Shuck and Jive

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Religion of This Life

Madpriest and I have been having a conversation of sorts. It started with my post on the Jesus Seminar, Good Old Jesus and Me. He created a thought for the day. He tends to write in hyperbole and because I am such a literalist I am not quite sure if he is being straight with me or not. He sounds snippy and I get defensive but we trundle on.

The question comes down to afterlife. What happens to us when we die? This is an important question whether we are religious or not. To raise the question creates a crisis. That crisis is my mortality. When we bring our personal mortality into focus we are forced to address our lives and the time we spend doing whatever it is we do.

So I won't have to write this all again, I am taking what I posted at his place with some editing to offer my thoughts on this question. What comes up for me is that I don't find any type of afterlife persuasive. One can argue with me back and forth on that, but I doubt I will change my mind simply because I don't think it is real. That is one argument to have, whether or not afterlife is real or credible.

The other argument is whether or not belief in afterlife is good or not. One might say that believing in it is better than not believing in it as to do so makes life tolerable or provides other benefits.

I don't think you can believe in it if you don't think it is real. In medicine a placebo only works if the patient doesn't know it is a placebo.

The church seems to promote a belief in belief. The unstated argument goes,
"We have a placebo thing going, don't screw it up. It makes people feel good, it gives people hope, don't take it away."
As a minister, I know that argument and I know the compassionate impulse behind it.

I also know that the church's beliefs including afterlife have become less credible for many people. Many people who in times past might have been church members are now into New Age things which I find to be placebos in newer wrappings. Others have left organized religion altogether. It is for these folks, including me, that I want to offer an alternative option to the religion of afterlife.

I make the case that religion primarily is not about afterlife but about helping people cope with this life. It always has been. Religious belief may include afterlife, but must it? Is a belief in afterlife the best way to cope with the suffering of life or has it been the only way we have known?

I personally believe that a religion of this world is a beautiful, meaningful thing, even in the midst of suffering. I know that one day I will enter an unconscious rest like the rest I had before I was born. In one sense I look forward to it, and yet, I have no desire to wish time away. Despite what may happen to me in this life, I have that rest coming. It will be a full rest, an unconscious union with the Divine. Call it eternal life if you like.

With that confidence, I can say,
"Yes, I can live another day. I didn't ask for this day or this life, but I will treat it as a gift and an adventure. I will face my depression. I will notice something beautiful. I will kiss my wife. I will stand up for someone."
I find the religion of this life to be comforting and credible. It fits my understanding of the universe, our cosmic history, and the evolution of species. I have no fear of God, gods or hell or concern about doing certain things to get a better future incarnation or a spot in heaven. I have the freedom to create my own meaning. Nothing is ready-made. I can draw from all wisdom available to me. There is no coercion to embrace certain beliefs. I don't need to "believe" anything. My energy, intelligence, imagination, and love is directed toward this life, this Earth, this present now.

I do acknowledge that we are headed for change on a massive scale due to energy, environmental, population, and economic crises. These unfolding crises as industrial civilization faces its limits will last for centuries. I have been blathering on about this since I started this blog five years ago. I include links to these concerns on the sidebar. My primary concern is that we face whatever changes may come with awareness, compassion, and courage because these are the angels of our better nature.

The church will have a role in helping people cope with these changes. On one hand, one branch of the church will help many people cope by offering traditional beliefs in the afterlife. For folks who find that helpful, then I have no argument.

My branch of the church will help people cope by offering an encouragement to be fully present here and now. Life is a crazy ride and it is best to travel lightly and to recognize that we can be and are blessings to others if we choose to be.

Maybe these two forms of Christianity, the Christianity of this life and the Christianity of the afterlife can work together.
We can be with and for one another in the here and now, accept our limits, accept our mortality and be humane, even joyful in the midst of the via negativa.

I have no idea how I will respond when I face severe personal crises. Maybe I will jump over onto the afterlife branch, but I doubt it. I plan to stick with my religion and do what I can while I have breath.


