Shadowy Futures

A thoughtful, if prescient commentary by Andy Crouch in this week’s Time magazine takes us into the uncanny valley. Despite the boastful protestations of the materialists, most people are not very brave at facing death. With the passing of Ariel Sharon and the sad story of Jahi McMath, the question of keeping the practically dead practically alive takes on a particular poignancy. It’s not that the dying are the ones protesting, but it is the living. We rage against the dying of the light, and, as Crouch notes, it is often the most religious that protest the loudest. Religion, ironically, is the framework that many use to cope with the ultimate inevitability. Death is scary. That’s why so many pray and others watch so many horror movies. We have trouble finding uncannier valleys than that of Crouch’s shadow of death.

Religion, in addition to putatively renouncing the fear of death, has often introduced the denial of life’s goods along the way. What ascetic would not have truly welcomed death? A starving belly day after day and crushing loneliness in the most barren environments earth has to offer should change one’s perspective. Not all of us have such heroics, however, hardwired into us. We may see the illogic of a religion that states death is release into a better world while creating even greater terrors of the other side of that veil. We dance between the horns of a dilemma where neither side will really sustain our weight. As Crouch notes, what we truly want is the assurance that somebody loves us at the end.


The materialist simply falls asleep for one last time. The faithful prepare to pass through a portal through which nobody has reliably come the other way. It is the ultimate test of faith. In the nineteenth century, when the death of a loved one at home was a common occurrence, an acceptance, perhaps morbid, pervaded the era. Who can think of Victorians without pondering the grave? Technology has cheated death both in small ways and in large. We are grateful for the salvation from small issues that once meant almost certain premature death, but we are scratching at the biggest door of all—immortality—begging to be let in. Will that head in a jar really be me? I have an uncanny feeling about that. Religion, for all its problems, should help us through this valley, if we really believe.


BeringWhyIsThePenisSex. Religion. Death. One of these things is not like the others, if Sesame Street taught me anything. But in this case, the three actually are of a piece. In my teaching days I pointed out that every religion, without exception, tries to deal with sex and death—the two great, towering markers of human experience. Nevertheless, I cowered close to the window on the bus, choosing the left-hand side so the cover wouldn’t be visible, to read Jesse Bering’s Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? From the first sentence you’ve got to like this guy. Although irreverent, Bering is never obnoxious as he asks questions about the basics of human existence that few would be willing to take on in the name of science. It’s a fascinating book, and, as I knew it would, it addressed religion and death as well as, well, you know.

Bering is an evolutionary psychologist, and he tends to lean toward a materialistic universe. His book raises a very important point, however; the belief in determinism statistically correlates with anti-social behavior. That is to say, those who believe they have no free will tend, to some extent, not to care about society. As Bering also points out, perspective is very important. I wonder if truth is subject to perspective. Actually, I’m rather certain that it is. I have fought determinism from my youngest days, although I generally feel out of control of my own life. I first encountered determinism in that insidious theological position known as predestination. The deity of a universe that predestines most people to Hell is a monster, no matter how saintly his/her portrait. One professor conceded after a vigorous debate in class: “on philosophical grounds free will wins, but on scriptural grounds, predestination does.” I disagreed. Still, he could go home happy—my challenge had, after all, been predestined.

Worse yet were the “double predestinarians.” They were those who believed that every little detail of life was predestined. I actually had a professor say, “if you fail an examine, it was predestined.” Already the illogic of it all struck the same timbre of distaste that materialistic determinism does. By its fruits you shall know it. As much as I enjoyed Bering’s book, I wondered how anyone obviously so intelligent could believe that this magnificent mental world we inhabit is nothing more than sparks tickling chemicals in our brains. Or even the biological wonders he explores. As I huddled up in a ball on the bus, my book close to my face, I knew that this behavior wasn’t natural at all. Not even science could have predicted it.

