Immortality - A View from the Bridge

Jan Vickery Knost

First Parish in Norwell
October 14, 2001

Let me set something of a theme by sharing a brief poem by the British poet, John Oxenham which he called "There is no death".

There is no death, - -
They only truly live
who pass into the life beyond, and see
this earth is but a school preparative
for larger ministry.

There is no death
to those whose hearts are set
on higher things than this life doth afford:
How shall their passing leave one least regrets
who go to join their Lord?

From time to time during a church year it has become my habit to reflect on specific topics in order to give my hearers a little better acquaintance with my religious perspective. And you have to agree that the subject I have chosen for today would certainly be termed as a "piperoo"!

For most Unitarian Universalists, the concept if immortality is something that is basically irrelevant to their life views. Many, including quite a number of my colleagues, are inclined to simply dismiss the idea of immortality as being nothing more than ridiculous "fantasy-tripping".

Others feel so uncomfortable talking about it they usually avoid it like the proverbial plague. But there are some who have honest questions but keep silent, drummed into their mute considerations by the outspoken scoffing of their peers.

This sermon, then, is dedicated to those few - and to all of us who dare look beyond the usually-accepted norm to consider what meaning or meanings might lie behind the very word, the very thought - of immortality.,

Before beginning to downsize my library I owned several books about the Second World War. I was but six years old on December 7, 1941. My experience of the war on the west coast was of saving stamps at ten cents apiece in order to by War Bonds. It was to plant a "Victory Garden" with my brother. It was to win a ride on a tank or a jeep in the school playground. It was learning about blackouts and gas rationing and having service men to Easter dinner.

But I never got a handle of understanding on the larger picture until later. And in one of those books that chronicled some of the anecdotes surrounding the Battle of the Bulge told of a Chaplain. A young private came to him during one of the lulls in the fighting, took out a match, struck it then, in a single breath, blew it out.

"Now tell me, sir", said the young man to his Priest, "and tell me straight; is that the way it is with us?"

One could imagine his concern at a time when literally thousands were bring killed around him. He had come upon the universal question, one probably asked in different ways by each of his buddies. One asked out loud by him in a moment of extreme fear, loneliness and confusion.

It was essentially the very same question that I have taken as a text today. "If a man die, shall he live again?" Job was reflecting upon the nature of life and what follows life. Hear the stirring words he speaks as a preface to the question:

"Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble.
He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. . . .
For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. . . .
But man dieth, and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the ghost, and where is he?
Job 14:1,2,7,10

Immortality - a glorious wish-fulfilling dream: an irrational answer to all the hopes and fears of the multitudes. Yet, though we know it is quite difficult to contemplate one's finitude and a time when one will simply be no more, there are millions who set their religious journeys on just such a hope.

The word "immortality" usually refers to some sort of existence of the human personality after death - after death. More narrowly defined, it refers to the continued existence of the soul. The distinction between soul and personality has its roots, not in the popular religious beliefs of later Christian church fathers. Rather, it comes to us out of Greek philosophy - a source upon which early Christian theologians were very dependent.

Immortality for the Greek philosophers did not refer in any way to a personal, concrete kind of existence after death. It was part of a more general idea that dealt with what they called "the divinity of the soul". They believed the soul continued to exist after physical death but had a being that was in existence BEFORE earthborn life began.

A good illustration of what I mean comes out of Greek mythology. It is one which I am sure most of you have heard before but it bears repeating.

Charon was name of the Ferryman of the boat that took departed souls across the River Styx into the underworld. Beyond that river was the afterlife Greek mythology talked about so freely.

It was said that Charon picked and chose "at random". His choosing of one soul over the other that he would ferry across the river was entirely arbitrary. One thing, however, was very clear. Each traveler must have a coin with which to pay for his or her passage across that river. So it became a religious tradition for the living tp place a coin in the mouth of the deceased. Just and righteous works or good character were not enough. Charon accepted a person for passage to the other shore on his own terms and for his own reasons.

Now this was an early way of confronting the phenomena of death. If one moves along through human history one is able to identify such thinkers as Paul the Apostle who wrestled with the same subject only he accomplished this in a far more sophisticated way. Paul simply "reasoned death away" in the light of his new-found faith. For him it was very neat and simple. What he did was admit death was a fact. But, as I said last week, he, like other early Christian theologians, placed the blame for death squarely on the sin of Adam. Then Paul went on from there to ignore death in the light of the saving resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Liberal Protestants then came along and decided to improve on Paul's early writings by completely rejecting the idea of a physical resurrection of the human body after death. Neo-Reformed theologians such as John Calvin saw this liberal view as being unbiblical. They saw the resurrection of the body as a belief in the symbolic act of RE-CREATION by God. They reasoned in this way: Humanity is a unity of body and spirit; the soul can't be separated from the body. So once earthly life is over death cannot possibly exhaust the meaning of that life. God will intervene. God will take care of things.

