Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One life at a time ...

... Seeking Proof in Near-Death Claims. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I think a lot of the skepticism regarding life after death comes from the connection in many people's mind between religion and a belief in an afterlife. But there is no necessary connection between the two. It may well be that death is simply one more phase in an ongoing adventure of being. In fact, one could argue that religion has exploited the continuation of existence in order to exercise control over adherents. I happen to think that life does continue in some way, shape or form, mostly because of some experiences I've had. I also think that worship of God should focus more on simple gratitude for being in the first place.


  1. I think you could argue, also, that most of the interest in a proposed afterlife, including attempts to tell us what it is, come out of a basic fear of death, fear of the unknown. No one really knows. Trying to resolve this open question via scientific evidence, or by religious dogma, seems equally driven by those fears rather more than by a thirst for knowledge.

    We self-absorbed primates care very much about knowing that we continue, that we meant something, that life wasn't futile after all.

  2. With all due respect, you seem to think of an afterlife as some sort of comfort against the terror of nothingness.

    Christianity and many other religions (ancient Egyptian, for one) teach a terrible accountability for everything one has said or done.

    Unless you hold to the comforting illusion that you are a "good person" (and I, at least, cannot) this no solace at all!

  3. I don't "cling" to anything. Don't confuse a comment about the psychology of fear with what I believe about the afterlife, which I haven't actually talked about here.

    Frankly, a lot of people DO believe in an afterlife as against the terror of personal extinction. It's a major motivation for some believers. It drives entire religious groups, for example, those who believe in perfecting their lives here and now in hope of a reward. A lot of sects in Christianity are driven strongly by the Book of Revelations. (Arguably the most whacked out book in the Bible. Jung's book "Answer to Job" gets deeply into the psychology of Revelations, as well as Job.)

    And fear of accountability DOES motivate a lot of people, too. Fear of judgment, fear of failure, fear of suffering.

    Most of the world's mystical texts—many of which are considered heterodox by their various institutional religious hierarchies—do emphasize Unity, love, union with the Divine, returning to the Light, etc. Don't take my word for it, go read Rumi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, and many others, then decide for yourself.

  4. I have been thinking of writing a column about this notion of the afterlife as having mostly to do with judgment, reward, and punishment. The experience to which I referred in the comment I appended to the link certainly suggested to me that I was to be held accountable for my actions in life. But I think it important to consider that God's judgment of us would be nuanced to a degree we cannot begin to imagine and that his solution to the problem of evil may also be creative than our simplistic notions of punishment and pain.

  5. Apologies, Art. My intention was certainly not to offend you.

    Of course I've read the authors you mention, and many others as well. (Of course also, they are motivated by the love of God, not a wish for reward or fear of punishment. Few of us can claim the same.)

  6. I was not offended, although I did feel condescended to. No worries.

    That some of us CAN claim to be motivated by love rather than fear, though, means that it's possible, if only by following the guidance given us by the mystics. And if it's possible, then it puts the motivations by fear into sharp relief as bring at best unnecessary, and at worst just plain wrong.

    Since the mystics also seem to be the ones who have had that direct contact with the Divine, that experience of Unity which is not merely intellectual theology but direct experience, I choose to believe what the mystics say, rather than what the fearmongers say.

    So maybe the lovers of the Divine, as opposed to the fearful ones, are not so small a minority as is often assumed. Maybe there's more of them than most of us know about.

    Of course, at least in the Judeo-Christian lineage, a lot of the fearmongering comes from the problematic translations of the King James Version, which is often completely wrong. "Fear of God" is one of those problematic phrases, because what is usually taken to mean means in English isn't what it meant in the original. The KJV may contain some beautiful language in English, but it is really one of the worst translations available.

  7. I plead not guilty to condescension. Guilty on a couple counts of borderline irritation. I get so tired of atheists saying that religion is only a mask for our fear of the cupboard -- which presupposes that they are correct and "objective" in thinking that there is nothing in the cupboard at all.

