Nelson Mandela died recently and every news network and program has rightly devoted a good deal of time to remembering his legacy. By  plain fact he did good as he lead his people. He was a flawed man, but those flaws reveal a complexity of character that should be an assurance to anyone that their failures and their weaknesses are no death blow to accomplishing real good, nor are they an excuse for failing to do so. I don’t know every nuance of his biography, but I know that the story of a young, frustrated man passing through such a crucible as 27 years in prison to be poured out as a humble leader of inexorable strength pushing to end apartheid is a beautiful story. Nelson Mandela’s legacy of justice matters.

One news program, though, made an odd choice in its coverage. 20/20 ended an hour-long special with a pair of children’s choirs singing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Nelson Mandela had the courage to imagine a world without apartheid and so children, our hope for the future, should honor his legacy with this inspiring song. But the message of Lennon’s song totally undercuts any talk of legacy, of lasting good, so an hour of tribute to Mandela’s courage and meaningful conviction ended with this weird moment of meaninglessness, albeit cut with wistfully diluting sentiment.

Lennon opens with an altar call of sorts, a hymn of invitation to “imagine there’s no heaven/it’s easy if you try/no hell below us/above us only sky.” His song preaches that people only kill and starve each other to serve religion or government. Whether The Man or The Man Upstairs, any such authority ends in abuse. Therefore, Lennon prefers to imagine the end of such authority. God is greater than government, so he ultimately envisions a cosmic power vacuum. What if join him in this? No devils, no angels, just dirt below and clouds above. With no heaven and therefore no hell, the sky will indeed be empty. Will we find people living for today, eruptions of benevolence and brotherhood? Or will we lose more than we might imagine by tossing heaven and hell onto the trash pile of ideas we’ve outgrown?

In our modern age, the afterlife is heated and hammered, like iron in a blacksmith’s tongs, into all sorts of shapes to serve all sorts of masters. Even as it changes shape, the theme of ultimate justice endures. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell—that dichotomy pervades vast swaths of human culture across time and place. How the sheep and goats get sorted is a real source of contention, but the winnowing is nearly universal. Perhaps from boredom with all the variations on this theme or perhaps from irritation at a continual vague sense of guilt, it’s become fashionable to throw out the idea of hell altogether (maybe people just don’t want to think about going there). But then you get into trouble.

Not so deep down, we all know there is evil in the world that doesn’t always meet its proper end in this life—neither redemption nor justice. Hell would certainly make sense, but we’ve imagined that away. If you believe in a heaven without a hell, though, you have to get cozy with the idea of bunking next to Hitler in the sweet by and by. That won’t do, so Lennon rightly realizes he must dismiss the afterlife completely—no heaven, no hell, just nothing everlasting I guess. Setting aside the idea that being unmade in such way sounds more like hell for everyone, it remains that life and doing—good or evil—become pointless. You either wind up in the same place as everyone else no matter what so who cares, or you cease as though you never were and what matters then?

When Lennon tosses heaven and hell he loses two things he probably wishes he’d kept: the ability to tell whether anything is good or bad and any real motivation for self-sacrifice. On the point of good and bad: without an outside vantage point life spirals down into a relativistic cesspool. In the parable of the blind men encountering the strange beast and making claims based on what they felt with their hands, they’d all be correct without an outside observer to say the perceived snake, rope, and tree trunk actually added up to an elephant. Of course, the sightless men would all be wrong, too.  It’s the problem of polytheism: without one God to set the standard by which good and evil take weight, you have many gods and many standards and no way to weigh any one against the other (at least no peaceful way). They all weigh the same and they all might as well weigh nothing. Morality is unmade and a great darkness awakens.

What happens when two gods and their two truths come into conflict? Which will sacrifice for the other? Which could? Each must certainly want the most pleasure and power in this life because each faces death, the absolute end with no beyond and no hope for reward or dread of justice. Why on earth choose weakness and risk death or discomfort with the strength to avoid both? In a world of nothing and unto nothing, that is an unanswerable question.

Even if, if one of those gods, John Lennon perhaps, chose a noble sacrifice, how could he ever reasonably expect others to follow suit having imagined no heaven, no hell? His plea could only come from arrogance, from the untethered conviction that his desire for lower, broader prosperity is better than their desire for higher and more narrow. A weightless request easily ignored.

