Karen Armstrong, the author of The Great Transformation (2005), A Short History of Myth (2005)and Spiral Staircase (2004), The Battle for God (2000) and A History of God (1994), among other books, has referred to the issue of an afterlife as a red herringsomething that distracts attention from more important questions. During a recent interview with Salon.com (Going Beyond God, 5/30), the former Catholic sister, who is severely critical of religious life as she knew it, said that regarding an afterlife she prefers to be agnostic.
The religions say you can experience eternity in this life, here and now, by getting those moments of ecstasy when time ceases to be a constraint, she said. And you do it by the exercise of the Golden Rule and by compassion. And just endless speculation about the next world is depriving you of a great experience in this one.
How does a Catholic respond to Ms. Armstrong’s position?
Where Armstrong Gets It Right
Karen Armstrong makes several positive points, each of which prompts a rejoinder. First, Zen Buddhism, for example, is good at reminding us that all we have is the present moment. True, but the present moment does not preclude thinking about the future. Some of the most intense, important and creative times in life are moments when plans for the future are being hatched.
Second, Ms. Armstrong is correct in saying that people who get caught up in speculation about the afterlife might be obsessing. But how many people do that? Is she not fighting a straw man? Or is shethis is what I’m afraid ofdismissing even those of us who, while not obsessing, do from time to time wonder what the great mystery ahead of us might be like? I make no apology for being such a wonderer. Not to wonder strikes me as strange.
Third, as Karen Armstrong says, our first concern should be to follow the Golden Rule and practice compassion. What Christian would disagree with that? But it is quite another thing to claim that religion should restrict itself to ethics and never get around to metaphysics. There is plenty of room and time for both, and most serious Christians consider both.
Fourth, it is true that the world religions refer to and recommend practices that can lead to union with the divine and to mystical ecstasy, as Ms. Armstrong points out. Yet such experiences, with rare exceptions, are available only to those who make religion the focus of their lives. Don’t speak of such ecstasy to the Bolivian peasant hoeing his cassava or to the American stockbroker who barely manages to get herself and her child to church every other Sunday. As the Buddha rightly said, most of life is unsatisfactory. Like many Christians, I rejoice in the traditional belief in life after death because I find myself somewhat unfulfilled in this life. Those who claim to be indifferent to eternal life might not have taken the time to consider what it means to be extinctor more particularly, for them to be extinct.
On the Other Hand
But an informed intellectual need not be, as Karen Armstrong declares she is, an agnostic regarding life after death. That view overlooks a massive amount of evidence that points to a personal afterlife. Descriptions by doctors and psychologists about near-death experiences, books written by hospice personnel about the extraordinary visions commonly reported by dying people who are not doped up with painkillers, and other phenomena classed as paranormalall these point to a mysterious dimension that exists beyond our everyday experience. One need not be a religious believer to appreciate and weigh this evidence.
Armstrong’s views aside, the question remains: How much importance should Christians assign to the afterlife? As a young man at a party, I once shocked my friends with the question, What do you guys think happens after death? As an older man who works in a university, I find the subject avoided even in a religious studies department. The topic seems to be in disrepute. We can talk about God; we can talk about ethics all day long; but the one subject that should most concern usbecause everything else ultimately rests on itis off limits among the smarter set. Belief in life after death may be acceptable, but it is better not to talk about it, not to admit it. It is unsavory!
Why? Among many people who think of themselves as well informed, the materialist assumptions of the physical sciences color almost everything. And since an afterlife is immaterial, at least in the way science understands matter, my colleagues are loath to admit they believe in it, even if they do. Among them are two Catholics in the biology department, one a longtime friend of mine. He deflects every attempt by prying students to learn whether he is a man of faith; in fact, he implies that he is not. This is a man who loves his religion but is afraid to admit it. He does not want to look foolish or disreputable.
C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity (1943): It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. This is a claim that modern Christians need to ponder. Alongside Christianity’s profound commitment to enjoying and improving the world we live in now, there is an unabashedly bold affirmation of a better world to follow. Skeptics think the two cannot coexist, or at least that they work at cross-purposes. Catholic tradition wisely has taught otherwise.