The Problem of Death
Today's secular materialism denies the existence of anything other than the observable, and so their conclusion logically agrees with that of Solomon's observations in Ecclesiastes 3:18-21: there is no difference between men and beasts. This logic gets carried out to its inevitable conclusions, as shown by the callousness which modern unregenerate man treats his fellow man: as I write, President Obama has proposed the appointment of committees to determine if continued care should be given to the ill as a means to control the costs of national health care. And murderous dictators are coddled because it is known that living dogs are a threat because they can bite back while dead lions are safe because they do not. After all, because the dead are dead they are not a threat anymore, so it is safe to forget them.
What experiment can be devised to figure out what happens after death? Solomon definitely declined to devise and conduct one because there were numerous laws forbidding consulting with those who had familiar spirits (Leviticus 19:31, Leviticus 20:6, Leviticus 20:27, and Deuteronomy 18:9-14). The death of Saul, the first king of Israel, was explicitly stated to be due to his inquiring of the dead (1 Chronicles 10:13-14). It is said that the magician Harry Houdini was obsessed with the finality of death, and used his skill as an illusionist to unmask fake mediums. He set up a test with his wife that would permit the question to be settled once and for all, but no one unconnected with his wife ever met the challenge.
Aware of the bleak nature of existence as he viewed it, Solomon nevertheless gave some advice on how to address the problem of the futility of living in the shadow of death. They center around acknowledging the similarities between man and animal while emphasizing the differences.
The two similarities are that we eat and drink like animals (2:24, 3:13, 3:22, 5:18-19, and 9:7), with the proviso that animals eat and drink because they have to, while men can enjoy eating and drinking. Doubtless we have seen videos of herd animals stepping around a pride of lions without any fear because the lions are well fed. In contrast, an inability to stop eating because of the pleasure it gives is the sin of gluttony. And if eating can be stretched to include anything that is external being taken into the body, then the use of drugs and excessive alcohol is a symptom of eating being taken too far.
While both animals and men build things, such as nests, men differ from animals because the latter build nests because they need them, while men enjoy their works, both in the end product and in the process of construction. These works go way beyond the necessity of building shelter, but extend to creative works as well. Men enjoy building stuff and showing it off so much that it is called pride when it goes too far. The verses given previously include Solomon's advice to enjoy the work of one's hands.
A difference Solomon saw between men and animals that is unique to man is that man is aware of God and that he will be judged by God (3:16-17, 11:9, 12:1, and 12:13-14). The passage from Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 is worth citing here:
13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
It was doubtless this emphasis on God's judgment that kept Solomon from pursuing methodologies forbidden in the Law of Moses to discern what lay beyond death. He also did not extrapolate from his belief in the necessity of God judging men to the necessity that those men had to be conscious after death to be properly judged, because he knew had no firm foundation for believing in a bodily resurrection. The very first resuscitation of the world would not happen until Elijah came on the scene, and it was of the son of a non-Israelite widow convinced that he died because Elijah's presence rendered judgment on him because of her sinfulness. If that had happened on Solomon's shift, the color of Ecclesiastes would certainly have been far brighter than it is. As it is, it would be unduly harsh to judge Ecclesiastes, and Solomon, for not factoring in the world-shaking significance of an event that was yet future.
The Problem of Dealing with Death
Once the lack of credible and actionable information about the other side of death is acknowledged, the wise thing to do is back up and figure out solutions to allied problems. The quest shifts from solving the real problem to mitigating the symptoms. The problem shifts from man conquering death to man learning to cope with it.
Societies and civilizations can be classified by how they handle death, and the social and religious structures built around that belief. Much of it is pure speculation founded upon wishful thinking springing from the natural distaste of man to "give up" since coping with death rather than conquering it seems like a retreat and a cop-out. For instance, the IMAX film Mysteries of Egypt, narrated by Omar Sharif, has the actor quite frankly stating that the Egyptian system was founded on an extreme love of life that wishfully desired that it continue in the next life in the same way. Thus, in the absence of actionable information, the Egyptians did what scientists do today in the face of equal ignorance: flat-line extrapolation from what we know to what we don't know. Despite Numerical Analysts telling us that this kind of extrapolation is very rarely correct, we still do it because the present is comfortable and we want it to continue without interruption. "Change" is disliked because it violates this desire of comfortable familiarity.
