Throughout Western history, the church has used the promise of life after death to avoid facing the fact that the world is neither just nor fair. Living in the expectation that God will bring justice and fairness in the afterlife, gross sins such as slavery, serfdom, and the burning of heretics at the stake have been tolerated and even encouraged by the Christian church.
|The time has come for Christians to say that there is no record-keeping deity above the sky who, like Santa Claus, is "making a list and checking it twice."|
This same church also used the fear of hell to motivate good behavior, while the hope of heaven comforted those who suffered this world's sometimes outrageous misfortunes.
For some people, if there is no place where the egregious evils found in this life can be dealt with fairly, then life is meaningless. That conclusion suggests God is either malevolent or impotent. Others counter that point by insisting that whatever meaning there is to life must be found in the here and now. This argument, however, offers little more than a stoical acceptance of fate.
I would like to offer a middle path. I believe we must begin our inquiry into these questions in the here and now, without appeals either to Scripture or to external powers that people have created for their own comfort.
I think the time has come for Christians to say that there is no record-keeping deity above the sky who, like Santa Claus, is "making a list and checking it twice" so that this divine king can give the appropriate reward or punishment to his subjects at the final judgment. It should be noted that if the motivation for our goodness is to escape punishment or to win a reward, then it is nothing more than a self-centered survival tactic. This version of the afterlife must, I believe, be rejected--the sooner the better.
That conclusion, however, does not lock me into the presumption that if meaning can't be found outside of life it does not exist. I do not define God in opposition to or as separate from this world. Rather, I see the human and the divine flowing together. I am convinced that the more deeply we live, the more we enter the realm of transcendence, otherness--yes, God.
Human life as I have experienced it is one transition after another. At each stage of life we think we have reached an ultimate limit. Think of an infant in the womb about to be expelled from the only existence the child has known. Unable to imagine a life beyond the womb, the newborn experiences birth as a trauma, even as a death. Yet once outside the womb, the baby's life expands exponentially.
In the same way, as we move from childhood through adolescence, adulthood and midlife into old age, each transition brings much more vitality and experience than could ever have been imagined by the one making that life journey. Similarly, as death approaches, the elderly person has no context in which to imagine a next stage. There is no available language, since there is no available frame of reference.
Yet, in this life I have had experiences that give substance to my hope. Like many others, I know what it means to be loved deeply, wondrously, and with transforming power. I have found in that love a call to walk beyond my limits, to touch depths of life that I previously had never known existed, to enter a realm of being that I had never before imagined. Love has literally called me into a new sense of personhood and has created in me a vision of the depths, the wonder, and even the timelessness of life itself. I have discovered that boundaries fade. I become one with another and, dare I say, with God.
It was the author of the First Epistle of John who wrote: "God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God." For me, it is even more powerful to reverse the words and to suggest that Love is God, for inside the experience of love I believe that I enter the realm of the divine.
The conclusion to which this experience forces me is that the ultimate meaning in life must be found in the here and now. There is no appeal beyond this life in order to give this life meaning. Yet in the search for meaning, I have been introduced to transcendence, and I have touched eternity whenever I have been empowered by love to live fully and to escape my limits.
Yearning for a life after death can be envisioned in this way--and the here and now can be a doorway into the eternal.
I am a Christian because this is what I see in Jesus of Nazareth. He was not, I now believe, a visitor from an external realm who entered this world by the miracle of the virgin birth and who departed this world by the miracle of the cosmic ascension. He was, rather, a human life who lived so deeply, loved so totally, had the capacity to be so completely, that people saw in him the Source of Life, the Source of Love, and the Ground of Being. So they said of him "God is in this Christ."
Jesus is for me a sign that divinity can be met in expanded humanity. Eternity can thus be entered through time.
So I stare at the fact of death, I anticipate its reality, and I prepare for this eventuality. But I do it by exhausting the wonder of my present existence. I scale life's heights, I plumb life's depths, I taste life's sweetness. If I die tomorrow, I want it said of me that I lived today. It is in this life alone that I search for meaning for God, and for eternity. Inthe depths of this life alone, I believe that I find just that. I need nothing more.
My passion in life is thus not to escape it for some nebulous heavenly region, but rather to live my life open to its infinite possibilities and to make those possibilities available to all others. For that is where prohibitive boundaries are set aside, and imposed limits are overcome. My responsibility as a Christian is to be an agent in building a world in which every person can more easily walk into the fullness of his or her humanity; we will all then, I believe, go beyond the barrier of death.
That is what I mean when I affirm the words of the Christian creed, "I believe in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting."