In search of scripts after the final act

Beyond Death
September 8, 1995

Will we survive death? If so, as what? Disembodied souls? Reincarnated bodies? Pulses in the eternal mind giving back the thoughts by England given? Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Christopher Lewis's survey is admirable not least because it articulates the utter lack of consensus about the meaning of death and the hereafter to be found in plural British society. With seventeen contributions, including Rabbi Lionel Blue's introduction, it is almost but not quite true that there are 17 different opinions. These range from modern restatements of the immortality of the soul of Plato's Phaedo to A. N. Wilson's declaration that he does not believe there is a life after death and indeed that it would be horrid if there were.

The materialist view, that mental life is wholly dependent upon, or even identical with, electrochemical activity in the brain, is not represented explicitly even though, if it were correct, conscious personal survival beyond death would be impossible. Although such a belief is not uncontroversial even among scientists, it does at least claim to be based on empirical evidence. The first half of the book, "The World's Religions' Approach to the Afterlife", contains widely disparate views deriving in some sense from traditions recalling and interpreting revelation.

Peter Vardy's reasoned advocacy that "we each, as individuals, will survive death and what happens after death will be determined by the lives we have lived and the choices we have made" is far from universally believed even among Christians; some maintain that human beings are eternally predestined to heaven or to hell, others that God's post-mortem judgement will separate the saved sheep from the damned goats solely on the basis of whether or not they have accepted Jesus as their personal saviour: those who are saved will experience continuity of being in the resurrection of a spiritual body. Christian dualists believe that an immortal soul survives a perishable body. Others reject the obsession with personal survival entirely as being too self-centred.

Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware, despite his cautious disclaimer that death is a mystery about which we understand almost nothing, shows just how far dogmatic faith resists "the temptation to try to say too much". "We can only guess dimly at the transparence and vivacity, at the lightness and sensitivity, with which our resurrection body, at once both material and yet spiritual, will be endured in the age to come." This is faith speaking to faith; paradox proclaimed, a sermon more than an essay. The bishop could not intend such lyrical writing to be taken literally and yet, even so, it seems to fit uneasily with the New Testament text with which he concludes his essay on the mystery of death and resurrection: "What we will be has not been revealed" (1John 3:2).

Much of the moral leverage which old-time religion exerted upon believers rested on fear of everlasting punishment. There was no place for agnostic scepticism and diffidence about the infernal afterlife in hell-fire sermons. Cohn-Sherbok's highly entertaining essay on the history of the Jewish doctrine of hell wryly displays further lack of consensus of opinion. First quoting Rabbi J. H. Hertz, "Judaism rejects the doctrine of eternal damnation", Cohn-Sherbok then proceeds to an astonishingly detailed account of the geography, topography and fauna of hell from the Babylonian Talmud. What sorts of human acts were then thought to bring down the everlasting wrath of the deity? The usual vices, of course, but also "following the advice of one's wife and teaching an unworthy pupil".

The Islamic view of life and the beyond (a subject about which devout Muslims remind themselves 17 times a day) is set out by Muhammad Abdel Haleen. He cites as authoritative proof texts from the Koran to demonstrate both the content of the belief of the faithful and the divinely revealed and inviolable ground from which such belief grows. By contrast, in sensitive and thoughtful rather than metaphysical and speculative articles, Victor De Waal and Martin Israel consider pastoral and ritual approaches to loss, bereavement and mourning.

Only some of the main religious traditions present in the UK are represented in these first chapters. Despite the expert knowledge of Geoffrey Parrinder of King's College, London, perhaps it would have been appropriate to have found someone standing within the Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh religious traditions to have written the chapter on Indian and Asian beliefs.

The second half of the present collection examines the so-called "new religions" (the beliefs of many of which are not without historical precedent) and offers empiricist hopes for survival largely constructed on the much disputed evidential value of near-death experience.

Paul Badham, himself co-author of another interesting book on death, asserts a syncretistic belief that behind the apparent radical differences of traditional religious beliefs there lies common ground and the possibility of a convergent global synthesis. Intolerant adherents of the religions claiming to possess exclusive and privileged truth (and there are many such) might violently dissent from such a view.

Much has been written about near-death experiences (NDE): the familiar description of such events is repeated in several essays proposing that NDE demonstrates that humans do survive death. The findings of parapsychology and psychical research also are taken to indicate that personal continuity of existence and memory are not dependent upon a functional central nervous system. The frequently rehearsed counter-arguments about the medical definition of death (that undiscover'd country from whose bourn No traveller returnsI) remain convincing: near-death experiences are not necessarily beyond-death experiences.

The last chapter, by editor Lewis, poignantly explores the resources with which the majority of people in the UK now confront death; uncertain what they believe and what they may hope for, they are less and less familiar with Christianity or any other formal religious tradition. They are left with the anguish of bereavement assuaged but little by wistful sentimentality, or, for the wealthy, the frigid hope that cryogenic preservation of the body will lead to a scientific resuscitation by and by.

J.M. Kerr is an Anglican priest and warden of the Society of Ordained Scientists. He teaches theology for the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education.

Beyond Death: Theological and Philosophical Reflections on Life after Death

Author - Dan Cohn-Sherbok and Christopher Lewis
ISBN - 0 333 63073 4 and 63074 2
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 219

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