VENTURA, Calif. -- Sometimes I'm asked about the difference in the way Western and Eastern religions think about the afterlife. (I distrust Wikipedia, but click here for its entry on the subject of Eastern religions.)
Imagine the pier is the path of your life. (No doubt your life began after this pier's life did. The pier was built in 1872 and measured then 1,958 feet. It was renovated in 1993 and the original length -- shortened by various storms and whatnot over the years -- was restored. But on Dec. 13, 1995, a huge storm damaged 400 feet of the pier. It then was repaired, but not to its original length.)
At any rate, if the pier is your life, what happens is that you live it to the end and then you drop off and disappear into the ocean, which is to say you merge with the oneness and universality of God, you lose yourself in some kind of mysterious universal consciousness. That would be one way of putting the Eastern approach, though it doesn't quite account for belief in reincarnation, which some Eastern religions teach.
As this description says of Hinduism, the afterlife "usually means the dissolving of all personality into the unimaginable abyss of Brahman."
By constrast, in Western religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), when you get to the end of the pier and drop off, you aren't just one drop of water dissolving into a sea. Rather, you are rescued, saved, redeemed, and you retain your individuality -- whether in mercy or judgment. In some sense, you wind up standing alone before God, though as part of a faith community.
In many ways, that's what the Christian doctrine of the "Resurrection of the Body" is all about. It's a way of saying that whatever your core essence is, that can be resurrected by God's grace. That doctrine does not -- unlike Greek philosophy -- presume we have immortal souls. Only God is immortal. If we are to achieve immortality it is only by God's grace. But we are granted immortality as individuals, and we don't lose ourselves in the ocean.
When I walked the length of the pier the other evening with my wife and a couple of friends, I found it reassuring that I didn't have to drop off the end and test either Western or Eastern theology. Rather, I could turn around and go back to the hotel. Which I did, cheating death once more.
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IS OBAMA STILL UNCHURCHED?
Has President Obama chosen a church to attend yet? The politics blog of Christianity Today says not yet, but that he may make the chapel at Camp David his church. Please notice the wide variety of comments on the CT piece. Yikes. (You recall that Obama quit his Chicago church after all the controversy over its former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.)
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