New Name, No Name, All Names: On Dukkha and any Afterlife

…, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it. (Book of Revelation, 2:17b, NRSV)

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In class, one of my colleagues finds deep comfort in the above passage in the Christian scriptures.  He reads in this that God takes interest in him, knows his name and thus knows him.

This is one of the great gifts of faith in a personal god.  It is not one I hold, but I have found myself envious at the comfort and ease that seems possible (not guaranteed) in a universe where God knows my name and knows who I am.

This passage provides my friend succor, particularly regarding approaching death: he will be known and welcomed into God’s kingdom, more or less the same individual but with a new name and a new life.

This is an example of what Emergent-Christian theologian Marcus Borg calls, in his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, “supernatural theism,” which

imagines God as a personlike being.  To be sure, God is an exceedingly superlative personlike being, is indeed the supreme being.  A long time ago, this personlike being created the world as something separate from God.  Thus God and the world are sharply distinguished: God is “up in heaven,” “out there,” beyond the universe. (p.65)

From this relationship with God flows the understanding of divine intervention.  God will give you, if you are faithful, a white stone with your new name when you die.

Again, I can see the comfort this offers.  But I can’t feel it and I certainly don’t trust it.  A big part of why I can’t endorse this is the age-old question that has been raised over and over again.  We see it in the Book of Job.  We see it in the history of the trans-Africa slave trade.  We see it after the Holocaust and after every holocaust.  We see it now in the faces of freezing, starving refugees in Syria; in victims of brutal violence in the Central African Republic; in children born with devastating diseases and in the raging injustice of human trafficking going on right now.  Why do innocent people suffer?  If God has the power to intervene, why does God intervene only sometimes?  What kind of God stops only some sufferings, only some tragedies, only some injustices?

Borg offers as antidote to a supernatural-theistic experience of God: a panentheist one.  This is when one experiences God, (or I prefer the name, “Divinity” to move us even further away from the connotation of arms and legs that has become associated with the word, “god,”) as “the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is.  The universe is not separate from God, but in God.” (p. 66)  And this is different than merely equating God as the Universe, as those scientifically-inclined spiritual folks might do.  Yes, God is the universe and more than the universe.

Borg tells us that though the word, “panentheism” is only a few hundred years old, the concept and experience can be traced throughout the whole of both Christian and Jewish scriptures and traditions, as well as elsewhere in other faith traditions.

Now, you are probably asking yourself just about now: what’s a nice Buddhist like me doing with a God-word like panentheism?  I think this is why I am not a straight out Buddhist, but am deeply and happily rooted in Unitarian Universalism as well.  There’s just not enough Sacred or Holy in Buddhism for me, so I find myself drawn to panentheism as a complement.  I know I am not alone among my Unitarian Universalist Buddhist-inclined colleagues and siblings.

One of the ways this most strongly manifests is in my speculation of what happens upon death.  Right now I’m pretty smitten with the idea that the energy that is currently inhabiting my body will return to the universal energy source, from which it was never truly separate, just embodied elsewhere.  The scientific law of the conservation of energy supports this spiritual specImageulation: energy can neither be created nor destroyed, changing only form.  Along with this concept is the notion that whatever soul I have here in this body on this earth will not survive intact, yet will merge with something much greater, much larger…again, never having been fully apart.  Part of dukkha (Buddhist notion of Suffering, the First Noble Truth) is the illusion that we are never separate from the vastness of this reality.

 There was a time – not so long ago – when I used to not only envy my colleagues and friends whose experience of a personal god with the promise of heaven offers them solace in times of struggle, in times of serious illness, in times of death.  I would worry that my own spiritual understanding ~ which is merely speculation, as is everyone’s ~ did not offer much pastoral comfort to anyone beyond myself and maybe a few like-minded folks.  I felt an ache for what I was missing in that promise of heaven.  I worried it would impede my ability to soothe those who have been placed in my care as a pastoral companion.  Selfishly, if understandably, I even worried that it might not be enough comfort for me in the end.

Yet this recent exchange, when my colleague spoke in class of the white stone and the new name, I felt no envy, no ache.  In fact, when considering that kind of heaven, I felt the sharp and unwelcome feeling of unending individuation, of eternal separation.  I know for those who believe in heaven, that is not what heaven is offering.  Yet, I realized quite viscerally, not at all intellectually, that I would much rather, (and ironically I will use a Christian metaphor from the Gospel of Mark,) lose myself in order to find myself – losing my individual self, even if it means losing my soul or losing my name, in order to find myself part of something much greater.

So instead of a new name, I think I want no name, which is really all names.

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