Important!I came across a little book several years ago in an antique store in Atoka, Oklahoma. “What is Vital in Religion” (Harper & Brothers, New York) is a collection of sermons on contemporary (in 1955) Christian problems by Harry Emerson Fosdick. What follows is the last sermon/chapter in the book. It is as interesting a take on the question of death and immortality as I have stumbled across in some time. Since today’s gospel reading was about Jesus’ nihilist critics hoping to entangle him with one of fundamentalism’s thorniest theological conundrums (Luke 20: 27 – 40), it seems like an appropriate time to resurrect this old sermon. One thing for sure — they don’t make Baptists like Harry Emerson Fosdick anymore…
— Monsieur Jacques d’Nalgar, Dimanche 3 novembre 2019 de l’ère commune
Faith and Immortality
Christian belief in immortality is a corollary of the total Christian faith. It is not the initial affirmation of the Christian creed, not is it a detachable item that can be held in isolation; it is an involved consequence, part and parcel of the whole Christian view of life. Uniformly the great creeds begin in substance like this: I believe in God; I believe in Jesus Christ; I believe in the Holy Spirit; I believe in the communion of the saints; and then, after such affirmations, they add, I believe in the life everlasting. That logically follows. If one holds the Christian philosophy of life as a whole, once cannot finish with purposeless transiency as the last word and with no prospect for the soul except a dead-end street.
Of course immortality can be believed in without this context of Christian faith. Probably the first belief in life after death emerged among primitive men who in their dreams saw and heard the dead, whom they had known, acting and speaking still; and like all primitives, accepting dream-life as authentic, they were convinced that the dead were not dead. In many diverse contexts faith in immortality of one kind or another has arisen, but it was not a Christian faith. That is a corollary of the total Christian view of life.
This fact that the Christian idea of life everlasting is a member of a family of ideas, a genetically related household of convictions, explains why many cannot believe it. That Christian family of ideas is not in their heads; they hold a contrasting philosophy or have only a vague vacuum where a philosophy ought to be; they do not and cannot hold the Christian faith in life everlasting; and yet they inevitably face the fact of death. What about death? “If a man die, shall he live again?” That question they confront, whatever family of ideas they have in their heads.
Many people today answer that question not so much with convictions, not so much with a total philosophy of life, as with moods. Who has not noted these moods in his friends? Who has not experienced them himself?
Some feel we would do well to satisfy ourselves with one life, make what we can of that, and not be concerned with any other. When Henry D. Thoreau was on his deathbed, his friend Parker Pillsbury asked him whether he could see anything on the other side. “One world at a time, Parker,” said Thoreau, “one world at a time.” That mood is familiar,
Others feel no desire for life after death. Life here has been so difficult for them that, when they are through, they want to be through. So Swinburne put it:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to see.
That mood is not commonly shouted aloud, but it is familiar.
Others feel that they have never seen pictured any future world which they would be particularly interested to inhabit — certainly not the traditionally portrayed heaven of pearly gates, golden streets, and endless singing. They are in revolt against the glib, superficial certainty which some people, possessing no more bona fide information than anybody else, describe what Reinhold Niebuhr called “the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell”; describe with dogmatic exactitude the conditions of the future life — “clergymen’s heavens,” as one man put it, “which members of other professions might find something of a strain.” That mood is not uncommon.
Others resent the self-centeredness involved in looking forward to a future world to reward them for being good. They recall Seneca, the Stoic, who in one of his parables tells of a mariner, wrestling with a storm-tossed boat, and saying, “O Neptune, Thou canst save me if Thou wilt, or Thou canst drown me; but whether or no, I will hold my rudder true.” Is not that, some feel, a nobler motive than working for a heavenly crown? We will do right because it is right, they say; we will hold our rudder true whatever comes; and you may keep your dreams of a future paradise to pay you for your goodness, if you need that incentive. That mood is not uncommon.
Others feel that faith in immortality encourages otherworldliness, whereas this world with its opportunities and tasks should engage our whole attention. They used to hear that, without faith in immortality, they would plunge into self-indulgence, would eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow they die, but they do not think that true. Let us work for mankind, they say, and as for the future think not of any immortality of our own personalities — which Einstein called “ridiculously egotistical” — but think of immortality of influence, a blessed heritage of good work done to be handed on to our children after us. In one of our major colleges a professor said to his classes: “The modern belief in immortality costs more than it is worth . . . its disappearance from among the most civilized nations would be, on the whole, a gain.” That mood, especially in certain academic circles, is familiar.
