Gospel & Universe
"Open Your Heart" 2
This page argues that reincarnation is just as likely (or unlikely) as Heaven or Hell, that believing in one or the other is largely a function of geography and history, and that agnostics remain open to either possibility.
Reasonable After Lives - An Open Door
Reasonable After Lives
There are many good reasons to believe in traditional Christianity. It offers forgiveness, love, morality, a clear historical narrative, a way for people to escape a self-centred life, an all-encompassing Truth, a spiritual meaning for your particular life, and an eternal resting place for your soul in the life to come. All these are nestled within a community of believers — an enormous benefit in a world in which meaningful community's difficult to find.
Yet, should you find practical reasons and then believe on the basis of these reasons? If you were to do this, you would find as much reason to believe in Hinduism or Buddhism.
There's nothing particularly fair or likely about the Christian afterlife — especially when compared to the other major world afterlife doctrine: karma-samsara or reincarnation.
(Before proceeding, I should note that while the early Vedic doctrine of karma-samsara is shared with other Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism, it's also shared more generally by any philosophy that includes reincarnation or transmigration — such as Greek Platonism. While there are heavens and hells in Eastern religions, and while there's reincarnation in some Western philosophies, in general Western religions highlight Heaven and Hell and Eastern religions highlight karma-samsara. Classical Taoism is an exception: following a mystical and individualist bent, it has no particular doctrine about the afterlife.)
Karma-samsara, literally action-wandering through, is easy to understand: your actions during your lives determine the way in which your soul migrates from one life to the next. In terms of sowing what you reap, you are forced to take complete responsibility for your actions. There are no deathbed confessions to wipe away a life of iniquity. No one's essentially better or predestined to be saved, no one faces a meaningless spiritual annihilation, and no one's doomed to be tortured for eternity (Ironically, canonical Christianity stresses forgiveness yet rejects the early Church theologian Origen's idea that eventually everyone — perhaps even Satan himself — can be forgiven). With karma-samsara, everyone gets the future they deserve — at least for a certain amount of time. This situation is also continual -- there is no End of Time, no Final Judgment. There's no end to the worlds of beauty, trouble, temptation, and redemption the soul can explore.
In Hindu India, the doctrine of karma-samsara can also lead to stifling fatalism: many Hindus argue that you should accept your station in life because it's what you deserve based on your previous lives. When combined with the concept of varna or caste, this system can result in severe essentialist prejudice — that is, prejudice based on the belief that one person is essentially or spiritually superior or inferior to another person. This prejudice has caused great internal conflict in the subcontinent, both theologically and socially. One of the great contributions of Buddhism was the rejection of caste. The Indian government today tries to minimize caste prejudice and to promote the advancement of the lowest caste, called Untouchables, Dalits, or fifth varna. So, while the system of karma-samsara may seem fair in terms of reaping what you sow, in much of India it's become unfair in terms of social and individual equality. Yet the doctrine of karma-samsara is separate from the caste system, and many people — Hindus as well as Buddhists — believe in reincarnation without believing in caste elitism or in the broader notion of essentialist inequality.
In Hinduism and Buddhism there are also heavens and hells, as well as other planets and dimensions to which you may go after death. Yet the afterlife is generally conceived (at least here on Earth) in terms of returning to the location of your earthly actions. Put more dramatically, you return to the happy places where you did good things — or to the scene of your crimes.
Karma-samsara is a far more familiar or recognizable scenario than Heaven and Hell. It’s easy to imagine a life into which you might be reborn. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what on earth you'd do in Heaven or Hell. The reason of course is that in the Christian afterlife you’re not on earth at all. Rather, you’re in a place that you and no one else has seen, photographed, or otherwise verified in any way.
If you decided, based on these practical reasons, that karma-samsara was a more fair, likely, or graspable scenario than Heaven and Hell, does it follow that you would give yourself to Vishnu?
Would you therefore believe that Vishnu incarnated Himself into the loving, playful Krishna?
And could you then affirm that Krishna lifted a mountain when he was just seven years old?
