As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.
On Mondays we are delving into this subject, considering what Gerhard Lohfink has to say in his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life.
The final two chapters of part one, which gives an overview of various perspectives on what happens to human beings after death, explore how some have concluded that people die and become a part of Nature, taking their part in Nature’s eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth.
I am only a wavelet in the ocean.
The wave comes and goes.
The ocean remains; it is forever.
we’re the people who walk the fields
soon we’ll be people under the fields
and will all become field and oak
yes, we’ll be proper country folk.
From proponents of certain Eastern religions, to pagan pantheists, to those who track the natural biological processes by which the atoms from which we are made separate from us and move on to new associations, to sentimentalists who “see” their deceased loved ones in the flowers, wind, and rain, there has always been a stream of thinking that has longed for dissolution of the individual into the oneness of the cosmos.
Every day I look deeply at everything around me; the trees, the hills, my friends. I see myself in them all and I know I shall not die. I will continue in many other forms. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
One of the poems I see regularly on funeral folders and hear recited at memorial services is this piece by Mary Elizabeth Frye:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
Whatever truth or comfort may be found in us taking our place in nature’s cycle, Lohfink will have none of this in the end. Not only Christianity, but even the processes of evolution teach us that the movement of life is not from the individual to dissolution, but from simpler to more complex, definitive individualism:
When I look at this whole mysticism of dissolution, which (supposedly) is happy that we can flow into trees, mountains, and meteors, I ask myself: Didn’t human biological and cultural evolution develop in precisely the opposite direction? — namely, to a more and more powerful awareness of the self, freedom from mere instincts and compulsions, emancipation from the dominance of the collective, becoming persons, a more and more intense understanding of the irreplaceable nature of every individual? (p. 45f)
And, as Gerhard Lohfink concludes this first section of the book, he argues that the desire for immortality rather than mere extinction or dissolution into the natural elements has always been a dominant human desire.
The question of what comes after death was proposed with the fullest intensity millennia before Christianity; we need only think of Egypt. …And it has not been silenced even now. It emerges in the most varied forms over and over again, often hidden and in dubious guises. It belongs to the nature of humans, who reach for infinity in everything they do.
Therefore we may and must ask: What happens to us in death? What happens to our life, our “I,” our consciousness, the history of our life? Is it all over for us? Is death followed by profound night, eternal sleep, and absolute nothingness? Is our self extinguished forever? Or is it followed by the life Christians describe in that worn-out but irreplaceable phrase as “eternal bliss”?
But not only that: we may and must ask about the history of the world. What will become of the countless people who have been degraded, tortured, raped, murdered? Will the injustice, lies, manipulation, suffering of billions of innocent people never be uncovered, revealed? And in turn: Will the endless efforts to discover truth, to ease the sufferings of the downtrodden, to improve the conditions of society ultimately lead to nothing, because not only do individuals die but whole nations and cultures vanish, and inevitable destruction awaits everything in the end? Or will there be a revelation by God of everything that has ever happened throughout history, and with it the resurrection of all history into God — into the love of God that creates justice? (p. 55f)