World’s Religions on Aging and Dying
~ By Robin Avery ~
Last month’s column explored intentional communities and how they often form as like-minded folks seek spiritual fulfillment. The impulse toward spiritual fulfillment unites humans in a mysterious kinship that crosses boundaries of nationality, race, gender, class, religion, and age. This impulse is ancient and revolves around the question of whether life has meaning, a greater purpose, and what, if anything, follows death.
Circa 2900 BC, elaborate ceremonies prepared pharaohs for the next life. Belief in the immortality of the soul was espoused by Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato (ca. 428-348 B.C.), in Phaedo, presents Socrates’ explanation of death:
Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion of this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and body is released from the soul, what is this but death? (Five Great Dialogues, Classics Club edition, 1969, p. 93)
This Greek view of the soul predates Christianity. Plato reasoned that the soul, being eternal, must have had a pre-existence in the Ideal world where it learned about the eternal Ideals (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy, 1968, p. 56). Plato reasoned that a person is meant to attain goodness and return to the Ideal through a process called the transmigration of the soul.
What do the world’s wisdom traditions, the great religions, say about aging and dying? In this column, the two largest Christianity (32% of the world’s population) and Islam (at 23%) will be considered.
In Christianity, the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, is the main source of guidance. Ecclesiastes offers perspectives on Christian beliefs. The narrative of “the Preacher or “the Teacher” asserts that depression inevitably results from seeking happiness in worldly things. Two phrases are repeated often in Ecclesiastes, the first, translated as “vanity” in the King James Version, and “meaningless” in the New International Version, is used to emphasize the temporary nature of worldly things. The second phrase “under the sun” occurs 28 times, and refers to the mortal world. When the Preacher refers to “all things under the sun,” he is talking about earthly, temporary, human things. The first seven chapters of Ecclesiastes describe all of the worldly things “under the sun” in which the Preacher tries to find fulfillment. He attempts scientific discovery (1:10-11), wisdom and philosophy (1:13-18), mirth (2:1), alcohol (2:3), architecture (2:4), property (2:7-8), and luxury (2:8). The Preacher turns to philosophy for meaning: materialism (2:19-20), and even moral codes (including chapters 8-9). He finds that everything is meaningless, a temporary diversion that, without God, had no lasting purpose. God, it says, has placed the desire for eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We are reminded that striving after wealth is vanity not only because it does not satisfy (Ecclesiastes 5:10), but because, without Christ we would lose our souls even if we attained it. “The dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
And, “That, knowing the time, now it is high time to awake out of sleep, now is our salvation nearer than when we believed (Romans 12:11).The Bible compares death to sleep more than fifty times. This notion that we “sleep”, and must awake, is shared by many traditions.
The Islamic holy book is the Koran. The Koran’s inspiration is historically attributed to Mohammed, who lived relatively late (c. 570 – c. 8 June 632), compared to the Greeks and Egyptians.
The Koran asks: “Do human beings think they will be left alone, having no purpose?” (75:36). It reminds us of our lowly origins: “Were you not a drop of ejaculated semen fashioned into a blood clot? Then God formed and molded you, and made you males or females. Has He no power then to raise the dead to life?” (75:37-40)
Much like Christianity, the Koran says that death, by forcing us to face the question of life’s meaning, points to the solution. Death is not an end, but a beginning. Life has a purpose, and we are not to be left alone until we find it. It is not our family who will be our company, but God, and we will have to answer to Him.
In the Koran, therefore, death is always tied to life after death, for only life after death renders human life bearable and meaningful, and explains the mystery of human existence. The Koran sees life as part of a cycle: birth, death, resurrection, and life after death.
There is a story told about Muhammad trying to convince a fellow tribesman that there will be a resurrection and that the dead shall be brought back to life. The man, fed up with Muhammad’s arguments, fetches a dried human bone, crushes it into a white powder, raises it in the palm of his hand to Muhammad’s face, and asks him: “Is your God going to resurrect this?” And he blows the dust in Muhammad’s face. This story is offered to explain a part of the Koran, which I cite here:
Let not their words grieve you. We have knowledge of all that they conceal and all that they reveal. Is humanity not aware that we created them from a little germ? Yet is humanity flagrantly contentious. They answer back with arguments and forget their own creation. They ask: “Who will give life to rotten bones?” Say: “He who first brought them into being will give them life again. He has knowledge of every creature, He who gives you a flame from the green tree, and lo, you light a fire. (36:76-80)
Much thought and energy is expended in the Koran to show why life after death is a reality. Many arguments derive from a fundamental assertion: Life has to have meaning because God is just. For life to have a meaning God must judge the world. Since He is not judging it now, there has to be a Day of Judgment, which means that there has to be a resurrection. All of these themes are invoked repeatedly, and bear a striking resemblance to Christian beliefs.
In closing, the preponderance of human thought agrees that Optimal Aging requires a spiritual component, which regardless of our physical condition, allows us to achieve our full human potential, our dignity and our grace.
Next month’s column will complete the review of the major world’s religious beliefs around the issues of aging and dying. We will consider Hinduism (14% of the world’s population), Buddhism (6%), Chinese traditional (6%) and primal/indigenous beliefs (6%).
Robin Avery is a gerontologist, consultant and developer/operator of assisted living communities with a Master’s Degree in Gerontology and Long Term Care Management from Naropa University. Robin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.