The Great Beyond

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I’ve been in the middle of a health episode since just before Labor Day and unfortunately the various treatments I’ve been doing haven’t worked. My lung capacity is still down over 10%. So I’m doing another Solumedrol blast this weekend. Hopefully the second time is the charm. I’m calling King Arthur and his knights back out of the castle for another gallop!

Wide awake and jacked up on steroids at 4am, I may as well riff on religion, right? Some friends and I were talking about religion yesterday and one said all religions are crazy fictions, with Mormonism being among the craziest. Here’s what I think:

1. In just the visible universe, what we can see from Earth, we know there are billions of stars in our own galaxy and billions of galaxies. We estimate the entire universe is at least 250 times bigger than the visible universe, or maybe infinite. We are small. We are ignorant. We barely have a grip on what the universe is all about.

2. Here on Earth, we barely have a grip on how our own brains work.

3. When someone dies, something that was there is no longer there. Call that something the soul, life energy, whatever. Where does that go? Does it go somewhere or does it just dissipate into the ether? Nobody knows.

4. In short, we know next to nothing. If you have a religion that helps you deal with these unknowns more power to you. I’m not going to get worked up about your belief system. It would be nice if you didn’t try to ram it down my throat, however, and most people don’t. The ones who do are loud. That’s why fundamentalists and rabid atheists annoy me equally. (Also, I don’t like many of the political stances taken by religious organizations, but I’m not getting into that here.)

5. People are going to find their own belief systems. This cannot be stopped. So why stress over what people believe? (As long as they don’t harm the rest of us with it.)

6. Even people in organized religions rarely believe every tenet of the religion. If you talk to people about what they actually believe, there are as many belief systems as there are people. I think most Westerners and maybe most non-Westerners too, whether they know it or not, live within an eclectic belief system comprised of many tenets of many religions.

7. When it comes to the Universe, death, God and so forth I suspect we are ALL WRONG. The Truth is unknowable for us at the present time. So how can I hold it against someone for coming up with a fiction that works for them? We all live within our own fictions, religious and non-religious.

8. Don’t bother worrying about what is Truth. Believe what you want to believe.

9. I’m about to epublish a novella called “The Forever Library” in which I talk about what I want to believe about life and death. Stay tuned!

I’ve talked about public radio’s This American Life before. I think it’s the best radio show in production today. Each episode is a priceless collage of human nature, and sometimes a messy one. Here’s a miscellaneous funny quote from one of their shows, context unnecessary: “When someone shoots one of my front windows out I just move my chair over to a different part of my house.”

The host of This American Life is Ira Glass. He is quoted at length in Studs Terkel’s Will the Circle Remain Unbroken? and he has a number of funny lines. In one he says, “My access to Christianity was through the recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar. I would listen to those records over and over. My first introduction to Christianity: Jesus Christ Superstar…” This made me laugh because it was pretty much my introduction to Christianity too. I went to Sunday School and knew many of the stories but I didn’t really get into it until my brother got the role of Jesus in the church youth group’s performance of the musical and he began playing the record over and over and over and singing the songs over and over and over.

But what really cracked me up was Ira’s unusual take on death:

I fear death, but not the raw sort of visceral, gut-wrenching fear I felt as a child. I don’t want to sound callous, because I’m glad I’m alive and I don’t want to die. But how many more friends are you going to make? How many good conversations can a person have? How much ice cream can you eat in a lifetime? I’ve been lucky: I get to spend my day doing something that I choose to do. Most people can’t say that. That’s an incredible thing. I don’t imagine myself living to fifty.

I could go the rest of my life and be happy if I never had another argument about abortion, immigration, gun control, drug legalization, and various other topics. Maybe that’s what life is: checking off the things we can’t stand anymore until there’s nothing left? I keed, I keed, but Ira’s logic paints a dreary portrait of immortality, doesn’t it?

At my Dad’s memorial service, his close friend Ed Benton read the homily below as part of his superb eulogy. What caught my ear at the time was the line about slipping into the next room. For some reason, this called to mind all the family parties we have held at my sister’s house over the years. As surely happens at most parties across the globe, at my sister’s house we often find ourselves congregating in two groups: the kitchen tribe and the living room tribe, with people migrating from one tribe to the other and back again over the course of the evening.

When I heard that line about the other room I thought, “Okay, when we’re at a family gathering at Sarah’s house, everybody in the kitchen should imagine Dad is in the living room. And everyone in the living room should imagine Dad is in the kitchen.” Alas, I quickly realized, this ruse would never fly. We would not be able to trick ourselves because although he might be confined by time and space to one room, his exuberant voice and laughter was always in both.

Still, the more times I read this homily the more I like it. Composed in a simple way with a small number of simple words, it carries great power quietly:

Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effort, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well.

Henry Scott Holland
1847-1918
Canon of St. Paul’s Cathedral

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