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People Should Live Life Fully Now

Photo by Don Pinnock on Unsplash

Because some ancient cave paintings seem to use familiar images to tell a story, anthropologists have some relative agreement that humans developed spoken languages about 35,000 years ago.

However, written language only appeared about 5,500 years ago, in Sumer, what is now known as Iran. So there was about 30,000 years of songs, poems, and, possibly, some of our best mother-in-law jokes that are now lost to us because no one could write them down.

The oldest real piece of literature is about 4000 years old; it is the epic poem based on the fantastic accounts attributed to an ancient king of the city of Uruk, Gilgamesh. We believe he is depicted in this relief as the master of animals, holding a male lion under his left arm and a serpent in his right hand. Gilgamesh might have been an actual person but the telling and retelling of his great strength and prowess inflated history to the point that, as you can see here, judging from the size of the grown lion under his arm, Gilgamesh dominated the ancient Akkadian basketball courts at a height of about 18 to 20 feet.

The modern era rediscovered the Gilgamesh epic in the 1850’s and what interested modern readers the most was a fragment of the novela that was shockingly similar to the story in Genesis about Noah.

This story, written thousands of years before the book of Genesis, talks about a fellow named Utnapishtim who was conscripted by the gods to build a huge boat, prior to a divinely inspired flood, and to collect two of every kind of animal in order to save them from the flood.

Gilgamesh

There are differences in the Genesis account of Noah and the Babylonian account of Utnapishtim but the similarities were such that it kept adult Sunday School classes in the throes of irrational panic attacks as they were forced to wonder if God really wrote the Bible or if it might just be a collection of ancient stories and sermons.

Of course, both the story of Utnapishtim and the story of Noah are likely to have been oral tradition myths that just got copied into the longer narratives where they were preserved for us to read and compare. Neither are historical, neither were written by God, and it is evident for a number of reasons that I won’t bore you with now, that the Babylonian version is much older than the Genesis version and some Hebrew priest in antiquity is still awaiting trial for obvious plagiarism.

But all levity aside, the reason that I bring this up today is to take note of the fact that at the very dawn of civilization, when our ancient ancestors were first trying to grapple with the meaning of life, the first issue that was treated in any length was the horrifying reality that we are all mortal and that we will all, one day, die.

In the Gilgamesh epic, the hero of the story had become so very strong and so sexually exploitative that the people of Uruk appealed to the gods for someone who could challenge Gilgamesh.

And the gods sent them the wild man, Enkidu, who was, at least initially, more of a problem than Gilgamesh because he was like a wild animal who did not speak, would not wear clothes, and could not be restrained.

Again, without going into any details, Gilgamesh comes up with the bright idea of sending the town prostitute out to deal with Enkidu and the people came out the next day to find him peacefully seated, fully clothed, and communicating normally. The epic does not say what she did to tame him and I will not speculate about it here.

The larger point is that Enkidu and Gilgamesh become close friends and set out on many heroic quests and feats of superhuman strength. The gods eventually take offense at their arrogance, and they cause Enkidu to die a slow and painful death.

Mortality comes as a shock to Gilgamesh. He holds onto the body of Enkidu, grieving his death until, the narrative says, “the worm dropped from the nostril of Enkidu,” a symptom universally understood to mean that he was not merely dead but that he was really quite sincerely dead.

It is, at this moment, that Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with an awareness that he too would die one day and so he sets out to find the secret to eternal life.

Religion is full of promises of life after death, assurances of the reality of heaven and or hell, but in this most ancient piece of what we might think of as religious philosophy, the conclusion is that while there are hints and hopes for life after death, it ultimately either does not exist or if it does, it is unattainable.

That may not be what you want to hear, but, I have to tell you, I recently listened to a sermon from the famous preacher at the mega-church in California, the Saddleback Baptist Church, Rick Warren. Rick Warren was talking about mortality, but he was assuring the more than 4 million people who have listened to this message, that your death is just a transition to a new and better life. That God loves you and created you to be a member of God’s family, that you just have to go through some tough learning lessons in this brief life, to get ready for glory. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5xyYI9tNV8&t=1043s)

Of course, many of you have tried to reign in my criticisms of fundamentalist preachers in the past, reminding me, “he has his opinion, and you have yours,” and “everyone has a right to their own beliefs, their own religion, and no one is better than another.” I get it. You would like for me to be more diplomatic. Sometimes I would like for me to be more diplomatic.

