Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

At a conference last week, I got chatting with some colleagues about life after death, and various views on it. (Tasia Scrutton is organising a philosophy of religion conference on death and immortality, hence her interest.) “Quakers don’t have anything to say about that,” I said, and she replied, rightly, that an absence of interest can in itself be interesting.

It also isn’t strictly true that Quakers have never had anything to say. Previous generations of Quakers have often accepted a traditional Christian picture of the world, including life after death. Today, many Quakers outside the liberal tradition would still take that position. Even within Britain Yearly Meeting, the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies make it clear that they take a realist view of this topic. Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife, and it doesn’t come up as a topic for discussion: instead, like Christian Aid, we believe in life before death.

Spending some more time with this idea, including during Meeting for Worship, I realised that I actually have a strong intuition against there being any form of life after death. Not only do I not think that any life which may or may not occur after death should affect my actions now (I don’t do things because I want to get into heaven or generate good karma for my next life, and nor do I accept eschatological verification), I actively think it’s unlikely, even impossible, that such a thing exists. Why is that? Quakers not talking about it, or a brief A-level module on all the options, seem unlikely to be enough to produce such a strong intuition.

Part of it comes from my picture of what people are: physical bodies which manifest consciousness through the interactions of cells, electricity, and chemicals. Part of it comes from my picture of what God/dess is like: loving not judging, engaged in the world’s processes not watching them from outside, expressed in manifold ways rather than pinned down to one creed or moment. And perhaps part of it comes from experience or the lack of it: although I have heard many accounts of the sense of someone ‘reappearing’ or ‘visiting’ after their death, when I have had this feeling I has always been clear that it was a psychological event or an act of my (vivid and well-exercised) imagination. I think people continue to influence us after their deaths, through our memories and through the repercussions of actions they took during their lives – but it’s also true that events influence us after they finish, so even a memory in the mind of God is not a ‘life after death’ but a life before death.

I think this position is consistent with other Quaker views I hold, but so could a lot of other views on life after death. Quakers: Do you agree with me? Do you have some other intuition, and if so can you trace where it comes from? Do you have no intuition, or only a rational answer, or one based on experience?

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20 responses to “Liberal Quakers and Life after Death

  1. Wonderful post Rhiannon.
    Love the links especially the one to John Hicks’ biography. (Eschatological verification?).
    Think I quite agree with you but more a rational ‘answer’ than any intuition. Certainly not based on any experience!

    • Thanks, Trevor. I looked for a plain-language way to say ‘eschatological verification’ but it got so long (‘getting proof or disproof of an idea after you are dead is enough to give your words meaning while you’re alive’) that I thought it was better to use the technical term and link to an explanation!

  2. The notion of eternal life would include life before birth.

  3. A couple of things: I. have you studied consciousness and the possibility of its continuance after the physical death of the body? 2. You do not speak for Quakers like me: best to say, “I don’t speak for the Society of Friends as a whole, but my opinion is . . . “. 3. You write, “Most Quakers in Britain, though, do not seem to believe in an afterlife.” Really? What does “seem to believe” mean? And what conclusive evidence do you have to make such an important claim? I look forward to your answers (which I hope this time I get).

    • I can’t speak for Rhiannon, Quakers of Britain or Quakers of Aotearoa New Zealand, I can only speak for myself, and what I have experienced. So far I have yet to find a Friend in NZ who is convinced that some form of life or existence continues after death. Most simply don’t have a view either way as it’s speculation or conjecture, and there are better things to be concerned about. Some have admitted they would like to think that perhaps there is something more than memories of them or evidence they once existed, but it’s not something they dwell on. I’ve met a few who are quite adamant there is nothing after death, but I have yet to met one who is certain that there is a life after death. I’m not saying there are none who think that way — just I’ve never met one. I’m sure most Evangelical Quakers have a different perspective and a belief in life after death would be almost universally held, but Evangelical Friends are a very rare commodity around these parts.

