The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples



An Unimportant Matter


It is my opinion that a matter which most people and most religions put at the center of their concern is actually more trivial than almost anything else they could think about.  That is the question of immortality. Whether or not human beings are immortal is of absolutely no importance in the wider scheme of things.  To think that it is is to suffer from a most peculiar hubris.  What is important is not the question of whether or not we are immortal but the absolute, well-known, proven fact that we are mortal.  We should be con­cerned not whether or not we will live forever in some form or another, but that we shall surely die.  It is that which enables and re­quires us to take our lives seriously and live them meaning­fully.


Nevertheless, it is immortality that most people concentrate on.  It is the sec­ond or third question that people unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism ask me when they are trying to get some un­derstanding of what we stand for.  It comes after the question about whether we use the Bible as an authority and either before or after the question of our attitude toward Jesus of Nazareth.  There are several reasons for this determination to concentrate on the issue of immortality, but all of them, it seems to me, are based on a type of wishful thinking.  The most important of the reasons are: that we ourselves think that we are too impor­tant to have our personalities just disap­pear from the universe; that there must be something so useful as justice somewhere, and that since life clearly isn't just, maybe justice can be discovered after death; that it would be nice if there were some place that people could be completely happy, since otherwise what are we here for; and more sadly, that when someone who is deeply loved is lost to us, we don't want to believe that they are lost forever.  That doesn't mean that the wishes about immor­tality can't come true, only that the conclu­sions based on wishes alone are sus­pect.


There are several kinds of Biblical criticism.  The most modern of these is called redaction criti­cism and concentrates most heavily on the four Christian gospels.  Its method is (among other things) to dis­count anything that seems likely to be the product of the particular bias of the writer, and has no other recognizable source.  That means that it discounts nearly everything in the gospel of Matthew that is found nowhere else that seems to be there for the purpose of proving that Jesus came to fulfill ancient Jewish prophecies.  It discounts those things in Luke which im­ply that Jesus was really here to talk to the gentiles rather than just to the Jews.  It is a very common sense approach to the problem of the his­torical record of Jesus' life, and its tech­nique can well be used in other areas such as in deciding what may be true about the question of eternal life.  Notions of it may be true, but they have to be at least some­what suspect because they are so clearly the answer to our deepest human desires.


Although there is evidence from arche­ology that the most primitive civilizations prepared for some sort of after-life for their dead by burying utensils and other things — in some cases for rulers, even other people to serve them — in their graves, it is odd that the religion of Judaism which gave birth to two of the most after-life oriented of the world's religions had very little in­terest in an after-life itself.  Although there is a story of spirit-raising in Samuel II, generally speaking the Old Tes­tament ignores such questions.  It concen­trates on how life should be lived.  It was only with influences from other religions in the Middle East (including Christianity) that Judaism began to have traditions of im­mortality.  It still doesn't emphasize it ex­cept in certain sects, but it is the exception rather than the rule.  Most religions talk about immortality first, so that they can use it as a control on people's behavior, justify their metaphysics or fulfill the need that many people have to try to cheat death.  I am not saying that this is a deep-laid plot of the various religious hierarchies.  It is a nat­ural outgrowth of human needs and fears.  It is, never­theless, as the ancient Hebrews knew, irrelevant.


Human life offers us several problems of meaning.  One is simply that life ends.  Here is a person with vivid personality, with a deep sense of the reality of self, who has work to do in the world and does it, and then who dies.  That personality was real and sig­nificant.  Then it is gone.  What is the point of that?  How can it be so very much there and then be so completely gone?  Another problem is that life is not fair.  There are those who are born with people to provide anything they want, who live fairly smooth lives, never suffering privation, or major loss, and then there are those born to a life which contains almost nothing but suffering of all kinds.  Most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes, but no matter how we try to convince ourselves that we brought it all on ourselves or arranged our own good luck, the evidence is that rain and sunshine alike fall on both the just and the unjust, that both rewards and punishments are more haphazard than a just universe would provide for, and in fact that most joy and suffering has nothing to do with deserts, though it may have much to do with the ef­fort we put into it.  Much, but not all, and not nearly enough for most people to be satis­fied.


So how do we deal with it?  We decide that despite the evidence of our senses and experience, people don't really die, and that the universe is really set up in such a way that everybody eventually gets what he or she deserves.  The only way we can do that is to posit eternal life, with that part of it spent outside our present purview either in a different body or in a different place.


The desire for immortality is not con­fined to the traditionally religious.  There are those who re­ject the religious answers as pure wishful thinking who look for ways to become immortal through the techniques of science.  Medicine works hard to prolong life, and cryonics has become almost a reli­gion for some who believe that we can freeze our bodies at death today and have them revived at a later time when whatever killed us can be cured.  The ultimate end is to avoid both aging and death and enable everyone who is born to live forever.  They are sure that this can be accom­plished.  I hope that they are wrong. 


One of the things that happen to many of our elderly people — often the wisest of them and the ones who have had the happi­est lives — is that they do not feel the need to live much longer.  They have had many rich experiences, and although they may not have any particular desire to die, they have little desire to live forever, either.  Life has been enough.  I can imagine that life could get very monotonous if it went on forever.


