The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.

[Chalice] Into the Dark [Chalice]

Presented October 30, 2005, by Paul Miller

Opening words, From The Witches' Bible Compleat (Requiem) by Stewart and Janet Farrar

"We call to thee, Ama, dark sterile Mother; thou to whom all manifested life must return when its time has come; dark Mother of stillness and rest;, before whom men tremble because they understand thee not, We call to thee, who art also Hecate of the waning Moon, dark Lady of wisdom, whom men fear because thy wisdom towers above their own. We, the hidden children of the Goddess, know that there is naught to fear in thine embrace, which none escape; that when we step into thy darkness, as all must, it is but to step again into the light."

First reading from "Canticle of All Creatures" by St. Francis of Assisi

"Praised be you, my Lord through Sister Death,
From whon no-one living can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sis!
Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm."

Second reading, From Tibetan Book of the Dead

"When it happens that such a vision arises, do not be afraid! Do not feel terror! You have a mental body made of instincts; even if it is killed or dismembered, it cannot die! Since in fact you are a natural form of voidness, anger at being injured is unnecessary! The Yama Lords of Death are but arisen from the natural energy of your own awareness and really lack all substantiality. Voidness cannot injure voidness!"

Third reading, from The 13th Warrior:

"Lo, there do I see my father,
Lo, there do I see my mother, and my sisters, and my brothers,
Lo, there do I see the line of my people, back to the beginning,
Lo, they do call to me, they bid me take my place among them,
In the halls of Valhalla, where the brave may live forever."

"Heaven, Hell and Other Options"

Middle age is, I think, when one stops counting the years one has lived, and starts counting the years one has left. Then one thinks more seriously about what comes next. Tomorrow is Halloween, or as we Neopagans call it, Samhain, or the Witches' New Year. The crops have been harvested, it's getting darker and colder, and the natural world is starting to look dead. It's time to honor our beloved dead, and to think about our own inevitable passing into the dark.

One purpose of religion is to help us face the darkness, and for some, to show us a way through it.

As a minister's kid, of course, the only path I was offered was Protestant Christianity. The deal I was offered was pretty good: Obey these commandments, and you get to go to heaven forever. I liked the idea, and I wished I had a reason to believe it. I was offered faith, but I wanted evidence. At the time, I saw evidence for Santa Claus, although there were inconsistencies in the theory, but evidence for God and Heaven was lacking.

I have since chosen Paganism as my path, but I like to explore the side trails of other religions. There are so many paths; one can easily get turned around. Let's take a look at some diverse beliefs in afterlife throughout history.

Belief in, or hope for, the afterlife appears to be older than Homo sapiens. People of the Old Stone Age buried their dead with care that implies belief in afterlife of some sort, as shown by graves from 70,000 BC in Europe, and 500,000 BC in China. We can't know what Stone Age people believed about afterlife, but they must have believed something.

The oldest writings we have about afterlife are from ancient Mesopotamia, where life was thought to be a drear and pallid reflection of life on earth. The Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the House of Darkness

". . . the house which none may leave who enter it,
on the road for which there is no way back,
to the house where its inhabitants are bereft of light,
where dust is their fare and clay there food."

The eldest living son was responsible for offering food and water to the dead so they would not torment the living. Seems the Mesopotamian grave was like some American nursing homes. In Southeast Asia, they take better care of their ancestors. They build miniature spirit houses near the live family's house for the beloved dead ancestors to live in.

Ancient Egypt made the most famously elaborate arrangements for the dead, much to the delight of archaeologists and other grave robbers. In the Old Kingdom (c.3000-2200 BC) only the nobility could expect an afterlife. Later, when Osiris emerged as God of the Dead, the afterlife became more democratized, and even average Joes like you and I could get in. You would need your trusty Book of the Dead (don't leave the grave without it!), so you could invoke the names of the gatekeepers at the 7 gates, and so you could open the portals of the House of Osiris.

