Life after Death: part 2

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PART 2

 

This essay’s first part began by enumerating some of the reasons why people find the prospect of life after death appealing. I then considered why both a physical and a spiritual understanding of life after death are problematic in light of advances in astronomy, particle physics, and biology. Part 1 ended with this question: If human spirituality does not connote an ethereal, eternal aspect of human existence, then what is the human spirit?

 

My efforts to answer this last question shape my thinking about life after death. If the human spirit is entirely the result of evolutionary processes, then aspects of that spirit should be apparent in some other lifeforms but most fully developed in humans. The human spirit, in other words, is the quintessence of what makes a human fully human and has at least six overlapping yet distinctive elements: self-awareness, linguistic capacity, the aesthetic sense, creativity, limited autonomy, and the ability to love and be loved. All six aspects presume that a human is an indivisible physical whole. All six in some measure also entail the emergence of new, non-physical capacities or complex properties in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, e.g., consciousness. (For a fuller discussion, cf. my article, “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 2, (October 2015), 113-127.)

 

Process theologian Marjorie Suchocki proposed the concept of life after death that I find most provocative and attractive. She suggested that life after death consists of a person living forever as an idea in God’s mind. Although her proposal has some potential shortcomings (e.g., can a person have an independent existence as an idea in God’s mind and is existing as an idea in God’s mind dynamic or static?), her proposal coheres well with my concept of the human spirit and avoids difficulties inherent in physical and spiritualized concepts of life after death. Perhaps the next generation of Christians will identify still other alternative concepts of life after death compatible with scientific progress, human anthropology, and current biblical and religious studies.

 

Post-modern twenty-first century people seem more comfortable with doubt and uncertainty than did people even fifty years ago. Although considerable numbers of individuals continue to find the prospect of life after death appealing for one or more reasons, doubt and disbelief have eroded Christian confidence in life after death. As my own death inescapably approaches, I am in no rush to embark on an irreversible journey of personal discovery but want to savor this life as long as I can. I suspect that a majority of Christians, if they were to be completely open about their thoughts and feelings, share both my uncertainty regarding the future and my reticence to relinquish this life in the hope of receiving eternal life.

 

Diminished belief in life after death has led to at least three observable changes in Christianity and pastoral ministry. First, funerals and memorial services have largely shifted from ritualized affirmations of Christian hope in life after death to celebrations of the deceased’s life. This is true even for active Church members. Second, fewer persons seem motivated to belong to a Church to avoid hell or to gain admittance to heaven. Third, Christians increasingly subscribe to a realized eschatology centered around actualizing the fullness of God’s kingdom on earth. More people now participate in Christian community to nurture their individual spirituality and to affect their local community and the world positively.

 

In short, the Church today is less likely to understand its liturgical affirmations of life after death in traditional ways. Instead, contemporary Christians increasingly interpret those affirmations in new ways, while concurrently preserving continuity with the way prior generations expressed their hope and trust in God’s goodness and love.

 

Episcopalian and noted biblical scholar Marcus Borg exemplified these shifts when he wrote that he had no clue what happens after death but was confident of being held in God’s unending love (The Heart of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), pp. 181-184). My thoughts similarly remain open about what, if anything, happens when a person dies. Perhaps death is the end. Perhaps there is life after death. For forty plus years, I have contentedly left my questions with God, both fully aware that death constrains my ability to look into the future and confident of God’s limitless love.

 

 

 

 

George Clifford is Priest-in-Charge of the Church of the Holy Nativity in Honolulu, HI. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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Rod Gillis
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Rod Gillis

Folks who may be interested in a rigorous challenge to the kinds of premises that ground George Clifford's article may appreciate an Essay by Michael Welker titled, Resurrection and Eternal Life:The Canonic Memory of the Resurrected Christ, His Reality and His Glory. Welker's article may be found in, The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Technology on Eschatology ( Polkinghorne and Welker eds. Trinity International Press, 2000).

In his article Welker explores, "...the nature of 'eternal life' that is embedded in finite natural and cultural life processes, but transcends this embeddedness, because it is not bound by, or subjected to their forms of transmission or reproduction."

At the time of writing Welker (D.Th. Tubingen, D.Phil. Heidelberg) is listed as professor of systematic theology at Heidelberg.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Melissa - I don't think you are alone. The creed links us with centuries of Christianity - "we believe" - anyway somebody did at one point and it was agreed on -- but the evolution of our faith - maybe it is only "we " in a much bigger sense of community and not individually.

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Melissa Holloway
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Melissa Holloway

Can you recommend some reading that might help frame the liturgy and Creed in a way that accepts that how we use the language must evolve?

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

I was helped by Joan Chittister's In Search of Belief. Marcus Borg talks about the Creed as language of the heart (credo - I heart) - that we will never sort it out in our heads. Some other churches including the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia have developed some statements of faith that use more expansive language. http://anglicanprayerbook.nz and United Church of Canada http://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/statement-faith-1940 and UCC in the US - http://www.ucc.org/beliefs_statement-of-faith

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Melissa Holloway
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Melissa Holloway

For me, these are all comfortable words.

I don't quite understand how it stands with our church though. When we say ' look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come' we are sort of ' crossing our fingers behind our back' because we mean something different than what people used to mean when they said them. I'm fine with my fingers crossed, I don't see another choice, but at church these days I feel, even among liberals, often alone when it comes to how I say the Creed and participate in the liturgy.

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Philip B. Spivey
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Philip B. Spivey

I don't believe in an afterlife in the usual sense. I believe we flesh and blood sentient beings---transition. How and in what form, I do not know.

What I know of quantum physics (very little) does not dissuade me from the belief that everything---organic and inorganic---in God's Universe is imbued with his Spirit; perhaps the animation of molecules are the most visible outward signs.

I do struggle with how my vision of death does or does not compliment Christ's: He overcame death on the cross so that we might live life fully. Belief in Him ensures life everlasting, even beyond the last breath. That sounds like a transition, also. So maybe my dilemma is just semantic; maybe my transition--in whatever form---adheres to God's plan.

Scientists believe that everything we are as flesh and blood beings derived from exploding starts in the very distant past, i.e., that elements that make up everything on earth are the result of a supernova explosion billions of years ago. I dare say that the indwelling of God's Spirit, most certainly came along for the ride.

What does the afterlife look like? 'From stardust we came; to stardust we will return'. Pack your sunglasses. Thank you, Hubble.

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Larry Graham
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Larry Graham

Now at age 81, I have spent a lot of time observing the world around me. My observations lead me to believe that life is the normal condition for all living things, and what we call death is abnormal and therefore temporary or transitional.

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