True, some folks do make small sacrifices, but only in order to gain tangible benefit; we have tribes and nations, collections of people willing to give up some freedom for strength in numbers and reliable trade. (Funnily enough, it seems we desire the moral autonomy of gods and yet try to weasel out of total self-sufficiency that a god ought to possess. We want to live as though we have no limits, but we know to play society games in order for others to be willing to shore up our weaknesses. And how we seethe at having to stoop even a little to buy from the efforts of others who can do what we can’t, who have what we have not. We want godship, but we could never pull it off. Oh what fury, what frustration.) Some sacrifice serves self-interest, collective-interest. At some point, the sacrifice cuts too deep and instinct kicks in. This is it! THIS IS IT! There is nothing else coming. Survive as long as you can and drink deep cup of pleasure and power while it lasts. Be vicious if you have to. It’s not like you’ll ever have to pay for it. Even with small social sacrifices, eventually tribe will come against tribe and, absent the watchful eye of heaven and any ensuing restraint, one will force the other to bow or bleed.

Isn’t this exactly what happens, what happened in apartheid? Apartheid was actually good for a lot of people: the white people in power. One pale-skinned South African tribe beat down competition from the other tribes and so flourished. They served their truth like gods unaccountable as though there were not bigger truth that might condemn. Spooky. We imagined there was no heaven and we wound up with apartheid. It’s starting to come clear why ‘Imagine’ was such a strange choice to honor Nelson Mandela. It’s a lonely song.

‘Imagine’ is a paradox. Half of its aspirations create the very world that the other half longs to undo. Clearly, it’s not just that you imagine; what you imagine matters. John Lennon thought his misguided dreaming would help him find peace and equality, but he dreamt the very root of the war within himself and every self around him: the war between wanting to be God and longing for the world to be the way God made it. Imagine there’s no heaven? We already have and look where it got us. Alone and run amok.

How do you hope in Loneliness? If life came from nothing and ends in nothing, you simply can’t assign any enduring meaning to it. Without posterity, it just won’t matter if apartheid had crushed Mandela or if his noble struggle had slowly won over hearts and minds to bring the institution to its end. It won’t matter if you were at the bottom or the top of the ladder of cruelty if the human race is merely a chance eruption of consciousness and matter unheralded in its birth and unmourned by a void in its eventual death. Children would be no hope for the future, just a hope unto themselves to outwit or outfight, to be cruel in order to avoid cruelty, to deprive in order to prosper. Zoom out far enough and the sun explodes, burning up all our molecules, leaving nothing behind with no one to remember whether good or bad had transpired during the brief blip of time during which we lived. Will there even be time without anyone there to count it?

This is all silly. We know in our hearts that oppression is a great evil and men who fight oppression do good. We know in our hearts that children, new life among us, do bring hope. That’s why we do our best to raise them well, to pass along any wisdom we may have. Very few people tell their kids to go and take as much as they can by any means necessary, at least not outright. We teach our kids how to share because we know that sharing is a part of friendship, a part of being in the human community. And this isn’t some cold, calculated strategy to gain strength through tribalism. Not in our hearts it’s not, not in the moment of teaching our child. No, we don’t want our children to grow up alone because loneliness is pain and cruelty is evil. This is written deep, deep inside us. Eventually, yes we lose sight of it turn to injustice as we grow older and find our desires fast outpacing our resources. But, it wasn’t God or heaven or hell that changed us and that we need to unimagine. It was arrogance; we changed our own damn selves and twisted God into something that would justify our injustice.

That twisted image of God and its contemptible beneficiaries are what John Lennon really wants to toss onto the trash heap of ideas we’ve outgrown. I join with him. I long for the banishment of the awful so-called gods of injustice and tyranny that obscure the view of an actual God of justice and dignity. But you can’t fight subjectively from untethered conviction. That’s arrogance easily ignored. You must fight from humility, submitting to the strength of an objective authority greater than any of us that quite clearly declares us each of equal dignity, each debased or exploited only through evil. Suddenly, justice is back in town bringing with her motivation and endurance to resist tyranny. It’s a leap of faith, an act of imagination if you will, but the right response to the wrong God isn’t no gods, but the rediscovery of the right God to wage a war of conscience against all our false gods.

I don’t know what Nelson Mandela thought of heaven or hell or God, but I know that his long fight against apartheid bore many signs of submitting to an unarguable authority. Any long and arduous fight against injustice and tyranny, whether the fighter admits it or not, happens under heaven and by its guidance. There’s just no other way. To try to honor the legacy of such a dignified battle with a song that erases the very concept of justice, as 20/20 tried, rings dead and hollow. Heaven offers a far better legacy.

