A Unitarian Universalist Considers The Afterlife

How close is what you actually believe happens after death to what your religious tradition teaches about what happens after death?

I am struggling with this one because I am a Christian who doesn’t believe in a traditional Heaven and who still, after years of serious study and reflection, doesn’t resonate at all with the Pauline concept of the afterlife (and let’s face it, Jesus didn’t talk that specifically about it). Because I trust Paul’s theological authority on so much of the metaphysics of Christianity, it troubles me a lot that no matter how deeply I read into afterlife concepts, (including this book), I persist in feeling perplexed by, and contentedly detached from, most of them.

It’s so different with Paul’s christology– I deeply get that. It is a theology that I read, wrestle with, wonder about and believe in fits and starts but always appreciate and love as the statement of one man’s profound and history-changing experience of the living God. My relationship with Paul’s christology transcends belief. I behold it with a sense of awe and spiritual kinship.

I bow my head in respect before many things I do not believe in, because I see them as works of art, and great art must be greeted with reverence.

So on one hand I worry about my lack of appropriate Christian belief in the afterlife. And then I think that we’ve placed far too much emphasis on belief for too long, and with harrowing consequences. Maybe what we ought to be aiming for is not belief but sufficiency: ie, is your faith sufficient to see you through the valley of the shadow of death? Is your faith sufficient to help you make meaning of the whole adventure of life, and is it something that helps guide you to right relationship with other beings and the Earth?

Making meaning is a very different spiritual project than attaining or sustaining belief. The aim of my religion (Unitarian Universalism) is to help people do the former. We are not overly concerned with the details of the latter.

I recognize that this attitude marks me as a lazy, sloppy heretic in the minds of most Christians.  Yet I feel under no obligation to defend myself. This is what makes me such a confirmed Unitarian Universalist Christian (along with a generally liberal christological orientation). My intuition, conscience and experience inform me that is that this life is a struggle to understand and to make meaning and to grow closer to the heart and likeness of God.  I happen to believe that when I’m dead, that great work is done. I shall have done my best (now I sound like Yul Brynner in “The King And I” deathbed scene) and will have earned my peace.

You may be curious as to what it is that I do believe. Thank you for your interest!

What I believe is that after we die (or maybe I just stick to “I” statements — I have no idea what happens to everyone — maybe the afterlife is an individualized experience or culturally specific in some way) — after I die, all of the spirit energy that is Victoria Weinstein will be released from my body and become part of the universe.

Because I have no idea how the specifics of that work, I think it possible that the people who loved me (or those who resonate with my work or feel a special spiritual kinship with the woman who was V.W.) may be able to have some sort of mystical access to my energy. Who knows? Someone may need the comfort of my love and seek me in the singing bird or the song on the radio or the felt sense of my presence in a room. I don’t know that in some way, I won’t actually be there. I hope I will be if it brings comfort or support to someone living after my death. I am not against the idea. Who knows how our life force may remain among the living? Not I!

Despite any vestiges of Victoria Weinstein spirit that might be flinging itself about after my death, I am certain that my eternal soul belongs to God, and –how to say this? — I don’t take it personally. I mean, I don’t take my soul personally. I am greatly consoled, in fact, by the cessation of personal life and identity — a concept that I know scares the living bejeezus out of the majority of mortals, and especially Western persons living in a highly individualistic culture that prizes personal identity above soul.

To me, the end of Victoria Weinstein – body, mind, memory, consciousness – is a reward of death, the cessation of ego, of separateness and all that goes with it.  It seems to me, as Hamlet said, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” A wedding night with God, if you will. “All of me, why not take all of me…”

Old hoary Catskill comic jokes come to mind.

Perhaps I don’t resonate with the idea of meeting Jesus in the afterlife and having a bodily resurrection at the coming of the Kingdom and that sort of thing because I believe that death promises an end to that sort of longing and personal need, and those scenarios just seem to perpetuate them. If there is a bodily resurrection, leave me out of it, thank you very much. I happen to think that becoming part of the oneness that is God is far preferable than some sort of eschatological sequel to the life of Victoria Anne Weinstein.