Others believe that man is confined only to this world and cannot escape it, so they postulate reincarnation. In a sop to Solomon's observation regarding the futility of cycles, of which reincarnation is obviously one, Hinduism holds out the prospect of promotion in the form of reincarnating as a higher animal or a more socially privileged person in the next life as a consolation prize contingent on good behavior in this life (with "good behavior" being defined as not rocking the "caste system" boat for starters). While this is a definite improvement on the extrapolation process from the known to the unknown, in the same way that Fourier Analysis is better than Euler-class straight-line extrapolation, it is based on wishful thinking combined with an eye toward securing the condition of the upper classes in this life. Bhuddism rejected this patent materialism and social-engineering style manipulation, but only substitutes personal progress toward spiritual enlightenment as the engine to eventually escape the cycle of futility that is reincarnation, continuing the privileging of the rich, the well-off, and the blatant spongers by their having (or begging from others) the time and resources to perform the necessary spiritual exercises. The treatment of those exploited by the spongers is particularly noisome, since there is nothing in Bhuddism that rewards those supporting those striving for enlightenment. (Contrast with Christianity, where Jesus promises a reward to whose who give as little as a cup of cold water to one of his followers.)
Shintoism addressed the issue of death by emphasizing the importance of the family. The emphasis on honorable behavior that later got extended to the Emperor and the Nation originally came from the need to maintain connectivity with one's departed Ancestors so that they could aid the members of the family currently living. This honorable behavior is the essential link to the process since it ensure that the living, when they die, would take seriously their duty to remain in solidarity with the family, join the Ancestral pantheon, and work to keep the family going by aiding their descendants. The idea is that the dead continue as full family members, carrying out their familial duties and obligations with the same scrupulousness and seriousness that they showed to the family while alive. The behavior of Mulan's ancestors depicted in the Disney movie of the same name is, for once, surprisingly close to the truth. Though this was not the foundation for the Roman Catholic veneration of the Saints, the core principle that those who have lived continue to aid us from the other side of death implies the promise of surviving death, since those who vanish instead of live on cannot obviously be of any help to the living.
The attitude toward death in Roman and Greek society was in constant flux as their philosophers debated the issue. This is of more immediate import to us Westerners since many of us live within two broad streams that come from these two cultures.
One stream is strictly Greco-Roman, and is partly revealed in movies such as "Gladiator" and "Troy". In "Troy", the Gods honor those who live a virtuous and notable life. In "Gladiator", existence after death is acknowledged as doubtful, but is hoped for. Good, virtuous, and honorable behavior consisted, for Maximus, in assuming that his dead family was indeed alive in the other world, but deserved justice that required that he survive to exact vengeance against their murderer. In other words, the Greeks and Romans did not as much solve the problem of death so much as they came up with a philosophy of death that helped those still living live virtuous lives.
The problem with the pure Greco-Roman solution was the "greco" part: the Greek soul was constantly re-asking the same questions differently and re-looking at the proposed solutions. For their part, the Romans would have preferred to have settled matters once and for all and moved on to the next problem, but the situation between Latin and Greek cultures is the same as between American and European cultures: the former always felt insecure about being seen as "sophisticated" and always deferred to the opinions of the latter, whose main skill is being able to put up a good show of that "sophistication". The constant re-examination eventually led to the same emotional dead-end that Solomon ran into: the mood of the ancient world eventually devolved into a state of courageous despair that is best described by G.K. Chesterton in chapter 8 of his book "The Everlasting Man".
Those in our culture today that are part of that Greco-Roman stream either live courageous lives that ignore the problem of death until it is forced on them, or those who have given in to the dark logic of the ultimate futility of life. The latter are best illustrated by the attitude of the Emo sub-culture who have so bought into the ultimate futility of life that the fall of an eraser onto the floor is seen as a profound statement of life's futility. I am not kidding, for there is a youtube video I cannot locate of an Emo girl describing how she felt witnessing the fall of an eraser to the floor in her class room. The former are best illustrated by those who, though they have no viable alternative to the problem of death, physically persecute, or call for the physical persecution and death, of emos. Their view of life is to be courageous, face up to the difficulties of life, and live it to the best of one's abilities. To these, the emos are betrayers of the spark of life and thus do not deserve to continue to hold it.