Honorable Theft

The_Book_ThiefYoung adult literature can be amazingly profound. My curiosity about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief bubbled to the surface after the movie was released last weekend. I didn’t see it, along with thousands of others, because of its very limited theatrical release. I’m sure you know that distressing feeling when you type your zip code into Fandango and come up with zero results. Short of going all the way into New York City just to see a movie, I was pretty much out of luck. The silver lining is that it made me read the book. I’m not sure what I was expecting (I can also be the victim of hype), but what I found was deeply engrossing while also being deeply disturbing. Spoiler alert!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. It is narrated by Death. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, represents the plight of all people; we have no control over when, where, or to whom we’re born. With parents considered enemies of the state, the Book Thief is raised by foster parents who are German, but who are also poor. They are good people, and much of the tension in the book revolves around their hiding a Jewish friend in their small house. The convention of Death as a narrator predates George Pendle’s Death: A Life, by three years. Although in the end Death is the only survivor, he is remarkably sympathetic to the human condition. Death also supplies the main religious observations in a book otherwise devoid of God. When Death attempts to pray during the horrors of war, a devastating conclusion is drawn: “God never says anything.” Is that why Veteran’s Day celebrations tend to be so silent? There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but there’s no God there either.

As Death stalks all those who are dear to her, Liesel finds her comfort in books. Although she begins the story illiterate, and although books are difficult to find in a poor family in a nation at war, Liesel discovers that words have a power that even dictators can’t steal. Her love of reading saves her life as her street is obliterated in an air raid. Even Death has to question the futility of war. In my most idealistic of moments, I hold the conviction that many of the world’s evils would be eliminated if people just read more. We would discover, for example, that even the devastation of war can be overcome by words. The only book Death is portrayed as reading is the Book Thief’s life story. And this gives Death pause, because even young adult literature can be amazingly profound.


Inception_ver3Like most profound movies, Inception keeps me coming back repeatedly. I’ve already written a post on how the Theseus and minotaur myth lurk deep within the labyrinths of this film, but upon my most recent viewing a new angle caught my attention. In the first level down into Fischer’s dream, when Saito is unexpectedly shot, Eames asks Cobb, “What happens when we die?” It could be the question of a child faced with a dead pet for the first time. Of course, Eames refers to death in a dream under sedation, and limbo is the closest thing to spiritual death that a person can experience. The timing of that question, however, triggered in my head the number of resurrections that take place in the movie. I have frequently noted here that resurrection is a standard part of the tool kit for western movies, particularly American ones. We expect resurrection. So, finally, three layers down, a dream within a dream within a dream (even Poe would be proud), Saito dies. He is lost in limbo.

Limbo is a fuzzy theological construct thought up by the church for those who don’t deserve Heaven, or Hell, or even Purgatory. Some, it seems, end up in limbo. In Inception limbo is unconstructed sub-conscious, an area even Freud would fear to tread. Saito dies and goes to limbo. Fischer, meanwhile, also ends up in limbo because Mal shoots him dead in the third-level dream. Mal is already in limbo because she killed herself in real life—or was it a dream? Cobb, of course, must die to return to limbo to retrieve Saito so that he won’t be arrested when the plane lands. In limbo, three of the four escape, riding the kick back up to consciousness. Only after baptism in the first level dream, when the van plunges into the river, do the lost souls emerge. What happens after we die? Resurrection.

I’m not suggesting that Christopher Nolan planted a Christian idea in the viewers’ subconscious mind. Resurrection is part and parcel of our culture. Perhaps, however, this helps to explain the durability of some religious concepts. We long for resurrection on such a deep—maybe subconscious—level that we want to see it on the big screen. Even ghosts, we’re told, haunt because of unfinished business. It is Saito, the Japanese business mogul, however, who undergoes the most resurrections. He dies in the van underwater, in the fortified mountain hospital, and in limbo (perhaps in the elevator as well, but this is uncertain). His is a regular reincarnation of resurrections. Inception, I’m sure, will keep me coming back for more. One of the questions that none of us escapes while alive, is that uttered at the level of the dream.

It’s All Gonna

When I first got married, I was distressed to learn that my wife was an organ donor. Still fresh from seminary, I had yet to outgrown the theological willies concerning earthly remains. Then she told me that she would prefer cremation to burial. My existential angst spiked. Scripture indicates a bodily resurrection, so what about those who are cremated? Obviously I hadn’t thought through the implications seriously. Even for those who are biblical literalists, all kinds of things have happened to Judeo-Christian bodies over the millennia. People have been eaten by wild beasts, fallen off boats, and been cremated without the benefit of being dead first. If the movies I’d watched growing up were to be believed, some might have even fallen into huge vats of acid like they have sitting around laboratories all over the mad scientist world. This week’s Time magazine has demonstrated, however, that my early angst was not a singular one.