As I wrote in "Open Your Heart" 1, my niece once very dramatically implored me to let go of reason and open my heart. I’d say to my niece that I’m not clinging to reason, or to reasons, at all. If I clung to pure reason — to logic and empirical knowledge — I wouldn’t spend much time considering the question in the first place. If I clung to practical reason, then I'd pick my religion based on my personal, cultural, and historical notions of what makes sense. I might chose karma-samsara over Heaven and Hell. Or, I might choose the resurrected God with thorns over the blue God with the flute. Or, I might look at the lines cut by Occam's razor, and choose the most obvious, most practical, most reasonable option in front of my eyes: there is no anthropomorphic God at all.
If religion is the search for truth, how can one choose when one sees all too clearly how biased -- how personal and how culturally-determined — the very premises of that choice must be? And if religion isn't the search for truth, then what is it?
Generally, people believe what their culture tells them to believe. Take, for instance, the 2003 claim that there were "Weapons of Mass Destruction" in Iraq, used to declare a devastating war on that country. Through the power of repetition over the course of only several years an astounding number of Americans believed something for which there was no evidence, something for which the UN chief investigator Hans Blix and the population of most other countries found no proof. Many Americans believed in the mythical story about the WMDs because it fit into their particular post-9-11 historical-cultural framework at the moment, and because it was repeated over and over by powerful people and media sources they respected — especially George W. Bush, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, and channels like Fox and CNN.
Now, I'm only drawing an analogy here. I don't mean to equate religious doctrine with political delusion or deception. What I'm saying is that people will believe things for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual existence of the things they believe. Belief's a function of personal need, culture, geography, and historical moment.
Maps of religion make this point all too clearly. In Europe and the Americas, God has a crown of thorns and walks on water. In the Middle East and parts of Asia He cannot be depicted except in the iconoclastic verses of the Quran. In other parts of Asia He has dozens of names and forms, from a blue god that dances with milkmaids to a formless deity that is everywhere at all times, whether we know it or not.
If you're born in one part of the world and not another, the overwhelming chances are that you'll imagine religious Truth to be in one of the above categories — and not in another. Even if you rebel against the religion of your region, your rebellion will probably be against that religion and not another. As humans, we're programmed more than we think we're free to believe. The way I express this observation is likewise a function of time and place — 21st Century, European background, Canadian, English language, etc. If I were born in the high valleys of Tibet, I probably wouldn't be writing in English about the gap between traditional Christianity and Thomas Henry Huxley.
Agnostics don't let pure reason pre-empt faith. Nor do they let practical reason determine faith. Nor do they let go of reason. Yet in considering religious belief, they momentarily suspend disbelief, just as Coleridge suggests in the reading of fiction. They momentarily forget about the pure logic of disbelief, and they momentarily forget about the practical benefits of believing. They hold in bay the hard arguments of Sartre, as well as the comforting arguments of religion — for instance, how nice it would be to believe in 1) a Jesus who loves them and forgives them and gives their lives Meaning, or 2) a Krishna who smothers them in love, who understands their selfish needs, and who makes them one with the universe. Their practical reason can appreciate the desirability of these Great Meanings, these Divine Schemes into which they might belong. Yet if what they want is truth, they can’t afford to talk themselves into one scenario or another.
Reason is just too subject to subjectivity. And this subjectivity is a function of so many things: geography, history, culture, upbringing, genes, environment, individual temperament, etc. Instead of agreeing to a religious system because it seems practical or a good thing, agnostics want the theist Miracle to hit them square in the face, unmediated by reasoning of any type.
An Open Door
I have, on numerous occasions, done what my niece suggested. I have said to the thin air: I am setting aside reason, practical or pure. Reveal Yourself, if it be Your Will. But the Will doesn’t show itself. The Miracle doesn’t come. Krishna and Christ stay on the other side. Maybe they visit other people, but not me. My emotions are laid bare — I’m an open door — but no one's walking through.
