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Pie In The Sky? - nhpeacenik
Pie In The Sky?
I've found myself considering the question of the afterlife a lot lately.  There are three broad hypotheses on the subject:

  1. There is no afterlife. There is no individual or group soul. One life is all a human being gets.
  2. Human beings and other sentient creatures are incarnated over and over again as individual or group souls. The world is either a school where souls are perfected over many lifetimes or a trap that one must escape from to be united with Truth.
  3. Human souls spend one lifetime in one body on earth. They then continue their existence eternally in a spirit world, where progress may or may not be possible. One's time on earth is either an ordeal/purification or an invaluable but short span where kindness, learning and choice are possible.
For a lot of my life, I've been inclined to favor the hypothesis of reincarnation privately, but I've usually found myself working (in the peace and justice movement as well as in the business world)  with people who are materialists (not in the sense of "money-grubbers" but in the more basic sense of believers in scientific explanations of life and the universe), atheists and agnostics. As a member of a Quaker Meeting, I have also been in the company of a variety of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and mystics.

Human beings exist with such different talents and characteristics that it's hard to imagine how they differentiate so much in the first few years of life. Reincarnation of some type seems to offer a good explanation of this "different strokes for different folks" phenomenon. Much more than a few short decades would seem to be necessary for the flowering of certain talents, and life phases such as puberty, child-rearing and aging take so much of our energy that it's hard to see how eminent people squeeze their creativity into this narrow bottle.

To a scientifically-inclined person, or to a Marxist, when the brain ceases to function, individual consciousness ceases. The only forms of "immortality" that they would admit to are the longevity of the species or the persistence within human culture of the contributions of people who have died. The afterlife is seen in this context as a dangerous delusion that prevents living people from taking actions in the here-and-now that could improve their lives and enrich human culture, and many suspect, with good reason, that afterlife-oriented religions are a scam perpetrated by a wealthy elite to keep ordinary people producing and consuming mindlessly all their lives.  IWW organizer, songwriter and labor martyr Joe Hill summarized this understanding in his song "Pie in the Sky":

..work and pray, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die. That's a lie!

The song was based on a hymn:

... In the sweet bye-and-bye we will meet on that beautiful shore.

This hymn expresses the third broad hypothesis about the afterlife: we live once on earth and are rewarded or punished eternally for our actions here, in a spirit world. While US and European religious culture give lip service to this theory, both are, in fact, founded on materialist assumptions, and most North Americans and Europeans are functional agnostics. Most adherents of the one-life-then-heaven-or-hell hypothesis are monotheists. Some adherents of this point of view believe that once they and all the people who count have "gone to their reward", Earth can be disposed of, but most believe that the creator of the planet wants it cared for in perpetuity (stewardship) and some believe that Earth is in fact the site of Heaven and Hell. Many monotheists are convinced that "miracles" are commonplace in the universe, meaning that there are no "laws of nature" that can be counted on consistently, and that "science is bunk", but others believe that God created a "clockwork universe" that inexorably follows its own rules.

Oddly enough, I've recently experienced a strong sense of communication and support from some people I know who have recently died. Years ago, when my father died, my sister received a message from him which struck me as incongruous at the time: that he was in a place where great scientists were making progress in testing new theories about the nature of the universe. My father had been a confirmed agnostic while on Earth. The implication was that Nature itself exists in the afterlife and can be studied using the scientific method. I have recently been reading some modern Swedenborgian novels that talk in an accessible way about the afterlife as conceived by the Christion mystic Swedenborg (see: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/24563704).

Crisis Point:
The defining issue of our time is ecological. Our need to make common cause with all the species on planet Earth is increasingly evident. The core meaning of life has always seemed to me to revolve around growing circles love, empathy and kindness. The outgrowth of these qualities seems inevitably to lead to increasing other-identification, care for people who are different from us, for other species, and the water, air and soil that make us all possible. Warfare, cruelty and "Nature red in tooth and claw" has always seemed to me to be an evolutionary stage that human beings need to leave,  urgently! As a species, we need to grow into the role of guardians of our planet and ecosystems. We are at a stage where unbridled selfishness, greed and lust  (sexuality without consciousness) will destroy both us and the planet.

Wisdom and Compassion
Wise and compassionate materialists do exist: I think of musicians like Utah Phillips and Leon Rosselson because music and poetry are the fields of endeavor I notice most, but such people exist in every realm of human activity. Similarly, there are wise and compassionate reincarnationists such as the Dalai Lama, and there are wise and compassionate monotheists (listen any week to Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" to hear their voices.)

Where do the wisdom and compassion come from? Maybe they simply come from passionate involvement in the political , social and moral life of our time, or maybe they arise from multiple lifetimes of experience or the pure prayers of those who have moved on to the spirit world. In any case they are essential to us as individuals and as a species and need to be accepted, honored and cultivated, no matter what their source. 

We need "pie" here and now, of course, but there is much more to consider...

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