Readers in Council,
The Japan Times,
5-4, Shibaura 4-chome,
Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023
I don’t think Jennifer Kim correctly criticizes Paul Gaysford as trying to silence public expression of religious belief (“Expressions of religious belief,” April 5) in his April 1 letter “Sentiment that does not console” which was a reaction to Megumi Watanabe’s March 29 letter “Hope for 3/11 survivors.” I think Gaysford was not criticizing Watanabe’s assertion that grieving loved ones can find comfort in the notion of dead children watching us from above (from heaven) so much as in her erroneous cosmology.
Heaven is not a place of being but a state of being, and so it is not physically but metaphysically “above” us. More accurately, if you believe in such things, it is all around us - like hell and vending machines. To think and talk of heaven as “up” and hell as “down” is a childish but common conceptualization of things by a public that relies only on a Sunday School or a popular media portrayal. Furthermore, pandering to the common conceptualization as part of the rhetoric of too many religious and political figures lends credibility to immature and wrong thinking. The notion of heaven as “above” is sentimental poetry, not theology, so I think Gaysford was motivated to critique the maudlin unction of it more than the underlying religious belief in it. Poetry is very affective, and many people resort to poetic language either euphemistically to avoid discomfort, or through deliberate misuse of language. For example, people say “womb” rather then “uterus,” “birth canal” rather than“vagina,” or they talk of the “human race” rather than species. Talk of “unborn babies” is entirely poetic and has nothing to do with biology. What happens to people when they die? Most people don’t want to know and some don’t care. But poetry makes it easier either way. So it’s kind of essential, isn’t it?
Published on Sunday, April 8, 2012 as “Expressions to avoid discomfort.”
I chuckled to myself when I read this in the paper. I usually think my letters are great when I write and send them. But then when I see them in print, after the first rush of excitement, I feel differently about them. That’s because by the time they appear in print I think I would re-write some things. But I chuckled over this one. Today is Easter, so it seems appropriate to print a letter about heaven.
Of course, Japanese being the way they are explains exactly why maudlin unctious and childish ideas appeal to them. I would bet there’s a good chance that Megumi Watanabe literally believes in heaven as a place physically “above” us. The point is that heaven and hell are not places but existential conditions.