On life after death


As I said to some protesting classmates recently, my late wife Mary was my life … there is no one on this whole green earth who could be more personally invested in looking forward to a reunion, person to person, after death, than I am.  Might it be true?  Would that it wereI’m not insisting that it’s not.  I’m just suggesting a broader perspective … one that might even help us to be open to a deeper generosity.


The very early Hellenic christians believed in a personal immortality which they expressed as “the resurrection of the body.”  Resurrection, for them, was a special gift of God given only to the mystēs who were incorporated into the mysteries of Jesus.  But Jesus was from very early on ho christos, the Christ, whom “John” would soon identify as the Stoics’ Logos, for Philo the Hebrew God’s Wisdom and Word.  Christ even in “Paul’s” 1st century Colossians was already “the first-born of all creation; in him all things were created … . He is before all things and in him all things hold together … ”  There was a larger picture being painted here, a cosmic vision, the individual was part of the universe by being incorporated into Christ as Logos. 

 Immortality was a act of divine power overcoming death which was the natural destiny of all life.  Immortality was a a special gift earned by Christ, the Logos.  No one had a right to it. It belonged only to the gods. There was no natural immortality.  Natural immortality was a Platonic theory, a logical deduction from the existence of a world of “spirits,” that slowly displaced the older christian vision as it became clear that Jesus’ imminent return bringing the transformation of all creation, was not going to materialize.  But the Platonic doctrine was pure philosophy, “science.”  The earliest apologists resisted it because it rendered the resurrection superfluous.  It finally did take over precisely because it was considered indisputable, “scientifically” true … and when it did, the resurrection of the body along with cosmic transformation, receded into the background.  The individual “soul” became the new focus of christian hopes, and its immortality was severed from the collective and cosmic implications of salvation through the Logos.

 The immortality of the individual soul was “science,” not a special gift.  It is significant that as science the “doctrine” did not have to be “defined.”  It was not until the 16th century (1513) when the very existence of spirits was no longer a “scientific” given, that it was made an article of faith.  But to take an element of ancient science … which had actually displaced original belief in the resurrection of the body … and now make it an article of “faith,” created two major problems: (1) it now raised the platonic theory of the existence of “spirits” to the level of “dogma,” canonizing metaphysical dualism; and (2) it put the irrelevance of the resurrection of the body on a dogmatic basis ― it permanently made the orginal kerygma irrelevant and rendered the whole idea of physical resurrection unimportant.  The article remained in the text of the apostle’s creed, but it had no significance.  The “resurrection of the body,” in the formation we were given prior to Vatican II, was an unecessary icing on the cake.  We mouthed it in the creed, but no one paid any attention to it.  It was your “soul” you needed to save. 

Now the “resurrection of the body” is significant for more than individual immortality.  It represents a profound recognition of the primacy of matter in our make-up.  Its inclusion in the earliest creeds indicate that apostolic christianity recognized that there is no “person” without the body, and that there seems to have been some controversy being resolved here, probably a residue of docetism.  If the body isn’t saved, then I’m not saved.  And of course to recognize the metaphysical indispensability of matter immediately has universal implications, because everything is made of matter.  Paul’s poetic evocation of a transformed “risen” cosmos in Romans and the Apocalyptic vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” like the imagery of the Logos cited above, propose a belief that not only sweeps Densinger clean of individualist and dualist historical deviations like the “immortal soul,” but dovetails with the cosmic awareness that has emerged with the post-modern mind.  And it is this universal cosmic dimension of material energy as it explores the possibilities of being and well-being through evolution and emergence, especially now with a purposive humankind on the scene that is steering a very large, transcendently collective and universally inclusive project.  Is it legitimate to ask where it is going …?  Why should we expect it will ever end …?

 Might personal immortality be possible?  Maybe, as the ancient christians seem to have believed it, as part of a transforming cosmic event. … but not as a product of the Platonic-Cartesian dualist individualism that has made us all schizoid ― body haters and death-deniers.  The human individual is integral with the whole of material creation.  That is what is involved in the belief of the “resurrection of the body.” 


