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Presented January 4, 2004, by Ellen Taylor
John Shelby Spong is a bishop in the Episcopal church who calls himself "a believer in exile." He questions and debunks many of the trappings heaped upon the church, which is what has led him to be in exile. He has written several books, one of which is Why Christianity Must Change or Die. In this book, Spong says the traditional content that Western religious institutions have imposed upon the concept of life after death is meaningless. He dismisses heaven and hell as "mechanisms of medieval behavior control," but also makes clear that he believes in "that ultimate gift of life that is both transcendent and eternal." He writes,
"I do believe that life is infinite, and I do believe that we are called to explore its depths and to drink deeply of its sweetness. I do believe that life here is but a limited and finite image of full life, which is limitless and infinite. I do assert that one prepares for eternity not by being religious and keeping the rules, but by living fully, loving wastefully, and daring to be all that each of us has the capacity to be."
#359 - When We Are Gathered
#655 - Change Alone is Unchanging
from Many Lives, Many Masters by Dr. Brian Weiss
"We go through so many stages when we're here. We shed a baby body, go into a child's, from child to an adult, as adult into old age. Why shouldn't we go one step beyond and shed the adult body and go on to a spiritual plane? That is what we do. We don't just stop growing; we continue to grow. When we get to the spiritual plane, we keep growing there, too. We go through different stages of development. When we arrive, we're burned out. We have to go through a renewal stage, a learning stage, and a stage of decision. We decide when we want to return, where, and for what reasons. Some choose not to come back. They choose to go on to another stage of development. And they stay in spirit form some for longer than others before they return. It is all growth and learning continuous growth. Our body is just a vehicle for us while we're here. It is our soul and our spirit that last forever."
Where do we go from here? In a Unitarian church, we don't spend much time discussing what happens to us after we die. At least, not as much as I think people in other churches do. Probably, because as with many of our beliefs, not only do we not think like people in other churches, we don't think like each other. But I find this topic fascinating, so today we're talking about it.
I guess the reason I find after-death concepts so interesting is that there are different theories and absolutely no way to prove or disprove any of them. I should say up front that I don't know what I actually believe - there are bits and pieces from various traditions that I like and find curiously plausible.
The traditional Judeo-Christian belief of where we go from here (meaning life on Earth), is that our souls leave our bodies and go to either a good place or a bad place, depending on how we lived our lives. Some believe that good people - those who live virtuous lives - go to heaven. Bad people - those who live immoral lives - go to hell. This concept of heaven and hell, based on good works, leaves room for people of all faiths. But some believe that good works are not the ticket to heaven. The fundamental Christian belief is that one has to accept Jesus Christ as personal savior in order to get into heaven. This belief makes heaven a Christians-only club.
One of my former students, who belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, explained to me that their concept of heaven includes multi-layers. Only Mormons can get to the top level of heaven, but even the lower layers, which people can get to based on behavior rather than church affiliation, are wonderful beyond our imagination. So, while one has to belong to the right club in order to get the best seat, everyone else in the world is not automatically condemned to hell.
What are heaven and hell? Well, in jokes, the entrance to heaven is marked by large pearly gates attended by St. Peter, whose job is to make sure only the deserving gain entrance. Most depictions of heaven include clouds and sky and cherubs and white robes. Hell must be either very hot, or very cold, depending on what temperatures we earth-bound folk happen to be complaining about at the moment. Visual representations of hell usually include fire and close, cave-like surroundings deep inside the earth. As a high school student I decided that heaven and hell are different for all of us, depending on our own preferences. I'm sure the QHS production of Jean Paul Sartre's play, No Exit, had something to do with that. In that play, a young man arrives at a luxury resort and finds, much to his initial delight, that a presumed reservations snafu has put him into a suite with two women. Of course, when he grows tired of the women and their bickering, his delight begins to wane. When he discovers that he is stuck there for eternity, that there is no exit, the audience sees what his hell is.
Why heaven and hell? Because we are obsessed with the idea of reward and punishment. We want to be rewarded for our own good behavior and we want others to be punished for their bad behavior. Some of us also want heavy ammunition to use to convince others to behave the way we think they should.
Another reason is that as "good people," we don't want to mingle with "bad people." So we've come up with a system to separate us for eternity. But even that gets muddled sometimes. Remember Carla Fay Tucker? She was a convicted murderer in Texas who was "born again" on death row. Her conversion sparked a rather bizarre controversy. Debate over capital punishment aside, should she be executed? Some argued that her life should be spared because she had found the Lord and repented. Others questioned the sincerity of her conversion. They noted that it's easy to get religion when one is about to die, therefore her execution should proceed as scheduled. Still others argued that, while her rebirth was admirable, she still deserved to be executed for her crime. Others weren't sure what to think. A friend of mine had trouble with the idea that someone who had spent much of her life on the seamier side and had committed such a violent crime could, after mere weeks as a believer, end up in heaven right beside those of us who haven't committed any violent crimes and who have always been believers.
While I thought this particular debate was bizarre because it danced around what I see as the obvious problems with capital punishment, the case does present an interesting question for believers in Judeo-Christian tradition. If admission to heaven is based on behavior, how many chances do we get? Does one mistake in my youth get me blackballed? If so, why bother to behave for the rest of my life? What about two mistakes? Five? Twenty? Do I get more chances if my transgressions are minor? Can I lie or cheat or steal five times, but murder only once?
