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[Chalice] How Can You Stand Not Knowing? [Chalice]

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Presented November 23, 2008, by Doug Muder


The first reading is from Shakespeare's MacBeth, which provides perhaps our culture's most powerful negative image of a man without hope for the afterlife. At this point in the play, MacBeth's schemes are starting to fall apart. He has just been told that his wife is dead. And yet, because of their crimes, he does not dare imagine that they will meet again in an afterlife, where they would face the prospect of Hell. Instead, he is left with this bleak view:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more: It is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing.

The second reading presents a very different view. Last June, I went to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale and heard a remarkable talk from Forrest Church. Church has been the minister of the All Souls congregation in New York for three decades, and is one of the best known figures in the UU movement. I have never met Church myself, but like many people I feel as if I know him from his books, one of which, A Chosen Faith, is a very popular introduction to Unitarian Universalism.

Church has known since February that his recurring cancer is beyond cure. His doctors gave him months to live. As far as I know, those months have not yet run out.

In June, he looked a little thin, but not bad, and his voice was strong. He spoke to a packed room about death in general, and his own death in particular.

Being an agnostic about the afterlife, I look for salvation here -- not to be saved fromlife, but to be saved by life, in life, forlife. Such salvation has three dimensions: integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.

All our lives end in the middle of the story. There is ongoing business left unfinished. We leave the stage before discovering how the story will turn out. In the meantime, however, to help ensure a good exit, one thing is fully within our power. We can take care of unfinished business. We can make peace with ourselves, reconcile, where possible, with our loved ones, and free ourselves to say yes to the cosmos, to embrace our lives and deaths, to make peace with God.

To be free to accept death is to be free, period. The courage we need comes before, when we face our own demons or reach out across a great divide to touch hands. It is lifework not deathwork, but it pays great dividends down the line. So, if you need to, put down that drink. Or pick up the phone. Or take that long postponed trip. You know what your unfinished business is. Don't wait until it's too late to begin taking care of it. Death may come as a thief in the night, but it cannot steal from you the love you have given away, the strength you have shown in facing life's hardships, or the courage you have proved in quelling your inner demons.

Church closed by calling on us to awaken to the miracle of life.

Awakening is like returning after a long journey and seeing the world--our loved ones, cherished possessions, and the tasks that are ours to perform--with new eyes. Think of little things. Reaching out for the touch of a loved one's hand. Shared laughter. A letter to a lost friend. An undistracted hour of silence, alone, together with our thoughts until there are no thoughts, only the pulse of life itself. Imagine an afternoon spent free from worry about the things we have to do, or an afternoon tackling the tasks we have avoided. We may not understand any better than before who we are or why we are here. But for this fleeting moment--the one instant we can bank on--our life becomes a sacrament of praise.

' How much finer it will be, when our band is struck, if we have loved the music while it lasted and enjoyed the dance.


For our meditation, we move from Shakespeare to a TV show. A character in the 'Luminary' episode of the 1998 series Millennium writes this in his journal:

Imagine for one second that you could drop in on a past life. What would you like to find yourself doing there? What would charm you, make you proud? Ask yourself that, and the question of what to do in this life becomes so simple it's terrifying. Just do that thing that would charm you, that would make you say 'That's the real me.'

How Can You Stand Not Knowing?

Last time I was here, I talked to you about some of the questions that outsiders and newcomers ask about Unitarian Universalism. One subject I mentioned, but I didn't dwell on, was the afterlife. I want to look a little closer at that today, because the afterlife may be the part of Unitarian Universalism that, from the outside, looks most mysterious.

'What do you teach about the afterlife?' people ask. And we answer: 'We don't have a teaching about the afterlife. There is no doctrine that we all believe.'

A lot of people simply can't hear that answer. To them, death and the afterlife are so central that they can't imagine a religion with no doctrine about it. So when we say 'We teach nothing about the afterlife' they hear 'We teach that the afterlife is nothing.' It is as if they imagine that Nobody is the name of a person, and then are horrified to hear all the things that Nobody does.

Not having an answer is different than saying that 'nothing' is the answer.

And of course it's only as a group that we don't have an answer. Individual UUs believe all kinds of things about the afterlife. Probably some people in this room believe in a Heaven, where they will be happy and reunite with loved ones. Probably we also have people here who believe some version of reincarnation -- that they will live again, retaining some of the lessons of this life, but not necessarily any specific memories. And others probably do believe that Nothing is the answer, that when they die, their story is over.

For some, afterlifeis the wrong word, because the afterlife isn't after so much as outside of time altogether. Joseph Campbell said, 'Eternity isn't some later time. Eternity isn't even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time.' And the poet William Blake talked about holding 'Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.'

To Emerson, all theories of the afterlife were distractions. 'The moment the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught,' he wrote, 'man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question.' In other words, our desire for immortality comes from some deficiency that we experience in the present. Emerson believed that if you were ever, even for a moment, totally fulfilled, it would not even occur to you to wonder what comes next.