With regard to this question, a reader of An Unknown God pointed out to me that the phrase “resurrection of the body” is found in the Apostle’s Creed.  The Nicean creed, in contrast, as amended at Chalcedon in 381, has a different phrase: i.e., “the resurrection from the dead.”  Historians agree that the core of the apostles’ creed came from a very early Roman creed of the 1st or 2nd century.  The conceptual transition represented by these two different phrases corresponds to the period of time it took for Platonism and its various schools to completely dominate mediterranean christian thought.  This parallels the philosophical anomalies surrounding the re-interpretation of the traditionally subordinate Logos (Colossian’s “first-born of all creation”) to become homoousios patri at the Council of Nicaea. It was part of the ultimate ascendency of Platonic thinking across all christian categories, and that included a schizoid anti-somatic, anti-sexual bias so prominent in Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose.  

Death and dying


The “drive to survive” is the primary manifestation of matter’s energy, existence, in every life form that we see (and which I am inclined to extrapolate “backwards” into the non-living elements that compose it).  I am a hylozoist.  I think matter is alive.  I tend to think it has to be, because otherwise life would have to be coming from somewhere else … and I don’t believe there is anywhere or anything else.  We simply do not know the mechanisms that the “mystery of matter” uses to pull its rabbits out of the hat.


The denial of death is the flip-side of the drive to survive.  It only becomes a “problem,” (i.e., leads to “hubris” and despair) when death is considered outside of its integral place in the natural cycling that is the characteristic of material existence as a totality.  Using scholastic language you could say: existence resides primarily in the totality, secondarily in the individual.  Death is one of the principal ways every individual contributes to the recycling that produces evolution and emergence, and whatever other stunning creativities our primitive radar has yet to pick up.


We see very little right now.  And if we reduce “reality” to what we can see, we end up with a very flat, very boring world of mechanism without mystery.  One can surrender one’s life to a mystery, but not to a mechanism.  The denial of death gives rise to “evil” (Ernest Becker’s thesis in Escape from Evil) only when death no longer has meaning.  Then one is driven to extremes, ironically murder and suicide, to deny it by feigning control over it.  The loss of belief in “spirit” as a separate genus of being, which was the inevitable result of the modern and scientific mind-set, had the side-effect of flattening life to the one-dimension of what “matter” in that skewed dispensation was thought to be ― a passive mechanism.  Who could afford to die?  It is precisely by recognizing that “matter” is not mechanism, but rather a mysterious energy whose boundaries and limits (if there are any) are light years beyond the horizons our limited sciences have set for us, that we begin to recapture the sense of awe in which people have lived from time immemorial.  But now without mystification and terror.  Without ghosts and goblins.  Without “original sin,” divine wrath and plenary indulgences.  (And without hating the bodies we were born with).  One can live … but also one can die, when it’s time.  There is nothing pathological in wanting to live, but it is painfully sad when an organism refuses to accept that it is an organism, part of the larger totality of material energy, an individual deriving its existence and “place” from the whole.  We serve the whole also by dying and offering our “stuff,” and our “space” for use by future organisms … just as our own life was a gift of countless earlier organisms whose living and dying made a place for us (both birthed us and fed us).  Only a sense of the mystery of matter can allow us to surrender to the cycles of love and generosity that dying is part of.  The fact that we need this, makes what might appear to be a logical circularity, in fact, compelling.



ERNEST BECKER and the “denial of death”


     Ernest Becker wrote two major books which he considered companion volumes, The Denial of Death ’73 and Escape from Evil ’74 (posthumous).  Becker uses the denial of death as the integrating / organizing notion for all of what follows in both books … mysticism, myopia, mayhem and madness, … But I believe his vision is lacking vertically because there is no metaphysical dimension.  From the cosmo-ontological point of view (mine), I claim the denial of death (DoD) is a subordinate routine to the drive to survive (DTS) which is, in turn, the living, organic, manifestation of the “congenital self-embrace” of existence — material energy.  What I’m after is to identify the most fundamental dynamisms that propel our activities and compel our assent.  And they are, foundationally for me, cosmo-ontologi­cal — structurally more basic and therefore embracive and explanatory of psycho-socio-anthropologi­cal phenomena like the DoD.   Yes, … I am talking about the NATURE OF REALITY, which is “being,” “existence,” … material energy. 

