Presented at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois
12 November 2023
In the traditional wheel of the year, fall is when things come to a conclusion. You can see different aspects of that theme in the season’s two major holidays: Thanksgiving is about harvest, and Halloween is about death.
The great UU preacher and author Forrest Church once summed up all of religion as “our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die”. That’s what I want to talk about today.
Most of us deal with that challenge, at least in part, by practicing denial. Yes, we’ll die, but let’s not think about that right now.
This is the attitude Don Juan cautioned Carlos Castaneda against when he told him to “use Death as an advisor”. Simply by living, we use up a finite resource. When we deny Death or ignore it, we lose sight of that finiteness. And so we might be tempted to fritter time away. Death would advise us value our time more highly.
A second kind of denial is embedded in many religions, which teach that death is not as real as it looks: The body that dies is not important; it’s just the housing for a soul, which lives on eternally. In Christianity, that eternal life happens in Heaven or Hell. In many Eastern religions, the soul traverses a series of incarnations as anything from an insect to a god.
As I’ve mentioned in previous talks, I grew up at St. James [Lutheran Church in Quincy] with a very literal Christian theology, and my parents maintained that faith for their entire lives.
In 2011, my mother’s funeral was held at Hansen Spear [a local funeral home]. When I wrote about it later for UU World, I confessed how isolated I had felt as I listened to the minister’s description of Heaven, that perfect place where Mom now was and where we would all someday join her. Because as appealing as that story can be, and as much as I might want to believe it, I simply could not. Trying to assemble that vision in my mind was like building a house of cards that kept falling apart as fast as I could construct it.
Something I never wrote about is a very sad and difficult conversation I had with my father a year and a half later, shortly before his death. Dad knew he was dying, and in fact looked forward to it, because he believed he would see Mom again, along with his parents, sisters, and many old friends. My sister still practiced the Lutheran faith, so he was confident she also would arrive in Heaven eventually.
But as Death approached, he was now facing the fact that I probably would never get there. So he needed to say good-bye to me, and it was hard for him.
It was hard for me too. First, because no one wants to be included in his father’s list of dying regrets. And second, because my religion is something I take pride in, and to his final breath, Dad never understood.
As Dad was saying his good-byes to me, I think that he came as close as he ever would to having the Universalist epiphany, a religious awakening that Christians here and there have been experiencing since the earliest days of the faith: the realization that Heaven can’t truly be a place of perfect bliss if anybody you care about is missing. And if everybody is loved by somebody, then the only Christian salvation that makes sense is universal salvation. If we don’t all make it to Heaven, it can’t really be Heaven.
But Dad never crossed over into Universalism, and I did not push him, and he died.
That UU World column I mentioned implied a question that I don’t think I’ve ever answered in public: If I can’t believe in the Christian afterlife I was taught at St. James, what do I believe? Have I come to some alternative vision? Or have I made peace with the idea that Death is final and there’s nothing more to say? Or do I just try not to think about it?
Well, the first thing I want to say is that since I’ve been a Unitarian Universalist, I’ve heard several theories of what persists after Death. And I have to confess, that if the goal is to help me make peace with my own death, I haven’t found them particularly helpful.
For example, I often hear that we live on in the effects of our actions, and particularly in the influence we’ve had on the lives of others. And while that’s certainly true, if you find it comforting, you have way more confidence in the efficacy of your good intentions than I have in mine.
How many of us can say with any confidence what the ultimate consequences of our actions will be, or if, when they’re all are added up, the sum total will be positive or negative. That kind of assessment is a Judgement Day I don’t think I want to face.
I also hear that we live on in the memories of those we leave behind. Now, I appreciate that this thought comforts survivors, and helps us get past that period when grief seems overwhelming. It encourages us to hang onto our memories of those we have lost, even through that period where those memories are most painful. As President Biden has said, “There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son, or daughter, or your wife or your husband, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye.“
But as I look ahead to my own death, the thought of living on as a memory is not that consoling. For one thing, the people who know me best may not live much longer than I do.
And as for the others, let me put it like this: Do you ever overhear people talking about you? Whether they’re saying good things or bad things, how accurate is it? The thought that similar conversations might still be happening ten, twenty, fifty years after your death — how satisfying is that?
When I floated this topic on Facebook this week, I heard a third idea that I hadn’t even thought about: the satisfaction of letting your corpse dissolve into the Earth, so that its elements can be taken up by new life.
