Monday, January 05, 2009

Will the Real Escapist Please Stand Up?

I'm a bit uninspired of late, so until I think up something new to talk about (suggestions welcome), enjoy this excerpt from my book, Pilgrim Theology....


“Ah,” says the skeptic, “isn’t all this talk of ‘heaven’ and ‘eternity’ just escapism, a desire for ‘pie in the sky when you die’?” It would be quite tempting (and truthful) to answer “yes” to this question. After all, the fact that heaven is ultimate while earth is only penultimate necessarily demands the conclusion that a willingness to settle for the latter is foolish at best, and masochistic at worst. Who wouldn’t hope to graduate from the temporal and attain the eternal, to “escape” the provisional and arrive at the permanent?

Still, the negative connotations inherent in the charge of escapism demand that we only admit to it if we are allowed to make some qualifications. First, heaven is to earth what the outside world is to the womb. If there is such a thing as birth, then it follows that the womb is only temporary. Likewise, if there is such a thing as the new birth, then earth must be temporary as well. Is it “escapist” for a fetus to want to emerge from the womb? As Peter Kreeft says, “‘There is a tunnel under this prison’ may be an escapist idea, but it may also be true.”[1] In other words, whether or not a hope is escapist is incidental to whether that hope is grounded in fact. If it is factual, then its being escapist is beside the point. Consider Kreeft’s parable:

There was a rumor among the caterpillars that they were destined to become butterflies. Some caterpillars believed it; others disbelieved; and still others doubted. Now what would be the reasonable attitude of each of the three groups of caterpillars toward this rumor? Which could reasonably call it escapist? Would not even the uncertain want to explore it further? For if it is true… it is not escapism. The charge of escapism therefore logically boils down to the charge of falsehood; only those who are certain the rumor is false can reasonably call it escapist. Otherworldliness is escapism only if there is no other world. If there is, it is worldliness that is escapism.[2]
We mustn’t miss Kreeft’s point here. The label “escapist” really only applies to the desire for heaven when the one applying it is certain that heaven does not exist. But once we recognize that such certainty is impossible, then the charge becomes mere wishful thinking. And if the unbeliever is merely skeptical about heaven’s existence rather than certain of its non-existence, then is it not he, rather than the believer, who is the real escapist? After all, sometimes heaven is that which we desire to escape from rather than to. Avoiding God is easier than embracing him. Before the prodigal can come home, he first must run away.

[1] Peter Kreeft, Heaven: The Heart’s Greatest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989) 164, emphasis added.
[2] Ibid., 168.