"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Monday, February 13, 2012

Tribal Religions v. Christianity on Views of Death

"If the Christian religion is a victory over death, why do Western peoples who have had the benefits of the Christian religion for two thousand years fear death?"

I'm currently reading God Is Red by Vine Deloria, Jr.  You might recall I read another of his books last year so I put this one on my Amazon Wishlist and received it for Christmas.  This "Native View of Religion" presents quite a few challenges for me especially since the author contrasts tribal religions mostly with Christianity, the predominant religion of the white man in the Americas.  On many issues he makes great points. I've read some of them to Andrew and we've agreed how sadly truthful those things are.

Yet I was reading this chapter on death and wanted to discuss a few things because I wasn't sure I agreed with his conclusions about Christian and/or Western beliefs on death. 

Deloria cites the work of Oscar Cullman who came to the conclusion that "death, in the Christian context, was a feared foe. ... an event to be avoided at all costs, because it meant the cessation of identity."

Cullman's book deals with the Greek and Christian ideas of immortality of the soul (Greek) and resurrection of the dead (Christian).  This he says explains why

"death was a welcome visitor for Socrates but a dreaded and tormenting experience for Jesus."
Socrates was glad to be free from his body in which the Greeks  thought their souls were trapped.  So death was like getting out of prison apparently.  Yet for the Christian, death meant the body was no more. Thus death is much more traumatic, right? 

Deloria claims "a majority of tribal religions simply assume some form of personal survival beyond the grave. As Chief Seattle remarked, death is merely a changing of worlds."

"For the tribal people, death in a sense fulfills their destiny, for as their bodies become dust once again they contribute to the ongoing life cycle of creation.  For Christians, the estrangement from nature, their religion's central theme, makes this most natural of conclusions fraught with danger. Believing that they are saved and interpreting this salvation as accumulating material possessions, Western people cannot accept death except as a form of punishment by God. ... Death is feared and rarely understood. People somehow want to see the death of their loved one as part of God's plan (i.e., God needed Elvis to sing in heaven)."

Several things about this:

1. I believe similarly to Chief Seattle. How often have I heard "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" - a quote from Paul's letter to the Corinthians?  This is what I believe! This is what is quoted at Christian funerals all the time in order to give comfort to the families who are missing their loved ones' presence here. Yet thinking of them with the Lord is comforting. Or it is for me anyway.

2.  He mentions this "estrangement from nature" that we have several times in his book. I'm guessing he thinks we hate nature because we have chosen to cut down trees for houses and clear lands for shopping malls and dig and drill under the earth for oil and coal and natural gas. I suppose "progress" is actually a subjective term and for many living life simply - off the land - as our ancestors did is the better option.  Or maybe he has seen the truly bad things: the pollution from dumping chemicals in water sources, the depleted uranium from bombs contaminating soil, the slaughter of animals on the Plains.  Regardless, I don't know that this is Christianity's central theme!  What do you think?

3.  I've never been taught or felt salvation interpreted means that I'm supposed to accumulate possessions although I can see why Deloria observing us with all our stuff might feel this is true!  By contrast Jesus teaches us to give to the poor and often speaks of getting rid of things.  (Yes, I realize there is a disconnect between what Jesus taught and what Christians actually decide to do.)

4. I do tend to view the death of someone as part of God's plan although the Elvis example is taking it a bit too far. OK, I may have joked that way before, but .. maybe Deloria is too??  I don't believe God takes people to heaven because He needs a good laugh or great entertainment.

I could go on and say more, but I'm more curious what your thoughts are on this topic. Do you fear death? If so, why? If not, WHY?  Do you think Deloria has correctly assessed Christianity and/or the Western view of death?  We speak of someone "passing" rather than "dying" for instance.

By the way, why do you think death was a "tormenting experience" for Jesus (if you believe this)?

What does your religion or belief system teach about death?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of it.


sanil said...

I think Platonic dualism is more to blame for the estrangement of nature as it applies to death than specifically Christian teaching is. Christianity is influenced by the Greek worldview in this way, so it makes itself into Christian views of death. If your body and soul are two separate things, then death is the separation from the body. The soul goes on, but not as part of this world.

For me and I think for Deloria, the body and soul are intertwined in a way that can't be separated. When your body goes back to the earth, that is not just your body dissolving but while you leave it, but you continuing to be a part of the earth. So death isn't an ending, it's just a transition much like birth.

