Preface to the Westminster/John Knox Edition (Full Text)
- Whilst books on death come and go, death itself is a constant fact. But it is a fact the consciousness of which we normally set aside or repress. It has been said that the human species is the one that knows that it is mortal and that refuses to believe it! But the beginning of wisdom is the acceptance of our mortality. Thus in an ancient Buddhist story a mother whose small son died comes to the Buddha begging him miraculously to bring the boy back to life. He tells her to go round the village collecting mustard seeds, but only from houses in which there has not been a death. She eventually comes back to him, with no mustard seeds, but with a new realization and acceptance of the universality of death.
- The story is particularly poignant because it concerns the act of a child, and youth is usually a time when it is not yet necessary to be aware of mortality. The normal healthy state of the young is to be subjectively immortal: the young cannot imagine what it is like to be middle-aged, or old, or to be approaching the end of life. The prevalence today of deaths on the television screen — several every day watched by many viewers – does little to affect this situation, for TV deaths generally are serve to make death unreal rather than real. However, it may well be that TV pictures of war and starvation, and the alarming number of violent deaths of young males (particularly young black males) in inner-city shootings, as well as in automobile crashes, and a realization of the threat of impending environmental disaster are today making death more of a reality to the young in the West than it has been since the time a century ago, and prior to that, when it was common for young children to die, so that death was a familiar event within the family.
- Insofar as the subjective immortality of the young is intact, there is no harm in it, in spite of the fact that it is illusory. But the time, often around the age of forty, when we become consciously mortal begins a phase in which a fundamental consolidation may occur in our understanding of the nature of life and our engagement in it. This consolidation does not usually come about consciously and at a given moment, but unconsciously and over a period of time. In recognizing our mortality, do we accept the reality of time and our own existence as temporal creatures who are part of a universe of ceaseless change? Or do we try to protect ourselves from change and mortality by walls of possessions and wealth, of power, domination, fame? Such protective walls are built on shifting sands. At some stage, if only the final stage of impending death, they all dissolve.
- The religions of the world would liberate us from these false securities, enabling us to accept the fleeting character of what western theology calls the contingency of the world, and eastern thought, the realm of maya. The redeemed or liberated or awakened person can then live fully in the present moment, including its bad as well as its good moments, aware that the ultimate meaning of the ceaseless process of life is good: in the words of Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."
- This ultimate goodness of the total project of human life is spelled out in very different ways by the different religions, and involves in each case their conceptions of the goals of the creative and liberative process. In this book those different conceptions are described and compared.
- When we listen to what the great religious traditions say about our future beyond the grave, it becomes important to distinguish between eschatologies, or pictures of the ultimate state (which may well transcend individual existence as we know it), and pareschatologies, or pictures of what happens between death and that ultimate state. Many of the apparently conflicting doctrines concerning an after-life1 are reconcilable in the of this distinction. It is even possible, as I shall suggest, to see the major religions as pointing convergingly toward a common, very general conception of the eschaton, the final and eternal state — very general because beyond our present conceptual resources, although with different expectations concerning the pareschaton — the sphere or spheres, life or lives through humankind moves toward that end.
- But of course set over against all religious understanding of life, here and hereafter, is the naturalistic, or purely secular, conviction that we are only enormously complex forms of complex life who, like the grass and the insects, live and die and are then no more: “When you're dead you're dead!" This view is also examined in this book. In contrast to it, it seems to me that the claim of the religions that this life is part of a much larger existence that transcends our lifespan as animal organisms, whether through the continuation of individual consciousness or through participation in a greater transpersonal life, is very likely to be true. I shall argue that this is not ruled out by established scientific findings or by any agreed philosophical arguments. Both the survival of the mind, without a body, and also the reconstitution or "resurrection" of the psycho-physical person in another spatial environment are — I shall argue — realistically conceivable, as also are some forms of rebirth on this earth. Human survival is thus not impossible; and I shall further demonstrate that any religious understanding of human existence — not merely of one's own existence but of the life of humanity as a whole — positively requires some kind of immortality belief and would be radically incoherent without it.