In a story about the rise in popularity of cremation Josh Sanburn (with an ironically appropriate surname) addresses the religious objections head on. The reason America has been slow to adopt cremation has been largely religious. Apparently the factor that has turned up the heat on this motivation is financial. Let’s face it: money talks. Cremation costs much less than standard burial, and as much as I like a moody, whimsical cemetery, it just makes better sense. If you can get over the religious objections.

Resurrection has a powerful draw. Movies just wouldn’t be the same without it, whether it is a horror villain whose body disappears to come back in a sequel, or ET rising from his tomb to tell us all to be good. We want to keep it going forever. Life, that is. Funnily enough, resurrection is a miracle. A God who can raise the dead can surely reconstitute the parts, no matter how scattered or charred. Anyone who’s actually looked at a decayed body knows that bringing that thing to life would take a miracle, especially if other newly resurrected bodies want to hang out in the same room with it. As my critical faculties began to grow, I lost my fear of cremation. Maybe even having your ashes mixed with those of your spouse would be a very fitting symbol. Chances are, you won’t have much to say about it in any case. When I went back to the DMV to renew my license, after my wife talked some sense into me, I came out with an orange organ donor sticker affixed to the back. Perhaps life will go on, after all.


Ancient of Days

I’ve never been one to deny my age. I think of myself as a rather young 50 since my brain still reacts like an 18-year old’s much of the time. I try to keep as fit as my job allows, and the only thing I really overindulge in is books. But I am 50, and that means the AARP has had me in their cross-hairs for the last couple of years. The phone rang the other day and I was foolish enough to answer it. The young man on the other end of the line asked me if I could hear him okay. I almost hung up; if someone doesn’t identify him or herself in the first sentence, I know they’re wanting me to contribute to something. Instead, I tried a new tactic: “you’re not coming in very clear,” I fibbed, hoping that he would offer to call back and I wouldn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the volume. It was the AARP calling with a survey. My hearing is still pretty keen—without it, walking across Manhattan in rush hour everyday would be downright dangerous. Nevertheless, my encounter with AARP made me think of a recent conversation I had about death.

I am not afraid of death. As long as I can remember, I have never really feared it. Not that I want to go anytime soon, but perhaps because of my childhood fears of Hell, I believe I might have contributed enough to the treasury of merit (like the AARP, or Social Security) to get me out of a few scrapes. I attended mass nearly every day for twelve years at Nashotah House—that has to count for something! My conversation partner the other day was incredulous; “how can you not be afraid of death?” I’m not sure what comes after, if anything, but I’ve always tried to keep on the good side of the divine. Those questionable things I’ve intentionally done were all executed with good reason, or so it seemed at the time. If they were truly naughty, I’ve asked for forgiveness. And if there’s nothing after life, well, I feel like I could use the good long sleep of annihilation for a while.

Several books I’ve read recently have been advocating reincarnation. I’m not sure that it makes sense, but sometimes I wonder. The idea is a bit more frightening than death itself, in many ways. So many things I don’t want to go through again—sorry Friedrich, but I guess I’m one of those who says no to exact repetition—so much physical pain and mental anguish. I can see why Buddhists want to break the cycle. Although, if I’m reincarnated as a human being, and a literate one, I might be able to get a few more books read next time around. Perhaps that’s the silver lining. Or perhaps that’s why I should just hang up the phone if the caller doesn’t tell me who it is in the first sentence.

"I'm not quite dead yet..."

“I’m not quite dead yet…”

Dog-gone Belief

A recent book I read, I can’t remember precisely which one, suggested that one reason the average citizen has trouble with science is the fault of evolution. We evolved, at least some of us have, to rely on common sense. We trust appearances to intimate reality, and act accordingly. The problem is that science, almost in principio, informs us that things do not operate according to common sense, but according to laws that are inscrutable to most of us and involving math way beyond our limited ability. Even with a calculator. For example, the earth is spinning really, really fast and hurtling around the sun so quickly that I think I’m going to be sick. Really? Common sense tells me that I’m stationary, and my inner ear only gives me true peace when that is the case. QED, as my high school pre-calc teacher used to say. But it’s not the truth. We are spinning and jetting through space.