That doesn't mean that I don't fear it at all. I don't know what that transition feels like, and there's always a bit of worry around the unknown. And there are things I want to do that I can only do while in a human body (as far as I know), so I don't want my time here to end too soon. I want a full life, and I'm afraid of things that would cut it short.

I think to some extent this is probably true for both a more nature-centered perspective and the more dualistic spirit-centered perspective. It's not fear of what comes next, it's fear of having our time cut short. So I think in both cases the importance is not to worry about the transition but to make the most of the time we have in the form we have.

I do think death was a tormenting experience for Jesus. To start, before anything had actually even been done but he knew it was going to happen, he was in the garden praying not to have to do it if there was another way. So just the idea was a torment, but then the actual event included beating, thorny crowns, nails through joints...I can't imagine that as anything other than a tormenting experience.

bigstick1 said...


Religion has nothing to do with death. Death is a natural process which is outside the control of humanity. However, it is a blanket the covers us in our final days. It is the warmth of knowing that suffering ends as that is generally where we are when death takes us. It is the fear that thrills us and scares us like a ride on a wild roller coaster. It is the return to both earth and the universe from which we came. It is the cycle of life and death and life again. We are a part of such a cycle and we benefit from this cycle by having a rare moment of consciousness and perception. We are not alone in our journey but accompanied by many who have, are and will experience the cycle. Our ultimate destination nobody knows for sure nor should they, as the knowing ends the journey.

observant observer said...

Well, in Indonesia, most of the tribal religions that were there (before the introduction of international religions and the obligation to follow only 6 religions recognized by the government!)revolved around many rituals that have to do with the communication and devotion to the ancestors with offerings (food, drink etc), incense, prayers etc etc (compare it to Chinese indigenous religions, they are almost similar in concept). So I assume that from long time ago, people do think that there were life after death which can always mean separation from body, but in contrast these souls seem to still need their earthly body requirements fulfilled (strange...!). Perhaps the tribal religion that this writer tells is rather different that the east/Asian indigenous religions.

Do I as a Christian fear death, well yes for sure. But I always fear not the death itself because I always think what a joy to at least have a faith that I will meet Jesus in person, but the process of death seems to always involve pain and forces to separate the body and soul (for a believer, since this is a matter of faith for the nonbeliever, life is just a mechanic of biological system). So it's the process that I fear, well at least also the unknown mystery of death itself, of not being part of this world and venture to the unknown territory and also leaving all those love ones behind.

But all of this questions really bring me to the question of the meaning of life at the end point of it all, Solomon's query: everything becomes vain in the end, everything under the sun, and this is a question of the meaning of men's existence in the world. Not a single memory will mean anything because at the end it stops if it really stops there. So why do we have to live, and what's the purpose of temporary life in earth if there's a God who started it all? If there's no God who started it all, this means that we don't have to have value our life and don't have meaning for our life here.

As for the estrangement from nature, I think Judaism and Christianity has the influence on it since we are taught in the Bible how men are supposed to be the leader and the maintainer of the world, we are truly separated from the world as well as part of it since we are the one created in the image of God. I don't think that eastern or any tribal religion share this view. But the consequence of men corrupt or ruin the world is just a matter of the two sides of one coin or two edged sword. It comes naturally, it's just that men have to learn to balance them out or to just use the positive side of it and reduce the harm.

I also don't see the connection of Christian teaching with accumulating earthly possessions, but perhaps there are some Christians who observed the teaching of having the abundance of life with this...(hahhaaaaa). I do read and heard some Christian preacher telling that the meaning of living an abundant life means that God will bless us with material possession, whatever we need will be one day given as long as we believe, and that's why some people try to proof it. Well..I cannot agree at certain points.

As for Jesus, I think my Christian view have made me think that it's necessary for Jesus to feel that (for sure because it's a really tormenting situation, did Socrates have to face the same situation?), since we are taught that He was born into human body so that He would taste the sorrow of pains and aches and sickness of us all as fellow human being so that we would all be strong and have faith in Him and be saved in His sacrificed blood. It's a teaching of redemption theology and sympathetic movement from God, so I don't see that as a problem.

Susanne said...

Sanil,I appreciate your sharing more about the body and soul and your understanding of it. I remember Deloria talking about Christianity borrowing from the Greek worldview and those lines really being blurred. I kept thinking of what I remember from Orthodox Christianity and it seems they may have a better understanding/explanation of the body and soul. I do think most Christians or many that I am familiar with believe the body or some form of it WILL be reunited with the spirit/soul. I've often heard of our "glorified bodies" and, of course, resurrection is all about our bodies coming forth from graves. Anyway, it's all interesting to think about.

