A good friend of mine posted a blog a couple of days ago in which he floated the idea that to achieve an afterlife you have to "nurture and exercise your potential immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body," in much the same way that you have to make the effort to learn algebra in order to solve quadratic equations. (http://blog.american.com/2012/01/a-policy-free-post-on-life-after-d...) In short, an afterlife doesn't just happen, you have to work at it. The souls of atheists would become extinct at death (epic fail on the final exam), and so, presumably, would those erstwhile slackers who undergo deathbed conversions (only to realize at the last minute that they really should have attended class). Neither, according to my friend's theory, would people who have merely lived good lives - but never actively exercised their "God muscle" - get a free pass when they shuffled off their mortal coils. Folks, however, who had done the necessary "soul work" would "graduate" to Whatever Comes Next.

It's an intriguing idea that pretty much trashes some of Christianity's most fiercely-held doctrines, from the predestination of the Calvinists to the John 3:16 formulaic approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Extreme Unction-last minute conversion of the Catholics. For Quakers, however, it's not an entirely unreasonable theory. For starters, unlike most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, we spend very little time either imagining or worrying about the afterlife. We're much more concerned with what is happening in the here and now and tend to work very earnestly towards achieving the peaceable kingdom in this life. We're reluctant to define "God" but strive very hard to be in His/Her/Its presence. Most Quakers of my acquaintance cheerfully acknowledge that they just don't know what happens next. No seventy-seven virgins for us or Pearly Gates, or, for that matter, hellfire and brimstone. Personally, the furthest I am prepared to go is to claim that whatever the afterlife consists of is utterly beyond the very limited comprehension of our earthbound selves, but that there is a "rightness" about it that totally transcends the picayune worries and concerns and preoccupations of our individual pre-death selves. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if in my current very limited human state I could imagine anything close to whatever it is.

Interestingly, I believe this seemingly feckless disregard as to the final landing place of one's soul is not a modern outcome of the secularization of liberal Quakerism, but has its roots, ironically, in the apocalyptic beliefs of early Friends. When George Fox had his revelation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," it meant much more than that people could dispense with priests and doctrine, because humanity now had the ability to interface directly and unmediated with the Divine. Fox and the early Quakers believed they were experiencing the unfolding of the Second Coming and the thousand year reign of Christ was at hand, with themselves as the vanguard. With enviable fervor, they set about establishing, quite literally, "the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," and it was in this extremely fertile growing medium that Quaker testimonies began to take root. Practice - living the "Kingdom life" - superseded what they saw as the now redundant doctrine and ritual, much of which was done "in remembrance" of Christ, because Christ was now with them.

Of course, as time passed, early Friends had to readjust their expectations regarding the end times, but the essential idea that we are called to help establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remains to this day. While our language and descriptors may have changed, and while some modern Quakers may be uncomfortable with the Biblical language implied by "the Kingdom of Heaven," the concept runs like a golden thread throughout the 350 years of Quaker history. Even after Friends embraced a more mystical interpretation of "Christ among us," they sought (admittedly in their flawed human way) to make Quaker meetings and communities templates for the Kingdom of Heaven. The most ambitious of these projects was William Penn's Holy Experiment - the founding of Pennsylvania - in which Friends succeeded to a remarkable degree (at least in Penn's lifetime) in establishing a peaceable kingdom. Yes, it was far from the ideal Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but it was a brave attempt.

I think this visceral belief in the presence of Christ in the here and now, whether an individual Friend uses traditional Christian language or not, remains at the very heart of the Quaker experience. We do not live in a state of anticipation of either reward or punishment. We do not imagine some eventual day of reckoning. We accept the mystery that is our existence and our relationship with the Divine, and are content to know that living the faithful life while we are on this earth brings its own reward. Perhaps, as my friend surmises, our efforts in the here and now will qualify us for the afterlife, but isn't it a relief to simply greet each day as a new opportunity to live a with God life? Whatever happens after death is as it should be.