      So I think I am operating at a level below Becker — but we are still in sync.  What’s different, and it’s critical, is that for me the DoD “nests” within a “sacred” context.  For it’s a derivative of the DTS in us, which is the primary manifestation of material energy’s existential self-embrace.  That self-embrace ― that material energy is existence itself and impels everything made of it to exist and to keep on existing ― is the source of the dynamic creativity responsible for all the species of living things and the coherent identities of non-living things in the universe.  It is also the constituent matrix in which all things subsist and perdure.  It is on display as “emergence,” the bio-cosmological phenomenon that so fascinates evolutionary theorists like Stuart Kaufman today (At Home in the Universe ’89, Reinventing the Sacred ’08).  “Emergence” reveals a creativity in matter, a hylozoism if you will, that is not adequately addressed by Cartesian reductionism … much less by the dualist “essences” of the scholastics.  There is a new appreciation of the potentialities of matter that go well beyond the limits that traditional philosophy has assumed.

     Once you perceive the universe of material energy as a creative self-sustaining and self-elaborating project — then death becomes comprehensible, if not acceptable — an integral part of the constant re-cycling of matter’s energy that has brought us life and consciousness as we now know it.  The 4½ thousands of millions of years of biotic construction on earth were not a linear development.  It was a process that was cyclical and re-cyclical.  It was the repetitive re-use of the same materials in a spiralling exploration of new possibilities — built always on an intimate, closely sequenced continuity with the immediate past.  This sequenced continuity meant that death was essential to the recyling and micro-detailed natural selection necessary for the evolution of species.  The only reason we are here — that I am able to write these words and you to read them — is that astronomically countless organisms have died as an integral part of the bio-devlop­men­­tal project that produced the present moment in not only that it is but what we are as a species.  At the most speculative level at least, death loses its sting when it is perceived as essential to the evolutionary project of the universe.  Dying is one of the principal ways every organism contributes to the project.  We are no different.  We can choose to be willing participants in this Sacred Project …

      But by “sacred” I don’t mean to imply a “purpose” introduced by “intelligent design.”  The resident, apparently limitless creativity of matter is what is Sacred.  You have to love it, whatever it is … it made us possible.  It made everything possible.  And once you love it … the way you love the Mother whose very cells and blood were used by your DNA to elaborate you, … you’re at home, for you are eternally immersed in it.  There is no other world.  The solution is embracing, … no, better, allowing oneself to be embraced by, this real world.  Creative Matter makes this world sacred, because it has allowed me to exist.  I have no trouble calling it “divine.” 

     (After all, what is “divine”?  Paul said it was “that in which we live and move and have our being.”  Will that work?)

      At this juncture, then, there is no disguising the fact that my attitude toward the sacred has an affective dimension that comes out of the years of formation in my religious tradition. When I say “love” in this regard, it means that my “relationship” to material energy has been transformed by religious metaphor (myth?) into the homologue of a Parent.  (If I refuse to let it be assimilated to the word “God,” it’s because I believe that particular word has been rendered totally useless by the eons of the anthropomorphic mystifications of our religious history.  “God,” if we use it as we have received it, cannot conflate with what I’m talking about.  Hence I call it simply, “the Sacred.”  But, as far as I am concerned, Paul’s definition still stands.)  This permits a trust and a thansgiving toward material energy that I have called “ecstatic.”  It permits me, with my affective-contem­plative abilities conditioned by both evolution and cultural formation, to relate to my Maternal “Parent” as I am at this point in time.  But I am not mystified in this, because at no point do I imagine any element of this sacred symbiosis in which we live and move and have our being, to be anything other than what science can observe, scrutinize and measure, including the source elements themselves, Maternal material energy.  There is no supernatural reality.  There is no other world.  We are talking about a reality exclusively made up of the phenomena produced by the “passive” Maternal self-disposi­tion, the kenosis, the self-emptying, the utter availability of material energy.  All reality is natural; and all of nature is creatively self-elabora­ting because it uses (is) the energy of existence.  It is thoroughly sacred.  (A scholastic like Aquinas might have said that we are not distinguishable from “God” materially, only formally).

     The fact that we do not appreciate things this way, in my opinion, is due to the eons of skewed cultural formation that has encouraged us to hate and run from death (life as it is) — on the basis of “world-views” that projected us into another world, rather than to look squarely at and surrender to the cyclical nature of organic life in this world of which we are proudly, ecstatically, an integral part.  So in that sense Becker is still valid within my world-view, but he doesn’t go far enough because he sees the problem but, for lack of a “big enough” vision, he cannot see the solution.  And it’s a “solution” that does not obviate or avoid death, it integrates it.