A small sub-group in our culture whose influence is greater than their numbers deserve that suscribe to the pure Greco-Roman stream are the secular materialists. While one may question their honesty and fairness when debating their opponents, one has to admire the fact that they corageously stare into the darkness of death and attempt to live a productive and optimistic life in the face of the unknown. They take Solomon's advice to enjoy the works of their hands quite literally. (An aside: their popularity is due to their claim that all the benefits of modern life arose from a methodology that not only does not factor God into the process, but that such a process has not discovered any entity called God so far. However, the scientific method suffers from two fatal flaws. The first flaw was noted by C.S. Lewis, who observed that the scientific method is often applied to extremely delimited and denuded physical phenomena. It is reductionistic in a very real sense in that it narrows (reduces) its observations of an extremely complicated and interrelated nature to those problems that are easy to solve, solves them, then attempts to back out the solution to apply to the wider range of phenomena, handwaving away contradictions and problems by stating that their simple solution is the true picture of realtiy "in principle". This problem arises from the second flaw in which they assume independence of natural phenomena rather than their interdependence. There are synergistic effects arising from inter-dependence that are severed when the scientists "focusses in" to the problem, and which are hand-waved away when those effects kick back in when the scientists "back out" to consider the larger setting. An example of this is symbiosis: the combination of algae and lichen suddenly aquires an incredible degree of survivability that would not be predictable if each of the parts is considered separately.)
The other stream is Xeno-Greco-Roman. Those of this stream embrace the core elements of Greco-Roman culture, but rejected the "not invented here" mindset of those cultures' religion. These Greco-Romans were disgusted with the reluctance of the Greco-Roman gods to be concerned with the fate of mortal men, arguing that the Latin virtue of Loyalty, if demanded by the Gods, should be rewarded by a reciprocating loyalty. These elected to embrace non-Greek and Non-Roman ("Xeno") religions that promised to "deliver the goods" to the faithful. Many embraced the cult of the Egyptian Goddess Isis who re-assembled the body of her husband Osiris after being hacked to pieces by their wicked son Set and resurrected him. Others embraced the cults of Mithras and Dionysius, participatiung in re-enactments of their Death and Resurrection to live a new life devoted to sensuous living.
A "Xeno" substream of incredible importance was Judaism: while the Greeks distained the Jews as religious hicks, the Romans were incredibly impressed with the high moral code of the Jews and the God who not only mandated it, but also appeared to live by it as well! And slaves of all cultures were equally impressed with the radical eglatarianism that the Jews practiced in their synagogues and daily life, in stark contrast to the Greek belief that slaves were inferior and sub-human by nature and not by circumstance. The social strata from which the centurion officer corps were drawn were those most influenced and impressed by Judaism, while considerations of power, pride, and social status kept those of higher social class from taking it seriously.
Despite the influence of the secular materialists, members of the Xeno-Greco-Roman stream are the most numerous in Western civilization. However, when viewed from the point of view of religion, it is extremely fragmented because of the many "xeno" sources from which the members have drawn their beliefs and practices. Many embrace Bhuddism, attracted by the idea of spirituality being a progressive journey and the benefits of certain physical exercises to quiet and calm the mind. Others, such as Wiccans and eco-Gaians, actively draw from shamanistic, most notably Druidic, sources that embrace the notion that men are merely more spiritually advanced animals who would find fulfillment by embracing their proper role in the eco-system of the world: Movies such as "Pocahontas" and "The Lion King" illustrate this stream. Significance, to these people, consists of living in harmony with nature and "keeping it going", so to speak, with nature being the most significant thing around. Others openly embrace satanism and its demonstrated ability to "deliver the goods" for those willing to pay the price.
Then there is the Judaeo-Christian stream of Greco-Roman civilization. Quite clearly, the significance of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with the resulting message of the hope of resurrection for those who believe in his deity that was proclaimed with obvious signs and wonders by crude and un-educated men literally turned the world upside-down. I leave the detailing of that impact to G.K. Chesterton, who outlined it in the second section of his "The Everlasting Man". What Christianity brought to the table was not merely a way of handling the issue of living in the shadow of death. Christianity dared to re-open and re-address the original problem of death with an eye to solving it. Judaism at that time was actually divided on the issue of life after death: the Sadducees objected to the concept based on the lack of a clear declaration of scripture, while the Pharisees believed it but couldn't prove it. In disposing of the Sadducees' seven-brothers-one-wife-resurrection thought experiment, Jesus casually delivered the death blow to their belief system and came down squarely on the side of the Pharisees and the Ressurrection when he noted that God had named himself "The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" to Moses, and pithily observed that "God is not the God of the Dead, but of the Living, for all live to him." (Luke 20:27-38) Either God was the God of the living, and there was a resurrection, but the alternative was to turn him into an Egyptian-style God of the Dead.
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