Introduction Chapter 1: In Praise of Maria: a memoir


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Torah is structurally parallel to Christ in Christianity. It is a Jewish way of affirming the universal in the particular. The Torah, which was offered to all other nations before Israel, is meant for all peoples.ccl The righteous of all nations who are following their best lights are – in Jewish language – following the way of Torah.

A similar connection is made with the word covenant. It starts as a secular word but it is taken over to refer to God’s relation to his chosen few at Sinai. Over time “covenant” comes to have a more universal meaning. In Jewish terms, God made a covenant with all peoples through Noah. According to the Talmud, salvation for the gentiles depends on following the prescriptions of the covenant with Noah. How can gentiles follow the commands to Noah if they have never read the Bible and do not accept Jewish doctrines?

Once more the covenant with Noah provides a Jewish way of affirming the universal in the particular. All of the children of Adam and the descendants of Noah are part of the covenant relation. From a Jewish perspective, those non-Jews who avoid murder, idolatry, incest (the three absolute commands) are living according to the covenant.ccli

In summary, the righteous man or woman is someone who is chosen by God, engages in Torah, and lives according to the covenant. The Jew becomes the demonstration project of God’s care for the human race, the chosen people of God. When a rabbi friend refers to me as an amateur Jew, I take the phrase as it was intended, namely, as a compliment. To someone who does not appreciate the logic, such language could be offensive.

Muslim Logic. Islam has the same problem as do Christianity and Judaism in the way that its logic or grammar sounds intolerant. It speaks of Islam, Muslim, and Qur’an in ways that limit salvation to those believers. The Qur’an seems to praise Muslims to the exclusion of everyone else. “You are the best people that has been brought forth for mankind.” (3:110)

The Qur’an is parallel not to the Bible but to Jesus as the Christ; it is the “word of God.” The Qur’an was given to Muhammad at particular times and places. It has been cherished by Muslims ever since. The Qur’an is also said to be not a book but (as its name indicates) a recitation from a book which exists nowhere but in heaven, it is a text for all peoples. The Qur’an itself says that every nation has its own messenger.(10:48)cclii Thus, the Qur’an, in the Muslim way of speaking, is the affirming of a universal revelation.

Similarly, Islam is not only the name of a religious institution founded in the seventh century C.E. It is an attitude that every person must have toward God in order to be saved. “Verily, the religion in the eyes of God is Islam.” (3:19). Outside of Islam – that is, submission to God – there is no salvation. “There is only one doctrine of unity which every religion has asserted and Islam came only to reaffirm what has always existed and thus to return to the primordial religion.”ccliii

For Islam, “Muslim” refers to a believer. “Every child is born a Muslim” is a Muslim doctrine that may sound outrageous. It merely indicates the universal meaning of the term Muslim. The strictures about being a true Muslim are meant for those who have professed to be Muslim. In Muslim language, only a “true Muslim” can be saved. “Whoever believes in Allah and the last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord.” (2:62)

Similar to the saying that someone is an anonymous Christian or an amateur Jew, a true Muslim refers to all those who live by their birthright and follow the path to the one God of all. Some of those who call themselves Muslim turn out to be false Muslims. Some of the “true Muslims” turn out to be Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. When I have been called a true Muslim I am grateful for the compliment.ccliv

Why do these three religions use a logic and grammar so easily misunderstood? Why don’t they just say “anyone who is good goes to heaven”? I think it is because that kind of generalization does not help anyone and it would undermine the power of religious doctrine. It would obscure the fact that people live particular lives and speak different languages. For any religion to try to speak directly about the salvation of everyone would dissolve the religion into philosophy.

However, each of the religions finds it difficult to remember that its particular way of pointing to the universal does not itself create a universal language. It has to leave open the possibility that there are other ways to point toward the universal. There is no universal or catholic religion. The fact that one group intends to include another is not necessarily experienced as a compliment by the other; no one wants to be part of someone else’s system. Religion lives on the basis of passionate commitment to particular events, persons, beliefs, causes. If the three Abrahamic religions were to disappear, religious passions would find expression elsewhere. Movements that can generate passionate commitment will always pose some danger.

Neither Jews, nor Christians nor Muslims have done a very good job educating their own people or explaining themselves to outsiders. Still, I would prefer to struggle for improvement with these profoundly human traditions rather than turn over religious passion to the -isms that have tried to replace traditional religion. Fascism, Communism and Nazism have probably been the worst -isms but every movement that has a name ending with -ism threatens to coerce the rest of us with its ideology while not necessarily having the play of ritual, humor and paradox that have been the salvation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.