    • 1. Yes (in the context of philosophy of mind). I have concluded that consciousness is a bodily process and does not continue after death. 2. I think I’m perfectly clear throughout the post that I describe a variety of Quaker views and give my own. 3. This is a good question: what is it to ‘seem to believe’ something? Well, when people believe something they might talk about it (I spend extensive amounts of time with Quakers across Britain and they very rarely discuss life after death, even when I prompt them with questions about, for example, salvation) and they might act on or demonstrate their beliefs in some way, such as making art about them or using them in explanations of other things (but I can think of few examples of this, even when I think about discussions of relevant things such as end-of-life care or what is said in memorial meetings). In this, it sounds like my experience is very similar to Barry’s.

  4. One of the things I believe is the notion that ‘heaven’ can be achieved within a lifetime. We are not ‘paying forward’ and I prefer that narrative than to rely on the ‘promise of heaven’ after death as more brownie points are collected along the way. I think of my body as an ‘orange peel’ which marks ‘the end’ when I die but I agree we and our spirit can live on in the memories of those we have touched or loved or influenced along the way.

  5. So, OK, but I am intellectually and academically surprised to say the least, Rhiannon, that you can “conclude” that “consciousness is a bodily process and does not continue after death”. It seems to me, philosophically, indeed scientifically, that one cannot “conclude” such at all. Unless, of course, you know perfectly the “mind” of God! (because, actually, that’s what your statement sounds like). I seriously wonder if the likes of Keith Ward, John Polkinghorne and Sarah Coakley would agree with your startling ‘conclusion” I doubt it. I assume you’re thoroughly au fait with these theologians and others of like interest. Are you?

  6. May I ask about your aims and tactics in this conversation, Gerard? You seem to have ignored my answers to two questions. You have vastly overstated the force of the word ‘conclude’ – in both philosophy and science, one reaches conclusions on the basis of present evidence and appropriate reasoning, remaining open to new evidence and alternative arguments, while also able to move on to other points. You list three scholars (one of whom, as it happens, spoke at the conference at which I had the conversation which prompted this post). I’m familiar with them and respect their work, but don’t agree with them about everything. That’s all business as usual for academic theologians – so what does it show about consciousness or life after death? What are you trying to demonstrate by taking this approach?

    • It’s not about an ‘approach”, Rhiannon; it’s about how you make unsubstantiated sweeping statements that lead to confusion rather than greater clarification. That is my focus. We are, after all, striving towards the t/Truth. I’m not getting at you personally as you seem to imply in your last post (forgive me if I’m wrong here)–indeed, if you knew me you would never believe that. So when we make public statements on such important matters that affect the very lives of people, the direction they take etc., we need to be more circumspect. That applies to me as well. As it also does to other Friends, be they high profile or otherwise. We need to make it clear that any opinions are our own, not the position of the RSF. We need to make it clear that we are relying on empirical evidence when we make statements such as “many Quakers . . . ” and, as you show in your very good doctoral thesis which I enjoyed reading, clear and well-thought out propositions that can be discussion in a way that does justice to the topic at hand. Criticism is never easy to hear but i offer it not out of animosity (I’m simply not like that, Rhiannon) but out of, yes, f/Friendship–for why should I bother except that I care (as I do). Let’s keep on touch, please. many blessings, Gerard. 🙂

  7. I find so much of what I know of myself to relate to being a physical, evolved animal that I am not sure what I in a resurrection body, neither marrying nor giving in marriage, would be like. Not having more than a lay interest in the “Hard problem” I see no need to posit some soul or mind separate from the physical brain. That disease can affect the brain also makes a “mind” less likely in my view. Is it affected by dementia, or is it in some way pure and unaffected but no longer able to manifest in the physical body? I have blogged repeatedly about my materialism and spirituality, and am reasonably happy with both though I can’t reconcile them; I suppose I can’t definitively state there is no afterlife (beyond that I will live on in the memories of others and in my influence on them) but read somewhere that speculating about it was like a foetus speculating about what life outside the womb was like. We cannot know it so why talk about it?

    Pascal’s wager is sucking up to God because you will get into Heaven. Am I being unfair on Pascal? I am with Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral. The Fourth Tempter offers nothing.