One constant in UU views of the afterlife is that very few of us are doctrinaire about it. Whatever we may think, most of us will admit that we don't really know.

Forrest Church, for example. Here is a man facing death about as closely as you can, facing it with time to gather his thoughts, but no time to waste. What does he think? 'It's not that I disbelieve in an afterlife,' he wrote, 'I simply have no experience of an afterlife, and therefore have little to say concerning one.'

Now, I imagine some people are exasperated by that answer. 'Forrest! You're a minister. You've devoted your life to religion. You've sat with the dying. You've preached about death. You're a leader among people of your faith. How can you not know? How can you stand not knowing?'

Because that was the most striking thing about his talk at General Assembly: Forrest Church can stand not knowing. His 'I don't know' was not a cry of frustration or despair. He had reached a place where he didn't need to know.

I notice in your bulletin that Dr. Manning is talking next week about Randy Pausch's last lecture, so I won't say too much about it. But that's a similar case. Pausch was a UU facing death. He expressed no expectations about an afterlife, and yet he was sanguine. In his last lecture, which you can find on YouTube, he said, 'If I don't seem as depressed or morose as I should be, I'm sorry to disappoint you.'

How do you get to a place like that?

To understand not just the answer, but the question, we need to talk about belief in a different way than we usually do. Usually we talk about what we believe and why, as if our beliefs are passive things that we work on by gathering evidence and drawing conclusions. But today I want to picture beliefs as active things that work on us and work for us. I want to ask not just what our beliefs are, but what those beliefs do.

Let me give an example. A year or so ago I was talking to my parents about the afterlife, and my father asked, 'So do you think we just die and that's it, like animals?'

That 'like animals' was very interesting, because my father knows a lot about animals. He grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals that were killed for food. Meat did not from the store sealed in plastic. He chopped heads off of chickens and watched hogs being slaughtered. And when you live that life, it's very important to know that there is a firm boundary between animals and people. You don't, for example, keep people in pens. You don't cut their heads off. You don't eat them.

Well, why not? For my father, it's because people have immortal souls. That gives human beings a dignity that animals lack. It means that people are worthy of a higher level of consideration and respect and compassion. And so you see that in addition to whatever else it may accomplish, my father's belief in human immortality does something for him every time he sits down to eat a meal. If he just dropped that belief and didn't replace it with anything, parts of his everyday life would start to come unglued.

Now, I'm about to discuss the traditional Christian view of the afterlife and all the things such a belief does. But before I do, I want to give a warning to people who believe something else. When you talk about what other people's beliefs do for them, it's easy to feel smug and superior. Because we usually imagine that ourbeliefs come from logic and evidence, while other people believe what they want to believe or think they need to believe.

But almost everybody, I think, overestimates the rationality of his or her beliefs. I know I do. It's always humbling for me to play the why-game from childhood. You know how it works: Start with something you believe and ask why. Then ask why you believe the reasons you gave for that belief, then why the reasons for the reasons, and why and why and why. If I play long enough, I always get to something that I can't honestly give a reason for. I believe it because I lack the imagination to see an alternative. Or I believe it because I don't know how I could function if I didn't. In other words, that belief does something for me that I don't know how to live without.

With that in mind, let's talk about what a traditional belief in Heaven and Hell does. Turns out, it does a lot of things.

That's an impressive list, and it makes clearer what the question 'How can you stand not knowing?' really means. Heaven is not just a decorative element of the traditional worldview; it plays a structural role. The Indigo Girls sing 'Secure Yourself to Heaven', and I think that image captures something important. Much of a traditional Christian's world is supported by guywires attached to Heaven. If those wires were cut, with nothing to replace them, much of the believer's world would fall down.

That's why 'I don't know' can be such an unsatisfying answer. Whatever you believe about the afterlife, if those beliefs are uncertain or insubstantial, then they can't play that structural role. 'I don't know' may be very defensible philosophically, but your belief system still needs to do a lot of the same things. You still need morality, justice, forgiveness, solace, purpose, and meaning. If you can't suspend that structure from Heaven, then you need to dig a foundation into the Earth.

In short, the question 'What happens after death?' is bigger than it sounds. It's not just about death, it's about life. How do you live? How do you envision the world in a way that allows you to live in it?

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, that Earthly foundation wasn't constructed in one big structural renovation. Instead, it got dug little by little, over centuries, as people felt one Heavenly guywire or another start to go slack.

The first thing that needed shoring up was morality. The Universalists had to work this out 200 years ago, because even though they believed in Heaven, they found that they couldn't believe in Hell. And if everyone is saved, if the afterlife doesn't distinguish between good people and bad people, then why be good?

The great Universalist Hosea Ballou solved this problem by realizing that when Hell went away, something else had to go away as well: the belief that sin is sweet. If you believe that a life of violence and greed and dishonesty would be marvelous if only you could get away with it, then you really do need to believe in Hell. But Ballou taught that the truly marvelous life is one aligned with the power of love. He pictured perfect love streaming down from God onto each individual, who can then reflect God's love into the world. Far from being sweet, sin smudges your mirror; it breaks your transmission of God's love.