An article in Time magazine recently brought this disconnect home on a very poignant level. “The Mystery of Animal Grief,” by Jeffrey Kluger, explores the animal grieving process. Many species have been observed to react to the death of one of there own very much like humans do. Physical attitudes of bowed heads, actions that signal depression, and even rudimentary burials are all documented among animals. Some scientists disagree: reductionism declares that this is all appearance (like common sense), and if the professor on Gilligan’s Island taught us anything beyond building with coconuts and bamboo, it is that there is a rational explanation for everything. Animals grieving? It takes a human to do that. Well, actually, it takes a human to declare with such certainty that our animal cousins can’t feel like we do. Although our only current pet is a hermit crab—and perhaps many uninvited spiders—I grew up with dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and assorted other creatures. They express real affection. If they didn’t, I can’t think people would keep them.

I wondered, as I read Kluger’s article, when religion was going to come into the discussion. It wasn’t a long wait. Religion, he notes, is a human mechanism for coping with the finality of death. Dead is dead, after all. Animals can’t be religious, so they can’t experience the emotions we do. Or so science would mostly declare. I struggle with reality on a daily basis. My experience has taught me that things are not often what they seem, but sometimes my path lies in a direction diametrically opposed to that of Dr. Heisenberg. We are animals. Animals are part of our family. I’ve experienced people who show no emotion when their close associates are suffering. I’ve also experienced a dog that would cuddle up next to me and lick my face when I was sad, an encouraging look in his canine eyes. Animals are smart and empathetic. They have some understanding of death—it’s just common sense. I write this as I’m hurtling through space at 660,000 m.p.h. while spinning at a thousand miles an hour. If my reasoning seems suspect to you, consider the circumstances.

Apples to Apples

Religion is all about death. Well, maybe not all, but still…

All religions deal with death in some detail. Perhaps that’s because death is such a universal experience. I think about it quite a lot—not to do so seems to be caught at a crisis without having thought through the implications—but mine are not always morbid thoughts (although, by definition, they may be). When I read Mary Roach’s Stiff a few years back, before I started this blog, I was amazed by the number of ways one could decide to have their “remains” treated. When I was a kid it seemed that there were only two options: bury them or burn them. To some religions the latter option felt a little close to Hell and was condemned as a sin. Occasionally I’ve posted here about various new methods that have made the news: having yourself morphed into a bullet or diamond.

In what I hope was not too much of a hint, my wife shared a further option with me—having yourself turned into a tree. Now while this seems what nature intended, it also feels profoundly Asherah-like. I have my doubts that Asherah was a generalized tree-goddess, but there is some kind of connection between wood and the goddess. Certainly by the Rabbinic Period of Judaism any tree in or near a sanctuary could be understood as the goddess and therefore a threat to monotheism’s hegemony. The solution: chop down the tree. Now Asherah whispers back, when you die, I can make you a tree.

People, like all animals, biodegrade when they die. Some saints apparently avoid this fate while others are pickled to a state of perfection artificially, but for us regular folk nature has a plan. Animals eat the plants, plants eat the animals. We are all consumers. Bios Urn is the brainchild of Gerald Moline and features your deceased body packaged in a biodegradable urn along with tree seeds of your choice. All you need is a post-holer and a bit of rain. Some might wish to be a redwood with their aspirations to immortality. I think I would prefer to be an apple tree. Apple trees give back year after year. Plants, by their floral nature, are givers. The apple tree gives in a way that seems especially divine. After all, many are those who claim it is the very tree of Eden.

What everyone wants

What everyone wants

No Play-Thing

Childs_PlayPossession. It’s one of the scariest concepts in the religious arsenal. The idea that a person could be taken over by a different entity and surrender his or her selfhood to a malevolent saboteur is frightening indeed. Horror films have been deft at exploiting this. As a college student I was slow to watch the latest horror flicks. Some I’m only now beginning to find. Over the weekend I watched Child’s Play for the first time. Like most people who have some sense of popular culture I knew that Chucky was an evil doll, but I never really knew the backstory. Despite the utterly untenable hypothesis of the movie, it still manages to be scary in our CGI world, despite the bogus lightning. The frightening part comes from what is an admittedly creepy doll in the first place becoming possessed by a religious serial killer. Charles Lee Ray, named after three infamous assassins, displays facility with a religion that some identify as voodou, although that association comes primarily from the voodoo doll that Chucky uses to dispatch his mentor.