Then Anubis, the Dog-headed God, would put your heart on the Scales of Justice and weigh it against a feather from the headdress of Maat, the Goddess of Truth. If your heart sinks low under the weight of sin, the monster Ammit would gobble it up, and that would be the end of you. But if you pass this test, you could enjoy a very nice afterlife. If you are a farmer, for instance, there is much fertile ground in the land of the dead, which you could tend with the tools left in your grave by your thoughtful relatives. The hard work would be done by your shabti, a figurine entombed with you to be your golem-slave. King Tut had 414 shabtis, but you or I might get one or two. Maybe I'm already in Egyptian Heaven. Maybe my tractor and my chainsaw are my shabtis.

The mythology is very complex and esoteric, but I find the weighing of the heart interesting. Sounds like Judgment Day for Christians, doesn't it? The concept of judgment after death may have originated in Egypt, and been passed on to the Jews during their enslavement, or perhaps to Jesus while he was on the lamb there with his parents. This is not the opinion of any credible historian, just me.

We are all familiar with the Christian concepts of Heaven and Hell. The Muslim model is very similar. Muslim Heaven has even better hedonistic accommodations than Christian Heaven, but it is harder to get into. Muslim Hell is the easiest to get into. Most residents of Muslim Hell will be women because they tend to gossip, and they are ungrateful for good treatment. Islam sends all polytheists to Hell, so at least I will burn in the company of friends, if the Muslims have their way. Indeed, everybody gets sent to Hell by somebody else's god.

For the classical Greeks and Romans, The dead were not very active, it seems, much like for Mesopotamians. They honored their ancestral spirits. Some tombs even had dining halls, so they could feast with their ancestors. Death was like an eternal sleep, but witches could wake them up. We get an idea of the Roman attitude toward death from epitaphs. Some express regret at having left the pleasures of life. Some express relief at having escaped life's troubles. One epitaph is even more non-committal: "Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo". "I did not exist, I existed, I do not exist, I do not care."

Some thought that through a good life and noble death, one could transcend death in a way. As you are when you die, you are in eternity, or one might say, where you stop you stay.

This sounds sort of like the Satanic version of life after death. The Church of Satan has only existed since 1966, but some of the ideas are older than that. Most Pagans consider Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan, to be a megalomaniacal crack-pot, but here is a passage from the Satanic Bible:

"If a person has been vital throughout his life, and has fought to the end for his earthly existence, it is this ego which will refuse to die, even after the expiration of the flesh which housed it. Young children are to be admired for their driving enthusiasm for life. This is exemplified by the small child who refuses to go to bed when there is something exciting going on, and when once put to bed, will sneak down the stairs to peek through the curtain and watch. It is this childlike vitality that will allow the Satanist to peek through the curtain of darkness and death and remain earthbound."

Incidentally, today, October 30, is the anniversary of Anton LaVey's death. Are you out there, Mr. LaVey, peeking through the curtain?...No answer. Maybe I offended him.

If you can't go to Heaven, perhaps because you are a Polytheist, and you don't want to go to Hell, maybe you would like to be reincarnated.

The Hindus are the most numerous reincarnationists. The Vedic Hymns from c.1000 BC do not mention reincarnation, so the idea appears to be more recent than most people think. The Brahmana writings from the 9th century BC are the first known writings to mention it. They say one is rewarded for one's deeds and sacrifices in a temporary heavenly life, and then reborn in a new earthly life. Your lot in this life is determined by your behavior in the previous life.

"The murderer of a Brahmin becomes consumptive, the killer of a cow becomes hump-backed and imbecile Who steals food becomes a rat, who steals grain becomes a locust etc These and other signs and births are seen to be the karma of the embodied, made by themselves in this world. Thus, the makers of bad karma, having experienced the tortures of hell, are reborn with the residues of their sins, in these stated forms." (Garuda Purana 5)

After working off one's karmic debt through many lifetimes, one is finally allowed to enter Heaven and stay there. This is a somewhat pedagogical explanation of what seems to my western mind to be an inscrutably abstract dogma.

