THE NOTION OF the afterlife only ramifies and grows more important in Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam. Luckily, for those who want to continue the story, there are many more books already available to fill in the gap.1 Not surprisingly, we have seen that every group in society normally searches for a transcendent justification for its religious position, lifestyle, and political position. Each group within the society develops an afterlife doctrine to parallel and legitimate its own position, taking the elements of its position from the historical past of the society and attempting to argue that its interpretation is the truest representation of it. This combination of functions and structures, we are used to calling religion.
Conversely, virtually every aspect of religion, politics, and society is involved in the doctrine of the afterlife. It is the afterlife that provides the answer to every unbalanced equation. Every injustice can be righted there, every disability can be made whole, every individual, rich or poor, can find solace from personal trials and tribulations. Because Christianity understood Jesus’ death and resurrection as the central message of his life, it made otherworldly compensation the crucial aspect of the new faith.2 But attention to afterlife also characterizes Judaism and Islam.3 Even the notion that there is no afterlife is, in a sense, the justification for an earthly philosophical system for those who support it.
Why don’t we believe we become butterflies when we die or, like the mermaids in Hans-Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, turn into sea foam? These are as sophisticated, beautiful and consoling beliefs as one might want personally. So why don’t we in the West believe them? The question is facetious. We realize immediately that an individual fantasy, no matter how beautiful or moving, lacks the credibility structures that beliefs present in a society necessarily achieve. In fact, we are free to believe whatever we want. Imagination is not the point; social validity and confirmation are what is desired.4 A purely personal view of heaven can never be an effective image for a society. The sureties provided by the afterlife normally demand that it be a socially shared phenomenon. That confirmation is normally provided by powerful, religious institutions in society.
To those who think the afterlife to be a simple delusion, the Western tradition offers an enormously complicated and socially determined answer to the question of what lies after death: It may be a delusion but there is nothing simple about it. Heaven is the best we can think of for ourselves at any historical time and hell is the worst we can imagine. They are all the rewards we want and punishments we fear (or the revenge we want our enemies to suffer) for the lives we lead. Imagining a heaven therefore also involves projecting our own hopes on heaven and then spending our lives trying to live up to them. But it is not only personal because Westerners have long-standing histories of what the afterlife is and how to attain a pleasurable one.
This book is a personal view. But it is not only a personal view; it is an attempt to deal with each culture of the West in a knowledgeable and respectful way, to sift through the myriad accounts that Western culture has to offer, and to look for enduring trends and similarities. The Western view of the afterlife is a complex of ideas and institutions that have had a long and very rich history. To understand the afterlife in the West, one must see beyond the explicit portraits and analyze how ideas functioned in the society of the living.
Review of the Previous Chapters
READING THE history of the afterlife is like reading through a great books course in the humanities. One needs to know not just the Bible but every important book in Western culture to understand why we envision our afterlife in heaven or on earth, as souls or as bodies, after death or at the end of time. One thing which becomes entirely clear is that the afterlife is not a single eternal truth that is an unchanging reward of the righteous or faithful. It is, instead, a mirror of the values of the society that produced it. Watching the afterlife change is watching a society’s hopes and fears change, with the attendant change in social institutions and values.
Ideas about the afterlife do not exist in a vacuum; they have no life of their own. They do not spread out of inexorable logic or good sense or superior doctrine. All notions of the afterlife have benefited a particular social class and served to distinguish the purveyors of the idea from their social opponents. Their fortunes are closely tied to the fortunes of their earthly believers. The fact that it takes a close historical analysis of texts that are usually studied by religious specialists has kept the secret from us. Our notions of the afterlife are just as much a history of the constant civil war between religious factions in society as they are the record of the genius of our greatest literary masterpieces. Let us look at the story in the West in its broadest outlines.
Notions of afterlife are universal in human experience; indeed, they are older than human life, if Neanderthal grave sites are taken as evidence. The nations that surrounded Biblical Israel all investigated the notion of life after death. But no culture more spectacularly affirmed an afterlife than Egypt. The identity of the person was symbolized in the very image of the person, represented sometimes by the corpse itself, first perfected into an artful representation by mummification, then transformed into an eternal star to enjoy the breeze on a day of leisure in a perfected Nile valley. The corpse itself was preserved as a mummy in a pyramid or tomb for all times; when that was properly accomplished, any number of representations of the person, the ba, the ka, the akh, or some other metaphysical entities were set free to travel by day.
The lack of agreement about what carried the identity of the ancient Egyptian into the afterlife points out local differences. That they were never synthesized suggests that Egyptian religion did not need to develop an overriding notion of the self, if the ancestor showed up at all the different required ritual occasions. When the body of the Pharaoh, who was Horus on earth, was preserved by the priesthood of Osiris, his person was reunited with his divine father Osiris. The medium of preservation was the body itself, which could be preserved through the dry desert climate aided by the desiccant Natron. When the body was elaboratedly prepared and wrapped for its future life, the ancestor received all the proper spells and prayers for a successful journey to the afterlife. But that symbol came more and more to equal the other forms of postmortem life-the ba, the ka, and the akh, with the heart carrying the conscience and rationality.
Such a great advantage could not be available only to Pharaoh for long. More and more people were eventually included in his fortunate afterlife, but new, moral, entrance requirements were added. Only those who were deserving of the rewards of transformed existence by personal acts of piety to the gods and service to the state qualified. Unlike the Pharaoh, who answered for the government in this life, the newly privileged transformed souls had to answer for their behavior in an elaborate judgment of the dead, where the soul was judged against the feather of Ma’at, good order and justice.
The process of including more and more people in the afterlife was a gradual one. But, given a long enough duration (and Egypt had time to spare), changes are apparent in the notion of the afterlife. Ancient Egypt had stable government for over three thousand years. Because of archaeology and ancient historians, the history of ancient Egyptian is available at a glance, making correlations between religion and politics and sociology easier than it has been.
The relatively complete record of Egypt’s history allows us to see that even their heaven was manipulated by their priests, kings, and writers. This is symptomatic of afterlife beliefs throughout the world. Over a generation or two, they appear stable and unchanging. But through the eyes of an ancient historian, the vast changes in their notion of the afterlife becomes entirely clear. This necessarily relativizes all views of the afterlife and points out how easily they are affected by social circumstances. Any intelligent understanding of the afterlife must eventually account for parallel development between the concept of the afterlife and the people’s social world.
In Mesopotamia the afterlife was less optimistic; it was a poor consolation compared to the Egyptian notion of immortality of the gods. If humans are lucky, we can achieve divine wisdom, but we never become immortal. Everyone must die. The fate of the dead is hardly pleasant in this culture, condemned to shadowy existence in the underworld. Gilgamesh tried for immortality but lost it. Utnapishtim, the only mortal who had escaped death, explains that no one else will ever be given this divine reward. Gilgamesh both realizes that immortality is impossible for humans and also becomes the king of the dead.
Even the formidable goddess Inanna who, as the planet Venus, regularly descended beneath the horizon, could not herself escape the clutches of her sister Ereshkigal, the goddess of the underworld; her deliverance by means of Geshtinanna and Dumuzi had permanent climatological effects on the world but scarcely effected the fate of the departed. The situation is scarcely better in Canaanite culture. Access to the wisdom in the underworld was guarded by priests who upheld the traditions of the myths of the underworld. Funeral rites, however, celebrated the deeds of the ancestors and were the responsibility of the family to arrange. They were supplemented by regular, expensive rituals that commemorated the transformed ancestors as heroes.
FIRST TEMPLE ISRAELITE AND CANAANITE RELIGIONS
All this was rejected by the Biblical writers, though there are hints that Babylonian and Canaanite afterlife notions were very popular in Israel. If we had only the documents of the Bible, the First Temple period would have only had the most vague and unarticulated notion of the afterlife. This looks unique in human experience until we realize that we are looking at Israelite culture through the lens of editors who chose what would survive out of the ancient writings. They were not happy with Canaanite views of the afterlife, which were idolatrous and immoral. In the end, Israelite notions of the afterlife emphasize the same truth as the Mesopotamian and Canaanite ones: Like us, animals have earthly life; we have life and, if we act properly, we will gain wisdom; but only God has immortality.