At least Child’s Play makes the effort to explain what forces exist that might bring plastic and stuffing to life. In true horror fashion, it is not the Christian god, but forces that are somehow more powerful, more malevolent. It would hardly behoove the maker of all the universe to inhabit a Cabbage Patch knockoff. The Lakeshore Strangler has been in training to cheat death and remain alive forever. He takes lessons from a mystical character whose religion is referred to only obliquely, yet whose efficacy is obvious in the malevolent toy. Willful suspension of belief is necessary to make this resurrection story plausible, but that disbelief must include belief in religious powers. The horns of this self-same dilemma hoist all religious believers in a scientific world.

Chucky is participating in one of the oldest of all religious traditions—death avoidance. Some of the earliest evidence that we have showing that hominids were developing religious sensibilities is the burial of the dead. There is really no reason to bury if we are only carrion like every other meat-based product. Whether it is out of fear or reverence, we turn to religion to assure us that there’s something more. It may not be scientific, but that’s largely the point. For many even today, a concluding scientific postscript leaves a body cold. Time for a leap of faith. Horror films are often decried as lowbrow and unsophisticated. Chucky, however, like many mythic monsters, is rapping his inhuman fingers on the door of religion. Specifically resurrection. Although in this case, it might be best to keep that door firmly closed.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

Without a Hitch

I’m not really afraid of dying. All those years of being taught that “to die is to gain” have obviously done their work. At the same time, it is a poignant exercise to read the posthumous memoirs of a dying man. I remember my first funeral. Although I don’t recall the name of the poor, deceased honoree, I still see the reactions of the living vividly. I was under ten at the time, and the funeral home in Franklin, Pennsylvania was in a very somber mood. The man, who had been a friend of the family, “was not a Christian.” Having been buffed and rubbed in the Fundamentalist tub from my earliest days, I didn’t realize that what was meant was actually that he hadn’t been an active member of our particular church. Nevertheless, as a child, you get deeply impressed with these kinds of things. “I’ll never go to the funeral of a non-Christian again,” I remember my mother telling a friend. “The minister couldn’t find anything comforting to say.” While funerals are sad occasions by definition, this one left a crater that is still fresh over forty years later.

MortalityChristopher Hitchens is someone I found through his book God is Not Great. I don’t have time to read magazines, and I hadn’t read any of his previous works, but he raised some extremely valid points in this diatribe. My wife recently bought me his final oeuvre, Mortality. I felt as if I were back in that funeral home. It is not that I still hold to the odd belief system of Fundamentalism—of this my regular readers will have no doubt—but it is the forlorn feeling of reading the words of someone dying who hopes for nothing. Yes, it may be Stoic, and even noble. Certainly it seems far more worthy than visions of living in opulence with lots of available virgins with whom to toy while angels strum their harps overhead, but the certitude that one’s final days will be nothing but prolonged suffering—ouch! Maybe there isn’t a heaven, and if there’s a hell there’s something morally wrong with the universe, but doesn’t some residue of a human life remain? Even if it’s just the memories, the marks that we’ve made on others’ minds, don’t we somehow survive? Dying without hope nevertheless feels like milling about in that doleful crowd of specific Christians years ago.

Hitchens does offer a chapter in his final words devoted to those Christians who responded to his cancer with an unholy Schadenfreude, trying to torture the thoughts of a dying man with the promise of an eternal hell after experiencing a temporary hell of cancer treatments. This chapter made me sick. Anyone who so completely misses the message of compassion that suffuses the Gospels can hardly claim the designation Christian, I would insist. No one, no matter what their eternal plans, has the right to try to fracture anyone’s tenuous tranquility to make their own crown shine a little brighter. Such weekend warriors likely imagine that they are defending their fragile God, but in reality they are demonstrating that some of the criticisms of Hitchens were very well placed to begin with. No religion will live up to its full potential until it succeeds in the most basic practice of all—treating all people with respect and dignity. Until then, death has the final word.

