How Can You Stand Not Knowing? Unitarian Universalism and the Afterlife

A service presented by Doug Muder at First Parish in Bedford, Mass. on 15 February 2009

A Thought to Ponder

Questions tempt you to tell lies, particularly when there is no answer. – Pablo Picasso

Opening Words

It is eternity now.
I am in the midst of it.

It is about me, in the sunshine;
I am in it; as the butterfly in the light-laden air.

Nothing has to come,
It is now.

Now is eternity,
Now is the immortal life.

–Richard Jeffries


The first reading is from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, which provides perhaps our culture’s most powerful negative image of a man without hope for the afterlife.

At this point in the play, MacBeth’s schemes are starting to fall apart. He has just been told that his wife is dead. And yet, because of their crimes, he does not dare imagine that they will meet again in an afterlife, where they would face the prospect of Hell. Instead, he is left with this bleak view:

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time. All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The second reading presents a very different view. At General Assembly last June, the well-known UU minister and author Forrest Church, who has terminal cancer, spoke to a packed room  about death in general, and his own death in particular:

Being an agnostic about the afterlife,  I look for salvation here — not to be saved from life, but to be saved by life, in life, for life. Such salvation has three dimensions: Integrity, or individual wholeness, comes when we make peace with ourselves; reconciliation, or shared wholeness, comes when we make peace with our neighbors, especially with our loved ones; redemption, in the largest sense, comes when we make peace with life and death, with being itself, with God.

All our lives end in the middle of the story. There is ongoing business left unfinished. We leave the stage before discovering how the story will turn out. In the meantime, however, to help ensure a good exit, one thing is fully within our power.

We can take care of unfinished business. We can make peace with ourselves, reconcile, where possible, with our loved ones, and free ourselves to say yes to the cosmos, to embrace our lives and deaths, to make peace with God.

To be free to accept death is to be free, period. The courage we need comes before, when we face our own demons or reach out across a great divide to touch hands. It is lifework, not deathwork, but it pays great dividends down the line.

So, if you need to, put down that drink. Or pick up the phone. Or take that long postponed trip. You know what your unfinished business is. Don’t wait until it’s too late to begin taking care of it.

Death may come as a thief in the night, but it cannot steal from you the love you have given away, the strength you have shown in facing life’s hardships, or the courage you have proved in quelling your inner demons.

Church closed by calling on us to awaken to the miracle of life.

Awakening is like returning after a long journey and seeing the world —our loved ones, cherished possessions, and the tasks that are ours to perform— with new eyes.

Think of little things. Reaching out for the touch of a loved one’s hand. Shared laughter. A letter to a lost friend. An undistracted hour of silence, alone, together with our thoughts until there are no thoughts, only the pulse of life itself.

Imagine an afternoon spent free from worry about the things we have to do, or an afternoon tackling the tasks we have avoided.

We may not understand any better than before who we are or why we are here. But for this fleeting moment —the one instant we can bank on— our life becomes a sacrament of praise.

How much finer it will be, when our band is struck, if we have loved the music while it lasted and enjoyed the dance.

Sermon: How Can You Stand Not Knowing?

Last year I talked  about some of the questions that outsiders and newcomers ask about Unitarian Universalism. One subject I mentioned, but I didn’t dwell on, was the afterlife.

I want to look a little closer at that today, because the afterlife may be the part of Unitarian Universalism that, from the outside, looks the most mysterious. Because Unitarian Universalism doesn’t have a doctrine about the afterlife. There’s no single teaching that we all believe.

That’s hard for a lot of people to grasp. Because for them, death and the afterlife may be a question so central that they can’t imagine a religion with no answer. So when we say “We teach nothing about the afterlife” what they hear is: “We teach that the afterlife is nothing.”

But having no answer is different from saying that the answer is “no”.

And of course it’s only as a group that we don’t have an answer. Individual UUs have a wide range of beliefs about the afterlife.  Probably some of the people in this room believe in a Heaven, where they will be happy and reunite with loved ones; while others believe some version of reincarnation. And some do believe that Nothing is the answer, that when they die, their story is over.

