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.