And if admission to heaven is not based on behavior, but on faith, then why worry about behavior at all? Fortunately, most of us refrain from violent crime for reasons other than fear of hell. But I think it's an interesting question.
In the conversation with my friend who wasn't sure what to think about Carla Fay Tucker, I pointed out that the concept of reincarnation would solve her problem. With reincarnation, I explained, the Carla Fay Tuckers of the world couldn't get to heaven until they had lived enough lifetimes to make reparations and earn their way into heaven. Even though I don't totally buy that concept, I thought it was a perfectly logical solution for my friend. She couldn't buy it either, though.
I like the idea of reincarnation. I haven't figured out the specifics, but I like the concept. I don't believe in a reward and punishment reincarnation, in which people are born into lower life forms as punishment for bad deeds. What appeals to me about reincarnation is the thought that on a level we do not understand, we know things. I like the idea that sometimes what we think is simply a dream might actually be communication. I like the idea of an old connection or relationship, unknown to our conscious mind, as an explanation for why we are drawn to some people, why sometimes we feel we've known a person forever when we've just met. This is what I find not convincing, but curiously possible.
There have been many books and movies over the years which present different perspectives of what happens when we die. Heaven Can Wait, Beetlejuice, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, The Lovely Bones. The list goes on.
I happened across several works a few years ago that were based on the supposition that because we humans are composed primarily of energy, we don't truly die, but merely change forms. The energy in our bodies transforms to a different energy. Some of you may have read The Celestine Prophecy, a best-selling pop-philosophy novel, with a contrived, poorly written plot, but thought-provoking implications. The movie Powder is another story of human energy and the unknown, usually untapped power of this energy.
Many Lives, Many Masters is a non-fiction work by psychiatrist Brian Weiss. This book recounts Weiss' experience with a patient whom he had hypnotized after failing with traditional psychotherapy to discover the root cause of her phobias. The events recounted by this woman under hypnosis led Dr. Weiss to believe that souls do return into new bodies. He proposes that, in a process similar to my understanding of the Hindu journey toward nirvana, spirits return because there are lessons still to be learned. That's probably why this is my favorite theory. The teacher in me likes the idea of eternal learning. According to Weiss, we must learn these lessons to advance to the next plane, and he points out that the process takes so long because our intellectual knowledge, which we acquire relatively easily, must be transformed into emotional or subconscious knowledge, which is not so easily acquired. The final plane, the one to which souls are advancing, is what I would compare to the Hindu nirvana or the Judeo-Christian heaven. I say this is my favorite theory. By "favorite," I mean I like the idea of it. I haven't totally accepted it, but I like it.
Another possible answer to the question "where do we go from here" is the simplest. Nowhere. When we die, we are no more. Our souls don't go to heaven or hell, or to another plane before returning to another body. We simply cease to exist, and live on only in the hearts and minds of those we leave behind. This may be the most logical possibility. And it is more comfortable for people who think heaven and hell or other planes of existence are just too corny or weird. I have to admit I feel a little self-conscious even quoting someone else as saying our souls advance to another plane. But so many aspects of life are not logical, so why do we expect death to be logical. Besides, I think this is also the least interesting of the possibilities.
I've used the word "interesting" a lot. So much so, that if this were a student's paper, I would point out the overuse. But "interesting" is the best word I can think of to describe this topic. It interests me, meaning I like to ponder it. I like to hear about different theories. I like to wonder about the possibilities and ramifications of the various theories. Whether I believe any of them or not, they arouse my curiosity. As I said earlier, the fact that we can neither prove nor disprove any of the theories makes me all the more curious. One aspect of the various theories that I find particularly noteworthy is that they have a common denominator. Notice that the Judeo-Christian heaven, the Hindu nirvana and the non-denominational final plane of reincarnation are all states of perfection with connection to a supreme being to which we should aspire.
Does the fact that various theories include this common component mean it's true? Or simply that we're not very creative? Why do we believe what we believe? I don't believe that life-after-death concepts serve as effective behavior control. I don't know anyone who makes decisions about his/her behavior based on such a belief. Most people I know are too busy managing what's happening to them in this world to worry about the next one. No, according to my amateur psychoanalysis, the obvious answer is that a belief in the hereafter is a coping mechanism - an important coping mechanism. It makes us feel a little better about death. Think about how many times you have heard someone say, "She's in a better place" or "He's with the Lord now" in a tone of voice intended to convey reassuring comfort. The pain of a family member's death may be eased, however slightly, for someone who believes he will see this loved one again, whether it be in eternal life in heaven or life on earth in new bodies. I believe that we are drawn to concepts of life after death because otherwise the loss can be too much to bear. I also think we're just curious about the unknown and we like to postulate.
I'll close with the most poetic words I've ever read related to our state of being after death. They come from a letter recounted in Ken Burns' book on the civil war. Just one week before his death, Union soldier Major Sullivan Ballou wrote to his wife Sarah from the battlefield. He told her that he believed he would return home unharmed, but if not, for her to remember how much he loved her.
" when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights always, always, and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath, as the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Sarah do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again "
#324 - Where My Free Spirit Onward Leads
Whether you believe your soul will continue to exist in an eternal life in a heaven of some sort, in a series of lives on earth, in a series of lives on earth interspersed throughout a continual life on other planes, as the breeze upon a loved one's cheek, or only as a memory, there is one thing we do know for sure. And that is that we can't know for sure - at least not in this lifetime.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.