6 thoughts on “Imagine

  1. We actually do know what Nelson Mandela thought of God. Mandela was a nonbeliever. We know this. And yet look at all the good he did. Your argument that Imagine is a poor choice of songs to commemorate Madiba is undercut by the fact that Lennon’s worldview closely matches Mandela’s. It’s undercut by the fact that Mandela did so much largely altruistic good without a god holding an imaginary gun to his head in the form of hell, or an imaginary carrot over him in the form of Heaven.

    The rest of your post is a series of logical fallacies that have been answered so many times by the secular community I feel no need to address them.

    I’ll respond to a couple examples so as not to be accused of side-stepping. Arguments such as “If there’s no heaven or hell then there are no lasting repercussions.” Yup, that’s correct. And wanting there to be lasting repercussions isn’t an argument that they exist.

    “Without eternity/god/heaven morality becomes relative.” Not so. The secular community is every bit as moral as the believing community, arguably more so. We know right from wrong without the help of a god who never condemns slavery, who is misogynistic, homophobic, and favors certain tribes over others. It’s not his fault of course, he simply reflects the attitudes of the people long ago who created him. Meanwhile we humans, even believers, despite their god, are learning more and more to act to reduce suffering, to care for our neighbors regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. People don’t just become blobs of atoms when you remove god from the equation. Morality becomes more clear, not less clear. I can say that with confidence as a former believer.

    What does create moral relativism is when you have a sense that morality is whatever vague thought you confused with the voice of god while praying, or whatever message you can derive from a book pieced together from the writings of largely illiterate, nomadic tribes during a dark age of intellectual progress. Things like that.

    Good luck to you. As Mr. Lennon said, we hope someday, you’ll join us, and we can live as one.

    -John H

    1. Hey, John. You’re my first ever critic, which is kind of momentous. I’m glad you weighed in and opened an opportunity for dialogue. It’s always very eye-opening to learn how my writing is received by actual people in the real world (not surprisingly, it’s often not what I expected). So thanks. You definitely seem to have some strong convictions, and you’re welcome to air them here. I doubt I’ll overwhelm you with satisfying answers, but hopefully an open dialogue could be edifying to us both. I know it’ll at least keep me honest. Since you came on pretty strong, I’m going to do you the respect of responding pretty frankly.

      I had read that Mandela was schooled in a Methodist settlement, but I didn’t read anything about his spiritual life as an adult. When you say ‘unbeliever’, do you mean he wasn’t a Christian or that he was a flat-out atheist?

      In any event, I wasn’t arguing that “Imagine” was a weak choice to honor his legacy because Lennon and Mandela’s worldviews differed, but because “Imagine” dreams up a universe in which legacy doesn’t ultimately matter. If Mandela in fact held that same view, that doesn’t necessarily negate my point, but it does add a layer of strangeness to the whole thing because he suffered a great deal for his convictions in the face of impending meaninglessness.

      As for the absence of lasting repercussions—you seem to readily embrace that. I wonder how you cope with injustice and suffering. Doesn’t it drive you crazy believing that pain might ultimately go unhealed? How do you not fall into despair? Personally, I find the existence of God to be a comfort in suffering. It doesn’t explain suffering or lessen it (and admittedly it sometimes makes suffering harder wondering why God is allowing them), but in the end belief in God gives me hope that suffering means something and might even be made right, where belief in no God would leave me with meaningless pain.

      Next, I’m afraid I have to double down on the argument that without a third party outside of human consciousness morality does indeed become relative. You say that ‘the secular community is every bit as moral as the believing community, arguably more so.’ According to whom? You’ve got to back that up, especially the second part. But, again, I don’t think I communicated clearly enough. I didn’t say that secular people can’t make moral choices. Of course they can. Everyone makes moral choices, and everyone is certainly capable of doing good. The problem that I find with the secular worldview is that eventually, there’s no justification for any moral standard. Again, it’s not that moral standards can’t exist, but they can’t be explained in a satisfying way. If you follow it through far enough comparing one moral stance to another, you’ll come to a point where the secularist has to admit that they don’t have any justification for their stance beyond that they really, really believe it. They are doomed by the question of ‘Says who?’ So, I put it to you to offer a non-relativistic, cohesive moral stance without an absolute truth to reference.

