Phillip José Farmer wrote a fascinating series of novels now popularly called the “Riverworld” books. Anyone who reads science fiction is familiar with the premise: everyone who has ever lived (up to 1984) is simultaneously resurrected on the banks of a million mile long river. Their bodily needs are taken care of and if they are killed they wake up the next morning somewhere else on the river. The books chronicle the adventures of such characters as Cyrano de Bergerac, Sir Richard Burton, Alice Pleasance Liddell, Tom Mix and Samuel Clemens through a peculiar afterlife. It turns out, in the fifth, and final book called “Gods of Riverworld”, that the group of travelers discovers a vast and unbelievably advanced computer is responsible for the resurrection process. They ultimately learn the secrets of the computer and begin to bring back anyone they want to. They become judge and jury to satisfy their own desires for revenge, or they resurrect people they are particularly fond of. Everyone gets to play God, and one of the central themes of Farmer’s books is how that affects us as human beings.
Throughout the earlier novels, the concept of the “overwathan” is believed to be true by all the characters. That idea was that we can all live forever as part of the godhead, but each individual must achieve a certain level of understanding, compassion and sophistication before this can happen. But, in reality everyone was being judged for immortality. The grand experiment the computer was performing was to let all those souls be reborn. In effect, it was letting everyone dig his or her own grave. The universe can support any number of immortals, but would you want to share the future with a Hitler or similarly evil person? So, that was the ultimate purpose of the Riverworld, to sort out those who should live in eternity from those who are incapable of change, and would make the future intolerable for everyone else.
Just for a while, let’s take a tour of other beliefs – not of the science fiction variety, that I’ll also call “overwathans”, a term I freely borrow from Farmer.
I’ll start with Judaism.
Matters of eternal life in Judaism have been considered mainly by the mystically inclined Kabbalists who believe in reincarnation. Kabbalah is the name for esoteric Judaism. Kaballah is also known as the hidden teachings of Moses. It must be considered the mystical heart and spiritual backbone of Judaism. It has a very long history, going back even as far as ancient Egypt. At the heart of Kaballah is the belief in reincarnation.
More traditional Judaism claims that the righteous dead will be resurrected in the Messianic age with the coming of the messiah. They will then be given immortality in a perfect world. The sinful or unrighteous dead, on the other hand, will simply remain dead.
Christians, believe that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah (or Christ) prophesied in an ancient text called the Old Testament. To Christians, Jesus Christ, who is the Messiah the Jews have been waiting for, is a teacher and the savior of mankind from sin. Sin is the operating principle that determines whether a person will live on after death — or not. Christians believe that Jesus died, ascended into heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead, granting everlasting life to those who believe that he is God. Otherwise you will, depending on the flavor of Christianity subscribed to, either be tormented in hell for all eternity, or just simply cease to exist as a viable and sentient entity.
Muslims believe that the present life is a trial in preparation for the next realm of existence. They believe the whole universe will be destroyed and then the dead will be resurrected to stand before God. That time of judgment will be the beginning of a life that will never end, and on that day every person will be rewarded by God according to his or her good or evil deeds.
According to Islam, God will punish all people, but because man has a very short life span in this world and because numerous individuals are affected by one’s actions, adequate punishments or rewards are not possible in this life. God will shower His mercy on those who suffered for His sake in the worldly life, believing that an eternal bliss was awaiting them. But those who abused the gifts of God, unmindful of the life to come, will be in big trouble, indeed.
Buddhists believe that life, itself, is essentially eternal. But what your next life is like will depend on the karma amassed in your present life. Unlike Christianity and Islam, Buddhists believe a person determines their own fate, and has no one to blame but themselves for it. So, a Buddhist has to work for their salvation. Enough said for Buddhism.
Mormons believe that when a good Mormon male dies then he will become a god to create, then and inhabit a planet of his own along with their many wives. Eternity is then spent in a state of bliss producing star children who are the new souls for the new lives that will inhabit the new worlds in which the perfected Mormon has become God. These new earth children (males) must then follow the doctrines of the Mormon church so they also will become gods over their own planets when they die. This is what is implied by the much quoted saying by one of the early presidents of the Mormon church which goes 'As man is, God once was and as God is, man may become.'