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Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 3, 2012 at 4:36pm

I don't see any basis for your friend's position.  While I have a firm belief in the afterlife I agree with you that we are called to live our present lives focused on living it with God in the here and now, balancing works with faith as Paul and James exhorted us to.  The temptation is to go out of our way to do good works on a "grand" level as part of a "ministry" or "social program" instead of loving our neighbor in the everyday chores our position in life affords us.  Being called to leave mother and father and follow Jesus is one thing but abandoning family and social responsibilities to pursue an otherwise good purpose to satisfy one's ego is questionable.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 2nd mo. 3, 2012 at 5:54pm

Well, I think Charles's idea was really just a thought experiment that I found interesting because I have always been struck by how little Friends seem to worry about the afterlife (speaking as a liberal Friend). While I am sure that many Quakers have (and do) have a belief in heaven, it seems to me that it takes a much less upfront and central place in Quaker theology than it does in other Christian traditions. It's almost more like Judaism in that respect.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 3, 2012 at 6:57pm

Really it's all just one duringlife...

If/as you see what your 'soul' is, it's quite impossible to imagine that coming to an end. But this observation, of course, doesn't necessarily tell you what kind of experience 'you' will be having five minutes from now-- or whether "you", experiencing whatever comes next, will still be thinking of yourself as "the same person."

I'm inclined to believe that God, having gone to this much trouble to create humans as "different" personalities, will want to keep them in some sort of continuity with who-we-were. Perhaps, with some, needing to push their Cosmic Restart Buttons, to 'reboot' them in hopes that next time they'll do better on 'plays well with others'...

I had a friend who'd uncritically swallowed some "teachings" from a popular sufistic cult-- and was completely annoyed with me because 1) I didn't believe a bit of it but 2) kept right on meditating, yoging, doing minor mitzvahs etc just as if I had needed to 'grow myself a soul'. Definitely makes "this life" more pleasant.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 2nd mo. 3, 2012 at 8:41pm

Forrest -- I love the idea of a "duringlife". That is sort of a Mormon idea, actually. They believe that we are just on one long continuum that starts before we are born and continues onwards to when we eventually become gods ourselves. Our main job here on earth as flesh and blood is to be baptized. Later on, if we haven't responded positively to the Mormon message while "alive," we might get a chance later in the "afterlife" and, if we agree to sign on, someone else has to be baptized into the faith here on earth by a proxy. Hence baptism of the dead. Some days I like the idea that "I" will continue onwards as a distinct personality, but other days, when I am sick to death of myself, the thought of still being "me" into eternity is quite horrific. I do, however, love the idea of a Cosmic Restart Button. Sort of a "do over." And, yes, "keeping on keeping on" as regards the spiritual life is wonderful enough in its own right to justify the effort even without the surety of heaven at the end.

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 3, 2012 at 11:59pm

Based on a very short interval in the midst of a heart attack I can report that based on my small sample my distinct personality seemed to be intact after leaving the body I had occupied up to that time.  However I am happier to report that the pain that my poorly maintained body experiences in one form or another didn't accompany me on my very short journey.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 4, 2012 at 2:46pm

On my brief excursions I've been uncomfortably overwhelmed with the oddity of me being one place, my body another... but yeah, aside from that I felt like 'me'.

Another person's observation of someone else's dying... 'Someone Else' had been bedridden for months-to-years, unpleasantly long in any case.  'Another Person' was asleep and had one of those classic moment-of-death visits, where he saw his friend at the foot of the bed. His friend danced a happy little jig, went up through the ceiling, and yes, had unexpectedly died that evening.

It's that body that remains after this one dies... that I'm not so sure of. I expect it remains, but whether it exists in the same way as the body we dream in? Something that's there when we're paying attention, possibly 'not there' when we're busy thinking...? Oh well, will like see how it is some time.

Comment by Patricia Barber on 2nd mo. 4, 2012 at 3:15pm

Fascinating. While I personally have not yet had a near-death experience I did have an extremely powerful experience at the death bed of a very dear friend of mine. She had suffered from clinical depression periodically for most of her life and had survived (barely) many broken relationships with significant others and family. She was also a very determined atheist and had no expectation whatsoever of an afterlife. I sat with her almost the whole night before she died and as I sat there, I became deeply aware of the overwhelming presence of God, and I knew that she was undergoing a profound healing - not physical, but spiritual - all that was broken about her spiritually was being made whole and she was entering a place of profound love. It is one of two peak spiritual experiences of my life and it left me with a profound belief in the afterlife and a remarkable calmness about death.


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