Heaven on our mindsBy WAYNE A. HOLST
Saturday, July 31, 2004 - Globe and Mail
Life after Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion
by Alan F. Segal. Doubleday, 866 pages, $56.50
What happens when we die? Is there life after death? If so, what form does that life take? Human beings have always asked such questions. Even in a secular age, most moderns, at least in the West, continue to ask them. It is the way people have struggled with meaning and self-definition for millenniums.
Alan F. Segal, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College of Columbia University, claims that even though the subject is beyond the purview of science, belief in an afterlife is older than the existence of homo sapiens (if ancient Neanderthal burial studies can be trusted). For thousands of years, art, mythology and religion -- signals of human transcendence -- demonstrate our need to believe there is life beyond the grave.
Segal, the author of Paul the Convert and Rebecca's Children (both of which dealt with primitive Jewish-Christian relations), has studied extensively the roots and evolution of life after death. He has mined the wealth of ancient Near Eastern mythologies, rites and rituals. He has investigated Islam and comparative teachings of the three great modern Western faiths. Most important, Segal measures the impact of multiple layers of meaning on our lives today.
Religion, according to polling numbers, seems to be more important to Segal's American compatriots than to Canadians or, indeed, than to any other Westerners. But Canadian religious sociologist Reginald Bibby, in Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada (2002), and others, confirm from their investigations that the afterlife is of interest here.
Life After Death deals with a subject guaranteed to provoke debate, even conflict. Afterlife issues bring into dramatic focus what many people consider important. That Americans, for instance, take strongly opposing positions on the subject, Segal says, reveals a gaping liberal-conservative rift in their society.
Liberals are inclined to spiritualize their understandings of life after death, while conservatives tend to literalize them. The fact that they debate the nature of the afterlife, rather than being agnostic about it, tends to confirm the importance of religion for many people today.
In spite of secularization of Western societies and the demise of formal faith over the past half century, events such as 9/11 and the rise of religious terrorism remind us that popular interest in transcendental meaning has not evaporated. North Americans are still consumed by these matters, even if we do not adhere as we once did to the traditional creeds and doctrines of formal religion. Usually, as we age we are inclined to revisit these questions.
Segal's book is an extensive social history that traces the development and comparative cultural impact of a religious idea. It is not a theological treatise per se. One pragmatic question keeps surfacing at various transitions in the inquiry as Segal seeks to put modern concerns into historical perspective. He wonders what people at various times and places would hope to gain from such a belief. He keeps asking, formally and informally: "To whose benefit is this belief in the afterlife?"
Every religious tradition has interpreted life after death as a reward for how well this life is navigated. That can be said for the Egyptians, for whom, over time, Heaven became a less elitist and a more inclusive place. It could be said for the Persians, who contributed to the Hebrew perspective the sense of a "beatific afterlife" rather than an eternal dead end. Islam viewed resurrection as something literal and material: Heaven was a place where, for instance, supernatural sexual delights would be available (at least to males).
Readers will not be able to skim this magnum opus superficially. Every perspective, no matter how lovely or how crude, is nuanced and subject to reassessment and reinterpretation. Segal, writing after years of disciplined thought, demonstrates a mature and magisterial grasp of his subject. His range of insight and clarity is both formidable and assuring.
A good way for readers to engage and benefit most from these more than 800 pages, rather than be intimidated, is first to read and digest the introduction and the afterword. Their 60 pages provide both a comprehensive orientation to and a summary of the intervening 15 chapters. Beginning this way makes it possible to create a framework for approaching and assessing the overwhelming content.
Sparkling insights appear on almost every page. Segal carefully massages the key themes of each section and demonstrates their contribution to the entire project. Every chapter is a self-contained unit, and a building block in understanding the evolution of the idea of afterlife in the West.