    I don't think the "lovers of the Divine" and "the fearful ones" are necessarily two discrete groups, at least not in most of us. We move to one or the other not daily, but hourly.

    Don't know enough about the mistranslation -- fear has been an element in my own experiences of such states. How could it be otherwise, when dealing with something so much bigger than oneself? Fear ... respect ... awe ... and the odd relationship between the three. "For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure..."

    Which translations do you prefer? Most of the modern ones seem so flat and lifeless to me, after the KJV. Wish I could read Milosz's translations into the Polish! I hear they are magnificent.

    Frank, maybe that "nuance" is precisely what Dante meant to convey. In which case, the event would be objective, but our reaction to it, the way the reality filters through us into fear, guilt, self-righteousness, is subjective. But our reactions don't negate a reality -- and that's what concerns me when surveying what Robertson Davies called "the shocking triviality of the modern, educated mind." There's no admission that there is such a truth, that I don't select truth like a dress in a shop. ("On me, it looks good.")

  8. I get irritable, too, mostly when people start making assumptions about me or my beliefs that are founded on nothing. For example, I'm not an atheist, and have little sympathy for the positions of the so-called "new atheists" such as Dawkins and Hitchens.

    Perhaps the argument to psychology is annoying precisely to the extent that it contains truth. People often don't like their observable issues and patterns pointed out to them. That's true simply because what people think is in the cupboard, or not, is what pushes them about; no one knows what's in the cupboard, so what people THINK is in the cupboard reflects their basic psychology. Their basic assumptions about the nature of reality.

    Professional victims, for example, believe they inhabit a malevolent universe run by a vengeful god, one which is always out to get them, to provide them with trials and disappointments. The universe I inhabit can be dark and mysterious, but I don't view it as malevolent. Yes of course Rilke: "Beauty is beginning of terror." My universe is beautiful, and so, sometimes filled with terror, with awe. Rilke again: "Every angel is terrifying."

    My experience (and research) about those mystics and contemplatives who love God is that, for the most part, they aren't the fearful ones. They don't live in fear of wrath, because they know that "God is love." The mystic's love of God is not a purely mental phenomenon: it is not psychological aberration, it is spiritual reunification. In fact, once they get to a certain level, or threshold, in their constant love of God, there isn't much room left in them for fear. The light burns away most of the shadows. Of course, there will always be shadow; but the impact on the person is reduced to almost nothing. Witness Rumi, witness Zen masters such as Ryokan, witness Julian of Norwich. Life will always contain troubles, but the lovers-of-God, the mystics, don't respond to life's troubles as though they were punishments to be feared, or trials to be hated. They embrace them. The mystic's darkness (via negativa) comes not from fear of God, but from separation: acedia; the absence; the seeming withdrawal of the light.

    "Fear of God" is itself one of those several questionable translations in the KJV that have led to a lot of heart-break and bellowing. Because your average person equates "fear of God" with being afraid OF God, of or God's wrath, with being judged. Which is ironic, since the whole message of the New Testament is that God Is Love.

    Jung wrote about this, as well, in letters and articles discussing theodicy. His idea was that the Old Testament God, who demanded fear, had evolved, Himself, into a more loving, more mature God. These ideas of Jung's are explored in detail in Janet O. Dallett's "The Not-Yet-Transformed God" which includes some letters he wrote on the topic as well as a detailed exploration of what he officially published, in The Collected Works.

    Regarding translations: Yes, many of the modern translations do seem poetically flat compared to the KJV, but they are all often more true to the original texts. The language in the RSV is more prosaic, but it fixes some errors. Stephen Mitchell's translation of Genesis, and "The Gospel According to Jesus," which is a scholarly rendering seeking out the ur-text. And there have been modern poet's translations of "The Song of Songs," and other individual books. That poets keep turning to the Bible to make translations is indicative, in itself, on some level, of desire to keep the material alive, to keep it relevant. It still speaks to us.