Those comments were a lesson to me in how different people find meaning in different places. Because I don’t really care what happens to my corpse. I’m with Socrates on this: According to Plato, when Crito asked Socrates what to do with his body, he replied: “Do whatever you want, as long as you don’t imagine that it is me.”
In short, if the point is to make peace with being alive and knowing that I’m going to die, I’m going to have to look for that peace somewhere else. But where?
Before I start trying to answer that I need to lay down some ground rules. First, I can’t just try to talk myself into believing something because it’s pleasant and I want to believe it. If that was going to work for me, I’d still be a Lutheran.
And second, I believe in Occam’s Razor. So I’m not going to postulate whole realms and forces and choirs of angels unless something in my lived experience suggests they exist.
Now, that said, I differ from a lot of humanists in having a fairly loose definition of what counts as experience. So if you’re like Ezekiel, and you’ve been granted a vision of going up to the throne of God and being shown what’s what, I wouldn’t tell you to ignore it. But nothing like that has happened to me, not even in dreams. So I’m limited to constructing my vision out of fairly mundane materials.
My final prior consideration concerns how humanists tend to go wrong when we reason about spiritual matters. Too often, we don’t back up far enough. We take the questions traditional religion asks, and we try to answer them within that established framework, but using only the evidence humanly available. And so the answer usually winds up being “I don’t believe in that.” — which may be honest, but is seldom very helpful.
So if you let the question be “What happens to the soul after the body dies?”, and if the possible answers are “It dies too”, or “It reincarnates”, or “It moves on to some eternal realm”, then I’ll probably wind up saying “I don’t believe in a soul”. And how does that help?
So I think I need to start further back. What the heck is a soul supposed to be anyway?
Your soul, if you listen to the people who believe in such things, is the essence of who you are. It stays with you, or more accurately, it is you, all the way from birth to death.
Try to think, for a moment about the totality of your life: all the changes, all the relationships, all the roles, all the careers, all the responsibilities, all the activities and interests that dominated your attention for some period of time and then were replaced by something else. Does it feel like there’s been an essence to all that? Do you really feel like you’ve been the same person, all the way from birth to the present moment?
Personally, I don’t. I find myself agreeing with Joan Didion, who wrote: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.”
The narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s novel All the King’s Men describes an even more fragmented experience of identity: Travel, he says, is a frail thread that connects “the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place. You ought to invite those two you’s to the same party, some time. Or you might have a family reunion for all the you’s with barbecue under the trees. It would be amusing to know what they would say to each other.”
I wonder the same thing sometimes. At age 14, I wanted to be a baseball pitcher. In high school, I was on the chess team and spent all my free time working on my game. For a time, I thought I would be a novelist. My first career was as a mathematician, and for years math was as all-consuming as any interest I’ve ever had.
I don’t do any of that stuff now. So am I really the same person? If any of those past versions of me could look into the future, would they feel vindicated or fulfilled by the person I am today? I’m not so sure. More and more, I suspect that there is no essential Me that has been present through my full 67 years.
That lack of identification explains why both reincarnation and Heaven fall flat for me. Suppose that someday after my death a baby is born who remembers nothing of my life, the people I loved, or the things I tried to do. In what sense could that baby possibly be me reincarnated? That eternal essence we supposedly share is so abstract that I can’t identify.
I also have trouble identifying with myself in Heaven. Think back over your life and consider the extent to which you have been shaped by imperfections, both in yourself and in the outside world.
Maybe you spent much of your life overcoming a disability, or trying to win the approval of a difficult authority figure, or fighting addiction or depression, or living up to unrealistic expectations, or competing with a brother or sister, or dealing with poverty, or believing that you’re ugly or unlovable, or facing the consequences of mistakes you made, or battling society’s bias against people like you.
Your whole life has been shaped by imperfection: the imperfections of your body, your character, the people you lived with, or the society you lived in. How you dealt with those challenges is a big part of who you are today.
Now imagine yourself transported to a perfect place, where none of that matters. All your questions have been answered. Your conflicts with others are now just misunderstandings that have been resolved. Your physical or psychological wounds are healed, and so on. Who are you, in that world? Is that really somebody you can identify with? Is that really you living on?
So I could stop here. But if I did, this would be another one of those typical nay-saying humanist talks: A bunch of people believe in X, Y, and Z, but I don’t. And the unstated implication would be that if you do believe something and it gives you comfort in the face of Death, then I think you’re just wrong. The end. Sing the closing hymn.
But instead, let’s take a step further back and see if we can still solve the original problem somehow. Remember: I’m supposed to be responding to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. I’ve been working with the idea that my soul is some kind of eternal essence, and trying to imagine how this essential Me can transcend Death.