SECOND TEMPLE JUDAISM
When the Jews came into contact with Greece and Persia, everything changed. By the time the Persians and the Greeks made contact with Jewish culture, both had developed significant myths that spoke of conquering death. The Jews listened to the Greek and Persians more attentively than they listened to the Canaanites. Though both Greece and Persia linked feasting with the dead in their ancient past, both imperial cultures also developed high philosophical understandings of the afterlife that avoided the sins the prophets decried.
It is likely Persia eventually influenced the invention of a beatific afterlife in Israel. The religion of the Persians left us uncertain evidence about influence during the time of Ezekiel (sixth-century BCE) when Zoroastrianism was growing important in Bactria in the East. But by the time the visions of the book of Daniel were written (168 BCE), Zoroastrianism was virtually the national religion of the elite Persian rulers and left us clear evidence of bodily resurrection and a beatific afterlife. These surely stimulated and encouraged similar notions in Jewish life, though we lack proof of how the transfer took place.
Unlike the Persians, the Greeks left footnotes when they influenced Hebrew thought. Greek culture contains a long meditation on the notion that the soul could separate from the body. Where the soul went was the major focus of Greek speculation. The early Greeks could envision a hero’s choice of fame over immortality, the very choice which Odysseus makes at the beginning of the Odyssey; they could envision a ritual process of immortalization in the Eleusinian Mysteries, perhaps aided by drug-induced experience, making this mystery religion into a weekend “rave.” Or they could believe the proofs of the immortality of the soul offered by Plato’s Socrates.
All these notions were adopted into Israelite culture, after being retailored for adoption into a monotheistic scheme. The most long-lasting Greek contribution to Jewish culture was from the aristocratic, Platonist intellectual elite of Greek society that said that the soul was immortal. In return for a life of moderation and intellectual development, the soul went upward to receive its astral rewards.
The elaborate funeral rites of the Egyptians suggest that the method of body disposal had a great deal to do with how afterlife was interpreted, that the afterlife somehow begins as a meditation on the recognition that we die and the body dissolves in a culturally supervised way. In Egypt, where the body was preserved by mummification, the person after death was a living image. Afterlife was conceived of as bodily in roughly the same way as we inhabit this life, though the glorified spirit could take up residence in the stars at the same time. In Mesopotamia and Canaan, including ancient Israel, the body was buried, yielding notions of a pale underground exile for the dead spirit; its condition was somewhat alleviated by dramatic orgies. In ancient Greece, where the body was often burned, the soul could soar free to the heavens with the smoke of the funeral pyre. The Persians appear to have exposed their bodies to predation by vultures so reconstitution of the body appears to have been the preferred form of the afterlife. Their sky-burial can also be thought of as a variation on cremation.
Each culture also produces a carrier of personal identity, whether the true image was the mummified body, the ba, the ka, the akh, the heart, body, or soul, so that the dead did not have to live in exactly the fleshly body it had on earth. The nature of the afterlife self is significant because it also helps reify the concept of self in society. Every culture designs its own vision of a perfected life and expresses it in its notions of afterlife. From this vision that is often preserved in civic monuments and literature, what was important to the social class or cult or society emerges. The afterlife becomes a mirror to the deepest hopes of the society. But the symbols are not universal; they depend on specific cultural connections made between afterlife, the disposal of the body, and the nature of the self that survives death. The symbols of the afterlife are culturally specific.
Apocalyptic Israel seemed to envision a transformed body, though the martyrology of 2 Maccabees 6-8 shows that it could also be a literal re-constitution of the physical body, especially if the physical body had been cruelly tortured, destroyed and snatched away from proper burial by evil oppressors. It was this extreme form of persecution, preventing the righteous from receiving their Biblical reward of long life, that so captured the followers of Jesus when their leader was so unjustly martyred. Bodily resurrection was fit to make Christianity into a religion whose mission was the conversion of the world.
The preexilic Biblical tradition steadfastly maintains that what occurs after death is very unimportant: For instance, the book of Job teaches only that God is responsible and will answer for His seeming injustices, not that we will survive into another more beatific afterlife. Job testifies that God will appear to answer the charges; His appearance in theophanies is proof that His covenant is an equitable arrangement for both partners, though we cannot know why He seems to punish us innocently. Job is a heroic answer to the perennial question of theodicy. But Job did not satisfy everyone.
The answer to Job, for example, is not sufficient for those brave young Jews who died at the hands of foreign oppressors, who taunt them with the public choice of apostasy or death. In the face of the torture and death at the hands of foreign oppressors, a new notion of afterlife was born-resurrection of the body. Under the pressure of martyrdom, the death of the faithful for their faith became a public drama that overcame the evil of the oppressor and testified to the truth of the faithful. It does not really matter whether the stories actually happened and, if they did, whether they happened in the way 2 Maccabees tells us. The stories themselves serve as the revelation of a new dispensation; they are the evidence that the inquiry took place in the face of this foreign oppression.
The effect of the new revelation in apocalyptic Judaism is clear: God will restore the bodies of the martyrs which the oppressors so cruelly destroyed. This is the belief of small groups of millennialists who receive apocalyptic prophecies saying so. Not everyone in Hebrew society valued these pronouncements or thought them authentic. The dreams and visions constituted a new answer to Job in the face of real torture ending in death, not the fabled suffering of Job, ending in restoration. They were based on the stories in Daniel in which the hero is rescued by God. In the visions of Daniel, the seer confirms that even those who were not rescued by God in this life will be rescued in the next. The new prophecy from God promises that the wicked will be punished, the martyrs will be restored to an ideal life, and the teacher-leaders of the sect will become angels (stars).
We see a community of angels and saints at Qumran. But the angels and the saints are the same, like the butterfly and the caterpillar. Possibly, the members attained angelic status in this life with their ascetic practices. At the very least, their strict purity made possible a partnership with the angels, who would defeat their enemies. This was the vision of the end envisioned by this small group of religious revolutionaries, not unlike the ones we have seen in our premillennial days.
IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL
The second notion of afterlife to be adopted in Hellenistic Jewish culture was aristocratic, elitist, and available at first only to those few who could get a good Greek education-immortality of the soul. In its classic form, it seems also solipsistic because it depends entirely on thinking and meditation. But it depended heavily on having the right kind of individual tutoring and instruction, instruction only available to the very rich and those with leisure to study.
It was the new aristocracy, the client scribal and intellectual classes of the Hellenistic world, people like Philo and Josephus, who were afforded an expensive Greek education, who served the rulers and adopted the Platonic notion of the immortal soul. They built the notion of the immortal soul on the earlier and less comforting Semitic notion of the nefesh, but their philosophical education identified the Hebrew soul with the Greek psyche. Their perspective did not see the body as valuable, rather the opposite. Nor did it consider a large society as its purview. Immortality of the soul is, at first, an individual salvation or, at most, a camaraderie of but a few enlightened philosophers. It posits as immortal those aspects of consciousness which were deemed most valuable to an elite, intellectual class-its education (paideia), knowledge (gnōsis), in short, its memory (anamnesis), a pious wish from a class of intellectuals totally subservient to their Hellenistic rulers except in the power of their minds.
These ideas of the soul’s immortality are not entirely divorced from martyrdom; Socrates himself was a martyr. Cato the Younger got the courage to do away with himself after rereading the Phaedo several times. But the point of the Platonic synthesis, the immortality of the soul, was that immortality was a natural human endowment, part of the very predicament of being human. Salvation came from learning how to stop the cycle of rebirths and live in deathless perfection as a disembodied soul. Popular versions of the immortality of the soul began to be found in Hellenistic Jewish literature, mixed with other notions like martyrdom, in the century in which Jesus lived.
Apostolic Christianity at first wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul. Christianity did not belong to that tiny, elite class of Jews who wanted to preserve their intellectual achievements after death; it would be at least a century, maybe two, before many Christians rose to the social level of a Philo or a Josephus. Christianity’s beginnings were in the apocalyptic groups that believed in resurrection of the body. After all, the Jesus movement unexpectedly and tragically found itself faced with a martyred leader. It was natural, obvious in many ways, that a notion of resurrection would inform this group’s continued narrative about its relationship to God; the surprise was that it believed Jesus to be already resurrected, which inevitably led both to the notion that he was divine and to the conclusion that the apocalyptic end-time had begun.
