Forrest Church is a historian, essayist, author, and Unitarian Universalist minister. He is also dying. So am I of course, but in his case the end is imminent. He has cancer and his remaining time on earth is measured in months at best. To mark this passing he has written a new book entitled Love & Death in which he sorts out what matters. It is a fine and moving book, as Church is a fine and moving human being. I have been a fan of his for decades, ever since reading his book A Chosen Faith about his reasons for being a Unitarian Universalist.
I want to share with you one small section from Love & Death I found most intriguing.
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.
We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means.
We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge.
God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each.
Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death.
The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.
The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for.
Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Not every scholar of religion roots the origins of religion in the human capacity to envision death, but no one can argue that it is of central concern to almost every faith tradition. Mortality is the grain of sand in the oyster of human potential. If we lived forever we would accomplish nothing. It is because we know we will die that we are motivated to make something of our lives.
We are the religious animal; knowing that we must die, we cannot help but question what life means. For me life doesn’t mean anything; life is meaning itself. There is no point to living; living is the point. Saying that life has meaning suggests that meaning is outside of life, that life is lived for some purpose beyond life itself. This may be true, but I don’t see it. For me the question death raises is not “what does life mean” but rather “how can I live my life meaningfully?”
We are more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge. Ignorance is far more interesting than knowledge. Knowledge can cause us to marvel, but ignorance brings us to wonder and awe. We need to root our faith more in ignorance, not-knowing, sheer wonder, and the humility such ignorance brings.
God is not God’s name. God is our name for that which is greater than all and yet present in each. True, “God” is not a proper noun but a generic one. But we do have plenty of names for God. I prefer two above all: YHVH, the Hebrew future imperfect form of the verb “to be,” and Ayn Sof, the Hebrew for “endless.” God is the eternal is-ing of life, forever unfolding creative possibility as well as dead ends. And while it is true that this God is present in each of us, I prefer to reverse the order and to say we, and all beings, are present in God.
Whether or not there is life after death, surely there is love after death. Of this I have no doubt. Love arises from our sense of deep connection with all that is; the closer to nondual awakening we come the more we are filled with love. Death does not sever this connection—as the Song of Songs tells us, “Love is stronger than death.”
The one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die. I am not sure “give away” is the way I would put this, but I not only agree with the statement, I am humbled and maybe even a bit frightened by it. I don’t think I have love and can thereby give it away, but I can be a vehicle for love and manifest it for the benefit of others. It is here that I find myself shaken with doubt: have I lived a love-manifesting life? I doubt it.
The purpose of life is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. This is a brilliant turn of phrase. But can we really die for our own lives? Or do we simply die because of them? I usually think of dying for in terms of others. Would I die to save the life of another? I don’t know, and cannot know unless and until I am confronted with that choice. But can I see another dying for my life? Can I see someone else thinking that my life is worth saving even at the cost of her or his own? No, I can’t. And yet so many beings have and continue to die to keep me alive. I live at the cost of others, some sentient and some not. Am I worthy of their deaths? Do I even think in these terms? I have taken thousands of lives to maintain my own, but am I living in such a way as to be worthy of their sacrifice?
This is a new thought for me. One I cannot easily dismiss, and will not soon forget. It brought me to tears—literally—when I first encountered it. It threatens to do so even now.
I am not writing to solve the issues Dr. Church raises, but simply to raise them with you. And in so doing invite you, and hopefully entice you, to read his books and deepen your walk in life through his gentle wisdom .