What is the trouble which the Christian finds in these negative moods? There is a measure of truth in every one of them, and yet there is something deeply the matter with them. They lack a world view, so the Christian is convinced. They lack a total philosophy of life. They are moods — natural moods, which we all understand — but they have not grappled with the problem of life’s ultimate meaning. They are sidestepping the profoundest questions which the human mind must ask about the nature of reality. They belong to no family of ideas or to the wrong family of ideas about this universe.
Let me, for a moment, be autobiographical. In my boyhood the idea of immortality, the thought that I must go on living forever, was to me appalling. In imagination I pictured with terror than endless necessity of living with myself — no death final, no suicide conclusive, no way out of going on and on and on everlastingly, no escape from that eternal waking up again to find myself living with myself. I was, in effect, a Buddhist, counting the endless recurrence of rebirths the supreme horror from which there must be some way to escape. Even yet when I hear someone talking about immortality as it meant merely John Smith going on living with John Smith forever and forever, I cry out for some Nirvana as a hopeful alternative. So George Bernard Shaw, in his Back to Methuselah, makes Adam say:
If only I can be relieved of having to endure myself forever! If only the care of this terrible garden may pass on to some other gardener. . . . If only the rest and sleep that enable me to bear it from day to day, could grow after many days into an eternal rest, and eternal sleep, then I could face my days, however long they may last. Only there must be some end, some end! I am not strong enough to bear eternity.
I wonder if anybody believes in immortality intelligently and seriously who has not gone through that stage.
If now I do believe in immortality it is because of two considerations: first, that life in the context of the Christian faith has dimensions and meanings utterly beyond our power to imagine, so that those adolescent, Buddhistic fears of mine were nonsense; and second, that immortality is not merely and affirmation about me and my survival of death, but about the total meaning of the universe. I believe in immortality now, not because of any obsessive craving for it myself, but because it belongs to the only family of ideas that makes sense out of life as a whole.
Without immortality all the best we know on earth will in the end be utterly lost. Faith in immortality, some say, is merely an opiate, a psychological shot-in-the-arm, a wishful solace for our private grief. No! Far from being merely that, faith in immortality faces, as most philosophies pretending to be realistic never face, the most drastic and momentous fact about this planet, as well as every other planet. It is temporary. That is the ultimate fact about this planet — it is temporary. Once uninhabitable, it will sometime be uninhabitable again. What Shakespeare put into sonorous lines is now confirmed by science:
The cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yes, all which it inherit, shall disolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. . . .
Scientists used to say that would happen because the sun’s heat, slowly dissipated, would end at last and the earth freeze up. Now they are saying that the sun before it cools will grow hotter and hotter, so that the earth will burn up. But whatever the method, the fact is clear — there will not always be even the planet, earth.
In the end, therefore, if the best is not to be lost, there is only one way out. If this earth is, as Keats said, a “vale of Soul-making,” and if the souls that grow to character and strength and beauty here are not annihilated by death; if like a schoolhouse, the earth perishes but those who were trained in it go on; then and only then the best in the end will not be lost.
None of the substitutes for personal immortality meet this situation. The immortality of memory — that is beautiful, the cherished recollection of “all the saints who from their labors rest”; the immortality of influence — that is splendid in those blessed dead who “live again in lives made better by their presence”; but on transient earth, no memory and no influence are immortal; they are transient too. Unless the best in creation, as we know it, is to end in annihilation and futility, immortality must be true.
Consider first, that this faith in immortality meets a profound intellectual need. To say that in the end the best is doomed to be lost, does something, not simply to our hearts but to our minds. The central motive of the intellectual life is to find the meaning of things. Concerning the simplest physical fact, studied in a laboratory, the scientific mind feels sure that it has a meaning if we could but discover it. And from such single items in the universe, to the whole of the cosmos itself man’s mind moves out, driven by an inner conviction that there must be meaning there. Not a preacher, but a scientist, describing the attitudes of his fellow scientists, said this: “They would like to feel that this enterprise of life upon which we have embarked without any volition on our part, is a worth-while process. They would like to think of it as something more than and endless procession of life out of and into the dark.” That desire for meaning is a hunger not merely of the heart, but of the mind. As William James of Harvard said: “This life . . . feels like a real fight . . . in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success.”
Unless immortality is true, however, nothing can be eternally gained, but everything we value most will stop in a blind alley, a dead-end street. Then all our forefathers ending in a blind alley; and all whom we have loved long since and lost awhile — they ended in a blind alley; and we ourselves, and our children and children’s children, and at last the whole earth will end in a dead-end street — no thoroughfare, nothing coming out of it, no ultimate meaning.