    The highest treason
    to do the right thing for the wrong reason

    • Fair enough, Clare, but I’m a little worried by your question, “We cannot know it so why talk about it?” Why not? And, as an aside, what are the political implications of such a stance? Surely, we need to question, to seek and continue seeking. Is not curiosity also part of our evolutionary make-up?

      • Curiosity is great. Are you curious about the afterlife? Where has your curiosity led you?

        We could specu,ate about an afterlife from theology, from our understanding of God, as well as- what I am using- my understanding of humanity. Does that tell you about the afterlife?

  8. My curiosity has led me to understand this issue much more. This, in turn, has enabled me to enter into deeper dialogue with others, interactions that have proved invaluable toward further understandings. That is, these conversations can, and do, lead into a greater understanding of who we are in relation to the Divine, indeed into who we are ourselves as Catherine of Siena advised long ago (see her letters). And that’s just a start. Understandings of humanity do not of themselves tell us anything about any after-life, should it exist. But deeper discussions of where humanity is or is not in relation to the Divine can, and does indeed, lead to a more profound ontological and eschatological appreciation of our existence,nurturing the natural impulse to ask ‘why?’. Failure to do this leads dangerously into a philosophical and, almost certainly political, stasis–a void into which we are all too aware dark forces can fill. There is no room for philosophical and theological complacency so often evident, I believe, in the currrent RSF.

  9. What about love? On the few occasions in my life I have been blessed enough to experience a small taste of the love of the Light, I feel that it is a ‘love which will not let me go’. If we are loved by god, why would god let us go? What form that keeping of us in the Light will take is not important. Perhaps after death I will ‘recognise’ myself, perhaps I will not be aware of my former self (just as I am not aware of the baby I was in the womb). But to me, the search for that love which is eternal is why I am in Quakers. I think very few Friends (or probably very few other Christians) believe in an afterlife as a ‘Brownie point system’ or as a chance to gain a ‘reward’ like a school prize for being good. I hope for a reward in the sense of the reward of lover waiting for the beloved. I know I can experience the beloved now – but it’s so difficult, and what a grief to spend time with your beloved knowing it can’t last!

  10. Twenty years ago, a show of hands at my Quaker meeting showed perhaps four people out of twenty believed in life after death. The range of views is clear, from people who believe they will be raised in a new body as promised in the Bible, or heaven (which everyone gets to eventually), vague believers it all works out, cheerful don’t knows like myself, the scattering of those who believe in reincarnation, and many for whom it is a boring question. In Britain Yearly Meeting, anyway. We all know other Yearly Meetings may be different. That is, objectively, what my 24 year experience of British Quakers suggest. what Quakers do unite on is we have responsibilities now to ourselves, each other, and creation, and we should not wait until we are dead to do anything about them.

  11. In experimenting with different faiths. I have tried out Spiritualism. Even though I am now a Jew among Friends; I practice mediumship as a spiritual practice. Tend to approach it rationally there is no evidence for or against an afterlife. Last year I started reading more for others instead of just channeling myself found that in most cases everything said or heard in the reading was on point to the person’s life with whatever spirit I saw within the reading, including things I did not know about them before. Personally, I can’t deny what was said but I view mediumship as a Spiritual Practice that draws me and those I read for closer to G-D. I offer it freely because over personal conviction I don’t believe it is a service one charges for but a mode of prayer. Can one go directly to G-D? Yes, but at times they need prompting from the other side to know they can. I find mediumship draws me closer to G-D but so does prescribed prayer and Silent Worship.

    • I’m sorry in a way that this comment is anonymous. However, I did go to a Spiritalist church one Sunday evening.
      This was by way of ‘research’ or spiritual exploration and to see how, if at all, ‘mediumship’ related to ministry in Quaker meeting.
      Although I found the experience, including the comments addressed to me, interesting and might consider a further visit, perhaps to another church, I certainly didn’t feel it had much in common with Quaker ministry nor was it really for me!

  12. Very interesting conversation and comments – I need to get my thoughts together. I am not Quaker BTW in case that makes any difference to anyone.

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