There are so many examples of the ancients who wrestled with this question. The mystery religions such as Persian Mithraism and the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris; the Phrygian mysteries centered around the goddess Cybele and the male deity named Attis struggled for new light; the Feast of Demeter evolved into a regular religious festival in the city of Athens.

Ultimately, Christianity took the place of these mystery religions whose initiates claimed they would receive the eventual reward of eternal life due to the rites they had taken. What happened, however, was that Christianity was able to synthesize many of the functions and values of the older mystery cults. This was done in three ways: 1) there was voluntary choice for the individual about whether to participate or not; 2) there was a lively emotional experience upon becoming part of this or that cult, and; 3) the goal for all of them was salvation obtained from a suffering but triumphant divinity - in this case, Jesus who was called "The Christ". As a matter of fact it is quite simple today to trace connections in many of the cults and sects people observe today.

Many years later the explorer, Ponce de Leon sought what he called "The fountain of youth." Then in the modern era there were others who sought their own answers to the question of personal immortality. Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, was buried with a telephone in her casket and admonished those she was leaving behind that if there was any way that she could do it, she would call them from the after world. (I know this is irreverent but I have to tell you that I once said to Lorna, "Well, if that's so, it will only be a question of time before some of those bright M.I.T. graduates find a way to make that telephone ring in the Mother Church in Boston.)

Harry Houdini tried to reach his mother after her death and in his efforts he unmasked person after person for their fraudulent claims. The Spiritualists were an early religious cult founded in the "Burnt-over District" of the State of New York. Their whole raison d'etre was finding a way to communicate with the departed.

So it seems to me that we are talking about conjecture. Millions are moved by the hope for something beyond life. No answer comes. Their patience is tested. Their fears persist. So that same conjecture leads to half-truths; to wishes; even to the inventing of superstitions. Inevitably it brings many men and women to feel a complete disenchantment with religions of all sorts.

We all realize today that there is a rapidly diminishing number of men who are willing to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. With Vatican II the Church tried to liberalize its message. Pope John Paul Ii has taken the church in the opposite direction. Its changed course has led to cries for priests to be able to marry; for women to be allowed into the priesthood; for changes to canon law that will make the mass a living element in people's lives. But it doesn't happen. In fact, many of you here today have experienced that immobility and are here testing the waters of a new way of thinking about your personal faith.

Many years ago a member of the church I served as minister in Dedham was the renowned thoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Overholt. It was he who pioneered the operation to remove the right lung that does 60 per cent of the work in our bodies. He spent a lifetime dedicated to the eradication of smoking as he worked with patient after patient who had fallen ill to the effects of that habit.

I vividly remember going with him to a lecture given by Dr. Denton Cooley of Houston, Texas. Little did I know I would someday be a minister in that city and become far more familiar with the miracles of heart surgery developed there. Dr. Cooley, like Dr. Overholt, was a maverick surgeon. Both had gone against traditional methods in developing their techniques.

In the middle ages the suppositions surrounding human life could have been stated in the following terms: When the heart beats, the human being is alive. When the heart stops beating, the human being is dead."

In his lecture, Dr. Cooley made a statement that impacts on our topic. He said that the center of our being exists in the mind; th brain...and not in the heart. Now that is nothing new in this day of medical miracles, but it WAS a radical new approach in those days! In fact, many say today that such a philosophy frees the surgeon to "play god" as it were. Consider the implications of this.

A surgeon can cool a human body to almost freezing, shut down many of its vital operations or at least control them then, can remove a diseased or damaged heart and connect the body to an outside machine for over 72 hours while a new heart or the surgery to heal takes place. Old philosophy would have said that the heart is removed. The patient is dead. Not so. I witnessed similar operations later on.

(One can imagine the response of one of the ancient Greeks. "There. You see? A human being CAN die and live again!")

Let me take just a few more minutes, given this foundation material, to try and explain to you what the word "immortality" has come to mean to me.