Approaching topics individually, seeing each as part of the whole, will help readers identify with how their ancestors attempted to deal with mortality. It becomes clear that current thinking reflects little that is new under Heaven. Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan provide the foundational source material. The early Hebrews were quite parochial and concentrated primarily on life this side of eternity. Their prophets and other religious leaders preached against such foreign temptations.
Eventually, however, Judaism did an about-face and accepted ideas that helped it go beyond belief in an afterlife body, as distinct from the soul. This resulted in a considerable transformation of the Hebrew world view.
Segal shows how "resurrection of the body" and "immortality of the soul" became the two major patterns emerging in the West to describe what happens after we die. While the belief in resurrection surfaced from within Judaism and early Christianity, the idea of immortality developed from Hellenism and antecedent traditions. These two motifs thread their ways through Segal's entire study. He documents extensively the interaction of these core but distinct beliefs, showing how one dominated, then the other, how integration was achieved and then lost again.
A final section deals with how thinking about the afterlife developed over the past 2,000 years. The author describes how Paul, the Gospels, pseudepigraphic literature (false writings), the Church fathers and early rabbis influenced and were influenced by one another.
For a non-Christian, Segal writes with exceptional awareness and understanding of the Christian sources. His final chapter, on the Islamic afterlife, is perhaps the least developed and least satisfying, with much less detail on what is distinct about the Muslim afterlife and how it evolved. He concentrates instead on modern religious fundamentalism, giving only a few pages to how Islam emerged from the Judeo-Christian tradition, as opposed to his extensive treatment of how Christianity broke from its parent.
Objecting to those who hold that the inherent truth of a religion never changes, Segal demonstrates how doctrines of the afterlife have shifted over time. Traditionally, religious faiths were triumphalist about the truths they claimed to possess and exclusivist about who should receive the benefits of the hereafter. Generally speaking, that stance is now changing. Caught in the historical dilemma of shifting motifs and creeds in the context of religious pluralism, we need to admit that positions the majority of us now favour were unacceptable not that long ago.
Take Hell, Segal says. Moderns do not like the idea of eternal punishment, without recourse. We consider it crude and distasteful, despite what may be the position of our scriptures. Most people support this revisionist position, which implies that we need to acknowledge that all statements attempting to define life after death are, at best, approximations.
Segal declares that we moderns are involved in creating our own vision of the afterlife. How can we justify this? We are changing our views about what constitutes divine revelation, he says. We are less ready to acknowledge that God speaks to us exclusively and more inclined to accept differing revelations for different people. We are all essentially talking to ourselves, he adds, when we interpret what our respective scriptures mean in our present circumstances. We lack a way of determining which truth is ultimately correct. The best we can do is to articulate the form of afterlife that appeals most.
Today, our answers tend to be more comforting and inclusive. We have come full circle. We accept what pagan philosophers of late antiquity were saying: Our souls, not our bodies, are immortal, and everyone will ultimately be saved. We give ourselves some latitude, Segal tells us, by proposing that it may just take some souls longer than others to work out their salvation.
This reviewer grudgingly, but not totally, accepts Segal's assessment of our situation. The majority in the West, and particularly in North America, I suspect, seems to be moving away from religions of belief and toward religions of spiritual imagination. The existence of God and the afterlife, he believes, and I agree, are not dependent on what humans may believe or disbelieve.
To assuage some of my pain, Segal repeats a point he makes frequently about the importance of doubt in matters of faith. Doubt, he says, must be part of any attempt to describe what is ultimately indescribable. Doubt is a healthy acknowledgment of the imaginative aspects of faith, and true faith must leave room for it.
Our common "immortal longings" in spite of our doubts are mirrors of what all humans find valuable and worth sharing. Segal concludes with hope for people of various religious traditions, or none. Since all the major faiths have borrowed from each other in the past, he says, the afterlife could serve as an enabling motif for drawing us all together.
Wayne A. Holst is an adult educator at St. David's United Church, Calgary. He has taught religion and culture at the University of Calgary.