The DOD … a denial or a natural default?

      Now, I’m going to shift gears.

     I want to come at the DoD from another angle altogether.  Becker looks at it from the point of view of a social anthropologist.  In other words, he asks how does the denial of death function for social, cultural construction …

     I want to come at it from a individual phenomenological point of view as a preliminary to making a philosophical interpretation of it … in other words, I ask, how does the DoD function in my everyday life … and what does that tell me (if anything) about the nature of reality.

     When I approach it from this angle what do I see?  The DoD is not really a “denial,” in the sense of some active, conscious rejection or suppression or deflection.  In my experience, existence is simply taken for granted and even though I see things dying around me everyday, and I am constantly reminded that I will someday die … it takes the psychic equivalent of a sledge hammer to make me “realize” it.  And then, when that sledge hammer actually hits me and the absolute unrelenting inescapable reality of imminent death finally dominates my perception of the world, it immobilizes me.  I am unable to function.  I don’t want to work, I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to see anybody … The feeling is, “why do anything, … ever … because it’s all coming to an end.”  I’m not talking about the gut-wrenching grief of losing a loved one, that might be the source of it … I’m talking about a general pervasive awareness that derives from that — that life is meaningless because everything you do or build or accumulate is for nothing. 

     Now I suggest you can’t live like that … it’s unnatural, and pathological.  And in fact, as time passes, little by little … unless you’re hit with another sledge hammer … you come out of it, and you become once again capable of delayed gratification, future planning, larger projects than just the next meal etc. ― all the signs of normalcy and psychic health.  In other words, the DoD, if you want to call it that, takes over again … 

     So in my experience the DoD is a bit of a misnomer.  I’d rather use a different word.  Rather than “denial,” the ordinary everyday phenomenon that allows us to live and work (and create monuments, and wage wars etc.) is more like “forgetfulness” or “obliviousness” of death (OoD).  Then one can work and try to build something.  I don’t see that as pathological.  You can’t live without it.  Repression?  OK, I won’t argue.  The point is it works, and it really doesn’t “deny” death the way “the afterlife” does.

      In my scheme of things there is no “denial” because the normalcy and natrualness of the OoD is fully explained as the spontaneous acceptance of the permanent possession of material energy … that “I” am identified with existence because I am my body, an integral part of a material totality that is collectively elaborating itself.  I’m not talking about a metaphysical analysis; I’m talking about a spontaneous child’s trust in the solidity of existence and my integral part in it.  When death appears to shatter that connection, I have to think it through and come to the realization that my “ego” had somehow forgotten that it is “me.”  And that the “me” is my body (the totality of what I am, because there is no separable “soul”), and has been here with everything from the beginning of “time” and will be here to the end … if there is an end.  The “ego,” in other words, has to learn to re-identify itself with “me.”  (How the two got separated is, in my opinion, the real subject of Becker’s books.)  The “ego” has to accept itself for what it really is ― a human organism ― part of the re-cycling totality of material energy.

     On the other hand, if I live in a culture that interprets the death of the ego by denying it … i.e., claiming that the “ego” is an immortal “soul” which is really not “me,” and which goes on to live in another world, I also create an “explanation” for death … but it’s an explanation that gives the ego a false separate existence that splits me in half and alienates me from myself.  It extracts me from this world, makes me a stranger to my own body and an alien that doesn’t belong in the material universe.  My presence here as an organism becomes inexplicable ― even more, a punishment, an exile, a torture.  This “explanation” must sooner or later collapse because it is unsustainable.  And its collapse leaves me absolutely stranded, isolated, a meaningless cipher in a meaningless world.  It was the collapse of the traditional “world-view” that made Sartre nauseous.

     If there is rampant anomie, alienation, and schizophrenia in the modern world (not to mention religion-based genocide), in my opinion, it’s because of the collapse of the western cultural “solution” (… a “solution” that had to collapse because it was built on a false dualism: spirits and “another world”) spearheaded in the last 2000 years by the Greco-Roman philosophical and politically driven reinterpretation of the teachings of Jesus.