Okay, so now the tour is over. And the winner in my mind is: Mormonism — for a belief that is right up there with the best of science fiction. Actually, I personally find one thing attractive about Mormonism. They do not believe in original sin. I can honestly say that is one of the few beliefs I share with Mormons. But you have to admit this notion of populating new planets as a god is really out there, so to speak.
One thing most life after death systems have in common is that they are essentially based on a moral system. If you do good things in this life, you reap the benefits of those actions in the next, hopefully better, life. If you are wicked, well you fend for yourself.
I am fascinated by the nearly universal desire for life after death. Death, the great unknown, is essentially our collective “bogeyman”. Now I use that word carefully. The bogeyman is a folkloric or legendary ghostlike monster often believed in by children. Bogeyman can be symbolically used to denote a person or thing of which someone has an irrational fear. Who tells children about the bogeyman? Parents often say that if their child is naughty, the bogeyman will get them. That keeps the child in line.
Of course, death is not only the great unknown. For many of us, it is the source of our greatest fears. Those fears are ideal places for a religion to inhabit. A perfect meme, religion attaches itself to our instinctual fear of death. The answers religion provides then become synonymous with the questions we have about death. Religion soothes us, it grows stronger as we mature, it motivates us to act in certain ways, but most importantly, religion keeps us from fully exploring those fears. So, instead of offering us immortality, religion actually robs us of our mortality.
Jorge Luis Borges explored the notion that life derives its meaning from death in the short story "'The Immortal". In that story an entire society achieved immortality. But they realized that because time became infinite, they had no motivation for any action. Joseph Cartaphilus, the main character in the story, who also achieved immortality by drinking water from the city of the immortals, puts Borges’ feelings about the subject of death rather nicely:
“Death (or its allusion) makes men precious and pathetic. They are moving because of their phantom condition; every act they execute may be their last; there is not a face that is not on the verge of dissolving like a face in a dream, everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous.”
I imagine that at the farthest end of the universe exists a mystical diner. On the far walls of the diner hangs a sign that reads “Free Lunch Tomorrow”. I wish I had invented that phrase. It sums up, for me, the way that religion operates to mask death. Your attention is perpetually drawn to the “free lunch” part of the phrase. The mind skips the “tomorrow” part. The result is you don’t fully grasp the paradox that the day for the free lunch can never arrive.
I believe the Buddhists come the closest to the reality of life and death. For them, every moment is pregnant with the eternal. We are often so focused on morality, on good and evil, on the consequences of unrighteousness, and the future disposition of our souls, that we disregard the obvious. What we do right now, in this moment, is more important than either the past or the future. Neither the past nor the future actually exists.
One of my favorite authors is a physicist named Julian Barbour, who wrote the book entitled “The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics”. He holds the controversial view that time is only an illusion, and goes on to rather convincingly demonstrate that significant problems in physics arise from dogmatic assumptions that time does exist. He argues that we have no actual evidence of the past other than our memory of it. He also asserts there is similarly no evidence of the future.
On page 14 of the book, Barbour gets to the startling essence of his assertions:
“I believe that the basic elements of this potential revolution — the reasons for it and its likely outcome — can already be discerned. In fact, as quantum gravity — the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics — will yield a static picture of the quantum universe, started to emerge about thirty years ago, but made remarkably little impact. This is one of my reasons for writing this book: these things should be better known… But we can be certain that our ideas about time, causality and origins will be transformed. At the personal level, thinking about these things has persuaded me that we should cherish the present. That certainly exists, and is perhaps even more wonderful than we realize.”
We could explore the idea of time not existing at greater length, but that is the subject of another discussion. I will concede the point of “living in the present” to Eckart Tolle, who has made a career of talking about it, and to Oprah Winfrey, who has made a career of making a career for Tolle.
