WHAT THE AFTERLIFE CANNOT BE LIKE

What happens to us after we die? The most sensible answer to this question — the one that relies most on sensory evidence — is that we return to the dust from which our atoms have come.

This answer may be sensible, but it has not been universally satisfying. Neither, however, are many of religion’s alternatives.

Consider, for example, the depressing depictions of an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth governed by impersonal karmic laws whose accumulating demands are for all practical purposes impossible to satisfy.

Or the terrifying prophecies of world destruction at the hand of an enraged deity and agonies to be suffered in everlasting fire.

It takes a poignantly incomplete understanding of the Sacred to find any real satisfaction in images like these. They offer no hope whatever that wrongful actions and attitudes might be redeemable through the grace, mercy, and love which flow from what is truly divine.

By its very definition, “afterlife” is a state of being which is beyond ordinary sensibilities. Most people who believe in it do so on the basis of wishes, intimations, and intuitions whose truth cannot be determined on the basis of sense experience alone.

But if afterlife is the provision of a sacred order of things truly deserving of human exalting, it is something truly worth hoping for rather than fearing. Whatever knowledge we may claim to have of it, though, must include at least two acknowledgements that might be unsettling.

The first is that we are not yet fit to experience the fullness of its benefits. The second is that to become so, more than one mortal life may be necessary, either here or somewhere between here and heaven.

Just as the truth of beliefs about afterlife, it would seem, must rest somewhere between the sensible and the unsatisfying.

To the silenced denizens of a shadowy Underworld and the screaming souls in a flaming Hell, it surely would be better to have no afterlife at all.

In other words, there is a moral dimension to human destiny: the morally deficient can expect their experiences in the next life to be lacking much of what those with moral integrity will enjoy. And that is the unsatisfying part of believing in it.

But the satisfying part is their promise of a blessed afterlife to those spiritually and morally ready to receive it.

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THE SPIRITUAL POWER OF HERESIES

Religious institutions always need an infusion of unorthodox ideas. Even if the unseen spiritual world is everlastingly the same, the faiths which express it cannot be.

New challenges make old doctrines — well, just old. And when they do, even a heresy or two may not be all that bad.

The American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that wherever there is a dogma, there is a heretic (= one who holds an unaccepted religious opinion) around the corner or in his grave. One thing he meant was that deviations from their teachings can get religious institutions riled up enough to declare them settled and binding forever.

But if dogma is a response to heresy, it also one of heresy’s creators. Dogmas produce heretics by stifling inquiry to such an extent that the divine spirit eventually breaks out in protest.

Just think of how many “heretics” there are in the world relative to dogmas such as these: the Buddha lives on in a Pure Land beyond this world; Jesus alone among human beings is divine; the Quran is a perfect transcription of perfectly remembered angelic messages.

It isn’t heretical to suggest that all of these statements have been undergoing serious rethinking for millennia. And that the rethinking has been helpful, even necessary, to a growing faith.

Out of it has emerged alternative opinions such as these: Even though the Buddha no longer has existence at all, his teachings have saving power for everyone who follows them; Jesus resembles God more closely than any other human being ever will; Muhammad’s recitations of angelic messages were sufficient even if not infallible.

From the perspective of dogma-preoccupied religious communities, statements like these latter are simply deviant, and as such, false. But from the perspective of inquirers for whom truth is not reducible to verbal formulas, opinions unacceptable to some often contain as much of it as those accepted by more.

A heresy is not a false belief. Nor is it one that is merely unacceptable to people whose opinions somehow count more than anybody else’s. It is only an opinion that they do not in fact accept.

Heresies offer different perspectives on the Sacred that deserve consideration alongside the “approved” opinions. They are “yes, but …” responses to dogmas, as variations are to a musical theme. Sacred truth comes to us both in them and in their opposites.

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IS THIS THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE UNIVERSES?

Then, there was Light. And the Bang, and the Expanding. But what happened before the “Then?”

For some time now, physicists have been telling their story of the universe all the way back to a bare one ten million, trillion, trillion, trillionth of a second from the beginning. They call the gap from there to the beginning the “Planck era.” Impressive.

But even more so is new data that makes possible more reasonable speculations about what happened during the Planck era itself. For me, the most breathtaking of these speculations is the suggestion that “in the beginning” there came into being more than just our own universe.

It is as if that single (?) primordial event (explosion?) sent the space, time, causalities, and substances it threw off into many different dimensions at the same (moment?). The result was a multitude of universes, possibly an infinite number of them, layered in different space/time configurations.

