What becomes of us when we die?
Or, to put it another way, is there a future for the dead? How would you describe that future, if there is one?
Maybe you really don’t know how to answer those questions, which is fine at least so far as I’m concerned. I want to write for just a little while about belief because beliefs are important. But I also want to suggest to you that our beliefs can’t necessarily do for us all of the things we would like for them to do. We look to beliefs for solace and certainty; we expect that our beliefs will hold us, help our grieving, point us towards the future. We suppose that if we hold the correct beliefs–really, truly hold them–then the ground of our hope will not be shaken.
Yes. Belief can do all of those things–sometimes. And at other times our beliefs, for whatever reason, do not deliver help, hope, or an end to hurt. Maybe that’s because they haven’t been sufficiently believed by the believer or maybe the fault lies with the beliefs themselves. In any case, I take it you already know that beliefs aren’t always trustworthy.
Well, what do you believe? There’s no need to worry too much if you’re not sure; you have plenty of options. One option, of course, is to say, “I don’t know.” They say that Henry David Thoreau, when he was nearing the end of his life, was asked to comment on the afterlife. He responded, “Oh, one world at a time!”
One of the few universal claims we can make about this world, our present world, is that everyone will die. In our world most lives are cut short painfully, violently, tragically. A lucky few among us will die naturally–whatever that means. Our bodies will run down, quit on us, and then eventually decompose. “Dust to dust and ashes to ashes,” as the Biblical tradition maintains.
And then what? Here are some of your choices: Strict naturalists maintain that there is nothing more, that to believe or speculate further would be a waste of time. Buddhists speak of a self that is dissolved at the time of death, although the karmic consequences of your actions remain. Some Hindu traditions speak of reincarnation, the idea that your soul will live again but in a different form. Western traditions often speak of a soul as well, although the West has typically shied away from any beliefs resembling reincarnation. Many Christians believe in an immortal soul with only one earthly existence–an idea as much Greek as it is biblical. And some Christians speak seriously of something they call the resurrection of the body. Resurrection means, generally speaking, that one’s existence in the next life will have a bodily component. Those are all the options I know of, although I’m sure there are others.
But all of that is descriptive, and a simple description of various possibilities for belief can’t tell us whether a belief might be good or plausible or helpful. I suggested earlier that beliefs are not always trustworthy. What I meant is that beliefs seem to make promises and sometimes they don’t deliver. We already have the sense, then, that beliefs are supposed to do something. Beliefs aren’t just about what seems plausible or likely or desirable. Beliefs are also supposed to shape lives in certain ways. Jurgen Moltmann, a Protestant theologian, describes very well the functionality of belief when he writes that belief is not primarily concerned with the sort of scientific knowledge that wants to demonstrate provable facts. Rather, belief belongs to the “sphere of the knowledge that sustains existence, knowledge that gives confidence in life and death, and courage to live a life that is transitory, and which confers the consolation that makes it possible to survive.” In other words, questions of belief (in Moltmann’s sense) aren’t concerned with our worldview so much as they’re concerned with the way in which we view the world.
What’s the difference? I mean what’s the difference between a worldview and the way in which we view the world? (Let’s call the way in which we view the world a “world-viewed.”) Clearly a worldview and a world-viewed are related in some ways. Your worldview will tend to put some sort of constraints (at least in theory) on your world-viewed. For instance, if I claim to be a strict naturalist, then presumably I can’t hope for a world beyond this world. And yet, a worldview isn’t necessarily determinative of my world-viewed. Again, suppose that you’re a strict naturalist. Given that you don’t believe in a life after this life, what stance will you take towards living here and now? Is it tragically meaningless that you only live one life? Should you simply “eat, drink, and be merry” since there exists no source of transcendent meaning? Or is life the “gift” of a mysteriously hospitable cosmos, meant to be maximized in some way according to a self-determined set of standards? There are other options, too, but my point is that in claiming a naturalist worldview you are not simultaneously claiming a world-viewed.
Alright. That was abstract, I know. I mean simply to say that your stance towards living is not given in any simple way by your claimed beliefs, which falls in line with my suggestions that beliefs are sometimes not “trustworthy.” We suppose our beliefs will shape our lives in certain ways and sometimes our beliefs fail to deliver.
I’d like to explore these ideas a little bit further, all the while keeping in mind our original questions. What becomes of us when we die? Is there a future for the dead?
First, a thought exercise: Sometime, now if you’d like or later when you get the chance, bring to mind a deceased loved one. Now, once you’ve thought of someone, tell a story. Tell a story about what would happen if they were alive or, better yet, tell a story about your future with that person. There’s only one rule for this thought experiment, which is that you’re not allowed to be constrained either by belief or lack of belief. Don’t say, “I’d like for this to happen but I know it’s not possible.” Suppose either that everything is possible or that your story is just a story. In other words, let your heart guide you and use your imagination if need be. We’re talking about stories right now, not beliefs.
Have you told a story? When you do, I think you’ll find that your story, even if it’s just a story, says more about the reality of death than a statement of belief. We may not know much about the future of the dead but we do know about our own experience of the present in light of their absence. And even if our beliefs don’t suggest to us that the grief born of death can be ultimately overcome in another reality, meaning even if there’s no hope for an afterlife, well, we still feel the absence of that sort of hope. And the sting of that absence is strong enough that even the most stringent rationalists among us could start hoping for things they don’t believe in.