For some of us, afterlife is the wrong word, because the afterlife isn’t after so much as outside of time altogether. Joseph Campbell put it this way: “Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t even a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time.” And William Blake talked of holding “Infinity in the palm of your hand, and Eternity in an hour.”

To Emerson, all theories of the afterlife were distractions. “The moment the doctrine of the immortality is separately taught,” he wrote, “man is already fallen. In the flowing of love, in the adoration of humility, there is no question of continuance. No inspired man ever asks this question.”

In other words, our desire for immortality comes from some deficiency that we experience in the present. Emerson believed that if you were ever, even for a moment, totally fulfilled, it would not even occur to you to wonder what comes next.

One constant in UU views of the afterlife is that very few of us are doctrinaire about it. Whatever we may think, most of us will admit that we don’t really know.

Forrest Church, for example. Here is a man facing death about as closely as you can — facing it with time to gather his thoughts, but no time to waste. What does he think? “It’s not that I disbelieve in an afterlife,” he wrote, “I simply have no experience of an afterlife, and therefore have little to say concerning one.”

Now, I imagine some people are exasperated by that answer.

“Forrest!” they might say, “you’re a minister. You’ve devoted your life to religion. You’ve sat with the dying. You’ve preached about death. You’re a leader among people of your faith. How can you not know? How can you stand not knowing?”

I was at the talk he gave at General Assembly, and that was the most striking thing about it: Forrest Church can stand not knowing. His “I don’t know” is not a cry of frustration or despair. He has reached a place where he doesn’t need to know.

Another UU facing death was Randy Pausch In his last lecture, which millions of people have watched on YouTube, and many others have read in his book, he expressed no expectations about an afterlife, and yet he was sanguine. “If I don’t seem as depressed or morose as I should be,” he said, “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

How do you get to a place like that?

To understand not just the answer, but the question, we need to talk about belief in a different way than we usually do. Usually we talk about what we believe and why, as if our beliefs are passive things that we work on by gathering evidence and drawing conclusions. But today I want to picture beliefs as active things that work on us and work for us. I want to ask not just what our beliefs are, but what those beliefs do.

Let me give an example. A year or so ago I was talking to my parents about the afterlife, and my father asked, “So do you think we just die and that’s it, like animals?”

That “like animals” was very interesting, because my father knows a lot about animals. He grew up on a farm, surrounded by animals that were killed for food. Meat did not from the store sealed in plastic. He chopped heads off of chickens and watched hogs being slaughtered.

When you live that life, it’s very important to know that there is a firm boundary between animals and people. You don’t, for example, keep people in pens. You don’t cut their heads off. You don’t eat them.

Well, why not? (We’re probably the only church in Bedford that is considering that question this morning.)

For my father, it’s because people have immortal souls. That gives human beings a dignity that animals lack. It means that people are worthy of a higher level of consideration and respect and compassion. And so you see that his belief in human immortality does something for my father every day, every time he sits down to eat a meal. If he just dropped that belief and didn’t replace it with anything, parts of his life would start to come unglued.

In this culture, the most influential view of the afterlife, the one that will seep into your thinking if you’re not paying attention, is the Christian vision of Heaven and Hell.

In a minute I’m going to examine all the things that belief does for the people who hold it. But before I do, I want to give a warning to those of you who believe something else.

When we talk about what other people’s beliefs do for them, it’s easy to feel smug and superior. Because we usually imagine that our beliefs come from logic and evidence, while other people believe what they want to believe or think they need to believe.

But almost everybody, I think, overestimates the rationality of his or her beliefs.

I know I do. It’s always humbling for me to play the why-game from childhood. You know how it works: Start with something you believe and ask why. Then ask why you believe the reasons you gave for that belief, then why the reasons for the reasons, and why and why and why.

If I play long enough, I always get to something that I can’t honestly give a reason for. I believe it because I lack the imagination to see an alternative. Or I believe it because I don’t know how I could function if I didn’t.

