A Template to Evaluate Things
Here is something of the main point that I have been trying to make in this report. I wanted to present a template that could help people evaluate things. To help evaluate things like environmental religion and what that is all about. To show that this core set of themes that we call apocalyptic persists even today in much so-called secular thinking to present this in contrast with another great narrative that is so entirely opposite. Both these narratives have to do with the fundamental trajectory of reality and life. And this is essential to human meaning and purpose (something Easterbrook gets into in Progress Paradox). One defines the fundamental trajectory as decline to grand death. The other (exodus/progress) defines the fundamental trajectory as rise to infinite life. They are as starkly different and opposite as pessimism and optimism.
Both narratives have offered human consciousness a great story about life and its basic direction, and the impacts of each story are profound, in imprisoning or liberating human spirits. It is all about death vs. life. It is all about meaning vs. meaninglessness. End vs. eternal beginning, and on and on…
In one of the Links sent to us by Hank, there is a powerful talk by Dowd emphasizing how death is part of the divine plan as much as life. Death was necessary for the birth of our planet – a great star had to die to create the elements of the Periodic Table. This, he says, is not a matter of faith but proven evidence. Life could not evolve without death. Death is necessary for the improvement and progress of life. Death is as necessary as life. There is cell division for the formation of a new cell, and cell apoptosis for the death of cells that have made their contribution. Suppose there was no death on the planet and humans kept having children – before long the population would be six feet deep. If cells of the body don’t die (apoptosis) but the body just goes on to make new cells (mitosis) then we have cancer – cancer caused by cells that keep reproducing (mitosis) without apoptosis.
Anyway, the big picture point I want to make is that religious thinking generally, and right back from the beginning, interpreted death as some kind of wrath or punishment from God/gods. It happened, they said, because man sinned. So there has to be propitiation, restoration, penalty, atonement, pay-back etc. Luther, for instance, was tormented by the thought of death. He said we should not take it as a natural thing (of course it is a natural or God-ordered thing because God is the author of nature.)
Death has been given to us as much as life has been given to us. We don’t earn life. We don’t merit death in that sense. It is not, as Luther insisted, a manifestation of God’s wrath. So death, like life, flows from God’s boundless generosity. “The end of a thing is better than the beginning and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.” We might not be able to see or fathom a reason or a benefit when we confront death.
Important points to note about death are: (1) the reality of death (2) how it impacts on human consciousness or is always present in life – no animal thinks about death in the way we do (3) there is that religious element in death as Becker said, it is always present as “holy terror” (4) death was interpreted in mythology/religion as punishment for human wrong etc. This is why we reject Fall mythology, Garden of Eden mythology etc. It totally misinterprets the meaning of death
Evolution is one thing; but knowing how the changes take place is another . Some people here are like climate change alarmist scientist…. they pretend to know how everything works in the climate system, but as James Lovelock admitted recently, the climate is demonstrating that we don’t know very much.
Jesus made light of death when he said, “Think nothing of those who kill your body…” Even Luther in a moment of defiance in his Mighty Fortress hymn says, “The body they may kill…” David too, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…”
And so on the day a man is born he cries while all his loved ones laugh for joy. On the day he dies they all cry, but he laughs. When you are working and the blood is up, you don’t want the day to end or the sun to go down. But when the day is done, there comes a time when you gladly surrender to sleep.
I am in awe of life; and I am also in awe of death. They are both a deep mystery – let us then be content to live with mystery. What ultimately matters is this” If I ascend up to heaven You are there, and if I make my bed in the grave, You are there.”
Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you. And happiness and unhappiness are two of the things that can be done. I am thinking of a conversation between Tom McGrath, a noted poet who is now dead, and Garrison Keillor, the radio host and brilliant showman. Keillor tells the story at his own expense. After he and McGrath compared notes on their personal histories, McGrath observed, “I’m a happy man who’s had an unhappy life, and you’re an unhappy man who’s had a happy life.” I’ve found a lot to chew on in that.
let me take up the case of many religious people. I would guess, based on good support from Campbell and others that the vast majority of people over history have desperately looked to myth/religion to help them deal with the terror of death. I have varied personal experiences with people expressing their thoughts on this issue. I remember being up some river in the Mindanao rainforest and talking with a man in his tribal hut. He started talking about death and his fear of death. He said there were days when it overwhelmed him and he could not eat for days. He would just reflect to himself, Why do we have to die? And his tribal religion gave him some answers so he could function in his life (Manobo beliefs held a form of resurrection with new bodies).
In our era many have claimed to have left the religious perspective, but again one wonders about that claim and the same core set of themes keeps popping up in most of the so-called secularized systems of meaning people have developed (Marxism, environmentalism). Secularization appears not to work very well in resolving the death issue. People still desperately hang onto what was passed down in the past. It appears many have difficulty trying to ignore death and what happens at death, to just live in the now. It appears not to work for most of humanity (interesting that even atheist friends often raise the death issue and hope to hedge their bets somehow). Or perhaps it works after a fashion as many do get into life quite well despite their concerns about the big ending.
My point here- yes, take death seriously just as most of humanity has over time and still does today. To focus on the here and now properly there has to be personal resolution of the death issue. Much religion appears not to resolve the death issue for people but only worsens it. Again, I would point to an Evangelical friend who fears to even discuss death. And he is a gung ho believer in Christianity.
Another thought on now living- Becker notes that often frenetic human activity in the now is an effort to absorb their death fears into their personal “immortality projects”- building a business, raising a family, and so much more that people do. To get on with “necessary illusions” to avoid actually facing the reality of death. Keep busy, keep moving. Denial. But all this is necessary and sometimes even healthy, says Becker.
So my caution every time I hear all this talk about burying oneself in now living, good as that is and as much as I agree, but this caution that to really engage life you have to resolve things like this death issue properly. Hence, for many all the concern to understand some greater reality that we are part of, and their inability to resist the fact that consciousness has also made us aware of such a greater reality.
So I disagree somewhat with Sheehan’s comment on consciousness hurling us back into this life. Yes, it does, but it also makes us aware of so much more. And people do their best to understand and define that greater reality. This is just what science is all about. Trying to understand what it all really is. What matter is. What “hidden dimensions” hold it all in existence. Where it comes from and the point of it all. And on and on. So also with religion, trying to understand it all and define it in some useful way so as to help deal with death fear and help people to engage life here and now.
I don’t know that some pure form of now living that denies all other reality is ever going to fully take hold in human thought. Look at past history and how prominent religious response has been to all this. People will not just shut down their awareness and need to find answer, to understand, define and explain more. How they go about doing that defining and explaining does impact how well they live here and now. This is the point.