Of course I want to  (for example)see my father again someday. I long to see him, to talk to him, to feel his arms around me again, to feel his love. But those are the longings of a mortal woman, a daughter of earth. I understand them to be the expression of grief and sorrow, loss and human limitation. “For then we shall see fully, even as we are fully known.” When I die, there will be no more grieving daughter to want to see her father again, or her friends, or her old departed dogs. I will become part of all that they are. Such bliss. The peace that passeth understanding.

My religious tradition, Unitarian Universalism, does not teach anything specific about the afterlife, as we focus on the incarnate life in the here and now. This openness to possibility is a huge blessing to me as an individual and as a minister, as I am not obligated to preach a theology that I do not feel connected to. I can speak of the eternity of the soul, which I believe in. I can imagine the beautiful reunion of a wife with her beloved husband, because I don’t think that is outside of the realm of possibility (God is God, and I am not!), and because I believe God will grant that reunion to those whose dearest wish it is to see their beloved again.

I can also sit comfortably with atheists who say, “This is it. When I die, that’s the end of the story. It has been a good story.” I feel no existential dread or spiritual concern for them in expressing this sentiment. I am able to sit with them in appreciation of life, in acceptance of death’s finality, and in the confidence that to be well-remembered constitutes a perfectly worthy afterlife.

The only afterlife concept that I rail against is the one that threatens humans with cosmic torments or a continuation of the mess and chaos that so many experience here. I resonate very much with the Tibetan Buddhist teaching (as I understand it) that a life of spiritual practice helps ready our souls for their transmigration so that they do not get caught in a dimension of chaos and negative illusion when released from the body. But that is not a punishment from God, it is a state of being that we earn or avoid by our own efforts. I believe that divine grace steps in for those who are not able to make their own effort, and that’s all I’ll say about that for now.

We speak in my faith tradition of “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” I am well aware that non-Unitarian Universalists find it easy to dismiss our quest for truth and meaning nothing more than an exercise in ego and willfulness. That doesn’t offend me. A religious life without total freedom to explore, question and probe received truths would be meaningless to me. I am only fully human when I am fully free. The responsibility for that weighs heavily sometimes. But it is an honorable burden and I am grateful for it.




11 Replies to “A Unitarian Universalist Considers The Afterlife”

  1. Thank you for this. Several things resonated with me very strongly, particularly, “I am greatly consoled, in fact, by the cessation of personal life and identity.” Whether that takes the form of becoming one with everything or simply the end doesn’t bother me at all. The idea that my mortal longings and limitations will end and be replaced by something completely unknown and unknowable seems just right.

    I am still saddened, however, when people I love express alarm or disappointment in my beliefs. I think it will help to ponder your idea that “maybe the afterlife is an individualized experience or culturally specific in some way.” Perhaps their heaven contains me, whether or not mine contains them…

  2. “That is happiness–to be dissolved into something great.” –Willa Cather

  3. In an early interview, Joseph Campbell said that he doesn’t believe that our individual egos are constructs that will persist throughout eternity. He said that what we perceive as our personal lives are merely bubbles on the surface of life. He must have believed in something after death because his biographer wrote that Campbell hoped to be conscious and aware at the time of his death so that he could know what happens next.

  4. Several years ago I heard a talk by Robert Thurman, the Columbia University professor of eastern religion. In the Q&A, someone asked him if the idea of reincarnation wasn’t just egotistical wish fulfillment. Dr. Thurman laughed (having heard this question at probably every single one of his talks), and replied that NOT reincarnating is our expectation and big wish. We Americans don’t like the idea of karma because we want to avoid the consequences of our actions, and, if all else fails, we can always get out of the predicament by dying. Then it’s over, done, no further consequences, right?

    He proposed, on the other hand, that if reincarnation is the case (as many of the world’s people believe), then one begins to see the growing tedium and distress of endless lives, and the necessity for spiritual practice in this life to get off that wheel.

    And then we have the Bodhisattvas, who have vowed to return, lifetime after lifetime, until all beings are saved — i.e., until the end of time itself — no one left out, no one left behind, even though they could choose to re-enter Nirvana…

    Your 2¢ worth from a fellow Unitarian Universalist, albeit one of the Buddhist persuasion.

  5. A Roman Catholic priest friend of mine has a particularly curious understanding of the afterlife. My friend believes, as do some (most? many? a few?) Jewish thinkers, that our souls are primarily shards of God’s Being. If that is the case, these shards of God certainly don’t just sit still in the shell of the body for eternity. My friend believes that these shards continue on–assuming new shells–until God’s redemptive work is done.

