(Cross-posted at joebudzinski.com)
An opportunity has arisen to sketch out what I believe in the area of “religion.” It is not something I have been inclined to do any time recently because I am not very good at talking about the topic. But in separate conversations in recent weeks I got the idea that if I put it down in writing, I could point the person to the blog post and just say, “if you go read this you will see what I believe.” I think I can do a better job writing than talking (which is not a high bar to pass, believe me).
[This will probably end up being several posts because at some point I am going to need to lay out a slew of qualifications which would be in essence a very long digression - so if we are going to ruin an essay might as well keep the damage contained - and also because there are a few angles that need to be covered so better to break up the discussion than make it too long. We can call this post the intro.]
I am going to direct my explanation at some undefined person whom I think of as an intelligent skeptic, because that comes closest to how I see myself. I am a believer, but have not been a serious believer for very long, so I had a long history in the skeptic camp; and therefore I think it is part of my DNA and gives me an informed perspective on explaining myself to you – you intelligent skeptic, you.
First, let us please toss the familiar terminology. This subject matter is riven with words that have different meanings to different people. More on this probably will end up in the qualifications post, but we need to say this much at the outset. The Greatest Philosopher Of Them All, Soren Kierkegaard, built much of his magnificent body of work in an extended effort to sidestep the problem of commonly misunderstood terminology. It is a really important point. We are going to be looking at propositions set out in a couple relatively familiar sections of a very familiar book, but if your mind clouds over because of preconceived notions about these ideas you will not get what I am talking about.
That is why “religion” goes in scare quotes, because the meaning of the word has become too diffuse to serve any purpose to me. Anyway, if “religion” is half what it’s cracked up to be it seems off base to assign it to a mere interest sector like cuisine, political affiliations or water sports. I just think of it as Life: because what we are talking about is the meaning, appreciation and end – of Life.
I am going to tell you that in my view these truths about existence can all be understood by reading and re-reading two sections of the book called the Bible – namely, the Gospel According to John, and the Epistle of Paul to the Romans – and also possibly hearing what others have observed about these two sections and others.
But let’s leave those bits of what Kierkegaard called the “historical clothing” out for now. We need to get to a more basic point of understanding. Please take a second to clear your mind of all the associations that have accreted over the years. Let go of the wars and scepters and angels and tunics, the cathedrals and gargoyles, the televangelists, politicians and people knocking on your door. Let it all go, cleanse the mental palate, and I will do my best to build my explanation from points of understanding that don’t cause your mind to go wandering through the history of Western civilization.
Where does our discussion of Life start? How about, with the end of it, and whether we persist after our bodies have gone silent. This question should have arisen sometime. It may have been when you looked inside yourself, perhaps observing the seemingly infinite length of your potential strands of thought, or the depth of what you experience when you dream. It may have been when you truly focused on a conversation and the eyes of the person and saw there is something exceptional going on there. It may have been when you watched a child develop. Maybe you considered the whole realm of living things and observed, as G.K. Chesterton did, that the human seems to have certain qualities beyond what might be expected from a chain of chemical and genetic accidents. Or maybe you looked at the sunset or a clear night sky and had some ineffable sense that your awareness of beauty was richer than you could have conjured up yourself.
Whatever the inspiration, I propose that you and I both share the assumption that a reasonable person could believe that our essence and personhood might persist after death.
I have no interest in “proving” this proposition about the possibility of Eternal Life. To be honest, it would be a tiresome argument. It would be a waste of time, as if someone asked me to “prove” I love my family. You can think about it what you will, and I will do the same. The proposition is, I think, at the root of all the world’s religions, so some ink has been spilled to say the least.
But let’s just hang it out there for now. Eternal Life: objectively speaking, could happen.
So this is where I make my first point-of-fact-assertion: I believe Eternal Life is possible, because I believe there is more going on inside a human being than is stilled when the body dies. If I just lost you, fine. If you want to stick around for more, good.
Assuming now that one’s Life persists after the death of the body, there are a whole raft of issues that need to be sorted through – but they are not terribly complicated, so the next portion will not be exasperating, I assure you.