Jews, Christians and Muslims have been divided in the modern world, each trying to defend its own revelation. But if there is only one God, one creation, one redemption, then there is urgent need for a conversation that would open a better way of affirming one’s own religion without insulting the other two. Admittedly, it is difficult enough to learn one’s own religious tradition so that trying to master three is impossible. But believers in any one religion have to be aware that, when using terms such as chosen, covenant, grace, faith, revelation, redemption, there are other religions that have a legitimate share in those term. At the least, there must be an unambiguous affirmation of salvation beyond one’s own religion even if one’s theology cannot explain just how that works.

In the Christian New Testament, the clearest standard of judgment for one’s life is found in Matthew 25:31-46. The judge will say: “I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me....” No test of denominational membership or orthodox doctrine is demanded. Christians have been warned that who turns out to be God’s people will be a surprise. Jews and Muslims have similar warnings from their prophets past and present. Only God is judge.

Human Uniqueness

Whatever human beings believe about life beyond death is based upon human experience. Even religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam that claim a divine revelation have to rely on the human experience of responding to such a divine initiative. Those who are certain that there is simply nothing beyond death are likewise basing their certainty on the experiences of this life. No conclusive evidence has appeared in the last five years or the last five hundred years to seal the case for something or nothing.

The best insight would be based on the widest and deepest experiences that humans have. Human life is a peculiar tension between two contrasting forms of uniqueness: differentiation that goes in the direction of exclusion by means of secure boundaries and differentiation that is open to an ever increasing inclusiveness. The process of dying only heightens that tension; no outsider is final judge of how the tension is resolved in a particular life and death.

Insofar as humans share space and time with other objects on earth, they are concerned with the vulnerability of their bodies. But insofar as humans are intellectual and spiritual beings, they know no inherent limits to thinking, willing and receptiveness. This latter form of uniqueness involves all that human beings highly value, including love and beauty. Religious people do not see why they should believe that the things that they value most are at the mercy of the things they value least. Does disease or the decay of bodily organs simply erase the human drive for beauty and meaning?

If one takes the uniqueness of increasing inclusion to be the more important form, as the uniqueness that is specifically human, then the trajectory of a human life is toward the possibility of greater openness to all humanity and the whole cosmos. Human experience would support the belief that death is a transition to further inclusiveness. As Karl Rahner suggests, death does not make the human being a-cosmic but rather pan-cosmic.cclv Freed from the limitations of this life’s space and time, the human drive toward further inclusiveness is radically accelerated.

Religions maintain that practically all human beings get it wrong, or more exactly, that humans get it only partially right. For a variety of reasons, humans lead imperfect lives, their intellects and wills caught up in illusion. They need the discipline of a spiritual wisdom to extricate themselves from the individual and social obstructions that prevent them from realizing their immense potential. Here or elsewhere they will eventually have to open their minds, hearts, and souls to a purifying truth that strips away pretense and hatred.

In the conditions of earthly life, truth and goodness in all their splendor are never available. We can make statements that are neither false nor empty but the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is beyond human grasp. We can know the good not only as the object of our desires but as life that overflows itself, yet we cannot grasp the source of being, life, and intelligibility. Religions at their best give intimations of a source beyond our power to comprehend. It is also unfortunately true that religions, insofar as they are subjected to the pressures of historical existence, can also be one of the obstacles that they claim to transcend.

Consider the claim to divine revelation in the Abrahamic religions. The unveiling of the divine makes sense only if the boundaries of perception are constantly being stretched. Whatever is claimed to re-present the divine reality is not identical with it. The credibility of the revelatory symbol does not depend upon its length, breadth, or coercive power. In fact, if human uniqueness is the guide, the enormous size of an object or the world-shaking character of an event is less likely to be revelatory than receptiveness to diversity and beauty.

The religious person cherishes a small community or a series of events that historians may see as marginal. In some religions, one event in one person’s life is believed to hold the key to all history. This belief is unintelligible if it does not lead in the direction of greater inclusiveness. But such prophetic openness to all humanity and to the future as well as the past, is difficult to sustain when there is a threat to the community’s existence. In Christian history, the claim to interpret a divine revelation gave way to a claim to possess “the Christian revelation.” The language became fixed in the late sixteenth century as the Christian Church was hampered by internal wars as it was fending off the attacks of the new sciences.cclvi

If Christianity is to throw light on life and death today, it needs a dialogue with other religions that speak of divine revelation, as well as dialogue with secular culture and its revelations. The Christian religion, with its peculiar story of death and resurrection, is credible only if it is embedded in ordinary experience. “Only if God is revealed in the rising of the sun in the sky can he be revealed in the rising of a son of man from the dead.”cclvii