To produce this notion, Jesus had to be identified with a divine candidate. The crucifixion made sensible a Messianic claim for Jesus in the charge of the Romans: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The resurrection made divine (perhaps more correctly, angelic) status likely. Jesus’ “divine” status was gained because he was higher than any other angel. It made him Son of God (Ps 110) and Son of Man (Dan 7:13). The risen Christ became both Messiah and LORD (YHWH).
Paul too was an apocalypticist but he was a powerful thinker in every area of life. For Paul, all were sinners and were redeemed by Jesus’ death. The emphasis on sinfulness is typical of an apocalyptic missionary cult. Though Paul spoke for himself and for a small gentile minority, Paul’s interpretation of these events gained a special cogency as gentiles more and more predominate in the church. But, Paul could not have known the success his “minority report” would gain; indeed, it was used to frame the triumph of the gentile church in a way that would certainly have saddened him.
What the Gospels narrate is not what actually happened; nor is it fraudulent. The evangelists naturally imported into the life of Jesus details and Bible texts that demonstrated their own faith in the crucified and risen Messiah. They naturally externalized the visionary truths of Paul’s religious life; they may even have taken a polemical position against Paul’s more “spiritual” position, that Christ’s glorious body is the end point of our transformation in faith. Paul believed that believers shall become one with the body that Christ achieved in his resurrection.
COMPETING TRAJECTORIES OF THE MEANING OF JESUS’ LIFE
So did the evangelists. But for them, Christ’s body was the earthly church, which they led and represented. The ritual of communion became incorporating the body and blood of Christ literally. When the evangelists told the narrative of Jesus’ life, his resurrection naturally became more and more physical. Thus, the resurrection of believers also became a more and more material fact. The Gospels preach the literal, fleshly resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent literal, fleshly resurrection of all believers. Additionally, the state of sin was an apocalyptic characteristic, the necessary concomitant to the social necessity of conversion. Positing that humanity lacks something without Jesus is part of the uniquely suited missionary gospel of early Christianity. The remedy to the state of sin is a physical resurrection, a unique event in history. What demonstrated that Jesus’ death was uniquely meaningful for human history was not the fact that he survived death but that he was physically resurrected, as the first sign that the general resurrection would soon be upon us.
One of the competing portraits of Jesus against which the Gospel of John polemicized, must surely be the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas. By seeking a vision of him, like Paul’s vision, the ascetics of the Gospel of Thomas learned the transformative RASC process which linked them with the direct knowledge (gnōsis) of Savior and hence with immortality of the soul. This was accomplished without the teaching of the apostles and indeed without the canonical Gospels but with the help of RASC, developed by reading their own Gospel while performing their ascetic discipline. This is what gnōsis, saving knowledge, meant-an actual religiously interpreted meditative state unique to the Gospel of Thomas.
In many ways, the central dramatic fights of early Chrisianity were caused by these differing sources of salvation. The early Christians believed that Jesus brought resurrection which could be communally experienced in ritual. The process was one of transformation but the issue was galvanized by an imaginative rendering of the end point, the body of Christ that was both the church and the goal of the believer.
The Synthesis of Immortality of the Soul with the Resurrection of the Body
AS CHRISTIANITY moved slowly around the Roman Empire and slowly up the social ladder, it met a much more formidable form of the argument against the uniqueness of Jesus’ postmortem existence: the immortality of the soul. The soul was immortal by nature in Platonic thought, not needing the redemptive sacrifice of Christ, and this was one of the dominant intellectual theories of the day. Perhaps it was the dominant, intellectual tradition of late Antiquity. The doctrine of the immortal soul was eventually adopted because it allowed Christianity to talk about an interim time when the good could be rewarded and the evil punished without waiting for the delayed, end-of-time. Without an imminent end-of-time, Christianity was in danger of losing its missionary edge. So it eventually articulated a doctrine of Original Sin, which built the apocalyptic notion of human sinfulness into the structure of the universe and made the sacraments of Christianity necessary to compensate for it.
In the Rabbinic community, there was a very different dynamic. The Rabbis did not need to define the nature of the resurrection body and they had no equivalent problem with the immortality of the soul; they quietly and quickly imcorporated both into their thinking of the afterlife, fudging the term Teḥiat Hametim (vivification of the dead) to mean whatever God had chosen to make it mean or whatever they needed it to mean at the moment. (For them it was the same thing.) There was, furthermore, no need to enforce intellectual orthodoxy. Each Rabbi might explain the afterlife as he wished, or indeed leave it to God to surprise us. Theirs was not the task of trying to define how God would bring about the fulfillment of His promises. Theirs was only the task of defining the human consequences of His covenant.
One can see their flexibility as a response to the changing location of Jewish life. Conceivably having its origin in Persian religion, the Rabbinic notion of resurrection could bend in the direction of Hellenistic philosophy, as the ex-Pharisees Paul and Josephus show. It could emphasize one kind of notion of resurrection in the presence of Christianity and another in the presence of Zoroastrianism. It could accommodate the philosophical speculations of Platonism or the literalism of early Islam. It needed to preserve that doctrinal flexibility to prevent religious intolerance from its host civilizations. The Gemara’s discussion particularly demonstrates how at home Rabbinic notions could be under Zoroastrianism, with its notions of the resurrection of the perfected flesh. But it could also match Christianity as it slowly absorbed the Hellenistic notion of the immortality of the soul. It could accommodate Islam’s early preference for resurrection of the flesh at the end-of-time. And it could even participate actively in Islam’s flirtation with Aristotelianism in the tenth through thirteenth centuries, which necessitated an articulated doctrine of the immortality of the soul. It then passed that philosophical acumen to Christian Aristotelian philosophers like Aquinas who worked out their own synthesis. It could do all this because resurrection or immortality of the soul was not their central concern; not much about the social significance of the Rabbinic movement depended on it. Jews did not rely on the Rabbis to resolve theological problems for them; they relied on them to resolve legal issues.
Islam is even more clearly a missionary religion than Christianity. In forming itself to promulgate its revelations, it put the day of judgment foremost in its teaching, save only for the unity of God. Resurrection would follow and it would be literal and material, a pleasurable goal worth the efforts of being a good Muslim. It supplemented this with various promises of paradise and horrors of hell. It rarely had to force conversions; instead it put the choice of resurrection or not, of heaven and hell, in front of its hearers. Then, it outlined the many financial, economic, and social advantages to conversion to the Muslim Ummah and waited for the inevitable “bandwagon” effect. After a century, practically no one was able to resist conversion. Luckily, Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism were given reprieves because of their Scriptures: They were considered “People of the Book,” though for their religious fortitude they endured many indignities and dangers as Dhimmis (protected ones). Thus, some Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians managed to survive the inescapable advantages of submitting to the message of Muḥammad.
Muslim eschatology is fitted to conversion and mission, very much like Christianity’s end-of-days. Both have in common the tendency to retreat into fundamentalism when challenged by new ideologies. Even Judaism develops fundamentalist sects when challenged in just the right way, as by the secular alternative of Zionism and the prospect of religious reform in Reform, Conservative, and even modern Orthodoxy. But fundamentalism is a religious system that fosters highly motivated, yet parochial converts. It is a defensive strategy that can turn to extremism and violence for self-protection but it attacks enemies before it even makes them. One characteristic of this view is that it believes every inroad it makes on the others is God’s providence but every in-road made against them is Satan’s own imperialism. On the other hand, views of heaven which are culturally plural and nondenominational seem to predominate when all religions view themselves as minority religions and must share political powers with others. In that case, heaven develops a nondenominational character and adds to the culture’s desire to remain tolerant.
Standing Back to Look for Patterns
WITH SUCH an enormous time span to look at, some interesting reassurances emerge. First, the basic questions of life four or five thousand years ago are still the questions of today but our answers are far more comforting to us: We see a refreshing trend to include more and more people within the rewards of the afterlife. In some ways, the history of Egyptian religion is emblematic of the history of the afterlife in the West in general. Over the millennia, Egyptian religion inexorably moved toward the inclusion of more and more people in the rewards of the afterlife. This “democratizing” movement was followed throughout the history of Western religion. Immortality of the soul accommodated more human hope than the Homeric achievement of fame in battle. It was available to all those who had the leisure to study and meditate, male and female.
