“That undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns, puzzles the will…”
(Hamlet, William Shakespeare)
Is there an afterlife? Where do we go when we die, or do we just vanish back into the nothingness from whence we purportedly came?
Philosophers for centuries have been exploring these questions, and religions of the world have attempted to offer answers. Yet we are no closer now to an understanding of this complex issue than our distant, and not so distant, ancestors.
Our relationship to the afterlife, whether we believe in one or not, is precisely that: a belief. It is not, nor can it ever be, a knowledge, in spite of the best efforts of science to prove or disprove its veracity.
On account of wanting answers to the question of death and the afterlife, people who would not ordinarily describe themselves as religious, may turn to religion, simply because religious discourse is the only type of discourse that explores this phenomenon with any seriousness.
In our modern world, the Ten Commandments still hold true yet they denote a social rather than religious issue; crime rather than sin. Refraining from stealing or murdering is viewed by most people as integral to a fully socialised, well-adjusted human being. Breaking the ten commandments is anti-social rather than sinful and we do not need the Bible to tell us that cheating on a spouse or loved one, or lying to someone, is socially unacceptable.
People do these things, yet still feel guilty about them because there is still an instinctual sense of what is right and wrong, in spite of the complexities of modern life.
Yet when it comes to death and the question of an afterlife, we are lost. There are no sources to turn to, no manuals with instructions, no right or wrong answers.
There are of course, plenty of self-help books for those suffering from a bereavement, but nothing that can explain to us what happens when it is our turn: what happens when we die?
Through death and death alone we stand in stark, absolute relation to the very essence of our humanity: our vulnerability, our frailty and our fallibility. Even love can be explained away by pheromones, according to science.
Yet it is in death that we encounter the essence of our imperfection and our powerlessness. No one is immune. No one is safe. None of us are protected.
It is quite conceivable that without death – if by some fluke or evolutionary hiccup we had managed to overcome our mortality and defy death we would no longer have the need for religion, or indeed faith of any kind. Faith would be superseded by knowledge, and we would live in a world of absolutes.
A strange thought indeed. Living in world entirely defined by knowledge, in which blind faith has no place. It is a world that science is perpetually trying to bring about.
Yet if our existence were defined purely by what we knew as opposed to what we believed, what effect would this have upon our humanity?
We would doubtless become less human; perhaps even a weaker and more cowardly species, since faith of any kind requires courage, a leap into some kind of unknown.
It also requires us to search ourselves for an understanding that science cannot provide and although through such intellectual meanderings we cannot achieve knowledge of the world, we can achieve a greater modicum of self-knowledge.
Without death, and the challenge it presents to our humanity, we would become less humble; more insufferably arrogant than one might think possible. As the dominant species we have no predators. Our only predator is death, our only Achilles heel is our mortality.
Yet would we want to live in a world entirely determined by reason? Of course we would not want to live in a world devoid of reason, where, as in the case of the ancients, we and the crops we grow are at the mercy of the seasons and causality can only be explained by mysterious and often vengeful forces.
Of course a world without reason is a world largely without form, in which nothing is clear or defined, in which things only make sense with recourse to superstition and ritual.
Yet a world without faith is a world without content, in which there is only the bare causality of events as explained by science, in which the hidden mysteries and the unseen things are banished.
But would we really want the answers, if we were offered the opportunity to find out, if the mystery of death could be revealed to us once and for all, indisputably, by a reliable source? Knowledge is, after all, a responsibility and like all responsibilities, a burden.
Faith; belief, hovers just outside the perimeters of knowledge and when in our intellectual meandering we traverse those perimeters we are on our own, with only our imaginations for company, and maybe the Bible, or other religious tracts if we are so inclined. On the subject of death we are reconnected with our ancestors, as clueless and confused as we have ever been.
We can play out the fictions we create for ourselves, suspending reality to talk about long tunnels and white light, even as we might query the legitimacy of our thoughts; like having a naked lunch moment but deciding to carry on eating anyway.
Our afterlife contemplations are not in response to an extrinsic image of a god, or an afterlife, but rather are reiterations of iconic images occurring within our collective imaginations, in our culture. Such ideas are to be found all over the world, in cultures past and present, so the anthropologists tell us.
The afterlife and our ideas of it, is also where Nietzsche’s Will to Power comes into force. We may employ faith to embrace images of angels and a white-bearded god, whilst also being aware that it is we who are doing the believing.
Yet how many of us can help thinking that our deceased family members are watching us? How many of us have even talked to them, whilst also maybe feeling a tad silly and wondering if we’re heading for the funny farm?
However, the alternative is to embrace oblivion and accept that after death there is nothing. As Nietzsche might have said we are not quite brave enough to believe that.
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