Here is what it is in a nutshell: Fear of death. Which is actually a biggie. I mean you can scoff at it when you are in your 20’s and in perfect health, but if you or a loved one has terminal cancer, for example, it tends to occupy your thoughts.
When faced with death, people really want to know if there is anything on the other side, and if there is then it’s hopefully something pleasant; even heavenly.
The way Christians traditionally worked this out is that death is un-natural. God is love, yet for some reason, perfectly nice relatives and friends are periodically taken from us sometimes, after experiencing protracted periods of horrible pain. The reason for this, theologically, is that death is a judgement; a punishment for sin. God, in his righteousness, had to punish sin but he felt bad about it. He felt so bad about it that he decided to punish himself instead on our behalf, so that we wouldn’t have to suffer and die. So if you accept this sacrifice,you will still die, but at some later point,you will be brought back to life and there will be no more tears.
I’m not really trying to be crass, because suffering and death is no joke to me. I think any means people have to get through it and be at peace is a huge blessing.
2000 years of tradition goes a long way in helping people through this process. Hospitals, military bases, any place where there is a lot of dying going on are filled With chaplains and various clergy working to bring peace to people in their suffering. I have experienced this first-hand, and the comfort this tradition brings to people is a real and tangible thing. I don’t pooh pooh it at all, because in the dying process, being at peace is much preferred to writhing in physical (as well as existential) pain.
Now, you maybe wondering, what if anything, does the need for a belief in dinosaurs frolicking alongside humans possibly have to do with this?
I really feel like the vast majority of Christians aren’t Theologically concerned about dinosaurs, or wouldn’t be if not for certain literal minded people like Ken Ham, founder of “Answers In Genesis” and the Creation Museum
Taken extremely literally, the whole “substitutionary atonement” salvation scheme does have a monkey wrench thrown into it by evolutionary biology, as it is currently understood. The reason is because in the course of evolution, and the huge stretches of time involved, there have been millions and millions of generations of living things. In other words, millions and millions of deaths. Things have been living and dying from the beginning, and there was death long before there were human beings by millions of years. In light of this it makes no logical sense that physical death could be a judgement for human sin, and that opens up once again the whole question of why do people die, why does it suck so bad, and what if anything is on the other side?
In light of evolutionary biology, many of these tried and true theological answers fail – at least in an extremely literal sense. I will hasten to add, however, that there are different schools of thought in soteriology (the study of salvation) besides the substitutionary atonement such as “Christus Victor” but delving into that is beyond the scope of this essay.
Let’s just say that for the most part evolutionary biology, and modern geology put fundamentalists on very shaky ground, theologically speaking. The Creation Science museum is essentially ahuge exercise in rationalization and wishful thinking. Its all borne from insecurity on a monumental scale. Ham and his associates have chosen to prove (to themselves) that the Garden of Eden was an historical place where literally, all the living species that ever existed, once lived, but with no predation or physical death, or suffering of any kind.
What is at stake for them is that if they can’t prove this story as being literally true, they have no answers for why people die and no assurance that anything pleasant awaits them on the other side. They are instead faced with their own annihilation and the annihilation of their loved ones.
Yet for many people Christianity (and Science) still seems to work for them.
I recently lost my dad. He was an intelligent person who admired science and scientists, yet as he lay in hospice he was very much comforted by visits from Catholic priests and nuns, and by praying and receiving communion. In fact, he would invite any chaplain or clergy into his room who offered to pray, whether they were Catholic, Protestant, Fundamentalist Christian or completely non-denominational.
I think that in the end he chose to go with the Catholics cuts to the heart of the difference between Roman Catholics and Protestants, especially fundamentalists. Fundamentalists are, in fact, Protestants, among Protestants. The Reformation itself was is in some ways a working out of a type of extreme literal-mindedness, or over-rationality. It’s the idea that as human beings, nothing is beyond our grasp of (rational) understanding. I believe that this is what led to the type of materialism Fundamentalists now pit themselves against.
You don’t see Roman Catholics debating evolutionists because – at least officially – the Roman Catholic Church has no beef with evolution. Creation Science is not taught in Catholic schools. To Roman Catholics these big questions are shrouded in mystery. Its more mystical. Some things are beyond us, yet there is reassurance that God loves and takes care of us.
Moving beyond contemporary and historical scandals and political squabbles, many of them rightly seen as horrible, the Roman Catholic Church is a very big Church. It is very broad based and diverse in its traditions. Within this diversity there are tie-ins to other mystical, even non-dual traditions, such as Buddhism.
The non-dual answer for death is that part of us is consciousness itself, and it is this best part of us, the only real part of us, lives on.
As my Dad lay in his hospital bed, barely able to speak, but still very aware, he was visited again by a particular Franciscan nun, with whom he had developed a strong connection. She told him that he did not need words to pray, and that he only needed to breath in and out: That each breath was a giving of thanks to God.
“Its so simple,” my father said.
In his last few days as he breathed in and out, there was a tangible peace in the room and all that he had left was his Love. I really feel that in that sense he lives on.