What does all this mean on a spiritual level? Just as the promise of free lunch tomorrow takes our attention away from the impossibility of the statement, the promise of eternal life takes our attention away from the precious splendor of each moment we are alive. I am not saying eternal life is not possible. I do, however, argue that life after death — whatever we would like to believe about the subject — is not a fact. Our existence at this moment is the closest thing to a fact that we can perceive.
The nexus of an eternity of creation, of goodness, of profound meaning, of joy, and transcendence is precisely at this “precious splendor of each moment we are alive”. Wikipedia defines a miracle as “an event believed to be caused by interposition of divine intervention by a supernatural being in the universe by which the ordinary operation of Nature is suspended, or modified. It is derived from the Latin word miraculum meaning ‘something wonderful’”.
Considering the collection of quantum probabilities, atoms that need to take shape to form molecules, the molecular DNA that encodes information to grow our bodies and inform our preferences… in fact, the sheer audacity of our existence… considering all of that, we cannot help but marvel at the miracle — the “something wonderful” — of us as human beings. Can we not see how amazingly close to God we are at every moment? Are we not living, breathing manifested interventions in the universe? And if this is our only moment, isn’t it enough?
One of the great principles of the Unitarian Universalists is “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. I believe that means that we must “not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness”, as Ralph Waldo Emerson admonishes us. This notion of goodness was deeply explored in his “Self-Reliance” essay. Goodness, in the context of that essay, means that which is perceived by society as a common opinion. Emerson challenges us to squeeze the marrow out of common beliefs, to suck them dry of anything that does not compare truly with our own intuition. Yes, this heretical mystic of Universalism says your intuition is a higher authority than that of any sacred text!
He said the way he found mystical enlightenment was to take walks in the woods. He wrote in the essay “Nature”:
"In the woods we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life, --no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, --all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."
Compare what Emerson said with what Borges wrote in another part of the story of “The Immortal” in 1949:
“No one is anyone, one single immortal man is all men. Like Cornelius Agrippa, I am god, I am hero, I am philosopher, I am demon and I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.”
Emerson writes, “I am nothing. I see all. The currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”, while Borgas writes, “I am world, which is a tedious way of saying that I do not exist.” Both men remove themselves completely from the promise of a religious afterlife; Emerson, through spiritual self-reliance, and Borgas, through a celebration of the necessity for death. Both come to the conclusion that we do not need an external God to provide us with, or even to define, our experience of the divine.
Compare Emerson’s declaration, “The currents of Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” with the modern physicist Jean-Emile Charon, when he wrote in “The Spirit - That Stranger Inside Us” that the electrons in our bodies enclose a space and time unlike the one we have always been aware of. Charon says that there is an orderly memory of past events that goes on endlessly empowering and enriching us in this electronic space-time. That memory is not only in what we call our mind, but in every single part of our being. It is in the very electrons that define who and what we are. Charon further asserts that these particles possess an eternal life through time, and that each individual human spirit has been, is, and will be -- for as long as the universe exists.
I was not happy with the “free lunch tomorrow” way religion blinded me to mortality as an expression of the divine in every moment. I left that spiritual numbness, along with all the other things described to me as “mysteries of faith”, when I was a fourteen-year-old Catholic youth. But I did not have anything to replace that religious doctrine with. For a long time, I simply had no new or original Riverworld-like overwathans to offer. Now, a deeper spiritual life without fear of death is evolving in me. I appreciate its clarity and it’s honesty. I invite all of you to share with me in this vision of eternal life that is, to me, so much more fitting to our present understanding of the universe.
About this blog.
This blog is a place where many of the confluences of my life can be shared. I am, at the core, a creative person. I approach everything from that basis... whether composing symphonies, playing the cello, being a serial entrepreneur, writing sermons and essays, flying airplanes, or creating software apps. I am deeply passionate about creativity, issues of social justice, and spiritual enrichment. These are fundamental to everything I do. Welcome to my journey!