In other words, that belief does something for me that I don’t know how to live without.

With that in mind, let’s talk about what a traditional belief in Heaven and Hell does. Turns out, it does a lot of things.

To start with, it creates moral order. Concerning the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell, someone as insightful as the philosopher John Locke wrote: “Upon this foundation and this foundation only, morality stands firm.”

It establishes justice.In life as we see it around us, bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. The sacrifices we make for others may never pay off – in this life. But the afterlife gives justice one more chance.

It enables forgiveness. If there’s a Hell, then we can leave vengeance to God. We can let go of some of our woundedness and forgive people who have done us wrong. And believing in Heaven can also help us forgive ourselves, because even if the people we have wronged are dead, there’s still a chance for reconciliation.

It soothes losses. Loved ones who die are not gone forever if we’ll see them again in Heaven. And in the meantime, we can imagine them being happier than they were on Earth.

It gives life a purpose and a goal.  “I’m but a stranger here,” says the old hymn. “Heaven is my home.”

And maybe most of all, the afterlife anchors meaning. If our personalities, our relationships, and the consequences of our choices are eternal, then we are freed from the fear that ultimately life is just “a tale told by an idiot, … signifying nothing.”

That’s an impressive list, and it makes clearer what the question “How can you stand not knowing?” really means. You see, Heaven is not just a decorative element of the traditional worldview; it plays a structural role.

The Indigo Girls sing “Secure Yourself to Heaven”, and I think that image that captures something important. Much of a traditional believer’s world is supported by guywires attached to Heaven. If those wires were cut, with nothing to replace them, that world would start to fall down.

That’s why “I don’t know” can be such an unsatisfying answer. Whatever you believe about the afterlife,if those beliefs are uncertain or insubstantial, then they can’t play that structural role. “I don’t know” may be very defensible philosophically, but your belief system still needs to do a lot of the same things.

You still need morality, justice, forgiveness, solace, purpose, and meaning. And if you can’t suspend that structure from Heaven, then you need to anchor it in the Earth.

In short, the question “What happens after death?” is bigger than it sounds. It’s not just about death, it’s about life. How do you live? How do you envision the world in a way that allows you to live in it?

In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, that Earthly foundation wasn’t constructed in one big structural renovation. Instead, it got built little by little, over centuries, as people felt one Heavenly guywire or another start to go slack.

The first thing that needed shoring up was morality. The Universalists had to work this out 200 years ago, because even though they believed in Heaven, they found that they couldn’t believe in Hell. And if everyone is saved, if the afterlife doesn’t distinguish between good people and bad people, then why be good?

The great Universalist Hosea Ballou solved this problem by realizing that when Hell went away, something else had to go away as well: the belief that sin is sweet.

If you believe that a life of violence and greed and dishonesty would be marvelous if only you could get away with it, then you really do need to believe in Hell. But Ballou taught that the truly marvelous life is one aligned with the power of love. He pictured perfect love streaming down from God onto each individual, who then has the chance to reflect God’s love into the world.

Far from being sweet, sin smudges your mirror; it breaks your transmission of God’s love.

Since Ballou’s day, Universalists have pictured the source of love in many ways, sometimes as a personal God and sometimes not. But the pattern continues to work. If the life you want is a life illuminated by the power of love, a life in which you are an agent of love in the world, then your morality is grounded in life, not suspended from an afterlife.

As the Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote: “So I be written in the Book of Love, I have no care about that book above.”

The Universalist vision also goes a long way towards dealing with the issue of justice.

If evil provides the most enviable Earthly life, if tyrants and murderers and thieves have the life that we would want if only we could get away with it, then we need to picture them in Hell.

But if we don’t envy them, if we prefer the lives we have, then that problem goes away. Suppose they do die peacefully in their beds, surrounded by their ill-gotten gains … so what?

That’s the personal injustice in the world. The impersonal injustice – the fact that some people are lucky and others are not – is a different problem.

