Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Choose Your Afterlife

I turn 45 at the end of this month. Currently, I am half my father's age who at 88 is going strong. I admire him for that, but I admire him for much more that I don't need to go into here. This coming anniversary of my birth has set to me thinking. I don't anticipate living longer than 88. So when my 45th birthday occurs at the end of this month, I think it will be safe to assume that I will have lived at least half of my life. I have been contemplating my demise, but not morosely, instead, cheerily. I have been wondering about what will happen when I depart this fleshly shell. That language assumes that "I" am not my body. I am not sure if that is true.

I see three basic options with perhaps variations on each theme. So let's play "Choose Your Afterlife!"

Behind door number one:

1) I am my body. Like cats, and rats and elephants, I will cease to exist. I will experience it as I experienced life before my birth. No recollection. A peaceful, dreamless sleep.

Door number two:

2) "I" am somehow different from my body and will exist again in some hidden universe. Much of traditional Christianity has spoken of this as "resurrection of the body." When I lived in upstate New York, I remember being fascinated by the 19th century tombstones that faced east. So on the day that Christ would come with shout of acclamation and with the morning sun, the bodies would rise to meet him and enjoy bliss in heaven. Of course, we must also consider the fate of the poor souls who didn't believe correctly. Their bodies will be resurrected as well. Except they will receive a big "F" and spend eternity in hell. Variations on this theme include universalism or "everyone wins" kind of like the special olympics. And, of course, there are other speculations that we are passing through this veil of tears and will somehow be conscious in another universe in some form (ie. follow the light). This is the immortality of the soul view. We pass on into something else. Door number two in a nutshell is "I" retain self-awareness in another hidden realm.

Door number three:

3) This is similar to door number two. In this view our souls (self-awareness, or "I") are reincarnated in this universe at a later time. We keep getting recycled until we get it right. I don't want to sell this view short. I like the concepts of non-attachment and impermanence regardless of the metaphysics.

As I see it, these are the three possibilities. Which door to choose? What difference will my choice make in the way I live the remainder of my days? Is it really important what I believe will happen? I certainly cannot know. It seems that whatever will happen will happen whether I believe it or not.

I reject the heaven/hell view. I think that is manipulation and coercion by the church to control its sheep. Eternal lollipops or spankings depending on whether you obeyed its authority. That doctrine has done and continues to do a great deal of damage in my view.

Back to my choice. Do "I" cease with my body, go to another realm, or reincarnate in this realm?


I am going to wimp out. I really don't know. And, I am at peace with that. Whatever happens is how the Universe (or God if you prefer) works. I am honest about not knowing. I may at some point be persuaded by one of the three (or a variation). I trust the outcome.

The Historical Jesus gave me a clue. He said, "The domain of God is within/among you."

I think that means that we are conscious now, so don't worry about it. This life is holy and sacred. This brief moment is good. Live it. I now choose to live in this moment and for the welfare of future generations so my children and grandchildren and your grandchildren and the grandchildren of people in Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, and every other place can also enjoy their conscious moments with as much bliss as possible.

If this life is it for "I", great. If there is another existence for "I", great. I hope to be aware and awake for any possibility. But I don't want to lose focus on the mystery and the beauty and the joy that is now.

What say you? What is your philosophy?



  1. Who says rats cease to exist? It seems to me that many are reincarnated and elected to office.

    Many religious traditions, current "metaphysicists," and "new age thinkers," see the universe in the process of becoming whole, becoming one. Some see a loss of individuality in the end, while others see the individual personality being maintained, but the sum total of the individuals becoming a new creation. These views, however, usually focus on mind stuff, the universe as pure thought. Life moves beyond matter. This is a view that ends up devaluing and debasing the physical world of the here and now.

    Christianity, at its best, values the world of the here and now. Much of this genius is found in the Jewish roots of Christianity, and is seen in the Pharisees' concept of a physical resurrection. The Apostle Paul, a Pharisee by training, built on this foundation when constructing a Christian view of resurrection. Paul did not foresee a resurrection like that of Lazarus, a reanimating of the human body, but instead saw a transformation of the physical world. The perishable would become imperishable, the mortal would become immortal. His metaphor in 1 Corinthians of a bare seed and the life that grows from it is a useful image for understanding this new life.

    A seed is dirt that is organized as information and energy. Information as DNA. Energy as carbohydrates. Both the information and the energy are in stored form. They are potential. When the right conditions occur, there is a simultaneous release of energy and information. The seed begins to become its potential. Eventually the seed becomes something very different.

    The parable Jesus told about the mustard seed is a parable about the community of God, but it also helps us think about eternal life. Both Jesus and Paul suggest creation is a seed that will be transformed into something that is more, but not necessarily something that is more valuable. The mustard bush is something much more than the seed from which it began, but the mustard bush is not more valuable than the seed, because the bush contains all that the seed was, and without the seed could not have come into being. God equally loves both the seed and the bush.