Deadly Morass

Swamplandia! is a novel ensconced in the reality of death. It is one of those books that I knew I would need to read as soon as I heard about it.  Alligator wrestlers, ghosts, and even a biblical-sounding Leviathan theme park based on hellish imagery create an eerie, almost supernatural feel to the narrative.  At the same time, it is a very human story of loss, assimilation, growing up, and more loss that might be gain.  I’ve read many novels where the characters and events faded relatively rapidly after I closed the back cover.  The cast of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! has stayed with me, wraith-like, for several days.  As I’ve tried to work out why the story sticks so close at hand, and I think it may be because so many of the characters—the entire protagonistic family—are outsiders.  The loss of the mother spirals a carefree, largely off-the-grid family in a Floridian swamp into a forced confrontation with the mainland.  In these times of economic hardship, the loss of a dream is something too many people can understand.  I certainly can.
Death, in whatever form it may appear, is a religious issue because it deals with ultimates.  Paul Tillich, a theologian of the last century, famously declared that God was that on which a person staked their ultimate concern.  For many people today, by this rough definition, death has become a kind of god.  In the ancient world s/he was literally so. Of course, death is entirely natural.  Consciousness is the factor that makes it seem foreboding and dreary.  Swamplandia! deftly ties death and love, hope, and a kind of diminished redemption together in a tale where a young girl travels through an unlikely underworld to rescue a sister who saved her own life by her doubt.  It may not be the most profound novel, but it is certainly a moody one.
On my campus visits I’m increasingly hearing that novels are favored by some instructors to get at deep truths that textbooks miss.  Indeed, the analytical urge is strong, but not omnipotent.  Sometimes the truth can best be experienced by letting yourself go and just feeling what is happening rather than thinking it through.  Swamplandia! does a bit of that. Thinking back over my own long, academic tenure, I realize that the teachers I enjoyed most were those who had me read what were, at the time, unexpected things. In a world where education has become nothing but job training to produce satisfied cogs in the corporate machine, death as a character in our own stories can’t be far from the truth. Sometimes even alligators and ghosts aren’t the scariest features of our non-fictional landscape.


I love science. Like many young boys, I was probably enticed to science through science fiction. While I didn’t follow science to a career, I used it to study religious texts. Those who’ve never undertaken the challenge of trying to figure out what something written thousands of years ago—on clay!—really says may be surprised to learn just how much science is involved. Nevertheless, as comforting as reductionism may be, something just doesn’t feel right about it. Science is how we explain and understand our world, and it does a spectacular job of it. The problem arises when science becomes what Stephen Jay Gould called a “magisterium.” Magisteria have all the answers. Yes, science explains how matter and energy work and interact, but it has yet to explain satisfactorily what it feels like. Most days I feel like the person I’ve become accustomed to show to the world. That person is very much like every other—being born, eating, breathing, dying. Medical science can explain most of it, but what about the parts it can’t?

I just finished reading Ornella Corazza’s Near-Death Experiences: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection. I remember when the craze about this hit in 1981 with the release of the movie Life After Life. I was fascinated and terrified by it. Since a materialistic view of science dismisses anything that has the residue of spirits or souls, the phenomenon of the resuscitated dead reporting seeing their bodies from above, shooting through tunnels into the light, and sometimes meeting the dead (or God), were explained as last nano-second hallucinations as the brain prepared to shut down or reboot (upon resuscitation). That’s that. The answer, however, didn’t satisfy everyone. What about those cases where the dead person reported, in detail, what happened in other rooms, or things they couldn’t have seen in their own room, had they been conscious? Corazza takes these considerations seriously and tries to understand what may be going on. Obviously, her explorations will not convince a reductionist, but they may give pause to some of us.

What makes her approach so interesting is that Corazza takes into account an alternative way of looking at consciousness. While the facts of science are, by definition, universal, the contexts within which those facts are viewed are not. Having spent considerable time with Japanese scientists exploring consciousness, eastern ideas of the body inform her research. In the western world we have an easy familiarity with the Cartesian dualism of body and soul that does not fit into other worldviews. Corazza takes the interesting step of asking what if we apply an eastern paradigm of the body (one that understands soul as body, and not just in a materialistic sense) and apply it to the question of Near Death Experiences. The results are mind-stretching. I feel as if my consciousness got up from months of laziness and ran a marathon (or at least a 5-K). It’s a bit winded and parts of it are starting to ache a little. No reductionists need worry, however, because in that worldview none of this exists.