And I haven’t done very well with it. So I could just say, “That’s it. I’m done. Death is Death. Deal with it.” But what if we think of the soul differently? “OK,” I imagine you saying, “but different how?”
I want to introduce my soul model with an anecdote that’s meant to be amusing: A man takes his son aside and says, “I want you to have this; it’s your great-greatfather’s ax. Your grandfather replaced the head. And I replaced the handle.”
Now, you may notice that those two pieces are the whole ax. So not a single atom of what the man is handing down actually belonged to the boy’s great-grandfather. And yet, there is also some kind of continuity that goes back that far.
In philosophy, this conundrum is known as the Ship of Theseus. Plutarch tells us that the city of Athens preserved the ship on which Theseus returned from Crete after his adventure with the Minotaur. But rather than let it rot in a museum, they kept it seaworthy by replacing pieces as they wore out. Over the centuries, probably every plank of it had been replaced at one time or another. So in what sense was it still the Ship of Theseus?
See where I’m going with this? What if I think of my soul not as an eternal essence, but as a Ship of Theseus? It’s more or less the same from one day to the next, but pieces are constantly wearing out and being replaced. So while there’s continuity all the way back to my first breath, if I look back twenty years or forty years or sixty years, I barely recognize myself.
That feels more right to me somehow. It fits with how I experience my life and think about my past. But how does it help?
A few minutes ago I talked about the experience of looking back at moments in my life and not identifying with them. And I projected forward, imagining futures beyond my death and how I would have a hard time identifying with them as well.
But now let’s talk about the opposite experience. There are people who are not you at all. But when you see them, and what they’re going through, you identify completely. Say there’s a new kid at school who doesn’t know anybody and doesn’t fit into anything yet. And you’re not a new kid. You know lots of people and feel at home in all sorts of situations. But you remember when you were the new kid, and you feel a strong connection.
Or maybe you’re older and your children are grown and out of the house, but you talk to a young parent who feels overwhelmed in exactly the way you felt overwhelmed. Or you’re a teacher, and you see a student touched for the first time by a piece of great literature, just like you were. Or someone’s mother has died, and you remember how it felt when your mother died. Or you’re at a wedding (maybe of a couple you don’t even know, because you’re just somebody’s plus-one), but you savor the bittersweet memory of imagining a whole life stretching out in front of you with all those possibilities.
You know what I’m talking about. Those people are not you. And yet, in some significant way, they are.
Or maybe, in some small way, they’re somebody else, somebody important to you. Someone you’ve lost. You see a smile or a gesture, or hear a tone of voice, and — just for a moment — it’s your old friend, your brother, the girl you took to the prom. It’s a small thing. And yet, it’s not.
My Ship of Theseus may be a unique collection of parts. But a lot of those parts were mass produced. I can look around and see them in other people’s ships. When I see another ship with one of my parts, or maybe a part I replaced long ago, I feel the connection.
That’s how I’m hoping to live on.
What doesn’t work for me in the traditional notions of an afterlife is that they promise to preserve my uniqueness. And that doesn’t feel credible to me, because I see my uniqueness as just an idea, an abstraction. What connects me to that baby born 67 years ago is so ephemeral, it barely matters to me. And if that thin thread somehow stretches into the infinite future, I’m not sure I care.
But what I believe is going to live on, and what I do feel strongly about, is my commonality, the ways that I am like other people. The challenges that shaped my life — people will go on facing those challenges. Some of them will rediscover the same responses I came up with. And some will do better. Probably right now, there are people out there somewhere facing situations that I screwed up, and they’re fixing my mistakes. There’s something satisfying about that thought.
The things I have been, other people will continue to be. The battles I have fought, other people will continue fighting. The relationships I have had, other people won’t have exactly those relationships, but they’ll have similar ones. My closest, most special relationships, maybe they won’t turn up that often. But they are part of the broad range of human possibility. And sometime, somewhere, other people will stumble down that same path.
When that happens, will I be looking down from some eternal realm, sharing their moment? Maybe not. But I don’t think I need that.
What I need, if I’m going to make peace with Death right here and right now, is to imagine those people, to be aware of my similarity to them, and to feel a sense of connection stretching out into the indefinite future. That connection seems real to me in a way that Heaven or future incarnations don’t seem real.
And you may feel differently. But for me, right now, it’s enough.
The closing words are from The Grapes of Wrath:
Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one — an’ then …
Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.
If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.