Yesterday I spent part of a nice afternoon musing about a not-so-nice subject, death. And here I am doing it again, on an even sunnier and warmer Oregon day.
As I said in "Baby boomers confront the big 'boom,' death," dying is an unwanted intrusion into the pleasant pursuit of existing.
Dying wouldn't be so bad if there wasn't a likely nasty side effect: non-existence. Forever.
That'd be a bummer, to put it mildly (only good side is, I won't be around to be bummed out). So humans have invented religions to reduce anxiety about the hereafter.
Which is more properly called the nothingafter, given the dearth of solid evidence that life continues after death.
However, thinking like Donald Rumsfeld – absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence – religions fill the void in our knowledge of what awaits our last breath with some supposedly reassuring notions about the afterlife.
Problem is, those notions don't come close to fulfilling my fantasy of what I want to have happen after I die.
If religions did a better job in this department, I'd be more likely to embrace some fantastical theology. After all, I'm not against feeling good. If a religion could make me look forward to death, rather than dreading it, hey, I might sign up.
I've read a lot of books about the world's religions, but not this one. It's on order, so when I read it, maybe I'll find a fantasy-fulfilling faith that fills the bill.
I doubt it, though, based on what I know now.
Christianity. Kind of vague. The whole deal about the dead being raised bodily at the Second Coming – creepy. I'm not big on sticking with my current body for eternity. Heaven sounds better, but the Bible is distressingly imprecise about the conditions there. I need more info. before I make a reservation.
Islam. The 70 virgins thing sounds fine. However, don't you have to die as a martyr to get them? I'm also worried about the patriarchal sexism of the Islamic paradise. Not much, to tell the truth, but I need to say that in case my wife ever reads this post.
Judaism. Once I sat next to a Jewish couple on a long flight to Hong Kong. I was enthused about learning how Judaism views death. I asked them what they think will happen after they die. I was told, "Jews don't think much about that; we're into celebrating the holidays." Scratch another religion.
Hinduism. Reincarnation is appealing, for obvious life-loving reasons. I'd prefer to know that Brian is still alive though, instead of starting over as a new person. Or as an animal, which would seem to be a demotion. Likely I'd be reborn as my dog's pet, she becoming a human, given how much she owes me for the pampering I give her.
Buddhism. It can't decide whether the Buddha taught that a soul exists. I'm not wild about my karmic tendencies being reborn, but not me. Alternatively, Nirvana (like the Hinduish merging with Brahman) is supposed to be akin to a drop merging with the ocean. What's wrong with a drop staying a drop?
Neoplatonism. In the course of writing a book about the Greek philosopher Plotinus, I learned that he said it'd be ridiculous for Socrates, say, to cease being Socrates just when he attained what he'd been searching for: the One (a.k.a. God). Cool. I could embrace Neoplatonism (but wouldn't have much company).
Taoism. It bothers me that there's so many stories about Taoists trying to become immortal. If returning to the Tao is so wonderful, why do they want to postpone it? Also, Taoists do a lot of joking about death. That's fine, but I'd find dying more humorous after I'm assured that I won't really be dead.
Sant Mat. This religion with roots in north India was my faith for a long time. It says that we can keep on going in astral and causal forms after death, which sounds excellent. But reincarnation also is a distinct possibility. And in the end, there's the drop merging with the ocean thing – sure sounds like extinction to me.
Oh, yes. Just remembered that, like Islam, Sant Mat literature also talks about how the disembodied soul can be tempted by visions of the most luscious women (or men, depending on your taste) who offer up all sorts of astral sensual delights.
That always sounded great to me. But then I'd read that the disciple is supposed to turn away from all that and keep to the company of the astral form of a bearded old man, the guru. Yeah, right. Give me a choice, and I'll see what I do.
Bottom line: no religion offers up a perfectly pleasing vision of how I want to spend my afterlife. Plotinus' Neoplatonism comes closest, since his description of the non-physical Platonic realm of forms basically is "everything we enjoy here on Earth, but without the bad stuff."
I have to admit, though, that I'm not really sure what my ideal eternal existence would be like, even if I could design one from scratch.
I mean, forever is a long time. Even timelessness, an alternative to eternity, could get boring.
Looks like I'll have to take my chances with whatever death serves up. Not that there's any alternative. But like I often say before I meditate in the morning:
If there's any being out there who can bestow a pleasant life after death, make me an offer. My anti-religious sentiment could be discarded super fast in the face of a really real reality.