The rewards of the martyrs in ancient Israel-resurrection and transformation-were also slowly expanded to the society as a whole and then, through Christianity and Islam, to the entire Western world and beyond. But it was not inevitable: Zoroastrian immortality was available earlier but it was not to be a world religion forever. Judaism was a missionary religion to an extent yet its truths were not adopted by many. One might, as a matter of choice, prefer true multiculturalism over universalism, which limits salvation to adopting a single religion viewed as the truth.
Rabbinic Judaism was forced to admit the multicultural prospect of God’s plan, when meditating on its guest status in other cultures. Realizing that they needed tolerance to survive, they posited it as a value that all cultures should adopt. They unilaterally allowed that Christians and Muslims who were righteous were saved as well. By so doing, they hoped that Christians and Muslims would let them live amongst them in peace. And they also downplayed the whole notion of afterlife to a much lower level than the typical missionary religion. This is parallel with their conclusion that missionizing would endanger their position as guests in a political world they could not control.
This merely underlines the contention that afterlife notions are mirrors of our cultural and social needs, available to development and manipulation, and that they tend to mirror our social goals. We need to ask ourselves if multiculturalism is what our society wants. Are we then saying that we need to set down rules as to how missionary religions-including Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism as a bare minimum-should behave with regard to each other? This immediately raises the question of the sense in which we can let toleration of opposing views of the universe into our lives without losing our basic direction. The answer is clear: We all need to behave as if we are minorities needing toleration.
This question is implicit in looking over the history of the afterlife. The first victim is the reassuring notion that the afterlife is part of unchanging, revealed truth. The notion of the afterlife changes just as surely and even more radically in Israelite culture than it did in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, and Rome. The changes parallel the various uses of political power in the state. Sometimes the view of heaven dictates changes in the social circumstances; sometimes changes in the social circumstances dictate a necessary change in the notion of heaven. But there is always a tendency to bring the two realms into congruence. The notion of heaven and the afterlife always reflects what is most valuable to the culture. God may be sending revelations but we are talking to ourselves when we interpret our Scriptures. We are telling ourselves what the Scriptures must mean in the current circumstance; it is not God speaking to us directly. This is not comforting to the traditionally faithful. In fact, it is usually threatening. But it is just as true of fundamentalist doctrines as it is of liberal ones; both are innovations suited to the modern world. Neither is any better grounded in ancient Scripture.
Any simple determination of truth in matters of the afterlife becomes yet more elusive when one factors into the equation the differing and very contradictory beliefs of the religions of the rest of the world. Almost every view of the afterlife, worldwide, begins with an insight into what humans are, in and of themselves. Each has a deep perception of the nature of reality to tell us, to be respected, and understood. They cannot merely be ignored or dismissed. None lacks a belief in the continuance of life beyond the grave and none agrees in the slightest with any of the doctrines here described on the issue of the resurrection of the body. Some are flatly contradictory with each other as well.
This leaves a difficult and unattractive choice. Either we must view the beliefs selectively, taking seriously only the one that appeals most to us, convert, and become true believers of that religion-any religion-or we must face the surety that all are, at best, but approximations of what may await us. Or, maybe nothingness awaits all of us. Even if we remain within a canonical tradition, any canonical tradition, we must face the surety that it has changed radically over the centuries. Therefore someone in the canonical tradition must be wrong; even worse, we have no real ways of determining which one is right. From our inevitable social context within a specific culture, the best we can do is articulate what appeals to us most.
Looking in the Mirror of Our Souls, Do We Worship Ourselves?
HEAVEN is the mirror of our souls and our souls are the creators of the landscapes of heaven. Yet another trap lies in either believing or disbelieving our own ecstatic experiences. Such experiences have always traditionally been self-justifying: People who have them find them so transforming that they cannot doubt the authenticity of their own experience. They are neither unusual nor insane in human experience. Humans have been traveling to heaven to see what was there before heaven was a place where the beatified and sanctified dead went. But that is no guarantee that they are true.
Religiously altered states of consciousness surely brought the notion of afterlife firmly into Jewish culture, from whence it spread out to Christianity and Islam, whose mystics and teachers continued to seek and receive visions of the afterlife. Those who have them are convinced that their experience is valid and true, whether they be theophanies or Near Death Experiences or moments of enlightenment or unitive mystical experiences. Rudolph Otto suggested that these experiences of the numinous are the core of religion; holiness is defined by the feeling of awe that is surely behind every religious experience.5 Those who have never had them should stop reading about religion for they would surely never understand any analysis of religion. But can we really privilege our ecstatic experience in that particular way? Granting that seductive premise is essentially arrogating to ourselves the same legitimacy we want to deny Osama bin Laden.
Newberg and d’Aquili tell us that God will not go away because the human brain is “wired” to receive such experiences, even helping society find its direction. Yet the latter is not necessarily true. People who live in a scientific system do not need to interpret their ecstatic experiences as proof of divine providence. Thinking that humans will always find new and important revelations is no salvation; it does not distinguish between prophet and madman, between visions that take humanity in a good direction or a bad one.6 To believe in the validity of all such experiences is surely dangerous. It can justify fanaticism and psychosis. Science should seek understanding, not infallibility.
This is exactly what Paul Tillich warned about half a century ago when he cautioned against the idolatry of divinizing the work of our hands. In fifty years, one more corollary must be added-namely, divinizing the thoughts of our minds or the revelations of our dreams and visions. Instead, Tillich advocated only the taking of universal, transcendent values as our ultimate concern.7 To avoid idolatry, humanity, said Tillich, had to put its confidence only in transcendent values and, at the same time, to realize the importance of doubt to faith.
The Transcendent and Doubt
THE CONSENSUS of liberal theologians has for a long time been that the existence of God, hence the validity of religion, is not susceptible to ordinary scientific notions of confirmation and disconfirmation.8 One person looks at a sunset and sees the handiwork of the creator; another sees merely the particles of pollution adding color to the sky. Neither can move the confidence of the other because neither perspective is subject to confirmation or disconfirmation. The perspective is, rather, something more fundamental about personal orientation to meaning in the universe. The existence of God is an aspect of our understanding of the meaning of existence-along with justice, love, beauty, and a host of other human values-not something that can be verified scientifically.
Life after death, at first, seems quite a different proposition. The major pictures of life after death in the world’s cultures are propositions about objective places. They do not have the uniformity or cultural universality of the question of the existence or nonexistence of the transcendent. Yet, when subjected to historical analysis, which shows that the afterlife is constantly in flux and constantly being accommodated to social, political, and economic necessities in the society, the propositional value of any particular heaven grows much less important than the general claim that an afterlife exists at all.
So, in the end, the afterlife is another way to express the same transcendent, non-confirmable issue of God. The afterlife is particularly important to religions that organize themselves as missionary religions and not nearly as important to religions which do not. Instead, the very speculation that an afterlife exists seems like a human need and an ideal-again, like love, beauty, or justice-that exists in our minds rather than the world and gives a sense of meaning to our lives. Like beauty and justice, life after death is no less important for being unverifiable.
This is not a pleasant thought; nor is it a view that most people will appreciate easily. Most people will prefer to live within the system of beliefs that they inherit. The very variety and change of our notions about the afterlife speaks against any literal truth. The inherent implausibility of any one depiction of an afterlife based on the variety of contradictory notions has certainly brought naive notions of the afterlife into question. But implausibility alone does not actually reach the deep issue of the reality of personal afterlife or its potential meaning and significance in human existence. It has not even ended speculation of the soul’s afterlife.
Physicians have placed word generators high up and facing the ceiling in operating rooms so that an out-of-body patient can read and report on them, thus confirming the actuality of the experience. To date none have. We may suspect that none ever will. For one thing, difficulties in confirmation occur because the EEG and other instruments used by doctors are not designed for the sensitivities that this research demands. The brain may be functioning deeply even when ordinary instruments can detect no activity. This conclusion is buttressed by the ability of various drugs to simulate out-of-body experiences, the bright light, the long tunnel, and the feelings of euphoria.9
All of these experiments show that concrete, material proof of immaterial hopes is not possible. The body does decompose and no one has convincingly demonstrated that it can recompose, or that even if it did, that it could be reanimated with the same consciousness, though many such miracles have been preached in the last two millennia. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that a reanimated and reassembled body would really be us, if our experience is as unique as we normally think it is. Proof of resurrection is never likely to be so easily demonstrable. Instead, perhaps we should take comfort that we have doubts. Doubts complete faith and keep it from becoming fanaticism.