      When it comes to God, you seem to have a lot of anger towards both God and believers. The way you characterize God as a capricious hate monger, the way you describe Christian morality as (paraphrase) vague and confused thoughts attributed to some imaginary god, and the way you belittle ancient culture as (paraphrased) intellectually darkened and illiterate doesn’t reveal much beyond your disdain for them, and doesn’t offer any significant rebuttal. The only way your argument that Christians are moral relativists holds up is if you presume God doesn’t exist from the start. Of course you’d be right then; you’ve presupposed your own position. Even then, you’d have to admit that everyone is a moral relativist because any other moral argument would have to be made from a position as laughable as you claim Christianity to be.

      At the end, it’s funny you mention that line from Imagine. One of the reasons I’ve always like Paul better than John is that John sometimes comes across as arrogant. In the same song where he denies any claim to ultimate truth, he holds out his point of view as the ultimate truth that everyone needs to join in order for there to be world unity. It’s always irritated me.

      Anyway, I really am thankful for your feedback, John. I hope I didn’t come across as brash or personally attacking. You’re always welcome in this little corner of the digital world.

  2. I hate when people do this, but I’m going to link to an article, and I promise it directly responds to the morality question and is precisely what I’d say. The question of where an atheist finds morality is pretty well-covered ground for most atheists, heck you’d better believe it’s something I considered before even becoming one. Here ya go.

    That covered, I’ll address a couple of other things. First, I’m not angry at God, the Bible, or believers. I get that a lot, and I think it’s something believers tend to project onto non-believers. We’re usually persistent, but not angry, and rarely are our arguments fueled by emotion. I don’t feel anything towards God… I don’t think he’s there, so I don’t really have any strong opinion on him. I don’t dislike most believers, most of my friends are believers, and I once was one as well. My only problem is with the belief systems themselves when they have negative influence on people and the world. My only problem with believers is when they are arrogant or don’t listen and make poor arguments… I hate when secularists do that even more, because they’re giving me a bad name and I expect better of them. For believers, if they’re happy in their belief I don’t feel compelled to convince them of what I believe, but I think there are a lot of people who are unhappy in religion, trying to make it work, and frustrated that it doesn’t. For those people, I want them to know there’s potentially a better life out there, and while it’s scary at first to step away from theism, it eventually is very freeing.

    I’m jumping around a bit, you raised a lot of questions… which is fine, I did too. As far as the question about whether I’m troubled about suffering going unresolved or evil going unpunished… well, sure, but that doesn’t mean I could go believe something that fixes it. Besides, Christianity doesn’t fix that. According to the Bible, all an evil doer needs to do is turn it around and accept Christ, even at the last moment, even after committing any number of horrendous acts. All a good or unjustly suffering person need do is not accept Christ to be cast into eternal torment. This “morality” hardly sets me at ease. You mentioned in the blog post that hanging out with Hitler in heaven simply won’t do. Well, no one knows what happened in that bunker. Perhaps Hitler saw the error in his ways. Perhaps after taking poison, he saw the right path? You may have to get used to the idea. That’s what the “morality” of the Bible calls for. Meanwhile God’s morality will have Gandhi and Mandela hanging out with me and the devil. I’m being a bit hyperbolic here, but that’s the morality of the Bible. It’s very arbitrary, and it doesn’t give me peace.

    In regards to Mandela’s beliefs, I have to apologize. I read a blog that asserted he was an atheist and took it for truth, but upon further research, it seems unclear whether or not he was a believer, or if so, what kind of believer he was. Seems unfair to speculate, but I will generalize that I believe a lot of leaders profess faith because it is not socially acceptable to be an atheist. So I’ll have to back off that claim, and say while I suspect Mr. Mandela was a non-believer, I don’t know that and won’t speculate.

    Good talking to you. I hope my initial objection was not too strong. It’s easy to forget online that there’s a human on the other side of the words. I blog myself, and I know it takes guts to put yourself out there and open up to potential criticism. I found your response to be sociable and open-minded for the most part, since you mentioned it, and my only concern would be to not assume that we humanists don’t have good answers to these questions. We think about this stuff as much as believers do. Have a good night.

    -John H

    1. Thanks for responding again, John. I found your initial response bracing in a good way and you’re always welcome around here. I wholeheartedly agree that it’s all to easy to dehumanize folks online, and it’s refreshing to find a blog commenter who recognizes that (they seem in short supply). I’m looking forward to reading that article you posted.

      I’ll let you have the last word (only fair since I had the first word). I’d love to keep exploring our differences and would, again, welcome your responses in the future (whenever I get around to making another post–you’ll notice I’ve hardly been prolific up to this point).

  3. I love Michael Morgan and these kinds of conversations so I’m going to dive in here. In a spirit of solidarity with John, I’m going to “jump around a bit” in my response as well.