Clearly, language has come close to the end of its tether in these current attempts at describing the origins of things. If by “universe” we already mean all there is, can it make any sense to apply the word to more than one “All”?

Perhaps it can. All the experts now seem willing to try.

Actually, once I talked myself into believing that I know what “infinite” can mean, the multiverse hypothesis didn’t seem all that daunting. I came upon it first while reading the 1709 essay on God’s righteousness and justice (Theodicy) by the philosopher Leibniz, the famous Dr. Pangloss of Voltaire’s Candide.

Leibniz conjectured that our universe is one of an infinity of possible universes held resplendently in the divine mind before it was removed from the realm of abstract possibility and made the only actual universe. All the others remain only possible universes that God elected not to make actual. They continue to exist in God’s mind, but nowhere else.

If Leibniz were alive today, I think he might revise his original theory. Now, he might say, the Actualizer of our own universe is actualizing every possible universe also. And further, in all of those other universes there just might be beings with the same curiosity and wonder about theirs that we have about our own.

What end might all of these universes, and not just one of them, serve? Perhaps the infinite expansion of glorifying the infiniteness of their Creator.

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WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THE SOUL?

To the eyes of many, not where it used to be.

One indication is what the “psyche” part of psychology has come to mean. It no longer refers to the soul. Instead, it has to do with observable behavior. Our souls are in our actions, exposed for all to assess, whether we (wherever else “we” might be) like it or not.

And the “psyche” part of psychiatry has been reduced to brain functioning, viewable almost as easily as what we do “out there” is viewable. All we need are brain scans.

Not too long ago, the soul was believed to be somewhere far more mysterious than in our behavior and in our brains. Deep, deep within us, maybe even deeper than our unconscious. And better viewed by opening up our dreams rather than our heads.

Paradoxically, the soul is also something high above us, at least from a symbolic perspective. It is our connection with an unseen spiritual order in which space, time, causality, and substance operate according to very different rules then they do in the world we know. Or think we know.

Just what connections the soul has with the body at all was once a matter of considerable discussion and debate. Everybody agreed that, for human beings at least, the body needs a soul to be a human organism. Now, only people of faith believe this. Most people of science do not.

Faith’s conviction in this regard, though, brings on still more questions. Does a particular soul need a particular kind of body — male or female perhaps? — to be the soul that it is? If not, where, then, in this or some other world(s) might that soul’s home truly be?

Or are souls individual at all? Might they be parts or aspects of a single, all-encompassing Soul of and in everything else?

Many thoughtful people I know regard asking questions like these as evidence of a mind in riot rather than rational mode. But I like to think of it as the best way to begin recovering the reality, power, and goodness of the soul as people once knew and loved it.

And to experience all over again a sense of trust and confidence that the endeavor is both worthy of engagement and fruitful in outcome. For where questions about the soul begin, there the soul most truly is.

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FAITH, FACTS AND BELIEFS

On the face of it, religious beliefs look very much like assertions of fact. Take, for example, the belief that the universe was created in six days.

However, when we assert something as fact we must offer relevant data and good reasons if others are to trust what we say. And I can’t do either for this particular assertion.

Nor can I do this for other cherished religious beliefs, such as:

  • Our ancestors in heaven hear our prayers;
  • The Holy Land is God’s gift to the Jews;
  • Enlightenment breaks the chain of rebirth;
  • Jesus was raised from the dead by God;
  • Those who do not submit to Allah will suffer eternal fire.

It’s not that these beliefs are untrue or unworthy of affirmation. It’s that they can’t be true or worthy in a factual sense of these words.

None of them describes events that in principle were and are open to direct observation. All of them offer, instead, an inspiring combination of wishing, hoping, and interpreting life experiences in the light of both.

It is a fact that people wish and hope for things, and that religious beliefs give especially powerful expression to our deepest wishes and highest hopes. But while we can observe the wishing and hoping, in ourselves and others, we can’t observe the “for What” of both.

We might have observed, for example, the Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment experience. But we could not have observed his transcending the cycle of death and rebirth. We might have observed Jesus alive and revisiting his followers after his crucifixion. But we could not have observed God’s bringing him back from death.

Religious traditions foster a great deal of confusion about all this. Typically, they demand the kind of assent to their basic teachings that is appropriate only to beliefs that are demonstrably true on the basis of universal experience and reasoning.

With their demands usually come escalating threats of punishments, in this life and beyond, for not believing what they believe believers ought to believe as established fact. The threats leave no room for people who simply don’t “see” what they are supposed to “see.”

But what they are supposed to see isn’t something to be “seen” at all. In every religion, the challenge of faith is to believe without seeing, and not to feel the worse for doing so.