The Soul and Afterlife
HEAVENLY JOURNEYS and NDEs have constantly reinforced notions of the immortality of the soul and testified to the reality of resurrection. But they cannot demonstrate them. Finally, in Neoplatonism and Augustine’s thought, our very interior lives became the key to understanding how the material world and the intelligible world could affect each other. Though there is nothing inherently less plausible in the resurrection of the body at the end of time than in the immortality of the soul, it is the latter that has triumphed in Western philosophy in the last two hundred years. Again, social forces help explain this victory. It is the notion of immortality of the soul that fits most closely with our current experience of ourselves. The democratic West is based upon the internal experience of self-consciousness and the conviction that this individual self-reflection is the basis and definition of a unique, even a transcendent self. It valorizes that personal experience as transcendent, saying, in effect, the examined life transcends our short span of years.
In the eighteenth century, Moses Mendelssohn thought that immortality of the soul could be demonstrated rationally and did so in his essay The Phaedon (named for Plato’s Phaedo) but he felt that resurrection was a religious doctrine that could only be accepted by faith. Most Americans are convinced of the same without relying on proof; it merely makes better sense of their individual experience.
In an earlier time, the Church Fathers stressed the exact converse: Only resurrection preserves the uniqueness of each life and the confidence of its historical purpose while the immortality of the soul ultimately implies survival only of the ideas themselves and trivializes the historical existence of the individual.
A relatively new American possibility is that we each get what we think we will get. It certainly is a frequent statement of American multicultural life. This new ideal has much affected the popular imagination; it was, for example, the premise of the film “What Dreams May Come.” Even hell is nothing but the self-generated setting of the soul’s despair. With appropriate “therapy” in the afterlife even suicides and sinners can be rehabilitated to partake of whatever heaven they best imagine. This was, in a way, the vision of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.
They too lived in a culturally plural world. Regardless of where it came from, nothing could be more twenty-first century American. It reflects our American experience of living in fairly close contact with people whose most intimate religious beliefs and values differ significantly from our own. It offers the comfort that we all get what we want; therefore we are all correct, all validated, all justified. It further posits that even the dead need to work on self-realization, the idle dream of the Hollywood rich, who can finally finish their therapy in the next world.
Modern America, Christian or not, has ineluctably retreated to the position of the pagan philosophers of late antiquity: Our souls are immortal by nature; all will be saved, it just may take some souls longer to figure out that altruism and moral behavior are what guarantees salvation-or, alternatively, that it is really self-realization that guarantees our salvation. Either seems acceptable as a statement of the distinctively American hereafter because each validates quintessentially American values in this life.
Consciousness and Soul
CONSCIOUSNESS is the truly mysterious obsession of modern Western philosophical inquiry. Technical progress has not brought us much closer to understanding it, though research into the physical action of the brain has dethroned our surety of the self’s importance. Although the history of philosophy for centuries has been devoted to a description of the soul and the self, both in the West and the East, it still remains the perennial subject of philosophy, religion, and poetry all over the world, with little hope of achieving a consensus soon. Nor have I proposed here to resolve any of the difficult problems on describing consciousness, much less defining it. But I am stating that the afterlife is a mirror for what each society feels is transcendent in its individuals’ lives. In the modern period, the self has come more and more to be identified with the immortal soul. Personal consciousness is transcendent in our society because we value it as divine.
Afterlife as the Articulation of the Transcendent
THE NOTION OF the afterlife is an appropriate concern for faith and also for understanding society. Carol Zaleski, in her fascinating book, Other-world Journeys, is critical of easy acceptance of any mind / body dualism or any easy demonstration of literal truth outside of socially promoted symbols.10 Our religious truths come to us in a particular society, fitted to them and fitting for them. As we have seen together, ascension narratives are closely associated with conversion accounts because both are meant to serve as a guide for the pilgrimage of life. As Zaleski says as her conclusion:
Whatever the study of near-death visions might reveal about the experience of death, it teaches us just as much about ourselves as image-making and image-bound beings. To admit this is no concession to the debunkers; on the contrary, by recognizing the imaginative character of otherworld visions, we move beyond the merely defensive posture of arguing against reductionism. Within the limits here discussed we are able to grant the validity of near-death experience as one way in which the religious imagination mediates the search for ultimate truth.11
These are not easy sentences to come to terms with. I am, as well, particularly struck with the contribution that imagination makes to our religious life, the way in which our religious lives, our cultural lives, and our aesthetic lives interact. To explicate Zaleski’s perceptions, I propose to turn Plato’s thinking on its head. Instead of spending any more time analyzing Plato’s argument that the soul was immortal, we should investigate the consequences: It was Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul that allowed us to focus on our conscious experiences, that valorized those experiences and eventually made the “self” the center of philosophical interest in the West, that made the “self” as well as God, a transcendent value in Western thought.
For the ancient Hebrew only God was immortal, but we think we share that immortality with God. Perhaps Plato’s notion of the immortal soul did not do all these things single-handedly. But it certainly provided us with the necesssary focus to make all that possible. Samuel Johnson’s famous quip that the prospect of death concentrates the mind is true in several ways at once. Death not only concentrates the mind, it concentrates us on our minds. It was the notion of the immortal soul that allowed us to focus on our own minds as transcendent objects, even if it no longer seems obvious that they will, indeed, survive death. Perhaps that is the force of the ancient Near Eastern notion that with mortality comes wisdom and wisdom is a divine gift.
Neither Plato nor the Greeks thought that consciousness per se was important-it was merely the experience of a soul caught in the prison-house of matter-but what Plato started was the valorization of the self because the experience of intellection was the key to demonstrating immortality of the soul. As we know Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul depended on a priori arguments about space, time, and relation which no longer impress the modern mind, with its increased knowledge of physiological and developmental psychology. It did manage to allow humans to focus on the transcendent importance of our intellectual powers for the first time. That perception led to the notion of a “self,” eventually to a “transcendent self.” If intellection was so valuable that it demonstrated our immortality (actually both Plato and Aristotle maintained this in different ways), it was worth paying attention to it, even grooming and developing it-even if it does not literally demonstrate our immortality.
The Greeks did not speculate on consciousness as much as we do or even in the terms that we do. But it was their symbolic representation of the soul that prepared the groundwork for our notions. In ordinary speech, we distinguish between two different aspects of consciousness. We can speak of consciousness as our basic monitoring that we are alive and experiencing. This is a primitive feeling that follows us when we are conscious: We are up rather than sleeping or unconscious; the mental machinery has been turned on. That is a minimum characterization of consciousness. But there is also another, more complicated aspect of consciousness, which happens when we are introspective in some way. Sometimes this is called self-consciousness, or even critical self-consciousness.
Physiological studies have now shown that critical self-consciousness is not actually one simple and uncomposed quality in itself. We think it is a single phenomenon because we experience our own consciousness as continuous monitoring of our waking lives. It actually contains a variety of different processes, each varying according to its own cycle and level of capability. We now know that no single organ in the brain provides us with consciousness; rather many different organs contribute to it. Since the brain has many organs in it that contribute to consciousness, not a single organ that provides it, the concept of self should be considered multiple, additive, and emergent. It arises from the combination of all the various contributions that the centers in the brain and the nervous system provide.
Ironically, this is not so different from the perspective of the very ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Hebrews, though our notion of which organs provide these qualia of consciousness is very different from theirs. We no longer think that consciousness comes from the stomach or the blood or the heat of the body or the breath, though all of these are part of our normal proprioception. It was not that the primitive Greeks were wrong, it is just that they were not right enough. All those feelings are part of our consciousness but even more important to it are the monitoring functions of the various parts of our brain, a process that we do not fully understand, which still appears magical and enchanted.
Consciousness must also contain various aptitudes accessing motivations, emotions, memories, learned tasks, as well as dozens of reasoning abilities. It is hardly a tabula rasa, as Aristotle thought. It is not even a single tabula. Even what Kant called “the transcendental self” cannot be certified as unchangeable either in the history of culture.12 In traditional religious parlance, notions of the transcendent self are not universal. In many kinds of Buddhism the concept of the “self” is itself a fundamental mistake; for many Buddhist intellectuals there is, in truth, no continuous self. Realizing that we are not ultimate is the better part of reaching enlightenment.
