Friday, March 12, 2010

Death and Immortality

Death has always presented the ultimate challenge to man's understanding. Most cultures have had some notion, however vague, of a continuing life of the human person after physical death. This question takes on greater urgency, however, when viewed from the perspective of justice. As we have seen, archaic man seeks to live a life that conforms to the laws of the universe. Since all beings are seen to behave in an ordered fashion according to the laws of their being or nature, man too should do what is proper to human nature and avoid acts that are contrary to his nature. This is the importance of myth and ritual: the stories and actions involve the repetition of archetypal acts by which the the order of the universe was brought about in illo tempore, and by recollection and repetition of those archetypal patterns archaic man hopes to conform himself to the divine or heavenly realm of order and preserve himself from the chaos of disorder. The tension involved in this, of course, is that while the natural world conforms to the archetypal order without conscious effort, man must plumb the depths of his own being, his nature, to understand what the true order of human nature is and he must also overcome unruly impulses of his own being in order to conform to that true order. This true order constitutes the good for man.

While there is some disagreement among cultures regarding what the true order for man is, there is also a fair degree of agreement. More important for our purposes are two additional questions. First, if man dies, what difference does it make whether he seeks to do what is good during his life? The second question becomes of even more pressing concern during times of widespread disorder and social upheaval: can there truly be said to be a just world order—including an order of human nature—if, as appears to be the case, the wicked seem to prosper during this life by embracing their disordered impulses while the good, as often as not, suffer despite their adherence to order as defined by societal traditions?

This conflict is a constant of human experience, and in every age man has sought rational justifications that would allow him to affirm the essential goodness and justice of human life, despite the manifest evil that occurs—including the fact of death itself. For example, the various schemes of reincarnation (by no means restricted to Hindu thought) are patent attempts to justify and explain the problem of good and evil in human life. They amount to elaborate, and unverifiable, systems of rewards and punishments for the way each individual lives his life, as well as inducements to adhere to order. Such "knowledge" provides guidance, reassurance and meaning in life, by which man can make sense of his experience and find motivation to maintain an ordered existence that transcends what would otherwise be a Hobbesian brutal struggle for existence that inevitably ends in failure.

As Christopher Dawson points out (Religion and World History, 54-67), the emphasis on ritual in the Confucian tradition in China represents the desire to conform man to universal order--what may appear to Western eyes as mere ritualism is in fact deeply imbued with moral significance. Adherence to ritual, far from being empty traditionalism, seeks to draw each man and the whole society into the order of the universe with the goal of establishing harmonious relations in human life. "The Rites are the external manifestation of this eternal order in the lives of men" (63).  Their performance was not intended to have a magical efficaciousness but, rather, "demanded a moral adhesion of the whole man" (63).  The Taoist tradition, arising as it did from the practice of augery and divination, sought a more personally satisfying and direct intuition of the divine order (Tao) of the universe, beyond the formalism of Confucian tradition. It is not surprising that the idea of reincarnation, probably derived from Buddhism, was also readily assimilated into various strands of Chinese thought, especially Taoism, to make sense of both the injustices of society as well as the periodic violent upheavals that China was subject to.

In India, Buddhism arose as a response to the Upanishadic doctrine of reincarnation. The Buddhist response addressed both the elaborate, drawn out nature of this system of reincarnation as well as the inevitable uncertainty. Buddhism claimed to offer release from this process of birth and rebirth and deliverance from the evil that is human life, and it encapsulated this claim in the famous Fourfold Truth: "suffering and the cause of suffering, extinction of suffering and the way to the extinction of suffering" (76-77).  In its fundamental experience that life is sorrow, Buddhism strongly resembles later Western forms of gnosticism, including even, for example, the Protestantism of Luther, for whom, famously, the world is an inn, and the devil the innkeeper. For Protestantism, "faith" is the way to the extinction of uncertainty and suffering, bypassing the life of true Christian faith based on reasonable belief. For both Buddhism and Protestantism the need is for conviction of release through subjective experience. While Buddhism and other doctrines of deliverance, such as Protestantism, are often elaborately developed through rational processes, it is important to recognize that all such doctrines are essentially responses to subjective desires, especially the desire for certainty. This, of course, led to the classic Protestant misunderstanding of Christian faith as subjective conviction, rather than reasonable belief.

Israelite religion for long had only a vague notion of life after death, and in fact the Judaism that arose from Israelite religion to this day has no definite doctrines in this regard. In the beginning of what could be called incipient Judaism, the Babylonian exile, the prophet Ezekiel clearly had either no idea of life after death or only the sketchiest ideas. For the Israelites, as indeed for many archaic peoples, survival was bound up with the survival of a nation that could remember its individual members and which continued the ritual practices that bound it to universal order. Ezekiel expounded the standard Deuteronomic ideology, by which God's judgment is manifested on earth: prosperity is the reward of the good and death and misfortune the lot of the evil. Not only does this apply to individuals, but to nations as well. Misfortune is a proof of sin. The Deuteronomic response to misfortune, therefore, was closer adherence to the rites/traditions of the nation in the hope that this would lead to a divine intervention in history to restore the fortunes of the nation. This "theoretical" framework has held up to the present day, despite serious challenges to its fundamental justice and proportion, such as the Holocaust.