    I find comfort in my priest-friend’s understanding. It, perhaps, connects well to the corporate soul/lack of individual identity bit.

    I suspect my priest-friend does not preach this from his pulpit, but certainly supports it from his dining room table.

  6. “Maybe what we ought to be aiming for is not belief but sufficiency: ie, is your faith sufficient to see you through the valley of the shadow of death?” – Yes, exactly!

    As a Pagan, I believe I will have a time of “peace and freedom and reunion with those who have gone before” and then plunge into the Cauldron of Rebirth. As a realist, I accept that I can’t know what – if anything – will actually become of my consciousness. But as a universalist, I have faith that whatever does or doesn’t come after death will be OK.

  7. who still doesn’t resonate at all with the Pauline concept of the afterlife (and let’s face it, Jesus didn’t talk that specifically about it)

    Maybe it comes down to this: Paul was Christian. Jesus was Jewish. Jews, like Unitarian Universalists, tend not to focus on what happens after this life. This is not to say that you are really Jewish, but that there can be a great deal of Jewishness in your Christianity, especially if you think of yourself primarily as a follower of Jesus.

    Having grown up Jewish and become Unitarian Universalist, it’s not surprising that I remain agnostic on the question (and try to live as if the years of this life are all I’ve got), but I’m very moved by this:

    death promises an end to that sort of longing and personal need

    [A great and wise observation for which I thank you. And I’m so glad to have given you a valuable nugget of your own. – PB]

  8. I am fascinated by the writings of Brian Weiss, MD, a pschiatrist who stumbled into the reincarnation controversy. He tried to regress a woman who had been having headaches all her life to a time when she didn’t have headaches. The woman was a Catholic and didn’t believe in reincarnation. During the regression, she found herself in an earlier life. Both she and Weiss were freaked out. He has since regressed hundreds of people over the last 30 years or so and he says that many of his colleagues were able to do the same thing with their patients. Weiss has published a number of books on the subject. It’s really hard for me to know what to make of it. [Very cool possibilities, though. I personally don’t believe in past lives – which doesn’t mean DOO DOO, of course — but I definitely believe in ancestral memory and life force working through the living. I am a product of that in very specific ways, most pointedly my “memories” of having experienced torture and execution during the Witch Craze of the late middle ages in Europe. I have known this since I was a child. When I started researching what I remembered — which was not taught in school — it was all too familiar to me. When I visited an Amnesty International exhibit of medieval torture devices in Amsterdam in the late 1980’s it triggered extreme trauma. I fainted in the museum, got delivered back to my hotel room + did not leave that room for about two days. The proprietress finally came to my rescue, helped me to dress, bathe and eat. I do remember an out-of-body experience, floating above myself looking down before I lost consciousness or whatever it was that happened. I am more careful of triggers now, and have found education and speaking on the subject to help strengthen my psychic immunity. Above all, living as a free and outspoken and independent woman helps me feel that I am living out a corrective destiny to all that horror. – PB]

  9. When you’re dead, you’re dead. That being said, I do believe that we have a legacy. It lies not so much in the measurable things we accomplish; only a select few accomplish feats that directly affect history/society in the long term. Our legacy lies in the effects of the way we treat others, both those in our inner familial and friendship circles and those with whom we interact in less intimate relations. Like the proverbial butterfly that beats its wings in the Amazon rain forest and creates a typhoon in the Pacific, the way we treat our children, our loved ones, our friends, and strangers has unforeseeable ramifications – let’s make sure they’re good ones.

  10. I work in the juvenile justice system in one of the poorest big cities in the U.S. Too often, the court cases concern the violent deaths of children. While “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is powerful for me personally, I struggle with what it means for the abused toddler who dies at the hands of his mother’s drug-addicted boyfriend. Is this brief, painful existence all there is for this child?

    I love the Jesus comes to upend the social order – the last will be first, and the first will be last. But since there really isn’t a lot of evidence of this in this life, to say we all share the same eternal fate – whatever that is – feels like a justification of the status quo. What do we say to the twelve year old victim of the serial rapist who shows no remorse? How do we reconcile God’s justice and mercy?

    This is less a specific reaction to your beautiful piece than something I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. Thank you for your ministry, Peacebang.

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