Time for death

It feels as if death is being discussed all over the place right now, what with Oliver Burkeman, Joan Bakewell and Advent. Made me want to think about how death is realised as a gateway to life, in religious and philosophical traditions…

It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions were originally in favour of the idea that death is the end. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to Gehenna, a place outside Jerusalem of sulphurous discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals were then thought to drift into a shady half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel; and continuity via family.

This much, at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force can resist mortal extinction somewhat more. Achilles is devastated in Homer’s Iliad when he visits Hades and finds Patroclus, his warrior friend, slipping away as a ‘gibbering spirit’.

In the East, amongst the religions of Indian, things are different. There is here a widespread sense of life after death, manifest in various forms of reincarnation. It’s not personal continuity. But the most real and fullest aspect of life, Brahman, is acknowledged as timeless and so unchanged by death. Instead, like the thread that makes up a piece of cloth, death sees life unravel and then rewoven into new fabric upon rebirth, the Upanishads suggest.

Western thinkers began to toy with this possibility in the mid-part of the first millennium BC. In his dialogue the Phaedo, Plato explores what it might mean to know that one’s soul or spirit is immortal. The dialogue reads as a series of graduated attempts to awaken the participants to the possibility that bodies are expressions of this inner animation; that bodies are not the most fundamental part of us but are rather only the aspect that can be seen, measured, located. More vital and, in fact, more real is a subtler dimension. Like character that is manifest in the lines of a face, or the aura that inhabits a painting, so too an insubstantial but ultimately more powerful side of life exists and can be known. Socrates famously concluded that philosophy is a kind of learning to die – learning to dissolve the ties we tend to make with bodily life, and thereby appreciating the fullness of the immaterial, which is timeless and eternal.

This kind of thinking develops as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes prominent in western religious discourse too. In Judeo-Christian circles, the issue of personal continuity becomes key. Death is still regarded as death because the bodies that are required to be a person clearly rot and, for all that they are not the sum total of us, having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground. ‘Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return,’ an ancient Christian liturgy says. But there grows an expectation that this physical aspect of death will be overturned: what was first a natural body will be raised a spiritual body, as St Paul puts it.

Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it is also clear that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife were just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. It would make immortality a tragedy.

That also points to a difference between immortality and eternity – the latter being a state outside of time. And I think the notion of eternity is important because it’s not hard to feel that eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, too, if we learn to die and cease clinging to what’s transient and passing.

One way to sense that is to ask whether 2 plus 2 equalled 4 before the universe and time existed? If it feels to you that it did, then perhaps mathematics touches something eternal. Alternatively, there are the aesthetic evocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.

In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we are typically inclined to imagine in a world of busy distractions. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because time slows to zero when travelling at the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning, or watching the winter night dissolve in the rays of the morning sun, akin to a mystical experience. It fits with Blake’s sense of ‘eternity’s sunrise’. ‘There is another world,’ divined poet Paul Éluard, ‘but it is in this one.’

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