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Rev. Dean Snyder

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All Saints Day: The Courage to Live Eternally

Posted: 10/25/2011 2:03 pm

In all honesty, I have sometimes been a little embarrassed to admit that I believe in life after death.

It is generally not considered intellectually sophisticated in the western world to believe in ideas we cannot find much evidence to support scientifically. In his introduction to a book of essays about death, Professor Leroy Rouner of Boston University School of Theology said straight out that he suspects the majority of professors in mainline Protestant seminaries do not believe in life after death. Based on my own theological education, I am not surprised. I understand that the idea of life after death can be an intellectually challenging belief.

I am concerned, however, by how often the suggestion is made -- subtly or explicitly -- that believing in life after death is a sign of weakness or cowardice.

The physicist Stephen Hawkings, for example, was quoted earlier this year by The Guardian as saying: "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark."

The implication is that believing in life after death is a form of psychological denial by those too weak to face the truth of the finality of death. Hawkings, whose own bravery is inspiring, is far from the only one to suggest the idea of life after death is an illusion we have invented to avoid the pain of knowing that we will someday be no more.

As those of us who are Christian prepare for All Saints' Day (Nov. 1) or All Saints' Sunday (Nov. 6), I want to propose that choosing to believe in life after death may actually be an act of courage.

If Easter is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of Christ, All Saints' is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of the rest of us. The focus of Easter is the victory of Jesus over death and the grave. The focus of All Saints' is resurrection and life eternal for the rest of us.
I think it can be an act of courage to believe in eternal life and to strive to live lives consistent with this belief. It takes courage to live as though our lives matter eternally -- even if they seem to us very ordinary, even frustrating and disappointing. It takes courage to believe that our lives matter beyond this lifetime, or even the earthly memory of it, when so much of what we do seems trivial and even pointless. It takes courage to choose to do the good and just thing in terms of eternity, rather than what is easiest, even when it will cost us something in the short-term and nobody will much notice or care anyway.

It takes a certain kind of courage to risk the possibility that we are loved not just by the people who happen to know us and love us in this life, but that we are loved eternally. Isn't it less demanding and easier to belittle the significance of our own lives; to do what Marianne Williamson, in her famous quote repeated by Nelson Mandela, called "playing small"?

It takes courage to believe that the lives of others are eternal -- that each life we intersect and those we don't have eternal meaning and value and that we have a responsibility to each other that transcends the time, place and circumstances of our present lives.

Millions have practiced kindness to others and shared sacrificially because they believed, in spite of all appearances, that it would make a difference in a realm that transcends this world and our short span of life. This is more than bring afraid of the dark.

The question of life after death is really a question of what we believe is lasting and what we believe is passing.

In his memoir "The Eyes of the Heart," Frederick Buechner writes about conjuring up his grandmother Naya while he is in his study writing. Even though she had died years and years earlier, she seemed so real to him, he says, that it was hard for him to tell whether she was merely in his mind or actually in the room.

Buechner and his grandmother have a conversation about death. She talks about the euphemism we sometimes use for dying -- passing away. Lighting one of her Chesterfield cigarettes, she tells Buechner that the euphemism passing away is a misleading term to use for a person's death.

"It is the world that passes away," she says.

All Saints' insists that it is not we who pass away. It is not the human community, what Christianity has called the communion of saints, who pass away. It is the world that passes away. The communion of saints is eternal. Nations and empires will pass away, but love is eternal.

This says nothing, of course, about whether a belief in life after death is intellectually credible. Each of us must wrestle with this question. I just mean to suggest that belief in eternal life may not always be an act of cowardice by psychologically weak people. Especially for those without much power or recognition in this life, it can be a courageous affirmation to believe that each one of our lives and the way we live them matters eternally. Such people of faith should not be demeaned as weak or afraid but honored, as we seek to do on All Saints' Day.