Tuesday, January 31, 2012

This Life or the Afterlife

A good friend of mine posted a blog a couple of days ago in which he floated the idea that to achieve an afterlife you have to "nurture and exercise your potential immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body," in much the same way that you have to make the effort to learn algebra in order to solve quadratic equations. (http://blog.american.com/2012/01/a-policy-free-post-on-life-after-death/) In short, an afterlife doesn't just happen, you have to work at it. The souls of atheists would become extinct at death (epic fail on the final exam), and so, presumably, would those erstwhile slackers who undergo deathbed conversions (only to realize at the last minute that they really should have attended class). Neither, according to my friend's theory, would people who have merely lived good lives - but never actively exercised their "God muscle" - get a free pass when they shuffled off their mortal coils. Folks, however, who had done the necessary "soul work" would "graduate" to Whatever Comes Next.

It's an intriguing idea that pretty much trashes some of Christianity's most fiercely-held doctrines, from the predestination of the Calvinists to the John 3:16 formulic approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Extreme Unction-get-out-of-jail-free pass of the Catholics. For Quakers, however, it's not an entirely unreasonable theory. For starters, unlike most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, we spend very little time either imagining or worrying about the afterlife. We're much more concerned with what is happening in the here and now and tend to work very earnestly towards achieving the peaceable kingdom in this life. We're reluctant to define "God" but strive very hard to be in His/Her/Its presence. Most Quakers of my acquaintance cheerfully acknowledge that they just don't know what happens next. No seventy-seven virgins for us or Pearly Gates, or, for that matter, hellfire and brimstone. Personally, the furthest I am prepared to go is to claim that whatever the afterlife consists of is utterly beyond the very limited comprehension of our earthbound selves, but that there is a "rightness" about it that totally transcends the picayune worries and concerns and preoccupations of our individual pre-death selves. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if in my current very limited human state I could imagine anything close to whatever it is.

Interestingly, I believe this seemingly feckless disregard as to the final landing place of one's soul is not a modern outcome of the secularization of liberal Quakerism, but has its roots, ironically, in the apocalyptic beliefs of early Friends. When George Fox had his revelation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," it meant much more than that people could dispense with priests and doctrine, because humanity now had the ability to interface directly and unmediated with the Divine. Fox and the early Quakers believed they were experiencing the unfolding of the Second Coming and the thousand year reign of Christ was at hand, with themselves as the vanguard. With enviable fervor, they set about establishing, quite literally, "the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," and it was in this extremely fertile growing medium that Quaker testimonies began to take root. Practice - living the "Kingdom life" - superseded what they saw as the now redundant doctrine and ritual, much of which was done "in remembrance" of Christ, because Christ was now with them.

Of course, as time passed, early Friends had to readjust their expectations regarding the end times, but the essential idea that we are called to help establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remains to this day. While our language and descriptors may have changed, and while some modern Quakers may be uncomfortable with the Biblical language implied by "the Kingdom of Heaven," the concept runs like a golden thread throughout the 350 years of Quaker history. Even after Friends embraced a more mystical interpretation of "Christ among us," they sought (admittedly in their flawed human way) to make Quaker meetings and communities templates for the Kingdom of Heaven. The most ambitious of these projects was William Penn's Holy Experiment - the founding of Pennsylvania - in which Friends succeeded to a remarkable degree (at least in Penn's lifetime) in establishing a peaceable kingdom. Yes, it was far from the ideal Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but it was a brave attempt.

I think this visceral belief in the presence of Christ in the here and now, whether an individual Friend uses traditional Christian language or not, remains at the very heart of the Quaker experience. We do not live in a state of anticipation of either reward or punishment. We do not imagine some eventual day of reckoning. We accept the mystery that is our existence and our relationship with the Divine, and are content to know that living the faithful life while we are on this earth brings its own reward. Perhaps, as my friend surmises, our efforts in the here and now will qualify us for the afterlife, but isn't it a relief to simply greet each day as a new opportunity to live a with God life? Whatever happens after death is as it should be.


  1. Something about language...not A language, but whatever language(s). What we call conscious thought is mostly just our talking to ourselves. Moreover, language severely limits our ability to perceive/think. Would Language continue on? Which one? Would we drop language and experience things directly? Language continually changes, would this happen if we kept language AFTER? Would we even "know" whatever goes on? Would Me in afterlife, without language still be Me?

  2. Here's how Billy Collins imagined it to be:

    The Afterlife

    They're moving off in all imaginable directions,
    each according to his own private belief,
    and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
    that everyone is right, as it turns out.
    you go to the place you always thought you would go,
    the place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

    Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
    into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
    Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
    with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

    Some have already joined the celestial choir
    and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
    while the less inventive find themselves stuck
    in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

    Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
    a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
    and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
    With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

    There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
    of animals--eagles and leopards--and one trying on
    the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
    ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

    while others float off into some benign vagueness,
    little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

    There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
    by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
    He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
    guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

    The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
    wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
    or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
    They wish they could wake in the morning like you
    and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
    every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.