That this amazing cosmos should be as irrational, senseless and futile as that, I cannot make myself believe. A professor at one of our prominent American universities said once that all the personalities earth has known or will know are only like snowflakes falling on a river. So! Snowflakes falling on a river! The river of course, is the endless sweep of materialistic energy, and all that is memorable and precious on earth — the great minds, the great characters — are only snowflakes falling on it, and that too is the final summation of Christ himself, a snowflake on a river! That does something not simply to our emotions but to our minds. So one of the most lovable of men, Somerset Maugham, who has entertained us with all his stories, accepting this philosophy, sums up this his final creed: “There is no reason for life and life has no meaning.”
Think of going out of face these tremendous days with such a slogan on our banners: “There is no reason for life and life has no meaning.” It will not do! The facts that we call spiritual — goodness, truth, beauty, the marvel of great minds, the splendor of great character — are just as real as the facts we call physical, and in one case as in the other there must be an adequate explanation. That is the basic conviction of our intellectual life: that for everything there must be an adequate explanation. And to dismiss Christ and all that he represents in human life as a snowflake on a river is not adequate — not emotionally adequate, but not intellectually adequate either. It takes more than that to account for him. The best in this universe is the revelation of the deepest in it, and the universe will not throw it away — that alone puts sense and meaning into life. Faith in immortality is more than solace for private grief. As John Fiske of Harvard said, it is the “supreme act of faith in the reasonableness of God’s work.”
This leads us to note, in the second place, that faith in immortality meets not only in general a profound intellectual but in particular a profound theological need. Whatever special name we may give to the Power, not ourselves, behind and in this universe, that Power is real; and here this morning we may take it for granted that we are theists, calling that Power “God.” Consider, then, what a momentous difference belief or disbelief in immortality makes to our concept of God!
Some people suppose that faith in immortality is egotistical. A man, they say, must be absurdly obsessed with his own importance to think he ought to live forever. That, however, is an utterly mistaken focusing of this matter. What denial of immortality does to me is nothing compared with what it does to God. It makes him a God of unfinished business. On a planet where, as one scientist put it, “nothing will remain, not even the ruins,” to deny immortality makes the Creator a God of the fugitive and transitory only — the whole story of this planet in the end unfinished business. He creates a world full of possibilities — promising, prophetic possibilities — great personality, open doors to truth and goodness, vistas with no horizons visible. These possibilities are here; they have arrived but, without immortality, they do not survive. In the end nothing comes of them. They have no completion, no consummation. God begins everything and finishes nothing. What kind of God is that?
Scubert, dying at thirty-one and leaving his Unfinished Symphony, is a parable of the human life. Even if you don’t die at thirty-one, but live to be as old as the Psalmist’s span, still there is an unfinished symphony. Corot, the artist, when he was seventy-seven years old, said: “If the Lord lets me live two years longer I think I can paint something beautiful.” Here, indeed, is the deep mystery of human life — that while our bodies are the natural prey of death, our minds and spirits already have started on a road that has no visible terminus. The more truth we learn, the more truth we see to learn. The more goodness we achieve, the more goodness we see there is to achieve. Such realms are essentially eternal. Death has to relevance to them. The farther we go in them, the farther there is to go. William James of Harvard said once that his interest in personal immortality was bot of the keenest order, but that as he grew older his belief in it grew stronger, and when asked why, he answered “Because I am just getting fit to live.”
This basic fact about life plainly involves God. We Americans blame ourselves because we waste the resources of our continent, but if death ends all, then of all wasters God is the worst. He forever produces spirits and throws them away half finished. He creates capacities he never uses, possibilities he never fulfills. Me makes the most valuable things we know — personality — and leaves it unfinished business. He launches ships he does not sail; he blows soap bubbles and watches them burst. I don’t believe it. I know all the difficulties that confront faith in immortality. It is a great mystery. I do not think any picture we have of it can possibly be true. We are like unborn babes in a mother’s womb. What faces them is not death but birth; yet it is birth into a world not a single detail of which could they possibly imagine. What eye hath not seen, what ear hath not heard, and what hath not entered into the heart of man, that God has prepared — Paul is right about that. But Paul is right about another thing: “This mortal must put on immortality.” God is not the God of unfinished business.
In India they tell us, there are fakirs who sit beside pools of water with piles of colored dust beside them and so skillfully drop the dust upon the still surface that they make for you recognizable portraits of distinguished characters. Then the breeze ruffles the pool and the picture disappears. Is that God’s business? Does he take colored dust and drop it on life’s water and, lo! Plato, or Isaiah, or Christ himself, or nearer souls whom we have known and loved! and then does the breeze disturb the water and they disappear? That would be strange business for God!