Buddhism, which your simple Pagan speaker finds even more inscrutable than Hinduism, spun off from Hinduism in the 6th century BC. Buddhism denies the reality of a permanent self. However, some schools of Tibetan Buddhism teach reincarnation. These schools are more Paganesque, and easier for me to understand. I'll try to sum it up in a Tibetan nutshell. Rebirth takes place on account of the residue of craving, aversion, and ignorance in the soul at the time of death. If when you die there is still something you crave, you will be drawn back into a new body; a reincarnation. When one is able to dispel the three poisons of craving, aversion, and ignorance, one can die in a state of peace, love, and wisdom. One can then remain on the transcendental plane of existence, in a state of undisturbed enlightenment. This state could be said to be permanent, or everlasting, but more correctly it is outside of time, where permanence or impermanence have no meaning.

European Paganism is easier for me to get my head around. This is not surprising, given my Celtic/ Germanic heritage. The Celts had no doubt about the reality of afterlife. Roman writers were clearly impressed with the Celts' doctrine of immortality.

The Celts were Indo-European people, and I speculate that they may have gotten their belief in reincarnation from early Hindus, or vice-versa. Once again, this is not the opinion of any credible historian, just me. After an unspecified time in the otherworld, the soul passed to another body. Romans were impressed with the fearlessness of Celtic warriors, which resulted from their conviction that death was only a temporary affliction. They also believed that a debt left unpaid in this life will be repaid in the next one. Perhaps if we had more Celts than Republicrats in Congress, we would not be spending the next generation into poverty, but I digress.

Modern Paganism, at least in North America and Britain, tends to favor the Celtic theory of reincarnation, which is like a westernized, new ageified Hindu model. At death, the soul leaves the physical body, and withdraws to the Summerlands, which is not exactly Heaven, but more like a summer camp for the soul. Before going to the Summerlands, one might tarry with the living for a while as a ghost, because of unfinished business, or reluctance to accept that one really is dead. Remember the Satanist peeking through the curtain.

The Summerlands is a place for the soul to rest, recuperate, and absorb the lessons from the last incarnation. I hope it is also a place to party with old friends.

Eventually, one withdraws from the Summerlands, too, and prepares for the next incarnation. This cycle repeats through as many incarnations as it takes to fix all the screw-ups in one's previous lives. When all the karmic debt is paid, one can finally move on to the next stage of being, whatever it is. Nirvana? Heaven? Anyone who knows would not still be here.

When I set out to summarize all eschatological beliefs, I fear I bit off more than I can chew. I have only just begun, and I haven't even considered Zoroastrian, Gnostic, American Indian, Maya, Inca, Aztec, Olmec, Teutonic, African, Voodoo, or Jewish beliefs. Do these many paths converge, or do they all run off in different directions?

If we accept mythological details as different ways to illustrate the ineffable, I see three general schools of thought.

Mythological details differ within each group, but our choices seem to be resurrect, reincarnate, or rot in the grave.

Is there any evidence to support any one of them? There are books written by God and his appointed scribes. You got the Holy Bible, Koran, Book of Mormon, Egyptian Book of the Dead, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and so on, all of which are to be believed on faith, but if we had faith, we wouldn't be Unitarians, now would we?

Can a rational, educated, scientific person accept the existence of a soul? Does this belief not fly in the face of scientific reason? Consider this:

Our physical bodies are well understood. All physiological processes can be explained by the established laws of physics and chemistry. Our brains are part of our physical bodies, and they function by chemical and electrical activity. The firing of neurons in your brain is triggered by the movement of electrons. Electrons move from one energy level to another within an atom, or from atom to atom in accordance with the laws of physics. But exactly when an electron will move can not be predicted. It appears to be random. We can calculate the probability that an electron will change energy levels now, or a nanosecond later, or next week, but it is never certain. This drove Albert Einstein nuts, and prompted him to say "I cannot believe God plays dice". He believed there must be a hidden variable; some as yet unknown variable that triggers the electron to move. I suggest that hidden variable is the soul. The soul is not physical matter or energy. It is not particles or waves. It does not have the power to push electrons around like photons do. But when an electron in one's brain is poised, ready to change energy levels, the soul can determine when that occurs, within the limits of physical laws.

This half-baked, harebrained idea is just an attempt to make the existence of the soul scientifically plausible. It is not the opinion of any credible physicist, just me. Take it or leave it.

