Sunday, April 3, 2011

Paradox: Now and Forever

Honestly, I'm not certain in all my beliefs right now. One of the reasons I want this blog is to push myself into talking. I learned to hide my questions early (though my parents encouraged us to think for ourselves, the religious environment often counteracted that), but seminary reinforced this. So, if you ask me if I believe in heaven and hell, and pinned me down to an answer, I'd say maybe, but with lots of caveats. More likely, I'd run like hell because I'm tired of being pinned down.

I started to lose my belief in a traditional heaven when I started to consider what makes a human being. The big controversy at school divided over tripartite or bipartite (body/soul/spirit or body/soul). Actually, my nursing experience and training led me away from both.

I tried describing my view to my brother George (almost done with his doctorate in psychology!). "I think we're all one thing. Like, God moves us and works with us through the very nerves, hormones, and synapses he created." (I talk like a Valley girl in deep discussions.) "Oh, that's like non-reductive physicalism," he said. Let's keep it real, I had to practice that term for weeks, just to get it right.

Non-reductive physicalism posits that humans are material--but not reducible to parts. Parts work in systems, and systems show levels of complexity that can't be merely boiled back down to parts/chemistry/atoms. Nancy Murphy's book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism talks a bit about this. She rejects the notion that all things, including behavior, reduce to atoms or chemicals. She quotes Roy Wood Sellars (a smart guy with a sense of humor): "The ontological imagination was stultified at the start by the pictures of microscopic billiard balls." Pithy.

When I owned up to this view in class a girl asked "Haven't you ever been present for a death? Something definitely leaves." She didn't know about my experience with hospice/palliative care nursing. Don't know how many deaths I have attended. While the personality of that person is distinctly gone after death, I never felt a "spirit" leave, or connected with the supernatural. (Perhaps I'm just unlucky. Another book, The Art of Dying, records many supernatural sounding experiences. Not saying they don't happen. Just don't think this is a watershed for proving the existence of the soul.)

Where was I? Oh yeah--not knowing about heaven. So I believe that God created one whole messy package in this body. I don't believe in extra-physical, invisible parts. Rather, God is interested in this matter; enough to make it and talk a whole log about redeeming it. So, how does this body get to heaven? I gave up trying to answer the question as I became convinced that the gospel is not merely a ticket out of this life, but hope for this life.

But, let me tell you two stories that keep me from losing interest in a future beyond death. The first is selfish and mildly embarrassing. So if I bury it in this paragraph, you might not see it... My husband. I like/love this guy so much that I hope I get to know him for every possible moment, temporal or eternal. But there's another story that still breaks me in a million pieces.

A palliative care nurse helps families deal with the reality of death. Sometimes as a future knowable with chronic disease, sometimes imminently. A lady had her first baby, and a few days later experienced unforeseeable complications. She slipped into a type of brain death, held together by burdensome and invasive medical interventions. I held her husband as he told me about his best friend. As he grappled with the pride of fatherhood and intense, life-crushing grief. As he scanned her face for anything that looked like his mischievous Love. It never came.

As a newlywed, I could not set up clinical boundaries to protect me from the flood of this story. I drowned in it. And all of my theorizing, big words, theologizing, and intellectualizing disintegrated.

I called my brother--who just gets me, and thinks so much like me--again. And I shared my ache with him. "What is this body of a person?," I asked. If the person is in the body, then why is what we consider a person--her personality, smile, vivacity--gone? Please help me, because I need to know it's ok to let her go, and I have to, I have to, know that when she does, she's got something better than these tubes and this non-existence.

He talked to Warren Brown, a neuropsychologist at the Travis Research Institute, working with the idea of non-reductive physicalism. And together, their words and thoughtfulness ministered to my real crisis. They didn't try to convince me of simplistic answers, or encourage me to employ denial. I'm not here to proselytize for the philosophy. I don't think it's the answer, and I don't trust my own output, if I go to a subject so invested in the answer I need, that I'll manipulate everything to get it. (Read Cognitive Discopants' post about distrust along these lines here.)

Life is paradox. It's now, and it's forever. It's parts and more than parts. My heart and mind don't believe this life is wasted time and space. Rather, it's imminently important. But, my heart and mind crave hope for the future. Like most things, I think what I believe is most important for how it impacts my behavior, and helps me cope and minister in messy, real life. Focusing too narrowly on now or the future loses the fullness of human experience and meaning.

She passed away, this lady I never met, but whose body and family I lived and breathed with. I saw a picture of her, from before her death. Beautiful. I don't think that workmanship was, or is, wasted.

Sources you might find interesting:
Nancy Murphy: Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism: How Modern and Postmodern Philosophy Set the Theological Agenda.

Nancy Murphy: Bodies and Souls, Or Spirited Bodies.

Nancy Murphy, Warren Brown, H. Newton: Whatever Happened to the Soul?

Rob Moll: The Art of Dying: Living Fully in the the Life to Come.

Cognitive Discopants' discussion of a 3 year old's near-death experience with heaven here and here.


  1. Great post with some good thoughts. Keep em coming.

  2. Thanks John! And thanks for the recommendation from your blog. Your encouragement means a lot!

  3. This is a lovely post.

    I, like you, have gone through a long period of belief revision since my borderline fundy days as a teenage.

    I definitely agree that humans do not have an immaterial soul/spirit.
    I seriously doubt the existence of a life after this one.

    The second point makes me rather sad. For all the insistence from my non-believing friends that "life has meaning" even without an after life, I simply cannot shake the sensation that the whole thing (life) just seems like a waste of time.

    I want to be able to face my own death with some kind of happiness. I don't want to lie there in my last days desperately fearing my demise. But it seems that without an afterlife to give me hope, I'm going to have to fight my own fears, knowing that overcoming them will change nothing.

  4. phil: Thank you for reading. The tenor of your post saddens me. I cannot offer you a hope you can't see, but I can't agree with you that there is no afterlife. I can't prove there is one either. It's an unknown that my believing in brings comfort.

    On the other hand, I cannot see this life as wasted either. Regardless of the condition after death, what we do here matters for the people with us, and after us. And, I'm not sure if I can phrase this correctly, but it's NOT a waste of time, because we're IN it. We are here, living, breathing, experiencing, taking in, and giving out. This moment is ours. It's the only thing we have for certain. That, to me, is meaningful in itself. The life I live rewards me. I spend it bringing as much love and hope as I can into the lives I encounter. And, I spend it finding moments of pleasure and enjoyment. I’d rather people live richly in this life, and be surprised to find an after life, than live impoverished burned out lives here (because it’s only all about that “great life in heaven”), and find nothing beyond, or find they wasted God’s gift of this life.

    So, wish so much that I had a simple, easy button response. But, you left those behind with your fundy days, anyway. I hope that you find satisfaction in your life. If you are a believer still, I hope that God will bring you hope in that, just as I hope he brings it to me. Thank you for sharing so personally.

  5. I suspect that one of the greatest treasures our over-realized eschatology has robbed us of is the knowledge of how or why to live meaningfully in relationship in the moment that we are thrown into.