And this is a fascinating example of a larger pattern: Often when you look at what beliefs do rather than what they say, things flip around. Doctrine says that God fixes injustice in the afterlife because he loves us. But when you look at what this belief does, the purpose it serves in the traditional belief system, it works in the opposite direction:

If injustice isn’t fixed in the afterlife, if it’s never fixed, then how can we love the God who created this whole mess?

This issue, fundamentally, is about the quality of our love. Can we love the kinds of things that we see around us today? Flawed things, broken things, misshapen and misconceived things? Or do we have to idealize something to love it?

The people around us – can we love them as they are right now? Or do we only love them as they will be in Heaven? Do we only love what they will be after we fix them, after they change and live up to our standards?

Do we only love ourselves as we will be someday, after we get our act together? Or, before we can love ourselves, do we have to imagine that we’re perfect now, that we make no mistakes, that we are not guilty of anything?

What is the quality of our love?

This world around us is full of injustice, full of accident, full of undeserved bad luck. Can we love this world? Can we say: “I will never stop hoping for it to get better. I will never stop working to give it every chance to improve. But this is my world, and I love it.”?

Learning to see things as they are and love them now – not in the future or hereafter – is, I believe, the ultimate spiritual practice. And you need both parts: Not just seeing things as they are and being cynically hardened to them, but seeing things as they are and loving them.

That practice can give us an Earthly purpose and goal that is worth living for, and to the extent that we achieve it, we anchor our sense of justice and forgiveness in the Earth.

Now we get to the problem of loss. It always hurts to lose a loved one. But an even harder way to lose someone is before we actually get around to loving them. Maybe you felt an attachment to a parent, a child, a spouse, a friend, and you wanted to love them, but you were hoping for something to happen first. And it never did, because they died.

That’s the kind of loss that’s really hard. If all meet again in Heaven, of course, the problem is solved. But an Earth-founded approach to loss has to say: “Love now. Leave regret nothing to work with.”

Of course we will miss people who die. Their absence is another imperfection of this life, another flaw to accept in this-world-that-I-love, another thing to forgive God for.

That kind of acceptance and forgiveness is a high hope, but unlike Heaven, it is a hope based on experience. I have not seen Heaven. But in this life, I have seen and felt the power of acceptance and forgiveness. So I know what I’m working with. I know what I’m hoping for. 

I have left the problem of meaning for last, because it is in some ways the most far-reaching.

Our culture has taught us a very bad habit: We have been trained to look for meaning in the future, not the present. We look for the meaning of an event in the effects it will cause, not in the experience of living it.

And for some events that’s necessary. Much of what we have to do in life is disagreeable. The only reason to do it is because it’s part of some larger story.

But if we look at everything that way, if meaning is always in the future and never in the present, then we need to believe that we have infinite time in front of us. Because no matter how much time goes by, the future never arrives. It is always the present, always now. If our time is limited, then our future will dwindle to nothing and we will run out of meaning.

So if we are to anchor our sense of meaning in the Earth and not suspend it from Heaven, we need to learn how to truly appreciate and celebrate the present. When we sit with someone we love, when we play with a child, when we learn something fascinating, when we see something beautiful, when some long hard effort is complete and some small piece of our dreams has come true, we need to soak it up.

“Unwrap the present,” Forrest Church advises. Don’t look past it. Don’t always think about where it’s going and what happens next. Stop and appreciate it fully. Learn how to say to yourself: “This, right now, is why I live.”

Those moments can be like pearls on a string. And when it comes time to die, you won’t have missed your chance to live. You won’t say, “Wait. It can’t end yet. Something was supposed to happen to me someday.”

Instead, you can touch those pearls and say, “Maybe I hoped to do more, but I got to do this.”

And what will happen then? I can imagine a lot of things, but I don’t really know.

And I’m OK with that.

Closing Words

The closing words are from Henry David Thoreau. When Thoreau was on his deathbed, Parker Pillsbury asked if, from where he was, he could see anything of the world to come.

“One world at a time,” Thoreau said. “One world at a time.

Read other sermons by Doug Muder