A world religions professor faces mortality
You’d think after studying religions around the world that I’d have formed some definite ideas about the afterlife, but alas, I haven’t. And I know that I’m in good company — some of the religious leaders that I admire and talk with who are attached to certain traditions seem to be just as vague about it all as I am.
Whatever the afterlife is like, I don’t live my life because it is some motivation to do better, be more benevolent, love others more, be more inclusive, cherish the planet, or try to live more in the present. Those are things I’ve come to want to do without thinking about what they qualify me for later.
And, after looking at all the hells that different religions have claimed could await people who don’t follow whatever formula they assert would allow them to avoid these sadistic fantasies, I just think they’re all conceived to manipulate people into conforming to notions that promote insecure personal or institutional agendas, often political and economic ones.
But at my stage in life, I am confronted more frequently than I want, it seems, by the reality of mortality. Though I know my own time, like everyone else’s, is limited, what I’m really facing is more the reminder of the mortality of those around me — friends, family, colleagues, mentors and heroes. Their deaths seem to stare me in the face pretty regularly these days.
Death is unnecessary
To be clear, I definitely and emphatically don’t like the idea of death. I think it’s unnecessary and that if there is Someone who has created all this, there could be better alternatives. If it did any good to stand on a picket line against death, I’d do it.
I just don’t want any more of the people I care about to leave the planet I’m on. I cherish those who are still with us.
But there they go without my permission anyway — family members, former students, best friends, people I thought of as being around forever (as if they’d outlive me). And I miss them and think about them often.
It’s not a morbid thing at all, but a warm, cozy set of memories and appreciations that I think help make me a kinder, caring person. I think it has convinced me that after letting people know where I am and whose side I’m on in the fight for justice and human rights, personally winning an argument to show I’m right is less important than being compassionate and patient with everyone’s journey of growth.
I think those memories soften my stubborn hard edges a bit and remind me, when I need the reminder, of the importance of those in my life who’ve not left yet. I think these musings represent what is really important to me about being here now since I‘ve already had years of building a career and doing everything that makes one a “success” by some cultural standard for my profession.
What the afterlife should be like
I’d love to talk with all of those who have gone ahead, spend time with them, hug them and tell them again what they mean to me as I, fortunately, learned to do somewhat while they were around.
And all of those thoughts add up to what is crucial in my idea of what I’d like the afterlife to be. I’m clear about that.
I’m less interested in whether or not my idea is provable, philosophically sound, or better than someone else’s or even those of the majority of religions. I’m not impressed that something is better because it’s considered ”traditional.” So I don’t spend any time trying to find out if mine is. My idea has no validity other than it’s the way I want it to be.
And I’m uninterested in arguing about it. That would be a waste of time here and now. I have my ideas and you can have yours. And both have as much “proof” as any other. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong — and maybe someone else has got it right.
I want the hereafter first and foremost to be something like a place, a dimension that has some of the reality of this one. I want it to be an existence without the problems of this one — I don’t consider any of those problems necessary. I don’t believe you have to experience evil to really know good.
I don’t want it to be a loss of individual consciousness where any of us becomes some drop of water indistinguishable from some larger ocean. I want to be able to recognize those I want to spend time with there without the worries of here. Their individualities have been important to my joy with them in this life.
Assuming that time is no problem there, I want to be able to leisurely commune with all those people I know and care about, for spending time with those I love and cherish has always been more like heaven to me on earth. I could see myself having long leisurely lunch engagements — without worrying about calories or the health benefit of what we do or don’t eat.
I want to hear them tell me how they are doing, what they are learning, and what has brought them, and now brings them, joy and passion. I want those I’ve met along the way in the various causes I have supported or just through serendipity, many whom I haven’t seen for so long because they are geographically distant or too soon — in my reckoning — off of this planet, to tell me about their lives before and after. I want to catch up on their existence, their loves, and their victories.
The afterlife as an extension of the now
All of this takes me, not surprisingly I guess, back to my thoughts of the present life — what has become important to me and what brings me joy now. Wherever they are or whatever is after this, it’s not their problem of missing me. “Missing” is something in my wheelhouse. I am the one missing them.
That problem will be solved eventually. If there’s nothing after this, it will certainly solve that problem for me. But there is something about human beings that makes me think there is more, that death is not a complete end. (I know there will be those who can explain it away and I’ll let them do that.)
But that something is that human beings seem to be more extravagant than they would have to be just to evolve to this point on the planet. They ponder love, art and music, morality and ethics, theologies, philosophy, and science in ways that are much more than survival strategies. We might think of this as just some further evolutionary progress of brains beyond other species, but even that discussion in itself seems to me to reveal the extravagance that goes beyond issues of survival.
In the end, I might be wrong about all this, but I know that if I had my way, I’d be spending an afterlife with those I know and love — and I guess that’s because that’s exactly what I’ve learned to love about the present.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.