On the day Professor Stephen Hawking died, Australian artist Mitchell Toy published an image of him standing in the stars. I thought it beautiful and posted it on social media, as did many others.
Fast and furiously came accusations of weak Christianity, spiritual arrogance and ableism.
Many comments from orthodox Christians said that Prof. Hawking is going to hell because he was an atheist. As a vicar, my response online to those is ‘unfriend.’
Orthodox Christians are certain that we have to worship Jesus Christ to be ‘saved.’ How odd. Jesus never once told or even asked us to worship him – categorically not. What he did ask us to do was follow him. Following him means being open to people of other faiths and none, healing the sick, loving the world and being strong enough to stand up to injustice. Worshipping Jesus is a piece of cake, following him is darned hard work.
The orthodox then insist that Jesus said that we needed to be ‘born again.’ In fact, the Greek word translated as ‘again’ is anothen which means ‘from above.’ It categorically does not mean that we have to worship Jesus — or even regard him as our saviour. Being born from above is in God’s gift and God’s gift alone. What we have to do to receive that gift is to love our neighbour as our self. Even if we disagree with their religious beliefs. Especially if we disagree with their religious beliefs.
And I submit that Prof Stephen Hawking, atheist or not, did a better job following the teachings of Christ than many a Christian. He had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease and he lived in heaven while on Earth. He didn’t let one ounce of his disability stop him becoming all he could be and both learning and teaching inspirational physics to us. If anyone was born from above, Professor Hawking was and, if there is an afterlife, he is standing in joy among heaven’s stars.
The second accusation is that it is spiritual arrogance to show Professor Hawking in an afterlife because was an atheist.
The Professor spoke of the brain being like a computer. The brain is just that: a binary machine that measures. But the mind is more than the brain. The mind – or heart or soul if you prefer – is non-dual. It holds apparent contradictions easily and is comfortable with the most powerful phrase in the world, ‘I don’t know.’
Nobody knows whether there is life after death. There is a lot of evidence from near-death experiences and not all psychics are charlatans. And of course there is religious teaching.
But you know, the opposite of faith is not atheism, it is certainty. Faith is not about knowing, it is about not knowing but trusting.
So atheists who are so very certain that there is nothing after death are really no different from the fundamentalists who are certain that Prof. Hawking is going to hell.
And, if you have certainty, you will, consistently have to prove that you are right and others are wrong. That’s how the ego works.
But if you can say, I know what I believe and it makes me happy and I can allow you to believe what you want, then your life will be a joy. That’s the kind of life I believe Prof. Hawking led. He was open to the magic and the mystery of the Universe in a way many of us could learn to emulate while we are still alive. He was never certain, always seeking. And, anyway, who says the picture is of heaven? He may well have just moved through to a parallel Universe of stars — that is certainly what he believed.
The third accusation is ‘ableism.’
Ableism is where the image of Prof. Hawking standing away from his wheelchair is seen as patronising and assuming that death is a better option than being disabled. The objection that came to me directly was from a lady with fibromyalgia – an horrific disease where the brain informs the body that it is in chronic pain when there is no medical evidence that this is so. Fibromyalgia is real and it is debilitating.
Now this is only my own take on ableism – apart from dyslexia, I am not disabled so I can’t see the picture from other points of view. But I do remember when I was critically ill with a blood cancer, I did find that those few people who told me that death was also a form of healing made me very angry. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to get better. And I suspect that that very picture of Prof. Hawking standing in the stars would have set up in me an even deeper yearning to be able to walk under the stars again while I was still alive and, had I had the strength, that might well have spilled out into resentment and rage.
I do walk in the stars in the Devon lanes at night with our beagles and, to me, that is the epitome of Heaven on Earth. So I hope I do understand how the picture could offend.
But I’m also going to be tough and point out that in his mind, Prof Hawking walked in the stars every day of his life on Earth. Heaven on Earth is in our mind’s eye, not only in our feet on the soil.
Now, you may be yelling that that’s impossible with depression and I get that. And I will probably infuriate you even more with the quotation, “two men look through the prison bars; one sees mud and the other stars” (attributed to Dale Carnegie).
For those who have deep depression, I know it is virtually impossible to look for the stars.
But many of us – and I include myself – will have become depressed and, for some of us it became more of a habit than a disease. And I will ask you today to be quite honest. Are you genuinely depressed or do you have what American author, Caroline Myss calls ‘woundology’?
Woundology is where your identity is tied up with the cause of your depression. Caroline wrote of a woman who needed to tell every new acquaintance that she was a victim of incest – whether or not it was relevant to them or to the conversation. The point being that the woman believed that her story was who she was and that everyone should know. She became her story.
Don’t get me wrong, woundology will lead to genuine depression every time. But is it the kind of depression which – with the appropriate medical help – we can help heal ourselves? I suspect so. How?
When the American constitution wrote about the pursuit of ‘life, liberty and happiness’ the word ‘pursuit’ meant ‘the practice of’ not chasing after. We’ll never find Heaven on Earth by chasing after happiness — it cannot be caught. But we can practice it by limiting the times we tell our unhappy story.
That story may be why we have become lonely, not the event that initiated it. By looking for good, by appreciating tiny things like a simple cup of tea, by not blaming our family for not visiting but by doing what Prof. Hawking did every day of his life, by focusing not on the mud but on the stars, I believe we can turn the tide in our own heart and mind.
That’s why I think posting the picture is fair. The stars are inside Professor Hawking as well as outside.
May you walk in the stars in your soul wherever you are on the Earth today.