Without faith in immortality, a closed door is the ultimate symbol of this universe — a closed door for every individual life, a closed door for every generation’s life, a closed door at last for all life. The ultimate symbol of this vast creative process, of which we are a part, a closed door! I don’t believe it. Certainly faith in the Christian God makes that impossible. He is essentially the God of open doors, with “the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ.”
So far we have been saying that faith in immortality is no mere egotistical greediness to go on living, no mere private solace in time of grief, but is of profound concern to our whole philosophy of life and our whole concept of God. Now let us go on to say that it is of profound concern also to our social life and all our democratic hopes and values.
During World War II I conversed with an American journalist who had covered the news in Berlin up to our very entrance into the war. Here in essence I what that journalist said to me: I came home from Berlin and went back to my old college campus, and I said to some of the professors there, You are teaching these students here the philosophy that has made Nazi Germany what she is. You tried to teach me that only a few years ago — a godless materialism that makes the physical the source and end of everything, that undermines the bases of moral principle and makes of the whole universe a purposeless machine. And now in Nazidom I have seen what happens when that philosophy really gets going and comes to its logical conclusion, and I have come back to tell you that the stuff you are teaching here is about the most dangerous dynamite that is being scattered around the world.
That journalist, in my judgment, is right in seeing that the materialistic philosophy with its denial of God and immortality does change the whole climate of man’s thought and life, so that democracy, for example, which rests upon a deep conviction concerning human value, dignity, and possibility, loses the very soil it must have to grow in.
I do not mean that were faith in immortality to vanish altogether from the earth we would not go on living for good causes here. Of course we would. The best of us would resign ourselves to the ultimate meaninglessness of life as a whole and, so far as we could, we would try to make this earth while it lasted — and that will be for a long while — as livable a place as possible. But without faith in anything eternally worth while, what a change would take place in the moral and spiritual climate!
If someone says, But there are good men and women now, not believing in immortality, who are admirable public servants. I answer, Surely there are. But they are unwittingly sustained by the faith of millions who still are sure that life is ultimately worth while, not merely a procession out of and into the dark. The faith that in the end the best will not be lost is in the very air we breathe. Our heritage is full of it; our literature enshrines it; its voice resounds around the earth on Easter Day; its quiet reassurance supports the minds and hearts of multitudes; and it has created a climate in which some great things have grown. The idea that every personality is sacred has grown in that climate — and democracy’s belief in the value of individual people, so that our test of any social order is what it does to persons, one by one. The best in our Western democracy has come from two main sources — the great Greeks, with their profound faith in the soul and its eternal meaning; and the Jewish-Christian tradition, with its central conviction that things seen are temporal, the things unseen, eternal. Immortality is the supreme assertion of the worth of personality; and that faith has created a climate in which the very liberties and democracies we fight for now have grown.
More things are wrought by climate than we stop to think. Bishop McConnell says that as a boy he was fascinated by a book in his father’s library, filled with pictures of old dinosaurs and monstrous reptiles that once roamed the earth; and that he used to wonder how ever they were got rid of in the end. Then, when he went to college, he found out; the climate changed; that was what happened, a change in climate, so that the old beasts died off.
Well, faith in immortality affects tremendously the spiritual climate. Picture a world where everybody is convinced that only the noblest souls that are the glory of our race are only snowflakes falling on a river. Picture a world where everybody holds Somerset Maugham’s creed, that in the long run “there is no reason for life and life has no meaning.” Picture our race unanimously convinced that every personality at last every social gain ends in a blind alley; that, as one honest atheist says, man “has no reason to suppose that his own life has any more meaning that the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another.” The major effect of that would be to change the whole climate of human life.
To me the most dreadful thing about materialism is its necessary declaration that the best elements in us, our finest qualities, are misfits in this universe, strange temporary accidents that do not belong here and do to correspond with the real facts. A professor at one of our prominent American universities, one of the most honest atheists of our time, puts it frankly: “It grows more and more likely that man must remain an ethical animal in a universe which contains no ethical element.” Get that picture! It is the inevitable corollary of the materialistic philosophy — man an ethical animal in a universe that contains no ethical element. Yes, man an intellectual animal in a universe that contains no intellectual element; man a purposeful animal in a universe that contains no purposeful element; man a loving animal in a universe that contains not the slightest shred of goodwill; all our best ethical life a chance intruder, a transient misfit, as Bertrand Russell calls it, “a curious accident in a backwater” — that is materialistic creed and it creates a climate in which the best social hopes of mankind will only with desperate difficulty manage to survive.
