Christians must live in a way and learn a manner of understanding that allows the reintegration of the world.
• Fr. Stephen Freeman
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Many of my earliest religious memories are connected with funerals. I came from a large extended family, all of whom lived in the same county. It was inevitable that death would visit my family on a regular basis. Funerals themselves were primarily directed to the living. The dead were respectfully laid to rest. Displays of strong emotion were discouraged. The day of a funeral often concluded with a long covered-dish dinner at my grandparents’, at which children played as always and conversation moved quickly to its perennial subjects: family, farming, and automobiles.
When the dead were buried, they were generally dead and gone. There was little conversation about heaven, even less about hell. The Protestant world had no purgatory; thus no further thought was given to the departed other than to offer comfort to those who felt their loss most keenly. There were no services to pray for their souls, no candles to be lit, and no conversation about their eternal disposition. Death brought an end to this life, and though we were taught to believe in a life after death, our experience was often an emptiness with no thoughts to fill the void.
What was clear in all this was the finality of death. There was an unspoken distance between the living and the dead, and nothing was to disturb it. No one seemed to notice that God Himself was separated from us by the same distance. For if the dead are with Jesus and are now at an unspoken distance, how far away must Jesus be? The distance between God and the world was an unspoken part of the landscape in which I lived. Belief in God was nearly universal, and yet that belief did little to shape daily life. There was a moral connection, a sense that our world was related to God through the things it “ought” to do, or through the things it “should” believe. But a great gulf was fixed between the dwelling place of God and the stage on which daily life occurred. Few things illustrated that gulf more clearly than the absence of those who had died.
The shape of the universe of my childhood was not the invention of Southern Protestantism. It was part of a much larger culture, forged in the crucible of the Protestant Reformation and the birth of the modern world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Today it is the dominant shape of the universe shared by most cultures of the modern Western world. It is the universe in which modern believers live. It is also a universe increasingly hostile to religious belief.
I have come to think of this modern cultural construct as the “two-storey universe.” It is as though the universe were a two-storey house: We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live. To effect anything here, God must interrupt the laws of nature and perform a miracle. Exactly how often He does this is a matter of debate among Christians and many others within our culture—often measured by just how conservative or liberal their religion may be. The effects of this distance are all-encompassing in the area of religious experience and belief, and frequently in other areas as well.