    John, you said that article is “precisely” what you would say. I’d like to offer a few responses. As with any differing view point, if we simplify “their” beliefs enough we can easily dismantle them. Christians do this with Atheists (they have no morality so all atheists think you should rape people!) and the secular community does that with Christians. This article is a great example of such reductionism. For example, the author writes “This claim [if God had not commanded us to be good we would have no reason to be good] betrays its own incoherence, for we can then ask, why does God command us to be moral?” The author goes on to imply the capriciousness of God, throwing willy-nilly commands around for the fun of it. Why does God command us to be good? Because HE is good. We are made in his image and that means being fully human is living as God lives. So we are moral because God is moral, we do good because he does good. The author moves from there to suggest that God has no reason for commanding one thing over another (again, the capriciousness of God). That’s another oversimplification and shows a gross misunderstanding of the Bible. God is good, sets the standard for goodness, and designed humanity to flourish in the world he created. God could not ” just as easily have commanded us to be vicious and cruel” because God is not vicious and cruel. He does not act contrary to his nature and character. God’s standard of morality is not arbitrary but is rather rooted in his own person. I could say more about the article, but this is my main contention. It’s fine for the author to feel his life is bursting with meaning because of the communion of love he’s experienced etc. The truly irrational thought (the accusation he directs towards theists) is that a world of fundamentally opposed moralities is livable. The person who embraces a meaningless existence (and a necessarily relativistic morality) must also accept when someone’s experience, understanding, or expression of “love” (the most common denominator in non-theistic morality structures) is entirely contradictory to their own. The examples are endless—we must tolerate the caste system in India because they find it to be moral. We must accept the sex trade in SE asia because their society finds it acceptable. We must not interfere with the white supremacists and slavery because a large population finds it to be “moral”. Relativistic systems of morality and a worldview marked by “meaninglessness” always leads to the objectifying of humans. When a human becomes an object, we can treat them however we will—even in the name of “love”. Christianity, however, says all humans have inherent dignity because God gave us value and worth. Christianity says there is a way of life that is good, true, and beautiful and that it applies to all people everywhere.

    Your post specifically, John, also falls into the error of reductionism. If your reading of the Bible leads you to conclude that God is most interested in a people who “do good”, then I would encourage you to revisit the scriptures. The message of Christianity is that God’s intention was a relational one—he wanted us to experience communion with him (this is the essence of human flourishing). If that is true, then no person is “good” when he/she acts outside of that relationship. The actions themselves may be good and even pleasing to God, but that doesn’t change the individuals relational standing with their creator. This is the whole point of the gospel: Jesus bears the consequences of living far from God for us. He doesn’t do this so we can act “better” but so that we could flourish as humans, reunited into relationship with our Father. If you don’t see severing relationship with God as both a catastrophic offense and a heartbreaking condition, then it’s likely hard to grasp a “good person” (good according to whom?) facing judgment. Christianity does not neglect justice, it just offers a new object for it—Christ instead of us. I have no idea how death bed conversions work. I know that true human living is available to us because of what Jesus has done and I know that true human living means experiencing communion with God. I would hope that you see both forgiveness and sacrificial love as two of the highest human virtues. Neither of those require God just blowing over heinous acts—but those virtues did require God himself suffering for us.

    People surely have a right to disagree with Christianity. I take issue, however, when people create a pseudo christianity and then tear it to shreds. It’s similar to the familiar script of “religion only causes wars and bloodshed and it needs to be abandoned.” Which religion? Which wars? What bloodshed? No one can say that Christianity has caused more suffering than secularism without ignoring or fabricating history. Give me some footnotes. That’s an easy line to parrot, but it’s a harder position to defend. You said, “My only problem is with the belief systems themselves when they have negative influence on people and the world.” That’s a difficult position to support historically (assuming you’re speaking of Christianity ) it’s certainly not the case today, and your worldview struggles to justify those kinds of qualitative assessments. Who decides what a negative influence is? Negative according to whom? “Imagine” is so hard to swallow because it essentially says “you awful people need to stop judging others for what they believe.” John does the same thing he’s singing against and we see the same thing happening in secular America. “People can believe whatever they want, just don’t try to convince me!” That’s doing the very thing you say you’re against. To demand the Christian not share their faith is to demand that the Christian stop being a Christian. I “imagine” a world where every belief is acceptable, every position is equally worthy, and I imagine an unlivable world marked by human suffering.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts John. Michael Morgan 4lyf.

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