What happens to Hell once people stop believing in God or when religion is pushed to the edge of people’s lives? The late Fr. Andrew Greeley once noted that when the Church drops something others seem to pick it up. In Church, we do not talk so much about Hell anymore. Therefore, has “Hell” been picked up and adapted to a secular, post-modern world? If so, what are the punishments of this secular Hell and who might be consigned to its sufferings?
I found myself ruminating on these thoughts recently following an interaction I had with a young woman regarding an aspect of Church teaching. The young woman was not a fan and she eagerly made her disdain known regarding both the teaching and the Church. I have been a priest long enough now to recognize when blinders are up and it is just not possible to get anywhere and I have learned to curb my effort rather than spin wheels. At these moments I take a form of comfort in the knowledge that people even walked away from Jesus himself.
But, this does not mean that I myself cannot reflect upon such encounters and learn from them.
Two things struck me from the above mentioned encounter. The first was the realization that, in her own way, this young woman who had no time for religion or Church because of its perceived judgmentalism toward different peoples and attitudes was, herself, condemning me to a form of Hell. The second is that I realized that this young woman was operating out of a profoundly impoverished and even stunted understanding of God’s grace in life. I would like to spend some time exploring these two realizations because, sadly, I think this young woman is not alone in her attitude and perception.
The worst thing one can do in our society today is to be viewed as saying “no” or raising questions concerning another person’s perception of life, how they wish to live and even how they view reality. The second worse thing is to say that it is possible to “be more”, to rise above and live by a different set of standards other than the standards of the world. From my work in college campus ministry I have realized that one of the worse things you can do in the eyes of our younger generation (especially if you are an older adult) is to be seen as judging others. This almost pre-conscious aversion to judging others invokes a sharp reaction of disdain, which can even border on belligerence, in the younger generation. God forbid that one try to put forward the notion that making judgments and key distinctions is a part of an authentic life and that it is possible, and even necessary, to judge actions while not pretending one has a full understanding of the core identity of another person.
In our encounter, I saw myself making reasoned judgments and key distinctions. The young woman saw me and the institution I represented as retrograde artifacts of a prejudiced bygone era – hence, my being condemned to “Hell” in her eyes. Now, how was I condemned? She shut me and the Christian perspective off easily and completely. For her, my lived faith had nothing whatsoever positive to offer. How was I punished? Ridiculed (both my beliefs and myself) and treated with indifference. These are the favored condemnations and punishments of the secularized Hell and you do not have to look very far in order to see how they are being played out on all levels of our society – from the daily encounter, to the classroom to the television and movie screen.
Interestingly though, I left this encounter feeling profoundly sad for this young woman. She, it seems to me, has chosen the lesser and more impoverished part and she does not even realize it. People are afraid of God’s grace these days and people are afraid that life can indeed be transformed and transfigured. Despite all of our hero-worship we are afraid to rise above and live by a different set of standards. Maybe this is exactly why we are addicted to hero-worship. It allows an easy-out where we, ourselves, do not really have to change or be different. Our time will be judged on its failure to love.
The Church says it is possible to live differently and this scares the world. The Church can say this because the Church truly accepts the radical transforming reality of God’s grace. For a good number of people (if they even acknowledge God) grace is seen as external. God created, we sinned, Jesus came to save us and show us how to live and now it is up to us to do so. “Father God” remains way up in heaven and we have now been given all the means necessary to live rightly down here on Earth. Grace has become so diminished within and so overused and even cheapened without (i.e. a means to get ones needs met) as to be practically nonexistent in the lives of people. Unless … there is a perceived big, flashy “Paul on the road to Damascus” moment! Then, grace bursts in, subjugates the human will and sets things right! Neither of these two extremes is the Catholic understanding. Grace can move in surprising and striking ways but more than likely its presence is subtle and neither will grace overcome and subjugate the human will. Grace is a daily encounter and a working with our human will and effort. God chooses to not force us along the way but to walk with us; bringing us deeper and deeper into the fully authentic life. Grace that is allowed within does make it possible to live by a different standard and can make possible that which, on the outset, seems impossible.
It is possible to live an authentic life! Grace makes it possible. But when transforming grace is denied from the outset then life and existence become mean, narrowed and impoverished. We starve ourselves even as we sit right before the great banquet table! It has been said that the only regret in life is to not have been a saint and it is true.
Saints are not possible without transforming grace and hearts open to accepting grace. We are meant to be saints. My sadness for this young woman as we ended our encounter was that she, in fact, was walking away from who she is meant to be. I pray for her and for all the others like her. I pray that God in his infinite mercy and judgment will heal her and bring her to the truth of her very self. May God bless us all on our journey and may God ever walk with us and share his love in our very hearts!