Friday, May 22, 2009

An Afterlife I can Live With

The fault line in my Christian faith that eventually led to my seismic faith shake up, had to do with what happens when we die. I could never accept, and still do not accept, a concept of heaven in which good individuals who had not specifically accepted Jesus as their personal savior, would be excluded from Heaven.

When my uncle died this past May 2nd, I was reminded of how intense this personal fault line is for me. I was reminded of how mystifying the passing of a human being really is. And, as I ponder it, I join everyone who has ever lost someone in wondering how to make sense of the brutal shift between having someone day after day, and then having day after day without that person.

My uncle's funeral was held at The Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola in New York City, a cathedral so gorgeous, the sheer awe it inspires might tempt a skeptic to reconsider the possibility of becoming Catholic.

The mass's main message was that death is not the final chapter for Christians. For Christians, there is victory and hope in The Resurrection, so as Father Whit explained, "life does not end with death, Christians experience life, death, and Resurrection."

For me, the idea of a resurrection that includes a reunion at the pearly gates with Jesus and all my loved ones (who had the good sense to accept Jesus into their hearts) feels like the kind of confabulation that has been witnessed in split brain experiments, which have been described many places, but which I most recently read about in The Accidental Mind by David Linden. Here's his description of one split brain experiment:

"Split-brain patients provide a unique opportunity to see how the left and right cortices process information independently. In one famous experiment, a split-brain patient was placed before a specially constructed screen, designed so that the left cortex received only an image of a chicken's claw...while the right cortex saw a winter landscape with snow...When asked to pick a card with an image to match, the right cortex...picked a shovel to go with the theme of snow, while the left cortex...picked an image of a chicken to go with the claw....When the patient was asked why he chose those two images, the response...was, "Oh that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean the chicken shed."

Linden's analysis follows:

"The left brain [which controls the language centers of the brain] saw the chicken claw, but not the snow scene. When faced with the shovel and the chicken, it retroactively constructed a story to make these disparate choices appear to make sense...The narrative-constructing capacity of the left cortex has now been clearly observed in more than 100 split-brain patients in many different situations."

These experiments prove that our brains, on their own, are driven to create narratives that make sense out of disparate and even conflicting facts. And with the recent passing of my uncle, I was reminded of how the finality of a death feels like it just doesn't make sense, like that it is something unreal, that one day someone is here, and then the next day their body is here, but their personality is gone. Disparate is an understatement for how death feels.

The mass the priest delivered at my uncle's funeral offered the following narrative for how to make sense of the jarring disparity of death. Humans are born, live life in a godly way, die and are resurrected in heaven with Jesus.

It's one possible story, but I have problems with it. The first is that it's not available to people who don't know Jesus. And the second is that intellectually, if taken literally, I can't wrap my head around a resurrection in which all the good souls end up in a real place called Heaven.

So in the wake of my uncle's passing, I've chosen to construct my own narrative that makes sense of the disparate facts of life and death. I've chosen to take comfort in what church offered--a magnificent ceremony that honors a human life in the most profound way--and from there I've gone my own way.

Here's how my narrative goes:

I choose to remember my uncle, as will my aunt, my mom, my cousins and everyone who knew him. Here is some of what we will remember:

He called me stretch;
He sat by me and sang Christmas carols and marveled at my kids;
He called me his hero;
He filled my drink;
He stood by me on the deck and teased me that he had to buy new deck chairs to make room for us;
He counted how many bottles of wine we drank;
He swept the patio;
He said, "you're a pain in my ass!" And he wasn't kidding, but he laughed and he loved us anyway;
He gave me a sparkling teardrop for Valentine's Day

The evening after the funeral we sit around a table at dinner and let memories swell. We tell stories out loud, we merge them together, and remember them again. We feel he is around us, because when we tell stories we remember what it was like to be with him. We resonate with one another, echoing for all time, what Ed feels like.

And this is happening, it has me thinking, perhaps this is my idea of resurrection, of life after death: for each of our lives to become stories that mean something, that merit re-telling, and that in the re-telling remind those left behind that they were loved.

That's an afterlife I can live with, and one I would be satisfied to have.

Friday, May 8, 2009

I'm part of the largest growing religious group in America, are you?

This December I learned that I am part of the largest growing religious group in the United States. No, I'm not an Evangelical Christian (that segment is also a growing group), but that is where my interest in spirituality started.

I was 10 years old when I asked Jesus into my heart. It was my first summer at Camp Deer Run in Alton, NH. I did it silently sitting on a rock outside. I closed my eyes and prayed that Jesus would enter my heart. And then I prayed that he would open my mom's heart so that she could go to Heaven too.

I didn't feel rapture or receive mystical guidance, but I felt safer in the world. I knew I had a god on my side who could part rivers, move mountains with mustard seeds, could raise the dead and heal the sick. He was also promised to take me under his wing so that I would never have to feel my skin burn in Hell.

That guy, Jesus, would have been a big help the previous school year, which had been a rough one. At various times I was called Brain, Leech, and Loser. On the playground kick ball players migrated into a tight radius when I was up. And when arrived home after school the house was empty except for a Brazilian housekeeper/nanny who was gray faced and sad, and, and spoke no English at all.

Jesus sounded pretty good.

Twenty-seven years later. I've got a few friends. I'm rarely called names. And even though I'm probably still no good at kickball, at 37 it matters a lot less.

I still close my eyes to pray.

I continue to think highly of Jesus--I'm reminded of my husband's friend Kevin who says, "yeah, I'm into the Jeez."

But even though the idea of Jesus still means something to me, I don't consider myself Christian in a formal sense. Jesus has been demoted. He is no longer my spiritual sun, but one star in my Milky Way, one prick of light in a large somewhat ordered collection.

And oddly enough, in my undefined spiritual identity, I may have found my tribe.

A December 2008 poll (you'll need to scroll to read the general report) reported that the largest growing religious affiliation in America is not having one. That number has grown from 8% to 15% since 1999. In 2008 an additional 11% of respondents refused to answer the question at all. And, more telling than either of those, I think, is that 27% of Americans believe that their funeral will not be religious.

In my adult life, I happen to know a lot of people who have no religious affiliation. The authors of the ARIS poll call them "nones.". And, in my experience, these folks, like me, are not entirely un-spiritual. Many of them have a strong set of beliefs and moral values. They live meaningful lives and are looking for ways to articulate that meaning. Many of them, like me, even pray.

One of my friends in this group is an atheist, but I believe he is one of the most spiritual people I know. And as a therapist, my mom, who is also a "none," regularly offers spiritual advice and sees people through periods of spiritual growth, but she never did ask Jesus to be her savior like I hoped she would that summer (and for many years after).

These people--this group--you are my tribe--I dedicate my blog to you.

To anyone who has ever wondered why we're here, who has wondered what it means to have a meaningful life, and who has found their religion's official answer wanting--I offer my best effort to you.

That we may all be able to recognize goodness when we see it in ourselves and others, that we may leave our kids a world that is better than the one we found, and that we may all seek and know peace.

This is my prayer. Amen.