The Humanization of Christian Doctrine (II)
No other world
At the heart of belief in the “supernatural” is the conviction that there is another world. The way that feature has functioned in the West has been to say that we can live forever in that “other world” if we fulfill certain conditions … and those conditions are the program of correct behavior and ritual practice offered by religion. Despite the undeniable fact that the human being, like every other organism on earth, goes through a life cycle that ends in decline and death, the idea that we are not really subject to the common destiny of all living things, has turned out to be an invincible illusion.
Everyone realizes there is no evidence of immortality. Of course the Church’s “revealed” warning that failure to conform to the demands of the other world would result in unremitting torments of the most unimaginable kind, nailed the coffin shut on the question. Even if one had misgivings about it, no rational person in the lands of the Christian West could afford to ignore the possibility. Pascal’s famous “wager” exemplified that attitude. Religion’s success as a social institution, overall, has required little or no external coercion through the millennia for exactly this reason. People voluntarily join the program and fulfill its behavioral and ritual requirements because they think they will live forever and they want to avoid eternal torture. Many feel that without the threat of damnation, belief in immortality by itself would never have enjoyed such universal acceptance because the evidence against it is so overwhelming. If left alone, humankind generally does not stay lost in illusion for long.
But what must be taken into account in any consideration of belief in a supernatural world is the reality of exploitative mystification.
The social-political unit, whether in the form of a great empire or a small village, has always been invested in finding ways to elicit desired behavior from its members. It has been suggested that religion and its emphasis on the supernatural was either originally conjured up or astutely expropriated by political authorities as an instrument of social control. Its importance for society is obvious: if the required behavior can be obtained through the voluntary cooperation of its members, then the use of potentially disruptive external force for procuring labor, military service and the prevention of criminal activity will not be necessary. Looked at from this perspective, religion holds out the real possibility of achieving the most amount of compliance with the least amount of effort. Individuals, seeking to avoid endless punishment, police themselves. They are willing to accept virtually any amount of personal constraint and endure any amount of suffering in order to comply with the entrance requirements of the “other world.”
There are many people in our country, even today after more than 200 years under our “religion-free” constitution, who are convinced that the separation of traditional religion from political power has been fatal to social harmony. They ascribe all our ills to the break-down of theocracy; and they claim its reinstatement will result in a beneficial “moral and spiritual” influence on the authorities as well as on the individual.
So long as people are convinced that there is another world and their destiny there is conditioned on their behavior, the beliefs of supernatural religion pose a threat to political freedom. If humanity is to be spared the mind-control that religious mystification is so efficient at imposing, this core feature of belief in the supernatural — that there is another world whose demands take precedence over the needs of the human community here on earth — must be exorcized for the demonic illusion that it is.
Where does the solution lie? Some see Paul’s definitive derogation of the “law” in Romans as an original attempt to separate the rewards of the afterlife from behavioral compliance. “Salvation,” he insisted, was a free gift. No exploitation was possible in a relationship of unconditioned love. That solution failed, as proven by 2000 years of subsequent Christian history which blatantly functioned on the quid pro quo of behavioral compliance in crass disregard for the injunctions of the Apostle.
The denial of death
How do we explain all of this, and how do we deal with it? The obviously erroneous belief in immortality exercises a mesmerizing effect on our minds. Why? In the 1970’s social philosopher Ernest Becker believed there was an instinctive “denial of death” that drove not only our religious fantasies of immortality, but also explained the energy we pour into accomplishments designed to achieve a certain lasting remembrance in human society. They are all illusions that come from our need to “deny death.” Caesar conquered Gaul to achieve an historical immortality. This is very disturbing. Exactly how much war has been perpetrated by men and women seeking to “immortalize” themselves … and those of their followers who wanted to ride on their coattails? Both phenomena seem to derive from the same root: an aversion to death.
Frankly, I don’t believe this “urge” accounts for as much as Becker claims it does. Of course we have an aversion to death! There is nothing surprising in that. Every living thing we know has an aversion to death. Wherever we find existence we find an insuppressible desire to preserve, safeguard that existence and continue to live. Even the most primitive life forms, single-celled animals and plants, flee from enemies and move toward food sources. In fact, all the activities of any organism, whether it be for food, shelter, self-defense or reproduction, are manifestations of this drive to survive, what Spinoza called the conatus.
Existence, it seems, is an energy that is mindlessly and exclusively focused on itself; that’s what survival means. Existence has only one desire and one goal: to exist. The reason for existence is to exist. Survival is the very nature of all living things.
If Becker is right what we have here is one of reality’s core anomalies. The very forces that drive us to survive seem to feed into an erroneous belief that we can actually beat death, and it’s the “denial of death,” according to Becker, that creates most of our suffering. The concurrence with Buddhism here is intriguing, and I will address this shortly. Becker seemed to feel it was a tragic flaw embedded in the human psyche, an inverted form of the Freudian “death wish,” a kind of radical evil that we cannot avoid.