And, yes, I got the impression, too, about our bodies/souls becoming part of the earth and thus a new form. It's actually pretty neat to think about our bodies going back to dust and somehow nourishing the earth and giving life to the next generations. Do you remember when he observed how we bury in boxes (caskets) and not more directly into the ground? He said apparently we had no plans to become part of the earth!

I agree about why we fear death...or at least don't welcome it. I ask this question on Facebook and a couple people made the observation of not fearing death but not wanting to leave their families behind. Mothers dont' want to leave their children without them. Understandably. For me, I don't like death because it robs me of the company of the person who is gone. I miss him or her!

Thanks, too, for what you wrote about Jesus. I agree that he didn't seem to want to go through with death. One of my FB friends wrote an interesting comment about that which made sense to me. I'll copy it here:

"Jesus himself didn't love the thought of dying. He said if the cup could pass on by him, that'd be cool. There's a pain associated with death, which I think might be what many people are actually fearing. I know I'm not a big fan of it! Our foundational, God-given response to danger is fight or flight. Jesus, I believe, had that same basic instinct. He was human for a reason ... so we could know that He understands us and our humanity. He was so stressed out about his impending death that he was sweating blood! But he *chose* God's will over that fight or flight instinct. That's some serious commitment."

I'd never thought of it like that. I guess when Jesus wanted this cup to pass from him, I assumed he was thinking of the separation of himself from his Father. That perfect fellowship that had been there since eternity past would be broken when God turned his back on our sins which Jesus took upon himself. But I like my friend's explanation as well. I didn't take into account the human side of Jesus!

Susanne said...

bigstick1, thanks for sharing that! I enjoyed reading your perspective on death! Sounds somewhat like Deloria without the tribal religious talk! :)

Observant, thanks for telling about the tribal religions of Indonesia. I've read several books from China and Korea the last couple of years and have found it rather fascinating when I read of them burning offering for ancestors and producing heirs for them. That's one reason daughters were not prized. The ancestors wanted a son to carry on the family name.

Yes, those are the things I tend to fear about death as well! You summarized my thoughts on that pretty well!

Interesting what you said about Judaism and Christianity as it relates to nature. I don't think God meant for us to destroy what He gave us, rather He gave us everything to enjoy. How often do I visit the mountains or ocean and marvel at creation! I don't think God meant for us to trash the planet. We can use it, but not abuse it. I think there is a difference. Sadly, we've seemed to abuse it because of our greed.

Yes, there is the prosperity gospel...true! However, I know many people who disagree with that. Jesus never promised if we will do X, we will be rich. On the other hand, I can see where you could make that case from the OT to a degree. If the children of Israel obeyed, they were blessed. If they disobeyed, they were punished....and in time, vomited out of the land. :-/

Oh, that's great that you made the human connection to Jesus' death unlike me. I really appreciate your comment!

Thank you all!

sanil said...

Do you remember when he observed how we bury in boxes (caskets) and not more directly into the ground? He said apparently we had no plans to become part of the earth!

I think I remember that. It is an interesting point. I have thought about that a lot lately, especially since other people I know have started to look for more natural burials that let them more easily go back into the earth. Apparently it's really difficult to find places that will let you do that. Weird how much our culture has changed from the native perspective and how foreign the idea of more direct burial seems now that we're used to coffins.

I like your friend's quote! And I think it's interesting that you interpreted it as fearing separation from the Father. That one had never occurred to me...I guess I tend to forget the divine aspects! :)

Susanne said...

Yes, it's almost like our bodies will contaminate the earth so we need to protect the earth from them. :) Actually why DO we use caskets. Maybe it has to do with the way we show off our dead selves as visitations before the funeral. Maybe the Islamic (and Jewish??) way of doing it is better if you want to be buried naturally. Muslims don't embalm and they bury within the day if possible. In their white linen and they have many people buried in one grave (although not all buried at once.)

My Syrian friend said when they buried his cousin a couple of years ago, he saw the bones of his uncle.

observant observer said...

you know some interesting stories Susan about burying people as early as possible after declared dead, it will unintentionally killed some people in a certain situation...here in Indonesia there were some cases when the deceased actually were not really dead (they were in a state of dead faint), if we are giving them sometime instead of burying them right away to the ground/ to earth, it will help to avoid some unnecessary tragic death, I think.

Susanne said...

Oh that would be awful to bury someone not really dead!

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