Tag Archives: eschatology

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?

Advertisements

Search terms: “pagan eschatology”

Wow, what a question! What would a pagan eschatology look like? For one thing, of course, if you ask three Pagans you’ll get five answers, a standard situation in religious communities with questions of this type. For another, I would expect it to depend on the particular type of Pagan you ask; some, drawing on ancient Egyptian material, for example, will have very clear ideas, while others will have very little if any idea. Reincarnation is a common idea – in 2003, Berger, Leach and Shaffer published a census of Pagans in the USA, and their data suggests that 75% of Pagans believe in reincarnation and only 4% reject it, with the others unsure or not answering the question (p47; you can consult this source on Google Books).

As I said in my previous post about eschatology, I’m a bit wary of the concept as a whole. There’s a kind of materialist re-phrasing of reincarnation, in which it’s the idea that the molecules which make up your body will continue and make up other things, living and not living, in the future. This is evidently true, and indeed is true during life as well as in death. However, I don’t think that this is the claim which most are making when they refer to reincarnation. The word is usually used in a stronger way, with an implication of the continued existence of the mind, soul, or consciousness – and here is the tangle, because this implies that such a thing exists separately from the body itself (a position we might call ‘dualist’ in some contexts). This seems to me to be very unlikely, and I do not accept it as the explanation for alleged cases of past life regression.

An alternative Pagan eschatology might focus on framing death as a melding back into the Earth or the Divine – for many Pagans, these will be the same thing. As in the interpretation of reincarnation given earlier, the attention is on the building blocks of the body entering the natural cycles of the universe and being re-used in new forms; at the level of metaphor, this is expressed as becoming one with the world after a temporary – illusory – separation. In the words of Z Budapest’s chant, “We all come from the Goddess and to her we shall return.”

E is for Eschatology

Eschatology – the question of what happens after the end (eschatos in Greek) – is one of those topics in theology which doesn’t really interest me. Even in the work of philosophers and theologians to whom I am generally sympathetic (John Hick comes to mind as an example), I find reference to eschatological issues, such as eschatological evidence, a rather weak move. I don’t know what will happen, and furthermore, I’m inclined to think that I can’t know. Speculating might be a fun half-hour once in a while, but I find it hard to take it seriously. Even talk of a realised eschatology, a Kingdom of Heaven here and now, doesn’t seem all that inspiring to me unless it comes with an account of how we would know. What symptoms does a realised eschatology produce? What difference does it make in the world?

That said, questions about eschatology can provide an interesting example – in his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein used the example of belief in a Last Judgement as a key example in his exploration. At least, that’s the impression we get; the records of these lectures consist of edited notes taken by students during the sessions, so any claims about what Wittgenstein said in them should be taken with a pinch of salt. So: Wittgenstein is recorded as saying, early on in the lectures,

Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.” (p53)

If you are asking yourself: what does that even mean? you are in good company. A lot of the literature devoted to this topic is trying to work out what this means. It seems from material later on in the lectures that Wittgenstein isn’t denying the possibility of the opposing position – believing that there will be no Last Judgement is perfectly possible – but rather trying to carve out another possible position, one in which the concept of a Last Judgement is irrelevant or incomprehensible (something stronger than merely not understood).

Why shouldn’t one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement? But I couldn’t either say “Yes” or “No” to that statement that there will be such a thing. Nor “Perhaps,” nor “I’m not sure.”

It is a statement which may not allow of any such answer. (p58)

Why is this? Interwoven with these claims in the lecture notes are comments about reason and the role of reason. In as much as there is an argument – Wittgenstein’s writing style, especially in later life, doesn’t go in much for traditional philosophical argument so much as lines of thought, and the fragmentary nature of lecture notes tends to increase these – the argument might be: a key mistake about religious beliefs, like those about the Last Judgement, is trying to make them subject to reason. They arise from the way people are and the way they live – their form of life – and not from thought or philosophy.

What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day – The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role. … I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. (p55)

If this is so, then I’m making a mistake in my opening paragraph when I talk about knowing or ask about evidence for the belief. Indeed, all those questions arise from trying to reason about this topic, and that’s the wrong approach; I need to be looking at the context of these ideas and the forms of life from which they arise. In Wittgenstein’s perspective, belief in the Last Judgement isn’t about reason, and he’s just as critical of believers who make the issue about reason as of non-believers who make the same mistake. Ultimately,

Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be. (p58)

Quotations from Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Cyril Barrett, University of California Press, 1966