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GETTING BELIEFS OUT OF THE WAY OF FAITH

Of all the controversies roiling religious communities today, one of the most vexing is over the role of beliefs in the life of faith.

Many believers are holding onto traditional teachings as the only way they know to take a stand against relativists and pluralists everywhere. Others insist that non-negotiable beliefs are the principal source of divisiveness in the world, and weaken the credibility of all belief-systems, religious or not.

Adding to this unhelpful debate among religious believers is the substitution of labels for careful thinking. Self-proclaimed “conservatives” gloat that their own fellowships, unquestioningly loyal to their scriptures, creeds, and moral codes, can only prosper while those of the “liberals,” who believe anything they want, can only decline.

In turn, liberals fulminate against the oppressiveness of tradition as such and, substituting relevance and activism for sound theology, summarily dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded, mean-spirited enemies of authentic faith.

Beliefs do and should matter to any religious community. They are really, really important. But not so important as to undermine respecting and caring for the people who hold them, even and especially when others’ beliefs are seriously at odds with one’s own.

When beliefs become more important than the believers who hold them, at least three things tend to get lost sight of with respect to the beliefs themselves.

The first is that the most carefully considered and passionately held religious beliefs are only partial views of the sacred realities to which they point. A big reason why this is so is: us. We believe what we want to believe more often than we believe what we know we ought to believe.

The second is that what any religious community considers the vital center of its beliefs means different things at different times to the different people who share its common history. In every religion there are many traditions. One thing this means is that there are many ways to be a believer on any religion’s own terms.

And the third is that for personal faith to thrive, faith communities must respect both the God-given right of people to ask probing questions about core beliefs and the fact that there is a vital center of belief to be discovered on the far side of all genuine questioning and doubting.

From religious communities whose members see these things clearly, hardly anyone could wish to disaffiliate.

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WHAT IS UNHEALTHY ABOUT RELIGION?

For some people, religion isn’t something that can become unhealthy. It’s something that is unhealthy, all the time. Freud’s classic statement on the subject was that religion is a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Many mental health professionals still agree with him.

To me, this perspective is something of a caricature, but one which nevertheless contains important truths. There is in fact a lot that is unhealthy about religious beliefs and practices, as well as with the inner life that they seek to shape.

Religious beliefs are unhealthy — in the sense that they are no longer good for us — when we ask no questions about and brook no criticism of them. The beliefs may be true in themselves, but being close-minded about them is injurious to genuine growth in faith.

More than remaining just unhealthy influences, religious beliefs become downright malignant when they are gathered into a belief-system whose principal tenet is that no other belief-system, religious or otherwise, has any truth in it at all. Those who do this kind of gathering are not only obsessional; they are delusional.

The process is subtle but diabolically effective. It begins with a noble affirmation, such as “The Buddha experienced enlightenment about all things spiritual.” Then, the affirmation becomes “Only the Buddha is the truly Enlightened One.” The Buddha himself would have agreed with the first statement, but not the second.

Religious practices become unhealthy — in the sense that they lead both our feelings and our actions astray — when we engage in them for no reason other than we have been told to do so by religious leaders whose authority we do not question.

They become malignant when they take a form deliberately designed to inflict suffering in the service of the religion itself. Some examples: securing conformity to devotional and moral rules by threats of excommunication and damnation; propagating the religion by forced conversion of conquered people; slaughtering those deemed to be infidels.

The inner life that is produced by unhealthy religious beliefs and practices pales by comparison with a truly authentic spirituality. The signs of its unhealthiness are hard to miss: slavish conformity; defensiveness; anxiety masked by false confidence; guilt; shame; joylessness. It’s hard to be around spiritually unhealthy people for very long and have much regard for the religion that has made them so.

Faith-seekers deserve so much more from religion.

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FEAR BASED RELIGION?

Very young children believe that rules for living originate from an unseen order of things, and that they hover over us threateningly, with no let-up. Violators of them can expect severe punishments which bear little discernable relationship to the nature of the violations themselves.

Later on, children typically look upon rules as either created or negotiated by people like themselves. Punishments for breaking them should be appropriate to the intention of and the harm caused by the particular violation. Kids grow up!

Would that it were so with the religions which seek to serve them. Even today, a great deal of what passes for religion amounts to little more than coercing peoples’ assent by scaring them to death.

