Famous UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah died last week, and to note the occasion, the university’s media center sent around an article on Bellah’s view of death. Gene Palumbo kindly sent it on to me. Here are some key paragraphs:
Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.
Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.
Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.
As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.
By coincidence or, as believers hold, by divine providence, I read today a sermon that the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe preached one Easter Sunday. Some contrasting paragraphs:
Jesus really died. The living human body which had been Jesus became no longer a human body but a corpse hanging from the cross and cadaver was put away in a tomb. There was no longer a man, Jesus of Nazareth: he had lived his short life and was no more. True, his soul was, no doubt, immortal, but a soul is not a human being. We only have an individual human being when that soul is the life of its inidividual human body. We are animals not ghosts; not even ghosts inside animals. What you are is this living flesh and blood, and when your flesh and blood ceases to live, when your life departs, you cease to be. You are totally absent, utterly not with your fellow men and women. ...
And today we celebrate: we rejoice because he is alive and with us. “I am risen and with you.” God has risen him up. What had been a corpse, a cadaver, is now a living human body again, and much more, unimaginably more, humanly alive. ...
The gospel we preach is not about memories or ideals or profound thoughts. It contains all these things, but what it is about is the human person, Jesus, alive and present to us and loving us from his human heart. Our Easter faith is that we really do encounter Jesus himself: not a message from him, or a doctrine inspired by him, or an ethics of love, or a new idea of human destiny, or a picture of him, but Jesus himself. It is in this that we rejoice.
If I met you one day, I mean really met you, not a picture of you or a televised three-dimensinal holgram, or a truth about you, or a dream about you, but really met you, and you said to me, “By the way, it’s a rather interesting thing, my bones are in a cave in Palestine,” I would be astounded. I would not know what to think, but I would be inclined to say that you or somebody had done a remarkable “conjuring trick with bones.” This would be the really tricky and puzzling thing: that I should meet you (you, and not a ghost or a dream but the actual you), without meeting your body.
There is nothing in the least tricky or puzzling or quaint about God giving back life to the dead Jesus–and not just a resuscitation but a new and greater transfigured life in glory. There is deep mystery here, of course, as there is deep mystery in God’s giving us life in the first place, in God’s creation of the universe. To believe that God creates the whole universe and holds it in being over against absolute nothing, but to find it tricky or unworthy of belief that he should raise a man from the dead to a human life of glory seems eccentric. What we might find tricky, though, would be God raising Jesus to glory by doing something for something quite other than Jesus: producing, by sleight of hand, a substitute risen Christ while the body of Jesus is left buried in the grave.
God Still Matters (New York: Continuum, 2002) 226-228.