Since Ballou's day, Universalists have pictured the source of love in many ways, sometimes as a personal God and sometimes not. But the pattern continues to work. If the life you want is a life illuminated by the power of love, a life in which you are an agent of love in the world, then your morality is grounded in life, not suspended from an afterlife.

As the Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote: 'So I be written in the Book of Love, I have no care about that book above.'

The Universalist vision also goes a long way towards dealing with the issue of justice. If evil provides the most enviable Earthly life, if tyrants and murderers and thieves have the life that we would want if only we could get away with it, then we need to see them in Hell. But if we don't envy them, if we prefer the lives we have, then that problem goes away. Suppose they do die peacefully in their beds, surrounded by their ill-gotten gains ' so what?

That's the personal injustice in the world. The impersonal injustice -- the fact that some people are lucky and others are not -- is a different problem. And this is a fascinating example of a larger pattern: Often when you look at what beliefs do rather than what they say, things flip around. Ostensibly, God fixes injustice in the afterlife because he loves us. But when you look at what this belief does, the purpose it serves in the traditional belief system, it works in the opposite direction: If injustice isn't fixed in the afterlife, if it's never fixed, then how can we love the God who created this whole mess?

This issue, fundamentally, is about the quality of our love. Can we love the kinds of things that we see around us today? Flawed things, broken things, misshapen and misconceived things? Or do we have to idealize something to love it? The people around us -- can we love them as they are right now? Or do we only love them as they will be in Heaven? Do we only love what they will be after we fix them, after they change and live up to our standards? Do we only love ourselves as we will be someday, after we get our act together? Or, before we can love ourselves, do we have to imagine that we're perfect now, that we make no mistakes, that we are not guilty of anything?

What is the quality of our love? This world around us is full of injustice, full of accident, full of undeserved bad luck. Can we love this world? Can we say: 'I will never stop hoping for it to get better. I will never stop working to give it every chance to improve. But this is my world, and I love it.'?

Learning to see things as they are and love them now -- not in the future or hereafter -- is, I believe, the ultimate spiritual practice. And you need both parts: Not just seeing things as they are and being cynically hardened to them, but seeing things as they are and lovingthem. That practice gives us an Earthly purpose and goal that is worth living for, and to the extent that we achieve it, we anchor our sense of justice and forgiveness in the Earth.

Now we get to the problem of loss. The hardest way to lose a loved one is before we actually get around to loving them. Maybe we felt an attachment to them and we wanted to love them, but we were hoping for something to happen first. And it never did, because they died. If we meet again in Heaven, of course, problem solved. But an Earth-founded approach to loss says: 'Love now. Leave regret nothing to work with.' Of course we will miss people who die. Their absence is another imperfection of this life, another flaw to accept in this-world-that-I-love, another thing to forgive God for. That kind of acceptance and forgiveness is a high hope, but unlike Heaven, it is a hope based on experience. In this life, I have seen and felt the power of acceptance and forgiveness. So I know what I'm working with. I know what I'm hoping for.

I have left the problem of meaning for last, because it is in some ways the most far-reaching. Our culture has taught us a very bad habit: We have been trained to look for meaning in the future, not the present. We look for the meaning of an event in the effects it will cause, not in the experience of living it. And for some events that's necessary. Much of what we have to do in life is disagreeable. The only conceivable point to doing it is because it's part of some larger story.

But if we look at everything that way, if meaning is always in the future and never in the present, then we need to believe that we have infinite time in front of us. Because no matter how much time goes by, the future never arrives. It is always the present, always now. If our time is limited, then our future will dwindle to nothing and we will run out of meaning.

If we are to found our sense of meaning on the Earth and not suspend it from Heaven, we need to learn how to truly appreciate and celebrate the present. When we sit with someone we love, when we play with a child, when we learn something fascinating, when we see something beautiful, when some long hard effort is complete and some small piece of our dreams has come true, we need to soak it up. 'Unwrap the present,' Forrest Church advises. Don't look past it. Don't always think about where it's going and what happens next. Stop and appreciate it fully. Learn how to say to yourself: 'This, right now, is why I live.'

Those moments can be like pearls on a string. And when it comes time to die, you won't have missed your chance to live. You won't say, 'Wait. It can't end yet. Something was supposed to happen to me someday.' Instead, you can touch those pearls and say, 'Maybe I hoped to do more, but I got to do this.'

What will happen then? I can imagine a lot of things, but I don't really know. And I'm OK with that.

Closing Words

The closing words are from Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau was on his deathbed, Parker Pillsbury asked if, from where he was, he could see anything of the world to come. 'One world at a time,' Thoreau said. 'One world at a time.'

©2008 Doug Muder

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Muder, Doug. 2008. How Can You Stand Not Knowing?, /talks/20081123.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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