories.
Maybe he’s mad at me now. Maybe he’s changed his mind. Maybe he’s forgotten. got sick. or busy.
Maybe it’s like Hirohito after Hiroshima. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were salted over this and that Pacific island. The war supposedly ended in 1945, but no one told these Japanese: self-sufficient: bunkered in. They weren’t in Japan; but they couldn’t be taken out of Japan no matter where they were, no matter what year it was. Find one in 1950, he’s still shooting at you: but no ammo: he’ll die to get his hands around your throat.
a compatriot, after Iwo Jima