by the Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
In perhaps the most metaphysical intervention of the Brexit debate thus far, suddenly Hell has become part of the debate. It arrived with the suggestion from one European leader that it contains a special place for those who advocate solutions without sufficient planning. Maybe the next stage of the negotiations will be to determine whether the infernal realm can simultaneously have a frictionless border with both the EU and UK. But, at least, it got me thinking about Hell.
Contrary to the famous quote from Jean-Paul Sartre, Hell is not, as far as I would see it, other people. Hell is the absence of others, the absence of friends and companions, and of God. Hell is to be isolated, alone, cut adrift from the rest of eternity, with only ones own demons for company. Heaven, by contrast, is the place of intimacy, of being known as one truly is, and yet accepted and loved by both God and our companions. In Heaven we shall nurse no shameful secrets, all shall be understood and forgiven.
Apologies if that all sounds a bit abstract, but it’s something that affects how I behave here and now. I need it to maintain my Christian values in the teeth of a culture of individualism that tries to make everything about “me”. The more I submit to that societal norm, viewing everything from the perspective of my rights, my aspirations, and my ability to choose and enforce my understanding of myself over against any other, the more it feels I am preparing myself for the loneliness of Hell rather than the intimacy of Heaven. In Hell, mine is the only and unchallengeable perspective.
In this sense, a lot of what currently passes for political discourse in Britain, including Brexit, is pretty hellish. And sadly, many religious debates are conducted in a tone not much better. But it doesn’t have to be like that. I was recently in a small meeting, dealing with a conflicted issue, where we laughed and cried, shared pain and hurt and hope, and emerged with a way forward that none of us could have imagined an hour and a half earlier. That was truly heavenly. Nor was it unique. Again and again, I find that when I, and others, move away from defensive positions, and try to see things through other eyes, something marvellous happens.
Especially as a person of privilege, I am having to learn that the pathway to Heaven is not found by seeking my own rights and flourishing, let alone the interests of my own tribes and factions, but by attending to the needs and nurture of those who are deeply different from me. To do so is not to abandon the belongings and affiliations that sustain me and my kind, but to enrich them, and me, through a wider empathy.
Thirty years ago, I began my journey into Franciscan community. We’re a mixed bunch, one that cuts across age, class, gender, background and personality, as well as most of the major divisions in churchmanship and theological stance. My vows commit me not merely to follow the example of Francis in my own private fashion, but to journey alongside my brothers and sisters within the Order. The fact that perhaps the only common characteristic of Franciscans is a never articulated belief that being well organised is a sin, simply adds to the challenge of rubbing along together.
The original disciples whom Jesus gathered around himself were a similarly unlikely group, diverse and prone to dispute. Yet I wonder whether the fact that we have only partial and contradictory lists of their names, men and women, is because it is what they are together that matters far more than their individuality. Modern minds want to distinguish Peter from Thomas, James from John, in ways perhaps inimical to the gospel. Jesus, after all, sent them out in pairs, never alone.
It wasn’t of course Sartre who said that Hell was other people, it was one of the three main characters in his play, No Exit. Sentenced to share eternity in a room, it is their inability to move beyond their own self centred perspectives, and to see their companions as anything beyond instruments for their own use, that makes each other’s presence torture. The self obsession that has been at the heart of their earthly lives has become their condemnation.
The life long Christian process of sanctification is about rejecting that road to Hell and instead finding our belonging, our true identity, through the intimacy of membership in the Body of Christ. That is the road to Heaven.