Wednesday, April 20, 2011


We are one family. That's the first thing we have to understand in order to begin to wrestle with the great problems of life, death, and faith.

A student thesis I read in the past week discussed the fact that until the moment when we experience our own death, we can only know of death by observing it in others. (This is an key theme in the philosophical thought of Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida, who provided some of the main inspiration for this student's theological reflections.) I was fascinated by the notion that human beings seem to need to understand the nature of death in order to make meaning of their lives.

And yet, the true nature of death remains obscure. Much human activity -- the philosophers point out -- is geared toward avoiding having to deal with the question of the nature of death. Many of us simply live in denial about death, acting as if we will live forever. But those who reflect on the nature of death recognize that it presents different possibilities. This is where it gets interesting.

Death may be a final, absolute end of existence. It certainly appears to be that, when we observe it in others. Years ago, shortly after Göran's mother died, we saw her body. She had passed away less than 24 hours earlier, so her physical form was exactly what it had been when she was still alive. But I remember remarking how utterly still she was, how completely quiet and unmoving she was. It was a stillness such as I had never observed in a human being. It was a shocking experience, almost. It looked like Lettie Ruth, but I was very aware that it was not Lettie Ruth any more.

We know that eventually, once a person dies, what we see of them becomes subject to complete dissolution and dispersion of their constituent elements. Eventually there is nothing coherent that remains. So what we observe of death presents the possibility of a complete end, total annihilation of the human being.

The truth is, however, not knowing death in the first person, not having experienced it ourselves, we cannot conclusively say that death represents a complete end of consciousness or existence for the person who dies. So we are presented merely with the possibility that death represents an absolute end.

What evidence do we have that death does not represent an absolute end? There are individuals who have been clinically dead and been resuscitated, only to recount striking experiences that they had while their bodies appeared to be lifeless: seeing their bodies from above, traveling to other places, encountering and conversing with intelligent, benevolent beings, and having their lives changed after their return.

There are also individuals who describe having encountered the spirits of deceased loved ones: either feeling their presence or even having seen them. I and other members of my family have had both kinds of experiences. My maternal grandfather, for instance, who was never a member of the LDS Church, claimed to have witnessed his deceased daughter wearing a "beautiful dress," close to his bedside shortly before he passed away himself.

There are also certain kinds of religious experience, such as the vision described by Joseph F. Smith in Section 138 of the D&C, or such as the vision described in Revelation 20: 12 ("I saw the dead, small and great"), in which the dead are perceived to have an existence beyond the grave. Individuals may also have spiritual experiences in which they anticipate the likelihood of their own existence beyond their own death.

I'm not sure how widespread such experiences are. My sense is that these kinds of experiences are common enough, though not, perhaps, a majority experience, at least in our culture. However many have had these kinds of experiences, and however powerful and meaningful as they may be to those who have them, they are still nonetheless merely suggestive of the possibility that there is some spiritual aspect of ourselves that lives on beyond the dissolution of our bodies. To those who have had such experiences, possibility may feel more like probability or certainty, though depending on the nature of the experience, there may still be room for doubt. Certainly to those who have had no such first-hand experiences, they can be no more conclusive than whatever we might speculate about the nature of death based on our observation of it.

What fascinated me, on reading my student's account of Heidegger's and Derrida's views on death, was their insistence that human beings are, in essence, suspended between possibilities. Assuming one is intellectually honest, one can deny the possibility of life beyond death no more than one can deny the possibility of death being some kind of absolute end. It was these philosophers' perception of this truth about death that led them to see death both imbuing life with its sacredness and making us aware of the uniquely individual nature of each person's life.

The fact that we can experience no one's death but our own, reminds us that we can experience no one's life but our own! Among gay Mormons, I frequently see gay men and lesbians who desperately want someone else to give them clear, unambiguous guidance about what decisions they need to make in their lives with relation to sexuality and the Church. This question, in essence, is: What will secure the greatest happiness for me, in this life as well as in eternity? There are lots of subsidiary questions: Am I an eternal being? And if so: Will I be gay or straight in eternity? Which is another way of asking: Will happiness with a person of my own sex in this life deprive me of potential happiness with a person of the opposite sex in the next life? Or: Is my happiness in the next life continuous with, or is it at odds with, my happiness in this life? Heady questions, when, the philosophers insist, it's not possible really to get past death itself. But there are this worldly questions we ask too, like: Can I be as happy in this life with a person of the opposite sex as I might be with a person of the same sex? And so on.

Part of the reason the gay Mormon blogosphere is so compelling to us is because we seek answers for ourselves by observing the lives of others. Within the gay Mormon blogging world, it is possible to find (almost) every conceivable life choice. And we can try to judge the happiness of others in an attempt to guess what might make us most happy.

The bad news, from the point of view of the philosophers, is that this won't help us. Our life is utterly unique in the sense that it is the only one we can experience. I can't experience anyone else's life. I have no way of knowing whether their choices make them happier than my choices have made me.

The good news, from the point of view of the philosophers, is that this really doesn't matter. What makes someone else exquisitely happy may in fact not make me happy at all. So we may accept the responsibility of living our lives, knowing that it is ours to live. It is our sacred gift, and belongs to no one else.

Still, I want to say we are connected. Our stories do tell us something: about possibilities. Because we are one family, because we are brothers and sisters, others' experiences are sacred to us, even if they don't grant us the kinds of certainty we wish they would.

And life could not be so sacred, or so meaningful if it were not granted us in this way that it is: interconnected with the lives of others even as it is suspended in the midst of infinite possibilities.

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