Dalliances with the Afterlife (sermon)

“Herein the afterlife, everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive.  This comes as a shock after your Earthly life, where making one choice causes the other choices to disappear.”

So begins the short story titled “Quantum” in the David Eagleman’s book called, Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.  In these forty stories, each 2 or 3 short pages long, we experience possibility and mystery at the same time, someone with a deep irreverence that is salted with reverence (or is it a deep reverence that is salted with irreverence – I think you’ll need to decide), and someone who ably mixes science with godtalk, balancing cleverly on the edge between rationality and irrationality, curious about all the possibilities.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford, a former Guggenheim fellow,and host of a show about the brain that aired on PBS.  He calls himself a “Possiblian,” a term coined by a friend of his after reading the book.  Eagleman describes it this way:

 “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position,agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”[1]

What I find most brilliant about how this book works its way on the reader (or listener):whether you believe in a god-induced afterlife or believe that is utter poppycock and go for the “we’re all worm food” approach, these stories invite you to loosen your grip on whatever certainty you bring to this human question.  These little, innocent stories are neither little nor innocent in their power to be a pry bar applied to the arrogance of our own certainty.

Today’s service is strongly informed by two of Unitarian Universalism’s foundational tenets.  One of this is our humanist leanings, that whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, our focus returns again and again to this world, being not so much concerned with whether there is another world post-death.  (In this way, we share a commonality with Buddhism.) 

The other foundational tenet at work in our service today is Unitarian Universalism’s affirmation of religious pluralism.  With this in mind, I alert you to the delightful song we will hear during the offertory — Iris Dement’s, “Let the Mystery Be,” the lyrics of which go:

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour
If in sinful ways you lack

Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be

We not only tolerate different theological perspectives; we understand ourselves to be enriched by them. While each of us individually might lean one way or another on the question of an afterlife, how can we do anything but follow the wisdom of that song?  Just let the mystery be.

Death is a serious topic.  It can be heavy.  The afterlife, an afterlife, the possibility of afterlives – can stumble into causing unintended offense, can lead us to develop arrogant stances as we push away the doubts and fears that can arise when we enter into this topical territory.  In the spirit of today’s service, I invite us to actively invite in curiosity –not just intellectual curiosity but spiritual curiosity — about the mystery.  I invite us to engage with the topic seriously, without taking ourselves – or our own opinions – too seriously. 

This service includes five of the forty tales from the book, sum.  Four are read by people in this room.  One is a beautiful brief film.

It was not easy to cull and curate which tales to include – I wanted to stretch time and, I must admit, I might have overdone it.  It we go long and you need to leave before the service is over, please do so.

So let us begin our dancing and dallying with afterlives with this humorous video not at all related to David Eagleman, but from the comic duo, The Kloons.


[1] Stray questions for David Eagleman, New York Times Paper Cuts, July 10, 2009.

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