This would be true also when you con­sider that with everyone living forever, eventually we sim­ply could not produce new human beings, as there would be no room for them.  Even if we were to be able to travel at will throughout the universe, I doubt there is an unlimited number of planets that we could colonize, and I suspect that those that would be possible already are quite crowded with one sort of life or another themselves.  Without the production of ba­bies, the likelihood is that our culture would become extremely stagnant.  To live for­ever under such conditions would be, it seems to me, a fate far worse than death.


But then, so do most ideas of eternal life strike me that way.  I don't think my threshold of boredom is much greater than that of other people, but I would get exces­sively tired of golden streets, halos and wings very quickly.  I think I might even, after a thousand years or so, get tired of my own personality, even if it continued to de­velop.  The only idea of a personal immor­tality that seems to me to hold any value at all is one that on the surface seems even more boring than the various sto­ries people have invented to describe paradise — or for that matter, hell.  It is eternal contempla­tion of the face of God.  I speak here as a non-theist. People love the song "Amazing Grace" because it has such a marvelous tune, but the only verse that to me is theologically acceptable is the one that says: 


When we've been there 10,000 years,

Bright shining as the sun,

There's no less days to sing God's praise

Than when we'd first begun.


Well, okay, if that's what we're doing, then I suppose a personal eternal life would be acceptable to me.  It seems to me that any idea of God that could be contemplated in such a way would have to be utterly satisfying.  George Bernard Shaw wrote a play within a play (was it Man and Superman?), “Don Juan in Hell” where he suggested that that was heaven, and hell was where you went on doing, ad nauseam, all the things you most enjoyed doing in life.  Most people, except for the spiritually sophisticated, preferred hell. 


I myself cannot imagine that my per­sonality, or anyone else's, has any reason to linger eternally.  The Hindu and Buddhist re­ligions look to the death of the personality in Brahma or Nirvana as the final, and much to be desired end.  However, the personality does stay around for a long time in various lives until it finally achieves that state.  I can include that in my theology if I need to, but I don't see a whole lot of evidence for it.  I may be the only person in the world who has been regressed to several former lives who still doesn’t believe in reincarnation. I can think of much simpler explanations.  It seems to me that in the eye of God, it would be incredibly trivial whether people lived for 20 or 90 or thou­sands and even millions of years.  Why in the world should we?  Clearly our physical lives are limited.  What real indication, except for our own desires, is there that that isn't all the life we have?  My own belief is that life is eternal, but not separated from life in, as it were, the ideal, except when we are physically alive; that only during our physi­cal existence do we have a separate person­ality and will, and it is in that time that we are in our own consciousnesses, a responsi­ble part of the divine process.  However, I do most truly believe that it doesn't matter a hill of beans whether this is all there is or whether it isn't, or if it isn't, what else there is.


The origin of Universalism, the second half of our name was in the belief in univer­sal salvation.  It was a purely literal inter­pretation of one part of Biblical, Christian theology.  If, as such theology stated, Jesus' crucifixion had atoned for everyone's sins, then there could be no such thing as eternal damnation.  We were all saved.  We could therefore quit worrying about it and go on to the important stuff, which was deciding how we could best live the lives that we have.


That was a long time ago, of course, and it has been quite a while since most Unitar­ian Universal­ists have thought about salva­tion in those terms.  Some years ago a man named Rokeach did a study of how members of various religions ranked certain values, one of which was salvation, which he defined as going to heaven.  Most UUs ranked it last, and many refused to rank it at all.  And rightly so.  We are aware that it makes no final difference as to how we should live our lives.  It is of intense trivi­ality whether or not we live forever.  What matters is how we live today.  Whether or not our lives are eternal, today all we can do is the best that we can.


That is the reason that it is not im­mortality but mortality that is important to us.  An awareness that we, as ourselves, have only one life to live, since no matter what the descriptions of an after-life any religion may offer, they all agree that I, Katy Korb, am going to die and that after that there will be nothing more that I can do to make this life more meaningful, more productive, more fulfilled, or more holy.  Whatever happens after I die, this life is what I've got, and therefore that is what re­ally matters.  I cannot think of any kind of an afterlife that would change that truth — that I simply have to do the very best I can within the circumstances of this life, and this life will end.


I have said that the question of im­mortality is utterly trivial, and I believe that, but to concentrate on it as many people and reli­gions do is not trivial at all but very prob­lematic.  Those who spend all their time getting ready for the next world not only do not deal with this world realistically and give it their best effort, but insult what is probably the greatest divine gift — that we are alive, and that while we are alive we have the opportunity to work and play and create and serve and worship.  And then we die, but at least we shall have lived, which those who deny life for the sake of immor­tality can never experience.


On All saints Day, we remember those who have died.  It is good to have a certain day for that remembrance. We do not wish those who have died to be lost to our memories. It is well, too, to be reminded that all of us will soon or late be among them.  It is good to be made aware of our own mortality and understand that this awareness is what gives our lives significance. It is those who, being mortal, lived most completely and fully in the lives that were given to them who are immortal in memory.