But if everyone’s opinion is of equal value, why do people choose to have a board-certified neurosurgeon do their brain surgery rather than the guy who mows their lawn? The guy who mows their lawn might be a better neurosurgeon than the person with fancy degrees and certifications at the hospital…. He could be, he might be, but we all know that he probably isn’t. In fact, it is nearly impossible to even imagine that he could come close to being qualified to perform brain surgery.

What I would say about Rick Warren’s 1 hour and 14-minute-long sermon about the afterlife is that he did not say one thing that could be supported by any evidence at all, not a bit. There is no more reason to believe anything that he said about heaven than there is to believe in fire-breathing dragons, unicorns, or that Donald Trump would be restored to the presidency this month.

I don’t want to tell you that absolutely everything that this bloviating corpulent cleric says is nothing but balloon juice but the only reason that I would not assure you that there is no credible content to anything he says is just because he is saying more or less the same thing that millions of other preachers are either directly saying or at least implying….

And in mainstream churches with ministers who are actually educated, they just let you believe this non-sense and never say anything to correct you or teach you or even lead to the kind of critical thinking that ancient people had to consider after reading the Gilgamesh epic.

The educated clergy know better, but they don’t want to upset you, they don’t want to disappoint you, they don’t want to take your security blanket away from you . . . or maybe they don’t want to lose their job and their pension fund.

By the way, Rick Warren is not the richest evangelical pastor in the country, but his net worth is over $25 million which is more than 100x my net worth and you can depend on me to tell you the truth and back it up with scientific research.

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Now, sure, he could be right about eternal life, but if he is, this chow hound better hope that only humans go to heaven because if cows, pigs, chickens, and fish also have souls, he better find a place to hide as soon as he gets through the pearly gates!

Why, when there is absolutely no evidence for the life after death for fish, chickens, cows, pigs, or people are millions of people willing to make an obvious fraud a multi-millionaire peddling balloon juice?

But if you look up the sermon that I will have linked in the text of this message and scroll down and look at the comments, you will see thousands of ebullient comments from people enthusiastically saying that it is the best sermon they have ever heard. Why, why when it is such obvious bologna, would so many people applaud being fleeced by a con man? It is simply this: they want to believe it.

When I was five years old, I caused a stir in my kindergarten Sunday School class when I blurted out that Santa Claus was not real. I told my classmates, over the shock of our teachers, that deer don’t fly and that there was no way that one person could visit every house in the world in a single day, even if they could wiggle down chimneys. My brother, who was a couple of years older, cornered me later and demanded that I act like I believed in Santa because if I didn’t, we wouldn’t get as many presents.

My parents conspired to lie to us about St. Nick and we conspired to pretend to believe the myths so that we might get an extra present on Christmas morning. In religion, people pretend to believe in things that are obviously not true because they get something out of the exchange… the ultimate of whistling past the graveyard.

Belief in an afterlife can comfort us in our grief, giving us some thin hope that maybe death isn’t final and that someone we loved very much will be restored to us in some other existence when we have joined them in death. Belief in an afterlife can assuage our own fears of mortality, narcissistically assuring ourselves that we are just too important for the universe to dare to try to go on existing without us.

And, belief in an afterlife can give you some sense that there is a cosmic balancing of the scales of justice. The late Texas Governor, Ann Richards, tells a story about one of her political friends who had a problem with a neighbor in a land right-of- way dispute that stretched over several decades. In a chance meeting years later, Ann asked the woman about how things had turned out with her pesky neighbor, and she said, “Oh her, that woman done died and gone to hell.”

The ancient Persian slaves invented the concept of hell for about the same reason that I don’t own a gun. When my father died, my older brother asked me if I wanted any of his guns and when he made that offer, I thought of all the people that I have known who really deserved to be shot, and so I told him that I didn’t want to own a gun.

The Persian slaves who had been sorely mistreated by their masters, felt that there needed to be a hell because so many people deserved to go there. I understand their sentiment, really I do, but just because there ought to be a hell doesn’t mean that there is one. Just because we would feel better about mortality if we could believe in heaven, doesn’t mean that there is one.

