When I look into the stars on a cool night above a dark-sky field, I can believe anything. The mysteries of the deep, the sonnets of the scriptures, and the lessons of the scientists all line up in some gestalt I can't quite define but can easily imagine. I used to long to have one of those deep-sky portable telescopes with a barrel bottom and a shoulder strap, so that I could bring the stars within range with the barest of efforts. I love the sight of dim stars, made visible through magnification. I don't think that the existence of stars proves any of the great theological mysteries.
I just think that the enormous distances tell me that so much is altogether beyond me.
We all absorb, more or less, the notions and ideas of a dozen conflicting faiths and skepticims and ideas, all existing side by side. They often don't make sense, all put together--and they don't have to, in the most literal sense. I'll never forget when, in law school, I took some drama classes with some friends. Although my journal may sometimes stray into melodrama, I am not really much of an actor. But the people in this class were altogether charming. Most of them belonged to the Unity Church in which the class was held. This was my second or so experience with people who literally believed in reincarnation, some of whom could hold forth on their prior lives with great story-telling zeal. I've always thought that the Unity form of reincarnation is somehow comforting,because unlike some strains of Hinduism, in the Unity world, karma cannot regress one to, say, gnat status. The whole thing seemed quite novel to me. But I do not post tonight to discuss that "big" question--God and God's myriad ways, or the absence thereof. I'd rather talk about personal Heavens and individual Hells.
I always loved the way in which South Central Los Angeles has what seem like one thousand tiny pentecostal churches in storefronts all over the neighborhood. They're more ubiquitous than even the common "you buy, we fry" signs for fish markets. But I find that the experience of ultimate joy or ultimate damnation really doesn't require a card-carrying affinity to a storefront gospel house. Even if Heaven and Hell are sometimes hackneyed metaphors, I and many people I know seem to experience them in our boring, everyday lives. Who needs some satanic neptune's harpoon, when one can have a stern teacher in Algebra II? Who fears the Judgment Day who has been rejected by someone after mutual declarations of love? What could be closer to paradise, than a nephew who idolizes one?
I'm being a bit trite, I suppose, by mixing these mundane, practical things with the spiritual verities. Whether one is heading for some post-Armageddon definition of the meaning of life, or groping sartorially towards satori, I imagine that "higher things" of the spirit and psyche move beyond the day to day pains and pleasures of my own little life.
But I must admit that the "kingdom" which "lies within" for me is just as apt to lie within a good Trollope novel on a rainy Sunday afternoon, or a long walk with my spouse. Hell is sometimes nothing more than too many deadlines stretched across a short time interval at work. It may be irreligious to draw the analogy, but I don't know anything about hellfire--I sure as Hell know a lot about being stressed to perdition.
I think that's why no matter how detailed I posit my theology--allowing fervent room for "mystery" as an excuse for its non-systematic nature--I must admit that in the long run, all I know is that I've been on the mountain and I've been in the valley. I have prayed without ceasing; I've barely prayed at all. I've doubted everything around me--I've believed in things I cannot even imagine. But whether the world is controlled by the Heavens, or controlled by systems, or without controls at all, I only know my little piece of it, and I don't know it well. Maybe that's the adventure, that keeps me alert and alive--I'm not going to know much, and then I'll be gone.