We might say that any concept of the self-conscious self is itself socially determined because it emerges from our most religious or philosophical, hence our social and cultural beliefs. In calling attention to memory for the purpose of demonstrating the immortality of the soul, Plato was calling for a kind of self-reflection, which we can call an introspective, critical self-consciousness. Plato did not invent self-conscious introspection; nor was he the first to have introspective moments. But Plato did instigate a particular style of introspection and imbued it with transcendental significance by valorizing introspection as part of the immortal aspect of human existence. Essentially he theorized the self as a transcendent being. Plato proposed a proof based on an aspect of experience-memory-that was significant enough to present introspection not just as a leisure activity but as a value beyond the individual and a comfort in the face of mortality.
IT BEHOOVES us to try to understand why religious symbols are such poignant and important signifiers for us and speculate on how they can be compared adequately. An important perception comes from J. M. Balkin.13 He compares the ideological content of culture to computer software. At first this may seem to compare the human brain with a computer and hence to replicate the mistakes of Cartesian dualism. But this is not so. Balkin suggests that ideology, even culture itself, is a kind of software or programming, not that the human mind is a computer. Individual minds are only secondarily involved since culture is not produced by individual minds at all; it is an intersubjective phenomenon. Furthermore, the term “cultural software” is not meant to suggest that ideology programs us to perform as machines, without having to make decisions. It merely suggests to us the terms by which we make our decisions, and those terms very often predispose our decisions. The terms suggest the dramas in which we play out our lives.
Religion is, in some sense, like the program “Windows,” or any other graphically-based operating system. The program utilizes a simple metaphor: A personal computer can be managed like a desktop. Because of that visualization, any computer user can then perform important procedures-move, copy, store files, executing various useful operations. But a computer is in no literal sense a desktop. There is no literal analogy between the two. Religion is, likewise, a creative visualization that allows us to live our lives within a culture and society. Religion claims to point to transcendent values that go beyond the experience of any individual person believing in it. Some parts of the system may be confirmable and some are probably not, especially from within the system. So it is best to think of the terms that religion gives us as conventions, not truths.
Although we may have conventions and traditions for dealing with the world, in any given culture we have a group of different and sometimes contradictory ones and we differ in social class, in political and economic groupings, as well as in our personal abilities to adjudicate between them. Our culture does not force us to make decisions but predisposes us to see decisions in certain culturally approved terms. Furthermore, each of the “units” of this software, units Richard Dockins called memes-suggesting both the English “memory” (like the Greek mimesis, imitation) and the French même (“same”)-changes over time, sometimes due to an individual talent but never only because of one person.14 Balkin describes these units of cultural meaning as something:
1. that exists in each individual;
2. that shapes and enables individual understanding and cultural know-how;
3. that guarantees similarity of cultural understanding and know-how while permitting some variation, disagreement, and mistake among individuals within the same culture;
4. that changes and develops over time; and
5. that constitutes individuals as persons living in a particular culture at a particular point in history.15
Are memes real, actual, cultural basic units of transmission or just heuristic devices for understanding how cultural norms can be transmitted through culture and achieve stability over time? If memes need to be real, which part of a myth provides us with the basic unit? These are very hard questions to answer and must be left for other books. Nor is it entirely clear that culture provides the same evolutionary environment for the survival of “mutations” that nature does. Memes perceived to be helpful within one area-for instance, religion-may actually prevent progress in another area, like the economic or social sphere. There are no easy standards for what progress is. However one chooses to refer to culturally transmitted ideas, religion plays a significant role in the perpetuation of culture. It does so because it answers human needs, including the desire to survive over time. We have already seen how “martyrdom,” which involves people giving up their individual lives, can be functional in establishing the perceived social truth of a minority position in society, as self-evidently as soldiers can be judged heroes for sacrificing their lives for country or companions. That we can understand such altruism as self-evidently heroic and honor it on monuments is part of what we call religion.16
One of the most interesting functions of memes has been articulated by John Gottsch.17 Following Susan Blackmore, he suggests that one of religion’s functions is to provide ways to deal with the fear of death.18 Gottsch suggests that fear of death or death anxiety is a consequence of human self-consciousness and that the early ancient Near East provides us with many examples of myths designed to provide culturally plausible ways to reduce death anxiety.19 Gottsch demonstrates that many of the religious doctrines of the ancient Hebrews are actually “fitness enhancing”—that is, they increase the chances of survival of the people—even though the ancient Hebrews have few specific memes relating to the afterlife. These would include their abhorrence of human sacrifice and ritual prostitution, on the one hand, and their civil code, on the other. In this regard Gottsch holds out that religion is, or can be, a positive and important fact in human evolution while Blackmore seems much more convinced of its virtually unique ability to delude us. Religion is not inevitably adaptive or non-adaptive in any evolutionary sense. However one chooses to treat “memes”-as real or heuristic-this perspective allows us to ask questions about the value of religious structures over considerable periods of time, not just in any snapshot of the culture.
In her book Little Saint, Hannah Green discusses the religious life of Conques, a small French village of the Languedoc.20 Madame Benoit, a venerable Aquitainian, justifies a heretical practice, praying to St. Foy as to the Virgin Mary, by suggesting that the Conquois are rooting themselves to their place of origin. “Life is an envelope,” she tells Hannah Green. “We come from the unknown and we are going toward we know not where in this envelope we call our life.” Because St. Foy is the martyr closely associated with their pilgrimage town for so many centuries, the Conquois understand where they are in this void more completely by identifying the saint with the role that the Virgin has in wider Catholicism. St. Foy is both an historical datum and somehow an allegory for faith. Christian notions of the afterlife play significantly in this process of finding one’s identity but they are only part of the process. Our modern theorizing is but an unpoetic way of describing this envelope which culture provides us as we go through life.
Transcendence Again and How We Express the Value of Our Lives
ONE OF BALKIN’S most interesting definitions, dependent on considerations such as this, is the existence of transcendent values in different societies. A transcendent value in his definition is one that can never be perfectly realized and against which all concrete articulations and exemplifications remain imperfect or incomplete. God’s transcendence is what is enshrined in the famous Muslim motto “Allahu Akbar”—God is greater. The term “transcendence” starts as a theological term describing God’s creation of, sovereignty over, and hence His “greaterness” than the universe. But it has developed other implications in philosophy and the attempt to provide a language for understanding and comparing the work that religions do.
The history of the term has been well discussed in Benson Saler’s interesting monograph, Conceptualizing Religion.21 From Saler’s discussion, the importance of a notion of transcendence to many twentieth-century theorists of religion becomes entirely clear. But what is not entirely clear, either in the form Balkin discusses transcendence or the form that previous scholars like W. C. Smith or Karl Jaspers did, is whether the term “transcendence” can be adequately defined. It plays off of Platonic notions of the forms and also Christian theological descriptions of God, who must be greater than the universe and hence transcend it. Not all values are transcendent but some may be-values like truth or justice or, in religion, let us say, salvation (which receives a great deal of attention in Christianity) or justice (which receives more attention in Judaism) or submission to the will of God (which receives more attention in Islam). In Balkin’s terms, confidence in the existence of transcendent values is itself a transcendent value, as the confidence itself cannot ever be fully demonstrated. So transcendence is a kind of recursive variable.
In the West we tend to express transcendent values with the metaphor of divine agency. God defines justice through the Torah covenant for Jews; He makes salvation available to the faithful for Christians; He allows humanity to submit to His greatness and mercy in Islam. In the great Asian religions, transcendence is often signified by inscrutability: “the Tao (way) that can be uttered is not the real Tao,” says the Tao te Ching in its first statement. Confucianism believes it cannot be fully understood by any one person or in any single instantiation. One cannot reach Moksha (liberation) merely by trying to understand it with the discursive mind but must meditate on it. By claiming that the mind cannot understand or comprehend a value, these systems are affirming transcendence in the values named as “inscrutable.” All of these are ways of suggesting transcendence in traditional vocabularies. Yet, positing the existence of transcendence is itself a transcendent value, as we cannot be entirely sure that we have not just happened on a culturally important symbol that will lose its importance when translated into another culture or time. But they are functional to us as definitions even if they point only to the phenomenon in culture. And they are functional to us in society, if they do help us value and emulate some positive norm, even if we must always fall short of attaining it.