There are those who feel a sense of the hereafter as close as their heartbeats. I have been reading a book titled One Last Hug Before I Go. It was written by Dr. Carla Wills-Brandon and is a collection of anecdotes and true life stories about the mystery and meaning of deathbed visions. Though I always approach such volumes with some measure of skepticism, based upon some of the stories related to me over forty years of ministry I am finding it fascinating reading.

One of the most memorable volumes in this area was written by John Gunther. It was the story of his son's long battle for life called Death Be Not Proud. The surgeon who worked with his patient said after his death, "What a heroic battle Johnny fought. A gallant spirit like this cannot be destroyed by a mechanical defect in the body which was given him."

If such a life as Gunther's gallant son could be destroyed by death, it is natural to suppose that a parent or other family member could have their faith shaken to the very roots. After such events the universe can seem so impersonal, so neutral, yea, even diabolical. So some try to find order an purpose in such a universe where major parts of the puzzle are missing.

Hinduism has made an effort to describe immortality with the word "transmigration." This belief teaches that one is reborn into this world time and again. The bad deeds one does determine in which manner one returns. So a Hindu's purpose is to so govern one's life so that the good deeds will outweigh the bad.

It is pictured as a wheel of life and death that turns from life to death, from death to life again. One can become weighed down with aspects of the material world. They call this one's "karma". As the person works to unburden the mind of material wants it becomes free to contemplate the divine. Then, it that excellent state of freedom the mind is capable of actually transcending life; of rising above the commonplace; of entering a state of eternity the Hindus call "Nirvana". In doing so the believer is able to get off the treadmill of transmigration.

In my weaker moments the Hindu approach to the fact of being born and having to die has some merit. It makes one to ponder that a Mozart was able to play major piano works at the age of 5 and to compose the "Missa Brevis at the age of 17. He had already composed 21 piano concertos by then, as well.

Raphael surpassed the glories of Michelangelo in many ways though he was many years Buonarotti's junior. Albert Camus and James Joyce created masterpieces of literature that were more than the disciplines they had followed. A young man known as Jesus of Nazareth seemed to possess more wisdom and compassion than any around him at the early age of 30. And his life and teachings have moved millions centuries after his death.

Now I know that all these human efforts are rationally explained. But I also know that most of those reasons sound hollow to me. How could it be that such excellence could come from such young lives. Was there an excellence there waiting in the spirit of that particular human being that took shape in a specific DNA?

Let me show you what I mean. Here is a common kitchen match. Look at it. See what is there. Color. Form. When I light it there is movement. And the transformation begins. Light is produced. Heat is produced. Color, smoke, shape and substance, even charcoal is finally produced from that wooden match with a red tip.

You let it burn until you can no longer hold it. You put it down and watch it burn to black. THE "QUALITY' OF "MATCHNESS" THAT WE OBSERVED AS WE HELD IT AND BEFORE WE STRUCK IT - HAS CHANGED!!

In this glorious, albeit impersonal universe that governs itself out of natural law; in this cosmos timed to perfection beyond comprehension, a lonely, yet somehow glorious humanity looks at the questions involving life and death and wonders. It could be that we are practicing the most outrageous of prideful acts in assuming that all ends at the time of death.

I am unwilling to conjecture either way. My purpose is to make some provocative observations that will cause us to think beyond the neat and tidy systems the orthodox place before an unthinking public.

When Elizabeth Kubler-Ross began her studies on the counseling of dying persons she began to offer strong hope to the dying. She once said that "there is no death .. . life after life is a happy existence in which all the physical ailments and mental problems of the body disappear." Over the years before her death her workshops invited thousands to think of life and death in different terms though the skepticism of the medical community continued.

I think, however, at this time of my own personal sunset of years that I understand a little of what she was trying to say. There is something that transcends the rational when we come to the fact and the process of dying. What Kubler-Ross tried to do was reach beyond the explainable in order to make contact with that unknown factor. In essence she failed. But I do not make a final judgment here.

Sometimes, perhaps, in your solitary time, you might give yourself permission to look out upon the beauty of this earth and universe and ask again, "If a person die, shall they live again?" One small candle of consideration is infinitely better than cursing the darkness around us.

And so, to that sense of divinity I cannot prove or explain; to that sense of joy at being given the gift of life I could not have anticipated; to that sense of anticipation of something beyond this mortal coil I will someday excitedly anticipated I risk and suggest you consider the ways you may walk that same path of pondering.

There was a young American flyer by the name of John Gillespie Magee, Jr who was with the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain in 1941. He wrote a poem just before he was shot down over the English Channel. He called it "High Flight". Like so much poetry it says more than all the words I have stumblingly tried to share this morning.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.