Sunday, January 01, 2017

Religion of life, religion of death

One way to classify religions is by how they address the question of death and the afterlife. Indeed, it's sometimes said, with tolerable exaggeration, that death is why religion exists in the first place.

Hinduism espouses reincarnation. I think the notion of reincarnation is one of the few things that's as bad as atheism. The notion that you're condemned to repeatedly start a new life all over again, with a new set of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, childhood friends, adult friends, spouse, sons, daughters, &c, only to lose everything time and again, is truly hellish. 

Buddhism inherits reincarnation from Hinduism. Buddhism is all about transience, so reincarnation doesn't really belong in Buddhism.

Many pagan religions practice some form of ancestor worship, like necromancy. 

From what I've read, the concept of Vahalla was an extension of how Viking heroes lived. In addition, I could cite Greco-Roman and ancient Near-Eastern examples. But that will suffice. None of this is very inviting, even if it were true. 

Now I'd like to contrast Christianity and Judaism. In this context, what I mean by Judaism isn't OT Judaism or Christian Judaism but post-Christian Judaism. Medieval and modern Judaism. 

I'll begin with an overstatement, then scale it back by qualification. Judaism is a religion of life while Christianity is a religion of death. Of course, that's hyperbolic, but the contrast is truer for Judaism than Christianity.

In my observation, Jews stress how to lead a good life. A full, honorable, virtuous life. Make the most of life. Family and friends. Civil duties. Emphasis on social ethics. 

Obviously, that overlaps with Christianity. We care about that, too. 

Moreover, Protestants rediscovered family life as a godly vocation. A setting in which to be happy and holy. 

Still, each of us is tending towards the grave. Recently I skimmed a book by a rabbi. As a young rabbi he was ill-equipped for the task, because men of the cloth are expected to visit dying parishioners in the hospital, yet his rabbinical training didn't give him anything helpful to say to the dying–or to the living who were about to lose a loved one, or to the bereaved. 

I'm not saying modern-day Jews don't believe in the afterlife. Some do, some don't. But from what I can tell, Judaism has a this-worldly center of gravity. 

Yet that's a serious deficiency, for what ultimately matters is not how the story begins, but how it ends. Given a choice, it's better to start off badly but end well than to start off well but end badly. The ending is for keeps. 

The end of life is the acid test of religion. That's when the promises come due. When the promises must come true. That's when it has to be real. That's when it counts.

We pray. We preach. We define the faith. We defend the faith. 

But the deathbed is where our hopes must be redeemed, as this life fades, and we face eternity. 

Some of our forebears were otherworldly to a fault. But to be fair, life for many Christians used to be wretched. Famine. High infant morality. Painful, incurable, untreatable diseases. Many widows, widowers, and orphans. Death was always near. Hunger was always near. Cramp cold quarters. 

If contemporary Christians in the west are less otherworldly than their forbears, that's in large part because life is generally so much more enjoyable than it use to be, thanks to technology, as well as greater political and economic freedom. And we ought to be grateful for natural goods. 

Yet, a religion of life is only useful to the living. What we all ultimately need, more than a religion of life, is a religion of death.

For life is short. Even at its best, life is full of heartache and heartbreak. And the better your life, the more you have to lose. The world is not enough. 

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

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