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Heaven, Hell and Stephen Hawking

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"Some might say/they don't believe in heaven/go and tell it to the man who lives in hell." --Noel Gallagher

Stephen Hawking may be the greatest working mind in science, but he apparently never plumbed the depths of What's The Story (Morning Glory)? like his metaphysical life depended on it. I mastered that territory in my mid-teens.

That's also when I started to fundamentally question everything I thought I believed about life, love, faith, reality. I blame my 10th grade English teacher, Franz Kafka and girls.

A few years after college, I began working in professional youth ministry and felt compelled to skip a lot of steps and harmful tropes I'd been exposed to and influenced by in those heady "we hate Clinton" days. On Sunday mornings and afternoons, I talked to students about Barthian theology (I'm sure I called it something different), social justice and the futility of being what they presciently dubbed a "hell monkey," that is, someone who tries to prop up Christianity with appeals to the fear of Hell with a capital H. (I think some of the boys had just seen Fight Club, and the "you are not your khakis, space monkey" thing hit home.) 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. An 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, a record, 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.

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