Jewish religion has been tempted by the same split that has affected Christianity in modern times: either defense of the symbol as if it were a Jewish possession or else abandonment of symbols for pure reason. But under duress, the tradition can become revivified. Victor Frankl tells of an interview he had with a survivor of the death camp. She said that her only friend was the branch of a chestnut tree that she could see from her cell. She said that she often spoke with the tree. Frankl asked her the tree’s response. She said it replied: “I am life, eternal life.” Eliezer Berkovits comments on her story: “Such are, of course, the unique expressions of unique people.”cclviii

The quality of the uniqueness depends on the tradition in which it is embedded. The tree spoke and it spoke of life because of the attitude toward life and toward God’s speaking that were the context of the woman’s listening. In a world in which everything can speak of God, it is not illogical that the tree said “I am life, eternal life.” A tree is a tree to be appreciated for its own beauty and usefulness. It is also a manifestation of the nature of life. “Either all occurrences are in some degree a revelation of God, or else there is no such revelation at all.”cclix

One can, of course, view the uniqueness of human life according to the first meaning of uniqueness in which life only narrows down to the final moment. At that end point, dying is a uniquely isolating event. But human life can also be seen in the second meaning of uniqueness as a journey of the deepening relation to one’s ancestors and to the cosmos. In this framework, dying is unique acceptance into the matrix of relations which have always been there.

The concluding paragraph of Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying uses two metaphors for human uniqueness. The first refers to the uniqueness of separation and extinction. “Watching a peaceful death of a human being reminds us of a falling star, one of the million lights in the vast sky that flares up for a brief moment only to disappear into the endless night forever. To be a therapist to a dying patient makes us aware of the uniqueness of each individual in the vast sea of humanity.” The picture of a bright star extinguished forever is romantic but ultimately despairing.

Kübler-Ross’ second metaphor in the same paragraph uses a different meaning of uniqueness, a movement toward inclusiveness. This meaning of uniqueness is better suited to the story that the book has told. “Few of us live beyond our three score and ten years and yet in that brief time most of us create and live a unique biography and weave ourselves into the fabric of human history.”cclx This unique biography extends from person to humanity to the whole cosmos. The contribution of human uniqueness is never extinguished.

The ultimate truth of the human condition resists all attempts to jump beyond the particular existent. “Whatever is actual is contaminated by its actuality. For the universal can never lend its full sanction to any particular.”cclxi When the human mind is scandalized by time and it grasps for a universal truth, it comes up with abstract generalities. The universal is available, to whatever extent it is, in the depths of the particular and as the result of a particular journey.

Faith is expressed by a religious commitment that is particular and seemingly exclusive. But if faith, hope and love are genuine, the seeming exclusivity opens out into relations that have no preordained limits. To love someone, as Thomas Aquinas said, is to love his or her relatives, which potentially includes the whole universe. Someone who says “you are the one and only one” can mean I am fully committed to you rather than no one else is worthy of commitment.cclxii Religions would not be improved by trying to create an eclectic unity. The most profound truths of religion will emerge only from dialogue which respects the differences between traditions. This dialogue has barely begun so that at present what happens at death can only be glimpsed from within the differences of religious images and language.

Unity With Some Difference

The most fundamental divide among religions would appear to be whether in the end human individuality is preserved. The divide may be unbridgeable although it is possible that an alternative formulation of the question might narrow the difference. What is affirmed in one tradition may only seem to be negated in another tradition. Traditions might agree on what they are opposed to while not (yet) finding a way to express what they do agree upon. For example, all religions would agree that life is not a set of points with the last point called death. There is, however no agreement on how death is to be situated in relation to the time of a human life.

For speculating on the ultimate state toward which human life goes, it is helpful to think of the human being as constituted by three elements or aspects. The three-foldness of human life is suggested in both Eastern and Western thought. The human mind is always tempted to imagine that the individual’s life is a conflict between two parts, called by such names as body and soul, or matter and spirit. In a dichotomous picture of the human being, one part is thought to be good, the other part imagined to be evil. Liberation is then imagined as escape from the evil part which threatens to imprison or infect the good part.

Popular forms of Platonism assume an opposition between an unchanging form or soul and a body whose senses and desires are a hindrance to the intellectual pursuit of truth. There are passages in Plato’s dialogues that support this view, for example, Socrates’ confidence that his soul would survive his body.cclxiii However, Plato has a more complex picture of the human being as threefold. In one of his well-known images, two horses are pulling in opposite directions. One should note that the rider is a third element holding together the other two.