- My main basis, then, for thinking it likely that our total existence is larger than our present life on this earth is an acceptance of a religious, as distinguished from a naturalistic, interpretation of the universe and of human life as part of it. I have spelled out this connection in chapter 8. It is possible that I am mistaken in seeing such a connection; nevertheless, my view at present is that if, after I have died, I find that I still consciously exist, I shall not be in the least surprised!
- While this is a religiously based belief, it is assisted by some of the phenomena studied by parapsychology. Since this book was first published, even more such phenomena have come into prominence. These consist in the reports of people who have been "clinically dead" (i.e., assumed from all the clinical signs to have died) for periods ranging from a few seconds to as much as twenty minutes, and then resuscitated. A flood of such reports were published in the late 1970s in, for example, Raymond Moody's Life After Life, Karl Otis and Erlandur Haraldsson's At the Hour of Death, and Maurice Rawlings' Beyond Death's Door; a considerable literature discussing their significance exists.
- Sometimes these "near-death experiences2" are preceded by out-of-body episodes in which one finds oneself looking down on one's own body lying unconscious on the ground or on a bed or an operating table. Among these many such accounts are some in which the patient's "floating" consciousness observed and later reported things or people or events about which it could not have had any normal body-based awareness.
- In the near-death experiences3 themselves a number of elements regularly recur, though often not all on the same occasion. These include hearing a loud noise, the sensation of being drawn through a dark tunnel, emergence into a place of light and beauty, meeting with deceased relatives and friends, the encounter with a shining "being of light" in whose presence they are conscious of an immense love and acceptance, a rapid but vivid review of one's own life, approaching a border beyond which there is felt to be no return and then being sent or drawn back, sometimes reluctantly, into the body. In a small minority of cases, the experience is not perceived as positive in these ways but, on the contrary, horrific and terrifying. But what is perhaps most striking in the majority of cases is the effect of the experience in the subsequent lives of the persons concerned. To many who have been resuscitated, their experience while clinically dead was the most impressive religious experience that they have undergone, profoundly affecting their outlook ever after. The encounter with the loving and accepting "being of light" gives them an experiential assurance of the divine love; whereas the experience as a whole removes the natural fear of death, which they now see as a gateway to another and enhanced form of life.
- How are we to interpret these phenomena? Since the patients have proven capable of being resuscitated, we know that they were not completely dead. Was their experience, then, a vivid dream produced by a brain that is losing oxygen; or was it a psychological act of self-assurance in the face of impending extinction; or was it the first authentic glimpse of a post-mortem mode of consciousness, or at least of the interface between this life and another? I believe that more research and more thought is necessary before we can confidently categorise these experiences. It remains at present another intriguing mystery within the larger cluster of mysteries surrounding the fact of death.
- Finally, this book was written before most of us had begun to replace the traditional male language in which one spoke of man, mankind, and he when referring to human beings generally, without using inclusive language. Unfortunately, considerations of cost have made it impossible to purge the text of the old language, and I can only apologize to those, including myself, it now offends.
- But perhaps the main feature of the book that has encouraged me to make it available again is that it treats the subject of death on a global basis, seeking insights from both east and west , and from psychology, parapsychology, sociology, and philosophy, as well as from religion. For truth-seeking requires not only accurate reasoning but also an openness to ideas and information from any and every relevant source.
- In the original preface to this book I thanked by name a number of people in India and Sri Lanka who helped me, during visits amounting to almost a year, to understand better the Hindu and Theravada Buddhist conceptions of reincarnation4 or rebirth. At the university founded by Rabindranath Tagore at Santiniketan, and at Benares Hindu University, and Punjabi University, and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram at Pondicherry and at Peradeniya near Kandy in Sri Lanka, as well as at several other places, I had invaluable learning experiences that added to my reading of the Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist texts and commentaries. I came away from both India and Sri Lanka feeling that I had been privileged to have had at least some slight encounter with two great living faiths other than that by which I had been formed; and having also, with my wife — who joined me for part of each visit — experienced the unforgettable open-handed and open-spirited hospitality of these lands and cultures.
… John Hick, March 1993
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