Charon’s Obol

One of the concomitants of spending time with religion is a non-morbid fixation on death. As a college student I was surprised to learn that other people my age did not think about death nearly every day. Perhaps with a typical college student’s obsession with the other end of the life cycle this is only natural. Ever since I was a child, however, I felt frustrated by the lack of permanence that characterized all of the striving involved with life. We work very hard and then we die. I suppose that is one of the reasons religion appealed so strongly to me—it had an answer to this dilemma. Science, as I began to experience it about the same time, suggested a radically different conclusion: we have no souls, and so it is best to accept the fact that death is the end and get on with life. No wonder Ecclesiastes has always been my favorite book of the Bible.

While reading about–shhh!–death recently, I came across an interesting tidbit. Pope Pius IX was buried with a coin. I’ve read that even John Paul II was buried with coinage, but I’ve not been able to find credible sources on that. What is fascinating about this practice is that no matter how it is vested, burial with money is a form of Charon’s obol. With movies like Clash of the Titans, many modern people are aware of the need to pay Charon to cross the River Styx. (Back in the radical days of traditional education just about everyone would’ve learned this in the course of studying the classics. In any case…) The gifting of the dead with money represents the survival of a pagan custom that likely stretches back well before ancient Greece. Even before money was invented people buried the dead with goods that the living would never be able to use again. They may not have considered this payment to a ferryman, but the principle is the same.

This idea has a strong grip on our psyches. Not one of my favorite movies, I have watched Ghostship a time or two. What initially brought me to the movie was the fact that it is a horror-movie built around the character of Charon. The mysterious stranger who lures the crew of the Arctic Warrior onto the Antonia Graza laden with gold is named Ferriman. The salvage crew quickly forget the tons and tons of metal that they came for in exchange for the a few dozen bars of gold. Of course, a sole survivor lives to tell the tale. The thing about Charon’s obol is that once he is paid, death is inevitable. Thus death and money are inextricably twined like earbuds carelessly tossed into a backpack. It seems that no matter how you measure it, the only winner is Charon. Maybe the Greeks have something to teach us yet.

Charon’s got ahold of our Psyches

Final Flight

Back in the day before CD players, let alone MP3 files, my mom had a squat, boxy rectangle of a cassette-tape player. (Remember, I am a student of ancient history.) The cassettes we had were home recorded, scratching and hissing like a disgruntled cat, but they were the latest in technology. And, of course, they were religious in nature. One particular tape I still remember with terror. Narrated by a optimistically doleful bass male voice, it recorded the events surrounding those climbing aboard a plane bound for heaven, along with authentic jet noises. It was, of course, a thinly disguised metaphor for death, something I realized even as a child. As the passengers climbed aboard, anticipating that meeting with Jesus, I trembled in fear. They were all about to die.

I have never been particularly afraid of death. Not that I’m in a hurry to go there, but I have always sensed it as inevitable and therefore not worth worrying over excessively. I was one of those who grew up thinking quite a lot about it, viewing it from different angles, trying to make sense of it. I still do. While I was in England, Time magazine ran a cover story on Heaven. Now that my feet are back on the ground, I have been reading the story with interest since I’ve just been spending several hours on a jet in the sky. One of the most surprising elements in the story is the fact that some evangelical preachers are beginning to inform their flocks that heaven is what we make it here on earth.

This may not sound shocking to you, but having grown up evangelical I knew that the only reason we behaved so well all the time was so that we could get into Heaven when we died. This was the economic basis of salvation—you paid for Heaven in good deeds and correct belief. Not that you exactly earned it, but you did invest in it. This was the defining characteristic of Christianity. The suffering that is so obvious in the world (I saw three homeless men curled up together inside the Port Authority Bus Terminal just this morning) can harsh anyone’s paradise. The traditional “Christian” response has been to look past that to a shimmering, if imaginary, kingdom in the clouds. I am very surprised that some evangelical pastors are willing to risk their entire campaigning platform in order to help those in need. It’s getting so that it is hard to tell which way is up any more. Maybe that’s what happens when you spend too long on a plane bound for a mythical destination.