Most of our formulations of transcendence are combinations of high ideals with images that fail to express transcendence as time goes on. For example, the Grail legend encompassed a great many of the characteristics of transcendence. For the society that produced it, the Grail represented an ideal of courtly love, sexual innocence, religious fervor, endurance, and devotion, all represented narratively. Yet, today many would argue that its devaluation of women, sexuality, and ordinary existence could be seen as a real failure of human potential. Though we seem still to be able to appreciate some aspects of its symbolization, even when it is presented by, let us say, an intolerant, anti-Semitic man like Richard Wagner in his opera Parzifal, we certainly say that we only appreciate the artistic achievement in and of itself and decry the social context that we recognize is behind it.
In the same way, one might argue that the special laws of Judaism have outlived their usefulness. Some would contest Christian notions of salvation as fleeing the difficulties of this world instead of committing to resolving them. One might criticize Islam for claiming universalism while being intolerant of differences. In fact, one might criticize all of them for all the same reasons. And any of these values can be used to reduce the freedom or privilege the rights of one person over another, as we have seen in detail in the previous chapters. Nevertheless, by abstraction we can come to an appreciation of the admirable factors in many religious symbols while bracketing what seems no longer relevant. That is what allows us to continue to find values in religious symbols. But these are intellectual and aesthetic exercises and quite different from practicing a religion and assenting to it in a public communal context. This process of translating religious values into new contexts or finding new hermeneutics (translation principles) to instill them with new meaning is exactly what fundamentalism refuses to do. Or, more precisely, it substitutes its own innovative hermeneutics which claims to be the ancient meaning while actually representing a very modern, very conservative and eccentric one.
In its narrative context, resurrection points to the victory in martyrdom, even when it appears to be an outward failure, the sad end of one person’s life, often in agony, but the valorization of the values for which the person died. The reward of immortality underlines and emphasizes the transcendent value, the victory inherent in what seems at first to be an abject failure. It says there is something transcendent present when the martyr elects to die rather than transgress what she or he thinks is a divine rule. The immortality of the soul outlines the victory that comes in valuing one’s own thoughts, applying one’s life to systematic, intellectual pursuits. The apocalyptic intuition about history affirms that history itself is important because it says that God will bring paradise about as a fulfillment of the historical process. The notion of our transformation into heavenly beings is also a symbol that our persons, represented by our bodies, have a transcendent meaning. These are concepts that we can personally affirm without necessarily affirming the specific claims and propositions of the apocalyptic and philosophical communities of Late Antiquity.
For those who have experienced a Near Death Experience or those who have complete and simple religious faith no further proof is necessary. Their job is to express to others how their doubt and disbelief disappeared.22 After 9/11/01, the naiveté of this position no longer seems charming or innocent. People with naive faith are easily manipulated by political agents. But most of us are not in this category; we become skeptical even of arguments which seem reasonable. We do not have the gifts of previous generations; they could be confident that the dreams and visions proved resurrection or showed that the soul lived without the body. We can see that these were elaborately conceived overly-optimistic conclusions. And what is worse, it seems almost sure that the Near Death Experience is but another jump to an optimistic conclusion, based on physical processes which we do not understand.
Yet our knowledge of the function and relativity of our thoughts does not quench our immortal longings. The professorial community is renowned for its skepticism in matters of religion. In her recent Ingersoll Lectures at Harvard University, Carol Zaleski summarized the university’s objections to immortality in the following succinct way: “Immortality is criticized on moral grounds as self-aggrandizing, on psychological grounds as self-deceiving, and on philosophical grounds as dualistic. Concern for the soul is faulted for making us disregard the body, neglect our responsibility on earth, and deny our kinship with other animals.” From this fair assessment of academic skepticism, Zaleski begins an impassioned defense of the notion of the afterlife as wholesome, important, necessary, even real. Not only is religion still an important value in human life, it is everywhere resurgent; we ignore it at our peril. Zaleski’s defense goes beyond the function of defining our ideals to recognizing religion as a necessary part of our self-understanding.
Since It Is Fiction, We May Safely Believe It: An Apology for Religion
EARLY IN HIS career, John Hick concentrated on issues that might confirm the truths of Christianity. He developed a model of “eschatological verification” in which one might verify the truths of Christianity by waking up in the afterlife. If you “wake up” from death and see Jesus on his heavenly throne, you know Christianity is right.23 Most people-including him, apparently-were not convinced that this was actually confirmation in the scientific sense. After a time, he moved into a far more pluralistic mode, in which he accepted the truths of every religion as they oriented the believer towards reality. He further suggested that no religion was inherently superior to another but that all somehow were constructed manifestations of the real.24 The history of the afterlife in the West tells that the “real” is itself defined by what cultures define as religious. There is no obvious way to unmediated reality, even if we suspect that religions give us a sense of order and greater clarity about life.
In short, history cannot tell us everything we want to know. Numerous historical questions are verifiable in principle but cannot be verified or falsified with our current knowledge and method. Then there a number of questions which are not amenable to historical answers. Therefore, there are a number of questions which go beyond what a historian can tell us at all.
Most religious truths, I would put in this category. But that does not give us the freedom to believe anything we want. We cannot ignore what is demonstrable scientifically or historically; otherwise we are just operating irrationally. When Newton adduced his laws, it became clear that our understanding of our religious lives had to change. We now effortlessly appreciate a God of revelation in the Bible and Quran who works through the laws of the universe so that we but understand Him better when we study them. We must also understand that the same applies to the laws of society and the mind. If our notions of heaven are based on our understandings of the transcendent, that does not remove us from the religious universe, it merely clarifies that all religion is an act of the imagination. If we now understand that our religious experiences are triggered by the brain, that does not demonstrate that there is no God or transcendent process. It may mean that God works through these human neurological, psychological, social, and cultural laws as well as He works through history and the natural law. If we know that the brain produces religious experiences, we still may affirm that God made our brain so as better to communicate with us. But because we can see how much of religious vision is provided by culture, it does also mean that we now know we must be open to the truth that alternative visions of transcendence are just as valid interpretations of our neurological stimuli. It means that doubt must be part of our exact formulations of the afterlife. Above all, it means that a full description of our religious lives and our afterlives is an imaginative act with all the advantages and disadvantages of the imagination.
We can appreciate others’ religion even if it is different and contradictory to our own, provided we know that they equally respect ours. We understand these issues better when they are expressed in fiction and presented to us through reading, as a private, asthetic experience. If religion is a way to look at ourselves and challenge ourselves, then religion is just as surely part of our creative life as is art. If what Christians, Jews, and Muslims of good faith are doing when they believe in their notions of the afterlife is not assenting to propositional truth but expressing a confidence in various transcendent values of human existence, then they are choosing to believe in something that is by nature not confirmable, neither true nor false of itself and not part of the discourse of propositions and syllogistic truths.
This is equally true when we consent to watch a play or read a novel. We agree to treat a human confection as real for the purposes of enjoyment and edification. When the literal truth is not the point but the formulation of the truth is an expression of confidence in our ultimate significance, we seem to be able to understand other people’s issues more clearly. In attending a play, we assume a certain number of things are true in order to watch the performance. Watching others leads directly to realizations about ourselves and our world, even if the writer creates a world quite different from our own. Our self-consciousness gives us the ability to appreciate our own lives as performances in which we are also the audience, even if we assume we are sharing our thoughts with God.
Shakespeare was enamored with his own powers as a poet and performer in his youthful conceit as a poet:
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou growest:
So long as men can breath or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee. (Sonnet 18)
The poet gives life to his beloved, making death itself envious of the immortalizing power of his verse. We cannot all be poets nor do many of us wish to brag so unmercifully. Nor can Shakespeare really grant his beloved immortality with his verse. But is not culture a kind of drama in which we play ourselves and give ourselves lines and then judge ourselves as the audience? So perhaps that is how, in the end, we must treat our religious values-as a script for the performance of a life-that is, as very important and meaningful lines to us because they are beautiful, true, and enduring in their own way, even if they are fiction. They point to what we feel are the transcendent values in our lives. Indeed, what we have seen is that our culture and religion itself tends to express itself in Scripture, which is a literature treated with transcendent importance.