    The exact nature of our resurrection is a mystery, but based on our religious understanding and our knowledge of the physical universe, it can be surmised that the resurrection will include our physical nature, because who we are is as much physical as spiritual. Dust to dust is a statement of faith, not a fatalistic belief in some cold, dark end. A holistic theology does not allow for some matter to be left behind due to a hierarchy of dirt, and it does not allow for a devaluing of matter in favor of some nebulous mind world based on information. We are whole people—body, mind, and spirit. We are a whole creation. And, the dirt of our creation is the dirt of our eternity. In dirt we find identity, hope, and life, both now and forever.

    Paul Peterson
    (the once and future pastor)

  2. Okay, well, I choose Door #1. Even back when I believed there might be a door #2 and #3, I chose door #1. Why, because I really have no need to leave this universe, this plain, this existence. I have had a blessed and lucky life. I was adopted, but I was adopted by good and wonderful parents who loved me and made me feel chosen. I was schooled by patient teachers who always saw more in me than I could see in myself. I was nurtured in this life--and then sent out to explore and see the world. I discovered within me the capacity for faith linked to reason--and came to believe that each supported the other. I grew in my capacity for empathy, and came to understand that the meaning of my life was intimately linked to the contribution I could make. And finally, even though late in life, I have been given two beautiful and lovely children, birthed courageously and lovingly by their mother and wanted by both of us more than life itself. And our children love us in return. So I am quite happy with this life on this earth--no need for more. There is a part of me that wishes it would never end even though I know it will. And when it does, I should be nothing but thankful.

    Now, had I been unlucky, born, say, into poverty, slavery, abuse, or oppression, I suspect I would hope with all my heart that door #2 not only existed but that it also was specially made available to me through the power of God (or for that matter through anyone or anything). I would want out of this life--and into the next.

    Or if I had been raised to believe that most of life was an either/or, either right or wrong, good or bad, black or white, up or down, I would need to constantly check, compare, worry perhaps, but work toward the right, good, white, up position. Then, to paraphrase Blood, Sweat, and Tears, I might hope that there is a heaven and pray that there is no hell--at least for me.

    I have to admit that Paul Peterson's perspective appeals to me at a lot of different levels. The perspectives of physical relativity and quantum physics have demonstrated a number of things. (1) Life as observed is almost never how it really is; and (2) life is in an almost constant state of becoming.

    We look around, and we see matter, and matter is made up of atoms, but atoms are mostly empty space. In fact if you blew up the nucleus of an atom in Johnson City, TN, to the size of an orange, the nearest electron might be in Knoxville. How did so much matter come from empty space? Now, that's a miracle. And did you know that under certain conditions if two matched particles are separated by a greater space than can be traversed at the speed of light, when one changes, the other has been shown to instantaneously change in exactly the same way. Another miracle? How about this one: in spite of how small an electron is, we can now measure it, and even though it never travels the same route within the atom twice, when we go to measure it again, it will show up. Cool, huh?

    I am made up of atoms, and at least some scientists believe that all the atoms that exist have always existed (at least since the big bang), and they always will. I do not know that I will be conscious of what I will become after I die, I just know that I will become something different--maybe just dirt.

    Or maybe really neat dirt: Dirt in which children play and discover mud. Maybe some child will one day experiment with me and see what my "I-dirt" tastes like. Maybe I will become part of that child. Or maybe I will be dirt on which someone walks, to which someone feels grounded, or dirt that supports seeds and plants and renders sprouts that blossom or fruit. Now, that is neat dirt to become.

    I have been blessed, and I am lucky, so I choose this life, this universe, and when I become dirt, I hope I am useful dirt, just as I hope I am useful now.

  3. Dude, why are you even a "Christian" pastor? I don't mean to insult you, but your approach to understanding Christian faith and living seems purely an endeavor of the intellect while reserving, intellectually, only a tiny space for faith and mystery?
    You are entitled to your views, but a core message of Christ is Life Eternal. And, no, not just some namby pamby, intellectually vacuous metaphor for living in the here and now and making sure I recycle plastic so my grandkids inherit a cleaner planet (which is a noble goal, BTW).
    I agree with some of your views, incidentally, but your core teachings seem to have eviscerated Christ, sacrificed him on the altar of modernism, and turned him into an overblown good deed doer we should try to emulate by not driving SUVs and avoding eating at McDonalds.
    You don't have to be a Presbyterian minister to preach this stuff, so why bother with the robes unless it's just for the paycheck?
    For me, I wavered like you at one point years ago on the issue of LAD and have since come in faith to believe firmly in it and in Christ, though I too reject the classical heaven and hell motifs. I have come to welcome and appreciate and LOVE the great mystery. Getting outside my head and my intellectual conceits and recognizing spiritual experiences for what they are has helped. God (not the impersonal "Universe") imparts to each of us, at some point I believe, an intimate expereince of His Presence. I hope you will have such an experience, or recognize one for what it was. I fail to perceive what hope you offer in your ministry beyond any temporal benefits that might accrue from rejecting (or modifying) capitalism and using less oil.
    In peace.