In the Republic, Plato has intellect and appetites at odds; but a swing vote lies with thymos, a word sometimes translated as ‘spiritedness’. This spiritedness or courage is a different kind of appetite than one seeking a sensual object. It can either work to unify intellect and emotion or cause a worse split. Plato has a striking allegory near the end of the book comparing the human being to a man, a lion and a hydra. If the lion is lazy, the hydra with its irrational appetites takes over. If the lion is untamed, it takes over the man. The man has to train the lion which can control the hydra; in that way a unity and harmony are achieved.cclxiv

A three-foldness is also suggested by some of the biblical literature. The spirit of God has been breathed into the human being. From the beginning, however, there has been a conflict of desires that lead to bloodshed and to trust in idols. The mortal flesh weighs down the spirit but it is never condemned as evil.cclxv A resolution of the inner conflict depends upon coming into a transformed life, a third party beyond spirit and flesh. The belief in resurrection that eventually emerged carried the transformation beyond death.

In the New Testament, Paul articulates an anthropology in which flesh and spirit are in conflict. “If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rom. 8:13). Paul’s words, taken out of context, can feed the dangerous temptation to view the world as one in which the good spirit is imprisoned in evil matter. But Paul’s context is that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains,” while we wait for “the redemption of our bodies.” Not just souls but the “mortal bodies” are to be transformed and saved. “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”(1Cor. 15:44)

The phrase spiritual body would be an oxymoron in many linguistic contexts. Paul, like the Bible as a whole, does not work from metaphysical concepts of matter and spirit but from a pattern of development. The spiritual is achieved only by the transformation of bodily experience. The final result is a condition which can only be described by a paradoxical phrase, such as spiritual body.

Working within a very different history, Hindu religion also reflects a conflict of desires. The individual has to discover that one’s attachments are to illusions, to transitory goods that prevent humans from perceiving a deeper truth. The true spirit in the human is hidden from us and we may need more than one lifetime to realize the final truth. According to Hindu tradition, we need a discipline of life to help us break free at death from the cycle of birth and rebirth. We have to be liberated from petty desires and attachments. Only when we have emerged from these illusions do we realize that the human spirit (atman) is identical with the divine spirit (Brahman).

Buddhism arose as a moral critique of Hinduism and the Hindu explanation of the individual’s position in the world. While Hinduism begins with the perfecting of the self, Buddhism boldly declares that there is “no self.” The Buddhist interest, however, is not metaphysical debate but a criticism of selfishness and a rebellion against complacent acceptance of injustice. Buddhism is interested in “selfless” activity rather than a negation of the philosophical concept of self.

With its persistent refusal to accept any entities, Buddhism could be taken to be nihilistic. It is more accurately described as concerned with liberation from suffering and the interrelation of all experience. It refuses to speculate beyond the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. It speaks in double negatives about the “not born, not become, not made, not compounded” to push language to the limit and to remind us that the most important things cannot be said. Its last word is not “void” but “the void is void, also of voidness.” The religions that claim to possess the “word of God” might experience a healthy chastening effect in an encounter with Buddhism.

What might be indicated from a more detailed comparison of religions is that heaven, hell and similar pictures of an afterlife are necessary images for orienting human lives. Such images, however, can become idolatrous, feeding human selfishness instead of inspiring loyalty, love and an increasing openness to others. As even the most fervent believers surely recognize, any image of heaven or hell is a projection from earthly experience to a realm beyond our power to imagine. The mystical strands in each of the religions, while retaining cultural differences, agree that there is no way beyond the double negatives in trying to speak of ultimate reality.

If one starts from a three-foldness in human beings, the terms body, soul, and spirit are perhaps as good as one can find. Body and soul are not metaphysical elements so much as aspects of our experience. Body is not simply matter but the human immersion in the flux of earthly desires, delights, and sufferings. Soul is not Aristotelian form but the experience of reflection, willing and the contemplation of beauty. Spirit is a highly ambiguous term but ambiguity can be useful here. For a long while it had seemed that the spiritual was in decline in Western religions but it has vigorously reappeared in recent decades. The acceptance of the spiritual is the most likely meeting place for diverse religions and also for people who may reject what religion connotes but who are open to a great beyond.

The key question when people use the term spiritual is whether it is a negation of bodily life or its fulfillment. If the spiritual is not to negate the body, it cannot be reached by grabbing hold of it. One has to respect the historical journey with its slow development of a unified self. The body can become a “spiritual body” only when life, including death, is fully accepted.

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