Listen to Beatrice Webb about this. She and her husband some fifteen years ago wrote one of the most understanding books about communism in the English language. She is a highly intelligent liberal. Listen to her then, all the more, on this subject: “I cannot help having a half-conscious conviction that, if the human race is mortal, if its existence is without aim, if that existence is to end, at however remote a period, in a complete dissolution, like that which overcomes the individual, then life indeed is not worth living — not worth living to the mass of mankind.”
That is the climate which materialism produces. Over against that, here is a philosophy that supports man’s best — that spiritual life does belong in this universe; that it is a revelation of what eternally is so; that Christ and all he stands for are no accidental interlopers on this scene; that he came from the eternal, reveals the eternal, and lives still in the eternal; that as Emerson cried,
. . . what is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent!
That philosophy creates a climate in which mankind’s best social hopes can grow.
In conclusion, however, we must of course recognize the fact that faith in immortality is relevant not only to profound intellectual, theological and social problems, but to profound personal needs as well. That is where most people begin to face the issue. Edna St. Vincent Millay speaks for all of us when she says:
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving
hearts in this hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been,
time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not
. . . . . . . . . .
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. ¹
There speaks the human soul in its deepest hours.
Note, however, that even that personal cry for life eternal is not primarily egotistical. It is the cry not of egotism but of love, caring so much for someone else that death must not be the end of such a life.
Professor George Herbert Palmer of Harvard was a great teacher of philosophy; he believed in immortality, knew all the arguments pro and con and could present them with clarity and force. But I suspect that the real source of his faith in life eternal was best revealed, not in any lecture on philosophy he ever gave, but in something he said when his wife died: Who would “not call the world irrational if out of deference to a few particles of disordered matter it excludes so fair a spirit?” Not egotism but love here speaks its inevitable word, sure that in God’s world things unseen, beautiful beyond our power to tell, and of value infinite, must be eternal.
Plato’s Phaedo is the greatest argument for immortality in the ancient world, but Plato and his friends were thinking, not first about themselves, but about Socrates whom they loved. Death ought not be the end of him. The New Testament is radiant with eternal hope, but those first disciples, far from thinking about themselves, were saying about Christ that death has no dominion over him. Always when faith in immortality rises strong and confident, its source is not egotism but love — Tennyson writing In Memoriam,
Thou madest man, he knows not why,
He thinks he was not made to die;
And thou hast made him: thou art just,
because Tennyson cared so much for Arthur Hallam; Ralph Waldo Emerson writing in his Thremody the words I just quoted,
. . . what is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent!
because he cared so deeply for his little son whom death had taken.
In the last analysis our belief in immortality springs from our love of people. And love is not blind; it has eyes to see in loved ones prophecies that ought to be fulfilled, fine things growing that should not be lost in an eternal winter with no springtime.
So we come back to our first affirmation that faith in immortality is not an isolated, detachable item in the Christian creed but a member of a great family of ideas: a meaningful universe, a purposeful God, a world where man’s social hopes will not end in utter annihilation, and so personality sacred, with endless possibilities.
People say that we cannot imagine or picture immortality. They are right. Waste no time on charlatans who think they can! People say that we cannot demonstrate immortality. They are right. Demonstration, strictly speaking, involves verification, and in the nature of the case that is impossible now. Neither immortality or its opposite can in a scientific sense be proved. People say, Let us live to the full now and not worry too much about immortality. So say I. Goethe, who hoped so deeply for immortality that he said once, “Those are dead even in this life who hope for no other,” said to his friend, Eckermann: “An able man, who has something regular to do here, and must toil and struggle and produce day by day, leaves the future world to itself, and is active and useful in this.” So say I.
But underneath and overhead and through this present life, like sunshine which one does not always think of but which is here, runs a strong conviction that vivifies and illumines and dignifies everything, that spiritual life is eternal and that ahead of it the doors are open. Sure of that, “I do not ask to see the future scene; one step enough for me.”
If you want it summed up in homely words, recall Thornton Wilder’s expression of his faith, in his play Our Town:
I don’t care what they say with their mouths — everybody knows that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even stars — everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.
¹ “Dirge without Music” from The Buck in the Snow and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Copyright, 1928, by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published by Harper & Brothers. Used by permission of Brandt & Brandt.
Pearls Before Swine cartoon by Stephan Patis, November 14 2014: https://www.gocomics.com/pearlsbeforeswine/2014/11/14 PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.