Unsolved mystery on death & the afterlife

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE By Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star) | Updated April 20, 2014 – 12:00am

For me, there is no greater drawing power than the unknown. When the unknown presents itself in our lives, we experience all kinds of things, from curiosity to fear to fascination, to jaw-dropping surprise and a respectful awe, deep admiration and appreciation.

Just look at how the whole world has focused on the story of missing Malaysian Air MH370. As of this writing, there is nothing sure about what really happened to it. Everything we know is an assumption or speculation. And with each day that passes where nothing is found, the hungrier people are for some explanation as to how a large aircraft could have simply vanished.

There are strong forces that seek to solve every mystery in the world. Science is one of them. Science sees empirical data and tries to make heads or tails of it. Scientists want things demystified. And yet the good scientists will say that the more they know about something, the more they really don’t know about many other things. Ironically, it is as if the bigger knowledge gets, mystery returns the favor by becoming even more mysterious.

I view mystery as a gift. It inspires, motivates, and moves me to enter it and get to know the treasure I might discover. Mystery entices and draws me ever closer to even greater mystery. An encounter with mystery makes me feel alive and in awe of everything, including my own life.

Take the mysteries of death and the afterlife. Everyone has thought about it many times. Some religions have figured it all out. In their scheme of things, there is a heaven that is wonderful and a hell that is awful. These descriptions come from a human perspective of what is pleasing and what is terrible to the physical body, human emotions and the human mind.

Many people subscribe to this. But I’ve often wondered why pain and pleasure should be determining factors about the afterlife since, once we die, there is no more physical body to speak of.

Death and the afterlife are just two of the universe’s greatest secrets. No one has come back to give us direct empirical evidence about what really happens after we die. But psychics, priests and other religious will tell you what it’s like, with great confidence in their own faith and knowledge. Science, on the other hand, has little to say about the afterlife since there is little scientific data to affirm or even disprove that it exists.

Some may speak dogmatically on these topics, but the authority they assume, at least from a scientific point of view, is simply imagined. However, I don’t blame them if they do. After all, people want and need to hear about what’s out there after they die.

The unsolved mystery and suspense on what death and the afterlife are about can be overwhelming, and scary. And because there is no hard data to hold on to, we cling to what is presented to us in holy books, the testimony of so-called authoritative people, religious beliefs, dogma, etc.

For many of us, believing in some kind of narrative is better than having no narrative at all. If you can’t calm or assure yourself through some sort of belief or faith, the curiosity and anxiety and the meaninglessness of the mystery can kill you. But often, the very assurance that dogma adopts is what can kill these beautiful mysteries.

The problem with dogma, or religious literalism, is that it stops us from engaging further in mystery. It simply says, “The masters of mystery have spoken and THIS is what we think it is. Accept it.”

A mystery connotes many things. Dogma and literalism signify only specifics. It is the same difference between a symbol and a sign. Mystery is endless territory. Dogma is a gated community. When mystery connotes, it opens you to something far greater than what you can fathom. It is open-ended and enriching, yet it remains true. A symbol does the same; it is bigger than what it is.

When literalism denotes, it kills the search for answers and meaning. They’ve already processed the meaning for you, reducing the richness of symbolism into a mere signage, no different than, say, a traffic or road sign. There is no other interpretation except the literal one. It does not open you to a bigger reality.

On this Easter morning, as I contemplate the risen Christ and what it means, I ponder the question I have always asked myself: Did He literally rise from the dead? I honestly don’t know.

Perhaps when it comes to faith, what we should be looking at is not historical or factual accuracy. What is important is what the resurrection connotes, and that is, to live and be human is to dream of a heaven, and to yearn for triumph over adversity and death, to transcend limitations, and yes, to see the continuity of life even after death, or the experience of immortality.

From reading mythologists like Joseph Campbell, I have learned that many ancient religions share similar themes of a man-God triumphant over death. There is also the theme of virgin birth, which is not unique to Christianity. Maybe these are universal yearnings that are recurring themes in human history. They are certainly rich in meaning and wonder and open us to mystery.

On the subject of life after death, I ask, “Does it matter to the future what we do now while we are alive?” If the answer is yes, then there is life after death. Yes, we are part of the future. The good we do will continue to reverberate in shaping the evolution of humankind and God’s creation. Our life, if lived for others, can indeed be redemptive.

As humans, we literally cannot know the answers to mysterious questions, things that Buddhism calls the “inexpressibles.” We simply hope that there are answers. But rather than categorical yes/no answers, mysteries leave us in awe, and draw us in to find insight instead. God holds the cards. But at least we know there are cards!

The meaning of a mystery changes often and it becomes deeper as it does. It remains ever fresh, new and inspiring as we keep going back to it.

May the message of Easter open you to greater engagement in its mystery.

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