Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hell, Heaven, Character, and Culture

Besides a common language,1 England and America share a common history, up to about 235 years back. And both countries have been quite Protestant: since day one in America's case; and ever since the 16th century for England.

I won't claim that England and America share a common culture. But then, I'm an American, and spent most of my life in the Upper Midwest. I tend to see cultural differences between folks here in central Minnesota, and those who live in the New York City - Washington D.C. megalopolis.2

Looking across the Atlantic, to the land of Cockneys, Liverpool, and old aristocratic families who aren't as badly off as Spain's Charles II,3 - - - I see big differences between the British middle ground, and America's. To someone who had grown up in, say, Singapore, we might look pretty much interchangeable.

Culture: as in High, Throat, and Values

"Culture" is one of those words with many meanings. The one I have in mind for this post is the one that Princeton's online dictionary puts between "tastes in art and manners" and "microorganisms in a nutrient medium:"
"...all the knowledge and values shared by a society...."
(Princeton's WordNet)
America went through some huge cultural changes in the last half of the 20th century. Some of them long-overdue.

By the way, if this is the first post in this blog that you've read: I'm a practicing Catholic, I live in America - - - and I do not miss the "good old days." Partly because I remember 'Happy Days' America.

Christians and 'Those People Over There'

In the part of America where I grew up, "Christian" and "Protestant" were interchangeable terms for quite a few folks. They assumed that Christians were Protestants, Protestants were Christians: and Catholics weren't. I suspect that assumption is taken for granted by quite a few Americans.

I grew up in a nice, mainstream Protestant denomination - and realized that Christianity had existed before Martin Luther and the northern princes of Europe started doing their thing. And that's another topic.

Most Protestants aren't much like the colorful nut jobs who make the news. (see Related posts, below)

Still, it's wackadoos like the ones at Arlington on Memorial Day, carrying "God hates you" signs, who seem to be what many Americans imagine when they think of 'religious people.'

(Reuters photo, via, used w/o permission)

No wonder somebody said "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company." Mark Twain may or may not have written that, by the way.4

The Church of Just Me?

My father, describing a particular attitude about dealing with the Almighty, pictured two painfully pious people. One of them said, "none are saved, but me and thee: and I am none too sure of thee."

He did not see reality that way, and neither do I. I'm convinced that God's Kingdom isn't populated by a few folks who are just like me: and yes, I've read Matthew:
"7 8 'Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few."
(Matthew 7:13-14)
Seriously, though: why should I assume that Heaven is strictly for folks with my interest in art and science, my preferences in music, and my habit of wearing flip-flops in warm weather?

Faith, Works, and Making Sense

I can't see the sense in saying, "I follow Jesus," and not following His orders.

I don't think I can work my way into heaven, either. I've discussed faith, works, and why Catholics aren't Klingons before:
More to the point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has a bit to say about making prudent choices5

As I've said before, free will exists. I can't 'make' you believe anything. You don't 'have to' believe any of what the Church teaches. And has been teaching for about 2,000 years now.

But I'd heartily recommend listening to what folks with the authority my Lord gave Peter6 have been saying.

'Jerks for Jesus?'

Mahatma Gandhi is credited with saying, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

I don't expect to be all that much like God the Son, Redeemer of the world; Son of the living God; King of glory; sun of justice; most powerful, patient, and obedient; meek and humble of heart.7

On the other hand, I don't think I'd be doing my Lord any favors by saying - in word or attitude - 'I am one of the privileged few people who have God on their side, and you are a damned fool if you don't agree with everything I say.'

That is also one of the things I very sincerely do not want to try explaining when I get serious face time with my Lord at my particular judgment.

Heaven, Hell, and Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, saw quite a lot of 19th-century America: particularly what's along the Mississippi River. He was quite good at sharing what he experienced - and what he thought about it.

Folks, then as now, had opinions about Heaven, Hell,4 prayer and God. Mark Twain included:
"I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell - you see, I have friends in both places.

"When I think of the number of disagreeable people that I know who have gone to a better world, I am sure hell won't be so bad at all."
(Mark Twain, p.377 of Evan Esar, "20,000 quips & quotes" (1968))

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then I'll go to Hell."
(Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), via Bartlett's Quotations, 16th ed.)

"I am a great & sublime fool. But then I am God's fool, & all His works must be contemplated with respect."
(Mark Twain, Letter to William Dean Howells (December 28?), 1877), via Bartlett's Quotations, 16th ed.)

"You can't pray a lie."
(Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), via Bartlett's Quotations, 16th ed.)
I think it's a good idea to consider the sort of folks who were loudly 'Christian' in Twain's day - and that's almost another topic.

Related posts:

1 'More-or-less common' language might be more accurate. Still, apart from the occasional dropped "H" or "R," and the way we use words like "football" and "pavement," Most American- and British- English dialects aren't all that dissimilar.

2 Megalopolis: "(a very large urban complex (usually involving several cities and towns)" (Princeton's WordNet)

I've got reasons for deciding to live without the advantages of relatively high crime rates, property taxes, and pollution. For one thing, I don't think we've worked the bugs out of civic engineering, regulation, and traffic control. However, I think cities are an idea that still shows some promise:
3 Charles II of Spain was, mercifully, the last of a family that bred itself out of the gene pool. The Habsburgs were a sad example of misplaced priorities:
4 For quite a few years, I 'knew' that Mark Twain wrote "Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company." Then I tried to find just where Mr. Clemens wrote - or said - that famous phrase.

I found the quotation on page 378 of Evan Esar's "20,000 quips & quotes" (1968). Or, rather, found the anonymous "Heaven for climate, and hell for company." Back on page 377, near the start of the section of quotes on Heaven and Hell, I found ones that were attributed to specific individuals, like Ed Howe, Ben Johnson, Lincoln Steffens: and Mark Twain.

5 These links are a pretty good place to start reading up on what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about:
But those are places to start. I rather doubt there's time in one's span of years to read all that's written on the subject.

6 See Matthew 16:18-19

7 See Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus, via

1 comment:

Brigid said...

Misplaced capitalization: "grown up in, say, Singapore, We"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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