Grace Like a Waterfall
The Plurality of Life and Death (part 2)
by Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
You may also be interested in part 1 of this series.
The plurality of quests to discover if death is ultimately “all there is” is a religious exploration of how value can be maintained at the limits of life without seeking illusory compensation. This is the soteriological ground upon which the religious Ways of humanity, each in their own distinctive ways, explore the universal human capacity for self-delusion and the recognition that life yields to life, part to part. The attainments of the whole, whether it be in forms of life on a coral reef or human life in a city, seem to demand a sacrifice few sentient beings are willing to make, but which some nevertheless do, thereby marking their deaths for the well being of the whole.
The theme of sacrifice is perhaps the earliest category through which humanity’s Religious Ways explore the nature and significance of death. Sacrifice is fundamentally not simply life yielding death in order to give continued meaning to life. It is the religious exploration of death in all its pluralism that brings us to more sensitive awareness of evil. How we think about death and the processes of dying flows back and forth like a möbis strip into our moral, aesthetic, and political decisions while we are alive.
But it is equally true that the many different views of the possibility of transformation beyond death cannot all be true. All may be false, but they cannot all be true, at least as propositions about matters of fact. Certainly, propositional differences in the soteriologies of humanity’s Religious Ways are important to those who believe them. These propositions are not trivial, in the way that a preference for yellow, say, rather than green might be. For example, Jews and Muslims agree that human beings are teachable: we can follow God’s instructions recorded in the Torah or the Qur’an about how to live in community. So the Jewish and Islamic Ways might be said to have relatively optimistic views of human nature. But the Christian Way is relatively pessimistic about human nature; subversive egoism and evil lie at the root of every human enterprise and we cannot be educated into salvation. “Salvation,” whatever this means, if it is to come at all, comes in spite of who we are.
Still, the propositional differences between humanity’ religious Ways in relation to death—their pictures of death and what may or may not survive it—may be approximate yet mainly wrong. They may also be wrong yet approximate about some fundamental demand arising from human experience. In this sense, the pictures and concepts of different religious conceptualities may reinforce each other, even though in their conceptual details they are incommensurable. This does not mean that issues of truth disappear; it is simply that truth issues are not foreclosed in advance. So choices remain to be made, far short of immediate verification or falsification, since in the nature of the case, verification cannot be other than eschatological.
So I find myself driven back to the theme of sacrifice as the affirmation of the value and worth of the entire universe, which cannot exist on any other terms than death. Affirming that death a necessary condition for new and creative transformations of life is the heart of the religious category of sacrifice. Each of the religious Ways of humanity affirms sacrifice in this sense. This is why we must love the universe and our life—along with the life of all sentient beings—while not clinging to anything with attachment, as my Buddhist friends say, because here, as Christians might say, we have no abiding city—because “he is not here. Why seek the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) For Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of the historical Jesus confessed to be the Christ of faith constitutes the single event that initiates new life created through his sacrificial death, a new life we are now able to live in the here and now if only incompletely. For Mahayana Buddhists, it is through the enlightened sacrificial compassion of numerous Bodhisattvas that we too can realize transformed life beyond death’s entropy. Both Christian and Buddhist affirmations of the necessity of sacrifice for the creation of new life mean that in a universe like ours, creative transformation requires death as the cost we, and God, if one is a Christian process theologian, must pay for transformed life.
Therefore, in the between time of our particular birth and death, we discover life through interrelationships—with nature, with each other, with the poor and oppressed struggling for liberation—here and now. Making the struggle for liberation in all its forms our struggle—which in fact is what it is in an interdependent universe—requires that we focus on the life we are living in the midst of death here and now.
Still, I have a suspicion. The struggle for the liberation of life, for the liberation of women and men from patriarchy, for the liberation of the poor and the oppressed, requires a special kind of death of the self, a death we can experience while alive. The death of self of which the religious Ways of humanity speak is not a violent act. It is merely joining with the universe in its roll. It is merely the cessation of the ego’s willful spirit and the intellect’s chatter. It is waiting like a hollow bell with stilled tongue, for whatever might come. It’s the waiting that’s the thing, because not only does life come if we wait; we discover that it has been here all along, pouring it grace over us like a waterfall.
Then we understand what Anne Dillard meant when she wrote that there is always an enormous temptation “to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends pursuing itsy-bitsy needs and making itsy-bitsy journeys for years on end until we die.” We should not have any of this. The necessity for sacrifice will not allow us to be so conventional, because the universe is wilder than this in all directions, more extravagant and bright, more dangerous and bitter. “We should never make hay when we can make whoopee; we should never raise tomatoes when we should be rising Cain or Lazarus.” So as a Whiteheadian-Lutheran process historian of religions/theologian, I have come to think that the category of sacrifice reveals that not only is there grace operating in the processes of life and death, but there are also very few guarantees. To be sure, our needs are guaranteed, absolutely guaranteed—for liberation—but by the strictest of warranties, in the plainest language” “knock, seek, ask.” But as the New Testament and Anne Dillard warn, we had better read the fine print: “I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14:27)