It isn’t reason that stops the flood of belief. Rather, it’s the lack of incoming feeling, the lack of emotional revelation, the lack of any deeply convincing experience of the Divine. Agnostics haven’t already decided that God or the soul is true or untrue. They haven’t taken belief second hand -- be it the testimony of Christians, Hindus, or Buddhists. It seems genuine, to agnostics at any rate, to insist that belief come on its own — not coaxed by reasons, desires, practicalities, or other people’s beliefs.
Agnostics can come up with all sorts of reasons to believe. There's as much reason to believe in the Dao or in Nature as there is to believe in Jesus or Vishnu. There’s even more reason -- at least more pure reason -- not to believe in anything at all. Whatever the religious Miracle is, agnostics won’t believe in It until they get some experience of it. But this experience never comes. Not a glimpse of water shifting from transparent to light pink, much less into the dark red of wine. There's no voice that they can identify as God’s. There isn't so much as a faded after-image of a life that’s past. The fifth dimension is invisible, silent. It refuses to be reasoned, coaxed, or threatened onto this side of existence. If there's a fifth dimension at all.
Some might say, Ah, but listen to your conscience! It’s the voice of God! Yet my conscience says alot of things, all of which appear to be variants of the thoughts and feelings that are recognizably inside me already. Alas, I have to claim my conscience as my own.
Others might say, You're putting conditions on God! You're putting conditions on belief itself! I would answer, I'm not the one defining God. You guys seem to be doing that. Maybe it's time religious people starting putting some conditions on belief. Just look at all the strange and contradictory things religious people believe.
Still others might say, You think too much! You’ve cut yourself off from deep human emotion! No wonder you can’t open yourself up to Jesus! (My imaginary interlocutors always speak with exclamation marks at the end of their sentences.) Yet I’m not a stranger to strange visions or deep emotions. In dreams I've flown over mountain ranges, become a buzzing green line of energy, and hovered over a clear river that flowed so forcefully that it felt like our world was funnelling through galaxies. Nor am I an unfeeling person. Tears well into my eyes when I think about the death of a loved one, when I read of a judge in Sicily standing up to the mob, when I see a paraplegic struggling through a door, or when I hear of a priest fighting for social justice in a pueblo. I find beauty in the most mundane things: berries next to a sidewalk, the purple sunset on the far mountains, the white and grey world of clouds that stretch across the sky.
I'm open to experiences of the mystical and religious sort. The art in churches and museums often sends me to places I can't describe. If it weren't for an abusive counsellor at a Christian summer camp, I may have committed myself to Christianity, so deeply did its exalted messages of Love and Meaning appeal to my eleven-year old self. Several years ago I had an experience that I still think of as telepathic: I felt an unaccountable yet piercing sympathy for a friend at the very moment he suffered a great loss, and yet I had no contact with or knowledge of that friend for weeks. For ten years I practiced transcendental meditation, and when I meditated with other people it seemed to me that the room would hum with blissful energy. It seemed to hum. Did it really hum? Can I make any definitive statement about what the neurons in my brain, or what the molecules in the room were really doing? Should I have lit incense and worshipped the blue god?
All I can say is that humans seem to have some deep energies within them, and that there seem to be connections between humans that can't yet be explained by brain-wave meters, physics, and neurology. Whether these types of experiences come from frequencies we can't measure, messages we can't decode, or dimensions we can't confirm, they remain mysterious. So far, without a capital M. They don’t come pre-packaged with a set of Mysteries or Miracles. They don’t announce any Great Truth. At least not to me. If they ever do announce a Great Truth, I will start shopping for sack cloth or a saffron robe. After, that is, I get an MRI scan.
The operation of doubt doesn't stop agnostics from being awestruck by the vibrancy of life, and from feeling at times that it all seems to fall into place. At times it seems mystically, magically still, like when I came back from Marseille and sat drinking coffee in the still of the night. The small sea of coffee had billions of tiny waves of energy splashing along its surface, yet it looked solid, without a ripple. Atoms and molecules went billions of layers deep. Little wisps of steam rose like sun flares from the seething mass. The coffee, like the room, like the apartment building, like the entire city of Vancouver, was whirling at hundreds of kilometres a second through the universe. Yet the bough outside the window was waving only slightly in the wind.