The book Belief Without Borders by Linda Mercadante has been my subject for the last few weeks. In it she reports on widespread interviews with Americans who say they are spiritual but not religious (SBNR). This makes up a major category of the so-called nones–people without allegiance to any church or religious identity group. Of course, some of the nones are purely secular. But many claim to have been on some kind of spiritual quest or journey.
Mercadante has asked them what they believe about God, humanity, and community. Her fourth theme is life after death. What do the SBNR folks have to say about death and what may lie beyond?
The answer is that a good many of them have two foci for their response. First, they vehemently reject what they think is the Christian view of last judgment, heaven and hell. Certainly much nonsense gets spoken when trying to use heaven and hell as a reward and punishment system. Also much that goes into sermons and hymns meant to comfort the bereaved is not very deep or based on either reason or what Jews and Christians understand as revelation, that is, God’s communication and self-disclosure to mankind.
The second focus is more interesting. Most of the SBNRs have attempted to adapt ideas from Hinduism and Buddhism. But they have westernized these Eastern ideas. The two main ideas are those of reincarnation and the law of karma.
In regard to reincarnation, what seems to appeal is the notion that a person will have many life times to develop and reach toward self-actualization. There were many different interpretations of the doctrine by SBNRs. But many of them held that free choice reigns and people get to come back as what they want–or at least that their choices contribute to this. One mentioned the Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come, where the afterlife is constructed by your own thoughts.
The law of karma substitutes for the threat of hell as a way of keeping people from escaping accountability. But karma functions as an impersonal force that eventually rights the balance and gives a kind of justice. But again, it is based on people’s choices. Just as people make their own heaven, they make their own hell. It is your choice. Grace or mercy, other than the forgiveness you may offer yourself, does not enter in.
Mercedante points out that this American version of reincarnation and karma is not what Hinduism or Buddhism actually teach. She disagrees with the meme that we are all Hindus now. For one thing, reincarnation includes a doctrine of regression. That is, a person can not only advance in the next life, but can go back to an earlier state. But the American SBNRs held to an idea of inevitable progress. The whole point of reincarnation for them was to allow us more time to reach greater levels of consciousness.
Some retained a Western idea of heaven. They just thought it would take several lifetimes to get there. “Everyone gets to heaven”, said one, “but nobody gets there until they deserve it” (p. 209).
Anyway, most were trying to figure it all out on their own, picking and choosing from Eastern and Western traditions. What drove SBNR ideas about the afterlife were mostly Western and American values like self-determination, free choice, and the idea that everyone deserves a second chance.
Now our author, Linda Mercedante, after a career as a journalist, went to seminary and now teaches theology. So she brings her perspective as a Christian theologian. One thing she noticed was that the SBNRs did not deal at all with many of the questions that Christian theology works with.
“No one debated whether people have an eternal soul or spirit, although some simply assumed it.
“Surprisingly, no one speculated about the body. This gap was odd, given the strong focus on the ‘mind/body connection’ in the therapeutic and spiritual circles the interviewees frequented. Even so, no one asked how the soul might endure disembodied. No one wondered if the actual body is resuscitated. No one speculated, alternatively, whether some kind of new creation, some kind of ‘resurrection body’ would result. No one asked whether the body–in some way–was necessary for a holistic human identity, whether some kind of body/soul connection was necessary in order to have a genuinely personal future existence” (p. 206).
Mercedante just reports this absence of reflection about body and soul. I wonder if it does not stem from the self-oriented nature of their perspective. The body is external. What is external can be shucked off. Those of us with a different perspective give more value to the outward and sensory. Maybe this isn’t it. But the SBNR might benefit from confronting and clarifying their view of body and soul.