I read a story like that recently–the story of a rationalist who got carried away and started hoping for resurrection. E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Andrew’s Brain, is presented as a conversation between Andrew, a brain scientist, and an unnamed analyst. The main character, Andrew, seems to be followed around by calamity and death. He loses an infant daughter when his pharmacist sends home the wrong prescription. His second wife, Briony, dies in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At one point Andrew says to his analyst: “I’ll tell you one thing you may not know: The genome of every human cell has memory. You know what that means? As evolved beings we have in our genes memories of the far past, of long-ago generations, memories of experiences not our own. This is not pie in the sky stuff, a neuroscientist will tell you the same thing. And all we need is the right code to extract what the cell knows, what it remembers.”
“Sounds poetic,” the analyst replies. And in response Andrew says, “I’m talking science here.”
Andrew continues, speaking of a computer that could gather genetic memories from the past, and at this point he is moving into the realm of science-fiction or wishful thinking as he asks: “and at least on the microgenetic level couldn’t there be the possibility of recomposing a whole person from these bits and pieces and genomic memories of lives past?”
Andrew continues, now self-consciously speaking of religious themes, as he adds: “We’re talking about how this computer could crack the code of every cell of every human brain and reconstitute the dead from their experiences. Isn’t that something like reincarnation? Maybe it wouldn’t be perfect, you couldn’t always see her, maybe if you reached out she would be just a shade of herself, but she would be a presence, and a love would be there.”
And finally the exchange ends in a statement of what is an essentially religious hope as Andrew acknowledges that the computer he’s describing would have to be called God. He says to the analyst: “If this computer could come up with the code to read the makeup of our cells, in birth, in death, in the ashes of our cremation, in the rot of our coffins, and of course it could because of what it was, then we could recover our lost babies, our lost lovers, our lost selves, bring them back from the dead, reunite in a kind of heaven on earth. Do you see that?
But you still don’t know what this computer is, do you? Oh, Doc, if there was such a computer, it could do anything, finally. I mean, call it by its rightful name. And I could have my baby with Martha brought back. And I could have Briony, and we would bring our baby home and we would be a family.”
Andrew is telling a story. The story starts within his own world of scientific knowledge but the limits of that knowledge are soon stretched into the realm of science-fiction and a supernatural religious hope. And if you are the analyst hearing all of this from Andrew, then you are probably not primarily concerned with the plausibility of his story. No, clearly what Andrew is trying at some level to convey is his very real and immediate grief. He tells a story about the future of the dead because his own present is grievous and painful in their absence.
What becomes of us when we die? Is there a future for the dead?
Add to those guiding concerns two more questions, two questions that are directly related. What becomes of us when we lose someone? Is there a future for us in their absence?
My initial, guiding questions are the sort of questions we ask in the service of clarifying a worldview. This second set of questions want to know about the ways in which we view the world, the world-viewed.
Q: What becomes of us when we die? Is there a future for the dead?
A: Oh, one world at a time!
I truly do not know the answers to our original questions, which were the questions of worldview. More importantly, those initial questions always seem to be attached to our second set of questions–our questions about the way in which we view the world. And one thing I do know is that beliefs are not always trustworthy–the statement of worldview doesn’t always satisfy our questions of world-viewed. So, if you ask me the first set of questions I’m likely to side with Thoreau–“one world at a time.”
One world at a time. That means we have a new set of questions, a set of questions far more speculative and difficult and uncertain than the worldview questions. What becomes of us when we lose someone? Is there a future for us in their absence?
We are asking, in other words, about mourning. How will we remember? How will we confront the memories of a loved one who is painfully present even as they are absent? Our theologian from earlier, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote well about the task of mourning:
“It is only the grief that is accepted and suffered-through that restores the love for life after a death. People who shut themselves off from the mourning process or who cut it short will discover in themselves insurmountable depression and increasing apathy. They will lose contact with the reality of the people around, and will fail to find new courage for living. The person who mourns deeply has loved greatly. The person who cannot mourn has never loved.”
The way forward, then, is not to be found by shying away from our most heart-rending grief. Your grief is impossible without love, in fact, your grief is an expression of love. Love greatly, mourn deeply. That’s how we find courage for living.
One more thing: I do need to bring up beliefs again, briefly. How do you grieve in light of your beliefs? I mean to ask, do you find that your beliefs are a help or a hindrance when it comes to accessing the fullness of your grief? Only you can know that, and the answer doesn’t much depend on your worldview. Here’s one way to tell. Just for a moment, forget about beliefs and tell a story about the future of a loved one who has died. Tell the story, write it down, repeat it. Have you ever expressed what that story expresses? Have you ever grieved in that way?
That story, it’s not just a story, it holds your grief. Tell the story, write it down, repeat it. Someday, I don’t know when, you’ll repeat the story, open up your grief, and you’ll find that your grief doesn’t feel quite the same. Grief’s sting is starting to fade and the remembrance of the dead feels like love for the living. And this is the future of the dead, to be a source of love and not of pain.