Centuries later the Book of Job formulated the classic response to the obvious difficulty—that the innocent often suffer both undeservedly and, when deservedly, beyond all proportion to their actual sins. What sense does life make—life which comes to an end, anyway—if God so mistreats the blameless? In the end, Job's only answer is that God's ways are not to be measured by man; man cannot attain to a wisdom that is sufficient to encompass God's idea of justice. Resignation appears to be the only possible human response to misfortune in life and in history. Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) offers, if anything, an even bleaker outlook than Job. According to Qoheleth, all in life is vanity, and then life comes to an end. His counsel is to enjoy what we can of life, following conventional wisdom but without illusions that man can understand life.

This is not the end of the story, of course. During the Maccabean conflict with the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom the issue of death and justice became more acute due to the question of martyrdom—what was the fate of those who willingly suffered the ultimate evil, death, rather than forsake the traditions of their nation? The return of Israel from exile had been interpreted by the Deuteronomic ideology as a partial restoration of the nation, a partial manifestation of renewed Divine favor. Acquiescence to the Hellenistic cultural onslaught would represent a return to exile from God's favor. The alternatives were a quietist acquiescence or military resistance that would involve many deaths, including the deaths of innocent witnesses (martyrs) to the true order of God. In response to this crisis, in which the best elements of the nation were facing violent persecution and death, for the first time we see, in Daniel, the idea of resurrection raised. True, it is vaguely expressed, but what is important is that this incipient doctrine of resurrection provides a hope for man's future of a sort that is quite new in Israelite religion, in that it focuses on the individual and not just on the life of the nation as a whole.

We know from Jesus' disputes with the Pharisees and Sadducees that this issue of resurrection was much controverted in later Judaism. Indeed, in the Wisdom of Ben Sira we see expressed a view that is fundamentally similar to that of Qoheleth in asserting the finality of death. Still, Ben Sira, unlike Qoheleth, seeks to justify God's ways, by claiming that the wicked at least are subjected to far more anxiety than are the just. Weak as this argument may seem, it is witness to the intellectual struggles that thinking Israelites were engaged in at this period.

The strongest counter to these more traditional Israelite views is to be found in the Book of Wisdom, written perhaps as late as the early years of the Christian era. The author was obviously very familiar with Greek philosophical ideas--even if he expresses himself in more traditional Israelite ways, drawing, for example, on the imagery of Yahweh as the Cloud Warrior. Wisdom's solution, which appears to draw on the Greek idea of the soul, is that the just live forever with God, comforted and at peace, while the wicked perish and their names are forgotten--the fate worse than death from the perspective of archaic man. Thus, death leads to vindication for the just souls (even those whose names may be forgotten) and by the same token God's ways are also justified--He is mindful of what happens on earth. Absent, however, is the notion of punishment for the wicked in an afterlife, as expressed by Jesus in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Interestingly, and perhaps another indication of Greek influence, Wisdom explicitly identifies Torah as the expression of God's eternal Wisdom, a reflection in human life of the order of God's universe. This, as we have seen, is common in the ontology of archaic man, indeed it is an essential part of that ontology. Observance of Torah is thus very similar to the Confucian observance of the Rites. However, this is the clearest expression that we find of this conception in the pre-Christian Israelite writings.

[Note: John J. Collins' Introduction to the Hebrew Bible was consulted extensively for these brief remarks.]

1 comment:

  1. Positing an "objective" Truth vs "subjective" intuitions...

    is a misleading formulation. Seemingly "subjective" intuition, if you follow it deeply enough, turns out to be the only truly given foundation -- not by any power of our own but because God wants to be known.

    That is, what we're told to consider "merely subjective" experience and realizations are our primary data; while abstract models of the 'objective' world are secondary constructions.

    The fact that 'experiencing of experiencing' takes place is the evidence than cannot be discredited, because it is continually available to all.

    Knowledge of immortality is based on seeing the eternal nature of that 'image of God' which is the reality behind what anyone thinks of as 'himself'.

    Ideas about this don't seem to have been systematically worked out in early Judaism, aside from Moses' intuition that God's name was "I am." Probably there was a widely shared understanding, based on people's experiences rather than their ideas -- which didn't become an element of religious speculation because no one considered it problematical... (I am curious as to what they would have said about it, if asked, but aside from those signs of 'ancestor worship' we really don't have much to go on.)