We all know that history as well as religion tells lies but we can safely believe fiction because it makes only symbolic claims to truth, while we perhaps wrongly expect more from history and religion. Religion, by allowing us to believe our ecstatic experiences, allows us also to believe our own, most intimate dreams. As Gertrude exclaims when Hamlet begins talking to his invisible father: “This is the very coinage of your brain. This bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in” (Act 3, Scene 3, lines 136-7). That statement works on many levels at once. There is no one on stage with them but we know that what Hamlet sees is real. In art, we can handle the ambiguity that the invisible ghost is real to Hamlet and to us though invisible and false to another character. We know he has been seen and verified at the beginning of the play, though he might seem a delusion to his mother Gertrude. We can also appreciate that, really, there are no ghosts, so to us the entire presentation is a fiction, even if Hamlet’s original audience thought otherwise. Such realizations, even when we do not spell them out explicitly, allow us to range through several different levels of significance simultaneously. Surely part of Shakespeare’s genius is that he seems to be speaking to those different levels of signficance at the same time.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare has given us a love story ending in death, somewhat like his more famous play, Romeo and Juliet. In both plays each lover gets to make a dying speech after the other’s death, which is a very neat piece of plotting. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, the plot device that allows each to give a stirring speech over the body of the other is a miraculous drug that produces the symptoms of death. Everyone likes Romeo and Juliet because of its poetry and its story of young, tragic love. Fewer know the solaces which Antony and Cleopatra offers, with its story of mature love’s martyrdom, all confused with imperial and dynastic ambitions. For some, Romeo and Juliet is all that needs be said, almost perfect in its poetic expression. But few of us would mistake it for history. On the other hand, in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare gives us a more complicated story of passion where Cleopatra fakes her death to hurt Antony, to prove his love of her, not realizing it will cause his own suicide. (It also allows him to have each give a speech on the death of the other.) This is not history either but it comes closer to the historical reports we have in Plutarch (not history either), which Shakespeare knew. History is, in fact, a construction of our minds as redactors and editors of all the reports.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare abandoned the earlier set speeches-poetic, purple passages that stop the action and show his poetic abilities in their best light, speeches we like so much in Romea and Juliet. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is poetry more than drama. But Antony and Cleopatra is drama more than poetry. Nor is it puppy love. Antony and Cleopatra are historical characters whose story is justly famous throughout Western history. Shakespeare portrays them as complex personalities, both decisive and indecisive, both heroic and cowardly, both industrious and lazy, with a myriad of complicated responsibilities that prevent any easy generalizations about their motivation.
At the end, when all political ambitions have been lost, when Antony is dead and Cleopatra is captured, she becomes noble in choosing death as the Egyptian Queen over life as a servant to a Roman conqueror: “Show me, my women, like a queen. Go fetch my best attires. I am again for Cydnus, to meet Mark Antony.” She calls her servants to bring her royal trappings: “Give me my robe. Put on my crown. I have immortal longings in me. Now no more the juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip” (Act 5, Scene 2, lines 283-85).
She has determined to give up whatever pleasures life may yet hold and to die as a queen. She could have lived; she has been offered terms of surrender. But, as they turn out to be false terms, her death by her own hand is a victory and affirmation too-a martyrdom, though certainly not a simple act of following her departed beloved, whom she alternatively loves and deprecates. Her death is not a simple act of ending her defeated life. When she envisions the afterlife, we do not know whether to take her literally, either about her act of devotion or her heavenly ascent:
Methinks I hear
Antony call. I see him rouse himself
to praise my noble act. I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath. Husband, I come!
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. (lines 285-93)
An enormous ambiguity enters our minds with Cleopatra’s “Methinks….” Unlike Hamlet in Gertrude’s bedroom, we do not know what she sees. Like us, she cannot be sure she sees the vision that promises a beatific heavenly abode reunited with her love. Yet she affirms it for his sake as well as hers: “Now to that name my courage prove my title!” Does she really see Antony or does she convince herself to act as if she does? But she does convince herself of her progressive immortality by ascent through the heavens. In a sense we too often convince ourselves of the literal truths of religion by an act of will when we know they are but metaphors.
The result is that she can speak of her own immortalization. She becomes the higher elements and rises, giving the lower elements of earth and water to baser life. She is apotheosized into a higher creature by her suicide and her martyrdom. It is an affirmation of life in a morally, existentially, and epistemologically ambiguous universe. Though Antony and Cleopatra are hardly the unblemished heroes that Shakespeare makes Romeo and Juliet, Cleopatra is given the most self-conscious of all Shakespeare’s affirmations of life beyond the grave.25 But it is that ambiguity that makes her speech so powerful today when she sounds the major theme of all our doubts. She is the only one of the many characters in Shakespeare who truly tells us what lies in the “undiscover’d country” because she does so by a deliberate act of imagining, not by literal description. She resolves to be a wife at the same moment she succeeds at being a queen.
Of all Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, only Macbeth dies in total despair. When told of Lady Macbeth’s death, he says:
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5)
He begins as a good man, susceptible to his wife’s ambitions, and ends as a villain. Shakespeare usually maintains a moral universe, even in the face of the moral challenges he constantly offers us. Does knowing that the religious belief system we often regard as true and enduring has changed, even changed radically and now seems relative rather than absolute over time, leave us with the despair of Macbeth? Do we live a life, “told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” Most of us do not, even when we know that the terms that we commonly use to signify our greatest aims must surely be false if taken literally. And, indeed, they can be true if taken imaginatively and metaphorically. But then we are acting first and, in our self-consciousness, judging our own performances as actors.
One could affirm our religious lives, even in the face of obvious and overwhelming doubt, as do the fundamentalists. That is a mark of fundamentalism; it is an affirmation of a logically disproved system. It can exist only by flying in the face of scientific knowledge consciously ignored. That is why it thrives in courtroom trials and textbook controversies, demonstrating locally by majority numbers alone in little victories of ignorance what can never be demonstrated to the mind-that their most cherished ideas are literally right. That is why fundamentalists need Satan. They create him, a symbol of their own impulses and doubts which they can thereafter exorcise by orgies of hate. But we know that one cannot convince oneself of the truth of religion by winning victories in school-boards or voting booths or even by killing vast numbers of a hated enemy.
People who live with faith today, whether in the majority or minority, are living in a world that does not need the hypotheses of religion to explain the universe. We can live perfectly complete lives without it if we want. But few do. All the polls show that while Americans are suspicious of religious surety, they still admire sincere faith. At least the case is no worse than it was when Newton came to his physical laws. If a God can coexist with a number of physical laws that seem unchangeable and unbridgeable, He can coexist with a number of complex social laws that seem equally unbridgeable. Human life may be possible without the images that give it purpose but most of us do not want that life.
Antony and Cleopatra, because of their longer lives and experience are privileged enough to “see through everything.” They know the conventions of life and, by failing, come to know the price that conventions demand. But with failure comes the recognition of contigency, a “seeing through everything.” Knowing that culture is but convention written large, we must also see “through” everything, see by means of everything. The symbols of culture point towards something ineffable. And that is what Cleopatra does at the end, using a vocabulary that she wills imaginatively to do the work she needs.
There are important moments in Shakespeare’s plays when his characters speak both within and beyond their characters at once. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy beginning, “To be or not to be,” with which we began our journey through Western conceptions of the afterlife, is one. They are moments of transcendence, when we see beyond the play to a greater significance. There are moments when “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” is both stage and universe. In Harold Bloom’s words, these moments cannot be confined within the stage: “Hamlet’s undiscovered country, his embassy of annihilation, voids the limits that ought to confine his drama to stage dimensions. “26
Cleopatra gives us another. Shakespeare writes this speech because it perfectly fits Cleopatra’s situation but he is writing it about all of us as well. We ascend, transcend, transform ourselves when we exceed our limitations through our use of intellect and imagination. Even a mind that knows the difference between a religious formulation and its truth, and that is keenly aware of its own limitations, can be guided by religious imagery.
Besides being intellectual adventurers, our ascending souls serving as symbols of our lives’ journey, we are all also martyrs as mortality eventually defeats us. Shakespeare tells us what our religious imagery tells us: the victories of our life outlive its difficulties. The effort to transcend ourselves is all. “The rest is silence.”
Religion’s imagining of our hereafter also seems to say the same-our “immortal longings” are mirrors of what we find of value in our lives. They motivate our moral and artistic lives. Our longing itself deserves a robe and crown, nothing less. If humans can be, in Hamlet’s words, “in apprehension like a god,” do we not deserve his epitaph: “flights of angels sing us to our rest”?