Whatever the soul is, what happens to it after physical death? Is there empirical evidence for the soul's continued existence? There is much anecdotal evidence. Everyone has, or knows someone who has, met or seen a ghost. Most of these experiences are easily dismissed as illusions or self-deception. A few are quite compelling. The nature of these phenomena makes them very difficult to test scientifically. The same is true of occult techniques like channeling and past life regression. Occasionally, information is obtained that can be verified.

The best evidence I know of comes from near death experiences. In 1975, Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life, which described experiences of people who had been revived from heart attacks and other nearly-fatal trauma. They described observing resuscitation procedures from a vantage point outside their bodies. They also described traveling down a dark tunnel, encountering a "Being of Light". Some met with dead relatives. Some experienced a life review and judgment. The book was greeted with much interest and much skepticism. The evidence, though fascinating, was entirely anecdotal, and dismissed by skeptics.

One of the skeptics was Dr. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist, who undertook his own scientific study. As a cardiologist, he was in an ideal position to do so. The claim that a patient near death could witness resuscitation procedures from a vantage point outside one's body could be verified by checking medical records.

Dr. Sabom interviewed 116 patients who had a close brush with death. Of these 71 reported some sort of near death experience. 32 of them claimed to have had autoscopic experiences; that is, they watched themselves from outside their bodies. All 32 of these patients had recollections of the resuscitation procedures which corresponded well with reality.

A control group of 25 other cardiac patients was also interviewed. These patients in the control group did not claim any near death experience. When they tried to describe the procedures, they made lots of mistakes. They could not describe resuscitation procedures with the accuracy and detail of the test group.

This study shows compelling scientific evidence that near death experiences are real, not just imagined. At least the autoscopic experiences are real. That is to say, one's consciousness can leave one's body. Other aspects of near death experiences are not tested so easily, but they are, I think, the best look we have through the veil to the other side.

What do these experiences tell us? Besides observing one's self by leaving one's body, patients describe feelings of peace, well-being, and weightlessness and the ability to travel instantly via thought. Many reported whooshing rapidly through a dark tunnel toward a "Being of Light", which Christians interpret as Jesus, Hindus as Krishna, and so on. Some communicated with departed loved ones. Some reported a life review, where they are shown how their thoughts and deeds have affected others.

A very few people have reported hellish near death experiences. Both pleasant and hellish experiences tend to have morally transforming effects on those who have them.

As far as they go, near death experiences fit both resurrection and reincarnation beliefs. I find a couple of details particularly interesting. Many report lengthy experiences, particularly long life reviews, while the body was near death only for a short time. This implies to me that time is different, or perhaps irrelevant or non-existent on the other side. Ordinary dreams follow real time, that is, if you sleep a short time, you can have only a short dream.

Another detail is the judgment of one's life. The person is shown and given understanding of how one's life has affected others. The god of one's choice acts more like a teacher than like a judge or jury. This seems to fit the Wiccan Neopagan model best. Am I biased? Well, of course I am.

You can't go as far as Heaven, or beyond the Summerlands in a near death experiences. That takes a death experience, for which it is hard to find a witness.

So there it is, the best evidence I have found for an afterlife. And here I am, about halfway through this lifetime, still gathering clues, still looking for evidence. I can accept the existence of a soul without breaking the laws of physics. I see scientific evidence for consciousness operating outside one's physical body. I see credible anecdotal evidence for the movement of the soul through the darkness of death to the light on the other side. Just what we will find on the other side, I think no one can know without going there, but if I live this life well, I have reason to be hopeful for an interesting and pleasant journey on the other side.

Closing Words, from The Witches' Bible Compleat (Requiem) by Stewart and Janet Farrar:

"We call to thee, Aima, bright fertile Mother, thou who art the womb of rebirth, from whom all manifested life proceeds, and at whose flowing breast all are nourished. We call to thee, who art also Persephone of the waxing Moon, Lady of Springtime and of all things new. We commend to thee [our souls. Take us, guard us, guide us; bring us] in the fullness of time to a new birth and a new life."

©2005 Paul Miller

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Miller, Paul. 2005. Into the Dark, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20051030.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

The Quincy Unitarian Church Home Page.
The list of Selected Sermons.