Heavenly Foretastes and Childhood
The way I see it, the innocence of childhood — for those who were fortunate enough to have innocence (and invariably everyone has something very good to remember) — intentionally previews, however faint it may be, what we really want all the time: joy, sinless freedom, boundless bliss, fidelity, purity of heart, no Veils, no obligations; again, all of this forever, without death, spoilage, surprise misfortunes, or bounced checks. Now add to this the bonanza of having advanced intelligence, privileged acumen, and spiritual gifts that far exceed what we’re capable of on boxed Earth. In other words, the highlights of childhood offer prelibations of the "Garden"—for those who believe in it or at least permit the possibility of it once in a while. It’s not merely eternity that makes "Heaven" appealing, but an eternity of a kind of happiness and joy that is beyond our imaginations, but that still faintly mirrors the best days (or even hours) of our childhood when innocence (al-bara') had real meaning beyond a kind of dreaminess.
Almost universally, childhood is something that people love to remember. Monotheistic scriptures speak of "Heaven" (janna in Arabic, literally the paradisal “Garden”), in part, to serve as some kind of incentive to take a path that is often steep, strained by the spread of the profane, and involves true struggle and frequent difficulty. An incentive, however, does not work well, nor long, when confined to an abstraction. We’re charged to believe in the unseen, not the unfelt. It is intuitive to expect that a Merciful God would make some merciful connection between Heaven and some perceptual experience in the now, a slight crack of a door that shows, even dimly, what people are promised in an afterlife whose rules, physics, and confines are beyond empirical formulations. Childhood may hold such experiences. Again, they are shadows, since the Reality cannot be shown in a context that is simply too “small” in every conceivable way.
We know of no other system of existence other than being born as infants that slowly grow as adults. An all-powerful God is not without options and what He does or chooses is never random, since randomness is a product of imperfect power. As such, somehow the choice of “youth” is integral to His plan. When we disallow the possibility of the boon of youth again—times that we all enjoy talking about—our memories and the nostalgia they create lead to momentary feelings of joy but then are slowly pushed aside by subtle melancholy and then we’re not sure where the down feelings are coming from.
But we pine and have memories because they too serve a sacred purpose, beyond what the fundamentalists of empiricism insist, who may say that memories evolved to help us survive in the human Serengeti, to remember our foes and where we buried the carcasses. We should bear in mind how often we wish the clocks would turn back to a time when we had every right not to be responsible to carry adult problems that can reduce a man and woman to tears, when we face loss, fear, injustice, betrayal, heart break, thoughtless duplicity, planned duplicity, authority complexes, ingratitude, and so on.
We remember the great days of old because it is likely part of a deeper and native yearning for a different kind of life. It is in us, as Muslim theologians have said, part of our fitra (the primordial essence of our souls originally created uncorrupt and, in fact, in a state of grace).
It’s important to notice straightjackets that otherwise suppress or discount our intuitive reception of what numerous passages of the Quran emphasize: there are signs all about us, everywhere, in fact—in our past, in the woods, in the sky, in the rivers, in the leaves, in sidewalks, in our memories, and in our own souls. These signs, Muslims believe, are a kind of nexus in which information about the great Unseen (including eternity) is intentionally placed in our perceivable material world. The thing is, you have to believe or be willing to believe in order to “see” them. Faith is the key to divine literacy; it is the Rosetta Stone that helps us make sense of the glyphs in nature and understand what they’re saying about God and our ultimate return. A thirteenth-century Islamic scholar known as Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali explained it this way: “God intended for the human being to live forever. He simply takes a soul from one realm of life to another.” This suggests that death as we know it is a traverse that all of us must pass in order to get to the other side, where we no longer need signs, since veils will be dropped and a new and more absolute reality greets us.
As an aside, the greatest achievement of parenthood must be in allowing or engendering “great memories.” The duty of moral teachings and ritual practices can be overrated or at least become desiccate when rubbed by sternness. In the end, it could be that the acts associated with the salvation narrative are best kept in the bezels of the really good times of yesteryear and our memories of them.
-- Sermon over.--