  1. Greeting, just a few thoughts, if I may:
    1. It seems that placebos may still work even when people are fully aware that it is only a placebo
    2. I don't think eternity is time going on and on and on for ever. Rather it is about "Time shall be no more." (And in our present life we may sometimes encounter situations that we might describe as somehow timeless.)
    3. I do believe that Jesus' key focus was/is on this world. He told us to pray "Thy kingdom come on earth" but he also added "as in heaven."
    4. Thus our main purpose, as followers, is to seek in this world for what Jesus meant by The Kingdom / eternal life / fullness of life etc. (And to seek it for all not just for ourselves.)- Nevertheless, perhaps as we do that, and through doing that, we shall discover something that reaches beyond this present life, - although how that may work or what it may mean is beyond our current understanding. - It is a mystery.

  2. Thanks DaviGoss,

    Good thoughts and you may make them anytime you want! Well, maybe the placebo afterlife will work anyway...

  3. Having re-read what I just said it sounds a little bit “pat” – What was trying to say is that the placebo thing suggests that “more might be going on here than we actually know about.” And perhaps the same may be also true as we seek to discover what we mean by God’s Kingdom in this world.
    I recently heard the brain scientist Richard Davidson talking about his work with the Dalai Lama on the effect of meditation on the brain. Davidson made the point that the Dalai Lama has beliefs, about re-incarnation etc, which are very different to his own. However, he said that the Dalai Lama has vowed that if any of his own traditional beliefs are scientifically proven to be false he will abandon them, but until such time he retains them.

  4. It seems that the New Testament was written by and for people who were in difficult circumstances, and in expressing themselves, they used an apocalyptic, escapist, other-worldly outlook that seems to have been current at that time. (Except I'm not sure if Jesus held to that outlook). Now this outlook has been permanently preserved in the NT and normative in the Christian mind, like a millienia-old butterfly in amber. At least the more useful denominations, like your PCUSA, are doing something to help people's lives here and now, and have built colleges, hospitals, etc, in addition to hoping for a better world beyond.

  5. I don't fret too much about the afterlife. As I understand it, I'm not supposed to be in charge of it. Of course, there are very long, and very tedious arguments about salvation and judgement and the elect, and works and faith, etc, ad nauseum. But ultimately, God does the math.

  6. @DaviGoss One thing about beliefs is that they are set up as to be unprovable. But they can, I think, be more credible.

    @Michael The PCUSA does do many this worldly things and that is good in my opinion.

    @David I agree with you regarding afterlife. Because of the doctrines you named and many more, Christian theology has treated it as the centerpiece.

  7. I think it's a false dichotomy to speak of an opposition between a Christianity of this world and a Christianity of the next. Real historic Christianity has always been about both, and has focused on an eternal life beginning here and now.

    I think you will also find that a straightforward affirmation that this life is not the whole enchalada grounds a considerable amount of "this-worldly" building of hospital and schools. I am not sure that a stoic resignation toward the inevitable ultimate futility of these efforts would be nearly so productive.

  8. @Rick I do appreciate the notion that eternal life begins now. It means for me quality of life, acceptance and peace with mortality, and living the present with the awareness of one's mortality.

    I wouldn't say that hospitals and schools (good deeds) are futile. They aren't futile for those who benefit from them. As far as ultimacy goes, I don't think everlasting existence would solve that problem. It simply puts it off.

    There is another notion I like that can motivate when I feel sorry for myself that I wasn't created to be immortal and that is the "great ball of merit." A Buddhist idea, or an idea I learned from a Buddhist, Joanna Macy.

    Our good deeds are not lost but are gathered and grow as a great ball of merit. I take this to mean they outlast us and build upon one another and make life more pleasant in ways we never will know.

  9. John said: "Our good deeds are not lost but are gathered and grow as a great ball of merit. I take this to mean they outlast us and build upon one another and make life more pleasant in ways we never will know.

    Yes! This is the message I get from the story of Moses. He was told straight up that he would never enter the Promised Land, but that he was needed to get the people on the road. So, maybe, all the good works people do are going into building that road. But what if the road never actually gets to the Promised Land, but the road becomes really, really great over time - better and better and better.