April 23, 2009
During a continuing education conversation with Marcus Borg I, along with others, was taken through a number of topics that he felt were important and early questions for many adult Christians and Enquirers. One of the first of these was about the afterlife. Do our parishioners ask or care about the afterlife queried Dr. Borg? How, when and where do we address such concerns?
Answers from this group of rectors of Anglican parishes varied. My impression was that when it came up for most of us it was a pastoral rather than theological question asked in the face of diagnosis or death. ‘Will I see those I love again?’ was cited as being a common question at such times. Most of us also addressed such questions in enquirers’ classes and the like.
My own intuitions ranged from wondering if the question of afterlife is not being asked more than we notice. I am reminded of the old psychoanalyst’s rule of thumb which says ‘if your tendency is to depression your issue is meaning and if your tendency is to anxiety your issue is death. I agree that the question of afterlife comes up as being about relationship as often as not, but also think that it is usually in the background as we deal with loss, impending loss or our fear of loss.
Rather than worrying, as did some in our group, about the linear implications of ‘afterlife’ (i.e. first life, then afterlife’) and preferring words or phrases like ‘other life’ or ‘eternal life which begins now’ and so on, I find myself going to the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in which he decides to trust God even in the face of death, and learn that the worst thing in life is not death but breaking faith with the source and ground of our being, the love that made us for love. One person in our group found the promise of afterlife to be essential and central to her faith because it was the reality that allowed her to take risks. And that is where I find myself. I have found over and over again that God is trustworthy and honors faith. I know I have a lot to learn about the possibilities of conceiving of time as a sheet or as waves. I suspect that string theory will be theologically fruitful if I can ever get my mind around it. For now, however, I am content to say that I trust that the One who gave life in the first place can give new and restored life even after death and even after three days in the tomb. Part of the import of Easter is that God vindicated Jesus’ fidelity and offered the first fruits of the promise to all of creation.