Competition and spirituality

One of the fundamental principles of material life is limitation – in particular the limits of our faculties and the resources they act upon. For example, we can live for only so long without food, and there is only so much food to be had in the world. Nothing is without limit; not even the whole universe could satisify an unlimited number of people who all wanted the same thing.

In society, positions and luxuries are even more limited than the basic necessities of food and water. Many people want to become doctors, for instance, but universities and medical schools have only so many openings available. Many may dream of a sports car, or a mansion by the sea, or just a warm house with a healthy family; but the fact is, not everyone who dreams of a thing can have it. It’s only those who work hard, or have some natural, cultural or social advantage, that can gain access to the limited number of rewards available.

As a result of this fact of life, children are brought up with a sense of the critical importance of education to their future happiness. There are advertisements on television telling them that high school dropouts make less money than those who go to college; only the best grades can get a student into Ivy-league schools; a diploma is the only sure way to reserve a spot in the coveted echelons of white-collar society. Success is very much tied to our ability to secure for ourselves a place in the ever-dwindling real estate of luxury. The rest is the lot of the common man, who must toil until the end of his days “just to make ends meet”.

Since this is a reality of social life, we are faced with it almost from day one. We can hardly rest for the sense that others might snatch up the opportunities if we let them pass by. First, we must do well in primary school, then on to high school and deciding a major, then fighting our way into a good college and a prestigious program, then to find a young, pretty wife or husband before “all the good ones are taken”, then a job in competitive markets that never seem to have enough positions, then a house in a good neighborhood before housing prices go through the roof, etc., etc. We are racing to beat out others who might find the better deals before us. Not being content with second or third place is a frequent subject of books and movies.

In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder that we continue this image of life into the next world. Nowhere is it written that heaven has limited real-estate, yet I remember at least one Christian movie that described a “well of souls” – where the souls of babies come from – that will run dry with the coming of the Last Days.

Driven by our sense of competition, Heaven is imagined as a place that only the holiest, most devout may reach. It’s almost an exact comparison between attending school to find a good job, and “working on our virtues” to secure a place in paradise.

But is this an aspect of spirituality at all? If I were to discuss heaven with a farmer from the slopes of Costa Rica, what would he imagine? Maybe a place where crops never fail, and grow without toil; but would it be as colored by the sense that not everyone may experience it?

Or take prayer as another example. When I talk to my friends about their concerns and ask if they’ve prayed about it, some say they do. Then they express the hope that God will hear their prayer – as if maybe He doesn’t have enough ears for everyone. But why wouldn’t He hear us? Does He have a limited attention span? Does He allocate assistance only to a certain number before it runs out? If a person thinks he or she is “not good enough” for God to hear their prayer, my response is, “Good enough for what?” To make the grade? To beat out others who are praying on the same day? To say it loudly enough for God’s ears to pick up the cry?

As far as I’ve read, God and heaven are utterly without limitation or end; these are primary factors distinguishing Them from our present reality. If this is the case, wouldn’t it imply a fundamentally different economy from what we experience here? Yet our upbringing has presented such a concrete sense of what life’s about that I think we project this understanding forward, as if what’s coming next is just an colorful extension of what we’ve already known.

Assuming for a moment that God and heaven have no constraints, what does that imply? Well, it means that God can do anything whatsoever, for one thing. I remember one day talking with a friend, and I proposed the idea that God might wilfully govern the movement of sub-atomic particles, thereby continually expressing His will through the medium of creation and assuring that at each moment all things work out for the ultimate best. My friend was shocked at the implication that God would waste His time on such mundanity. He preferred a model where God had designed the world so perfectly that He simply “turned the key” at the beginning, and since then we’ve been operating on natural laws and principles, freeing the Creator from having constantly to watch over it.

This is actually a fairly common idea of creation, but it begs the question: What could it possibly mean for God to waste His time? Does He really have only a fixed quantity of it, such that by misusing it He would waste it? Is His attention span so limited that watching every atom would have an impact on the infinite span of His mind?

Consider an example: You have a thousand dollars. A friend comes up to you and says he needs eight hundred dollars to satisfy a debt. But giving him eighty percent of what you have leaves you with very little to work with. It means you can’t really do much with the money you had hoped to spend on other things. Maybe you say yes, maybe you don’t, but certainly you will feel the loss.

Now imagine you have about two hundred billion dollars. This is enough money that if you blew five million dollars a day, every day for a century, you still wouldn’t finish spending it all. Now your friend asks you for eight hundred dollars again. Would you even notice it among the five million others you spend each day?

If you can, project this to trillions, quadrillions, to absolutely ridiculous sums of money. At a certain point, you could give a billion dollars to every baby who would ever be born, until the expiration of the Sun, and still it wouldn’t dent your pocket-book. These are absurd, practically useless riches, they’ve become so large.

Now consider that this isn’t even an atom within a drop within one of the countless oceans of Infinity. If God commands resources of this kind, the concept of “resources” flies out the window; it becomes laughable to imagine that God doesn’t have the time to personally and fully attend to the concerns of every individual who has ever been. He could watch over the movements of every atom of billions of universes, and it would be less for Him than it is for us to laugh at a small joke.

The idea of competition belongs to this world. I don’t believe there are a limited number of spots in heaven, or to God’s attention. I doubt even there really exist highs and lows where infinity is concerned. If the Writings of God talk about gradations of heaven, perhaps it refers to gradations in our capacity to accept and perceive them, than to any real separations in such a place.

In fact, I think Heaven is going to be the biggest culture shock of all! I mean, what if gold were unlimited in this world? It would suddenly lose all its value. We prize what is rare, and have developed a society around the acquisition and accomplishment of things that not everyone can do. Within Infinity, value must be based on something far different than rarity.

All of this is one result of a cultural upbringing that focuses us so much onto a path of progress and ascent. It’s what we’re about, and what moves the engine of Western civilization. So we imagine an after-life that is essentially an extension of the same thing in its underpinnings. But it is divine. What this truly means is something I think none of us can accurately perceive yet.