The scare tactics take this form: Unless you do/don’t do … then something very, very bad will happen to you. Just what this “something” is becomes a major part of the teachings of every religion. Here are a few images of “It”:

Experiencing poverty, disease, infirmity, failure, and hopelessness in this life;

Being re-born at a lower rung on the social or even biological hierarchy;

Burning in the flames of hell forever;

Dissolving into the Nothingness from which we have come.

One way to look at these notions is as attempts to clarify the “unseen order” of the very young child’s world-view. The best indicator that this is so is their lack of clarity about how general punishments like these are warranted in every case of individual wrongdoing in widely different circumstances.

Consider an illustration from my own religious tradition, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole populations of these two cities, the story goes, were destroyed by fire because some of the men in Sodom committed homosexual acts. The offenses allegedly committed in Gomorrah are not defined at all.

Homosexuality aside, did the wives and children of these men deserve this fate? Little children might think so. But when grown-ups do, it is appropriate to call their thinking not child-like, but downright childish.

Human development theorists generally agree that doing and not doing things for the sake of avoiding punishment represents only the first step in the process of moral growth. Religious leaders should know, too, that the fear of the Ultimate is not the basis of wisdom. It is only a first step in a developing understanding what wisdom most truly is.

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THE NUTRITIONAL VALUE OF DOUBT

A common perception about religious believers is that they think they have an edge over people who try to face life’s challenges without faith and on their own. There are at least two realities about faith that this perception ignores.

One is that even the most conscientious believers have questions and doubts about their faith from time to time. The other is that people with faith and people without it share a common yearning for a transforming relationship with an ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning

And so, neither believers nor non-believers who are struggling with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt need criticism or rejection for asking hard questions about what they have been taught to believe and do. What they do need is encouragement to pursue truth, no matter where the pursuit may lead them.

It is painful to be in the throes of radical questioning and doubting in matters of faith. What makes the pain worse is being exhorted to let go of the questioning and doubting, trust what religious authorities teach about God, the world, and human destiny, and leave it at that.

In centuries past, exhortation was an important instrument for keeping members of religious communities mindful of how different they were from the unsaved. The approach succeeded because the premise on which it rested, the supremacy of the religious community/institution over its individual members, was taken for granted — if not always enthusiastically — by almost everyone.

This premise can no longer be taken for granted by anyone who believes that individual conscience is deserving of respect, even when it turns negative toward the realm of the sacred. The more plausible premise is that we should pay homage to a belief about the sacred only in the light of personal experience and reasoned judgment.

There is one important role that exhortation does play in the nurturing of religious feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. It is to discourage our minds’ becoming malleable to any and every Transcendence-affirming and Transcendence-denying belief tossed to and fro on the winds of an uncritically relativistic and pluralistic culture.

Even in this process, however, reproof-oriented exhortations are not likely to work nearly as well as can (1) good listening, (2) questions offered in an inquiring rather than judgmental spirit, and (3) strong encouragement of honest seeking. Taking faith on faith does not make for mature faith.

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HOW NOT TO LET SUFFERING UNDERMINE FAITH

All of the world’s great religions teach that suffering is a constant and major challenge to faith. The Buddha put it strikingly: human existence in the world is suffering. And faith should offer a way out of it.

For some, the way out begins with an explanation for why people suffer. But some explanations can make suffering even worse, and block from the start any hope of getting beyond it.

Consider this explanation: suffering is a necessary part of a sacred order according to which human misdeeds must be atoned for. The suffering is part of the atoning.

Supposedly, the harshness of this view can be offset by trusting that each person’s suffering is precisely and fairly proportioned to the actions which make it necessary. Experience, however, teaches otherwise.

Just as it calls into question the rightness of the belief that it is not only one’s own actions for which suffering atones. Sometimes the atoning has to be for others’ actions as well. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Ezekiel 18:2) But is this what a truly divine being would, or even could, decree?

Perhaps the single greatest difficulty with believing suffering to be the deserved punishment for wrongdoing is its assumptions about what or who is arranging things this way. For a major tradition in ancient Hinduism, the ordering principle is an implacable and impersonal system of unchangeable laws. For Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is the unchangeable will of God.

These two ways of thinking may not be all that different. Many theistic believers talk of the laws of God as if they were something that bind God as much as they do everything else. As in the doctrine of Jesus’ atonement for the world’s sins: there is no room in it for grace and mercy. There is only a price to be paid for human wrongdoing that not even God can cancel.

The best response to suffering that faith has to offer is not one which focuses on the uses that the Sacred makes of it. It is one which focuses on the comfort that the presence of the Sacred brings to the coping with it.

Suffering is universal, unequally distributed, and incapable of being relieved by explanations. In the midst of it, what people most need is compassion, human and divine.

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