But I believe there is more to it than that. I am not convinced that belief in immortality and another world is inevitable for human beings … or that without it we descend into moral chaos. Another factor has come into play, and an otherwise vague desire — to keep on living — took force and focus from a dogmatic certitude that indeed there is a way to beat death and live forever. That certitude in the West came from Christian doctrine which authoritatively declared that there was another world, and it tied reward and especially punishment to our destiny there.
I claim the desire to avoid death, in and of itself, would not necessarily generate anything but fantasies. We fantasize our desires all the time, but we know they are fantasies. Anything else is not normal. People who never recover from their illusions we consider insane. What pushed the desire to live forever over the edge of fantasy and into the belief in immortality was the guarantee of certitude that came from the Christian religion. It is my contention that without that quasi-scientific guarantee, the “afterlife” would have remained a harmless dream — a metaphorical imagery used by bards and poets to describe the depth and intensity of the conatus, the desire for life that came with existence. So what Becker experienced and persuaded himself came from a fundamental urge, was in fact the historic residue of two thousand years of Christian doctrine that had become “hard wired” as a cultural operator in Western society. As it melded into the culture, the belief lost its doctrinal connections and became a “stand-alone” dynamic, a “meme,” a part of the invisible horizon — a “reality” taken for granted and fed by the energy of the conatus. It was the intrinsic drive for self-preservation diabolically deformed into a self-destructive illusion by the reinforcements of Christian belief in the “supernatural.”
We have to realize what this means. If we are to experience the inner peace that comes from self-acceptance as organic living beings whose life-cycle includes death, we have to liberate ourselves from this supernatural illusion. Our human organisms are impermanent and temporary life-forms like every other thing on earth. Death is an intrinsic part of our destiny. We are marvelous emergent forms of this natural universe … its most “godlike” production to date. We are part of Life and Love itself, and we activate an existential creativity of our own. But like every other living thing on earth, we die.
It is matter’s evolutionary emergence into humanity — this “heaven” that we are — that grounds our sense of the sacred. We do not need another world to recognize the sacredness that radiates from our conatus, the gift of existence. We are immersed in sacred existence as a sponge in the sea. In us matter’s energy has begun to lift the mask of “God.” Our mortality is natural and so is our sense of the sacred. We are “in heaven” here and now because it is existence itself — Nature (yes, “God”) — in which we live and move and have our being. What could a “supernatural” world possibly give us that we don’t already have?
Science, Buddhism and the historical Jesus
There are independent authorities that corroborate this view and the illusory nature of belief in the supernatural. The first, of course, and completely neutral, is science. Science doesn’t really “care” one way or another; and that is proven by the fact that even though most scientists do not believe in the afterlife, there are many who do, and continue to be scientists. But science finds no evidence of its existence and generally counsels that if there is no evidence that something exists, it probably doesn’t. Science itself officially functions on the premise that it does not … and it is paradoxical that even those scientists who say they believe in the supernatural are perfectly comfortable excluding it from their work. This suggests the non-literal nature of what they themselves believe.
Buddhism is another. But Buddhism goes much further than science on this question. Buddhism actually repudiates belief in another world and the promise of immortality. For it is one of the central teachings of the Buddha that it is precisely the vain belief in the existence of the permanent self that is the principal source of the efforts at self-aggrandizement that results in the self-inflicted suffering within human society. Buddhism is a practical program. It is the fact that we die and disappear while the particles of which we were constructed go on to become part of other things that provides the objective basis for a realistic evaluation of how to live our temporary lives. We come and we go. While the Buddha never denied the existence of “God” or gods, or another world, he said they were at best irrelevant to the cessation of human suffering, and at worst actually contributed to it by fostering the illusion of personal permanence. A permanent peace of mind, nirvana, was achievable only by embracing the impermanence of the self. We do not last. We die. … That’s OK. It’s the way it’s supposed to be. It is the ground of our humility and our compassion. Buddhist belief diverges sharply in this regard, not only from Christianity, but also from other contemporary Indian religious traditions:
… In the Vedic [Hindu] tradition one sought the immortality of the soul through the appeasement of gods by prayer and ritual, which have no place in the Buddha’s teaching. In marked contrast to the Jains, who focused on perfecting the individual soul, the Buddha did not accept a permanent individual spiritual substance. (G.C.Pande, “The Message of Gotama Buddha and its Earliest Interpretations,” in Buddhist Spirituality, Crossroad, NY 1997 pp.10-11)
But another supportive authority, surprisingly, is the historical Jesus himself. The message Jesus proclaimed in his lifetime is conspicuously different from the Christian vision and program erected in his name. While he never denied the existence of another world, and even seemed to assume that there was one, for him as much as for the Buddha the “other world” had no functional significance whatsoever. It was irrelevant. His message would not be affected in the least if there were no supernatural world. Jesus, very simply, said that we have a “loving Father” and our behavior and attitudes should imitate “God’s” forgiveness and generosity. It’s really all he had to say. In my terms: the core and source of existence is lavish love; it’s what we are. Trust it, enjoy it and imitate it. Make it available to others. For Jesus, ritual compliance and behavioral perfection were not priorities, and what was really important — loving “God” and loving others — had nothing to do with “another world” — at all!
(… to be continued …)