My daughter and I found ourselves at an impasse this week talking about people we know who have not had the Covid vaccine. She insisted that there are good and intelligent people who just don’t think that it is a good idea. I, on the other hand, have become comfortable with a binary choice, given the amount of information we have all been exposed to over the past year about the virus and the vaccines, there are only two plausible reasons why someone in the United States would not be vaccinated, other than those who are too young or those who have some rare medical condition that would make it dangerous to be vaccinated . . . what remains is: you are either too stupid to understand the issues or you are too evil to care about the fact that your bad choice places the lives of others at risk, not to mention keeping the economy, the arts, churches, and concerts closed.

My daughter insists that she simply does not agree with my analysis but can’t really offer much of an apologetic for her friends who have refused the vaccine to this point. I can applaud the fact that Valerie loves these people so much that she does not want me to label them as being either stupid or evil . . . maybe Valerie is a better person than I am, but honesty and a fearless orientation to reality compels me be less generous.

I don’t have any unvaccinated friends in the USA because I simply refuse to associate with people who are willing to give the virus a space in which to mutate and become more lethal, killing millions more people entirely unnecessarily because this pandemic would be over now if it were not for all of these sociopaths exercising their freedom of choice to be a public menace. That’s just my opinion, it just so happens that my opinion is supported by facts.

We lost a good friend last year, one of our founding members and one of my most enthusiastic supporters through all of the challenges we faced in starting our church. Chris died in her third battle with cancer. When the end became evident and she found the courage to talk about how we might have a memorial service for her in the midst of the pandemic, her one demand was that I not say that there was no life after death because she did not want her mother or her daughter to lose hope.

I agreed not to say that explicitly but I also assured her that I would not say the opposite, that is, at my age, I refuse to pretend to believe in Santa Claus.

I can either be honest or I can be silent, but I won’t do what most pastors do, which is offer false hope that everyone in the room knows is a lie. But if you can stand it, I do have some philosophical comfort to offer.

Life is precious specifically because we are mortal. If life were eternal, then no one day has either meaning or value because life just goes on and on and on. What gives value to our existence is the very fact that it is inevitably in short supply. Because we do not live forever, we must embrace every day as an opportunity in which to discover joy, love, learning, new experiences, and new friends.

It seems almost too modern to find among the musings of the 2nd century Roman Emperor and devoted Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, the rather disarmingly honest advice that we should not be afraid to die but that we should be afraid that we might never begin to live. He was known to be a persecutor of the early Christian Church but his personal meditations do not read like the monster that the early church described. I think that he simply saw Christianity as being a religion that was falling into the trap of making promises of eternal life that kept people from ever starting to live fully, accepting the fact of their mortality and then making the most of the days that we actually have.

I know that some people think that I am a real spoiler when I tell people that heaven and hell are just imaginary, but I believe that it is the church that has been the real spoiler…. Scaring children with threats of hell, infusing decent people with Puritan values that rob life of all joy, and tricking the elderly into trying to be religious enough to gain a ticket on the train to glory when, in fact, their last ride will be to memorial gardens in the back of a hearse.

In the gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that the truth will set you free. I believe that it will, the honest truth is liberating, but it has been my experience that before it sets you free, it can make you very angry.

The church and many of the religions of the world have lied to you. They have sold you ancient pipe dreams about eternal life. Go ahead and take a minute and be mad about having been lied to, but don’t wallow in it too long, because the truth is that life is short, and you have a lot of living yet to do.

I think that the more valid spiritual teachings from Buddhism to Epicurean philosophy, guide us towards a middle path in which we avoid the extremes, but we do not deny ourselves the joys of good food and drink, stimulating conversation, laughter, and close friendships, all balanced with meaningful work and purposeful living. No matter how well you live, mortality is a one-way ticket.

But, as Alan Watts said, we do not sing a song to get to its end. We do not live our lives to come to a successful end at the gates of eternity, we must live fully in every day.

Dr. Roger Ray

The joy is not in reaching a final destination, the joy is in the journey or there is no joy at all. So pick a good traveling companion, wear comfortable shoes, and make sure that you are not always the one who pays for dinner.

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church