Nothing in our lives seems so certain as the fact that we will die. For this reason, perhaps no question has been more central to humankind than the question of death and its meaning. What is death? Is it a bitter cosmic joke? A welcome end to a life of pain and suffering? A natural part of the circle of life? The gateway to eternal life in Heaven? These answers and many more have been offered to a question that has undoubtedly been pondered from the very beginning.
This question has become especially relevant for me, as my life has recently been touched by death. In the last several months, I’ve been working with someone who is facing a terminal illness, and during this same time, three members of my and my wife’s family have died. These encounters with death have prompted me to reflect a great deal on the Course’s teachings about death, especially Section 27 of the Manual for Teachers, “What is Death?” I have focused in particular on this section’s teaching that the world has made endless compromises with death, and that the function of the teacher of God is to make no compromise with it. As I’ve sat at my dying grandmother’s bedside, attended one memorial service after another, shared my beliefs about death with those who’ve asked, and consoled grieving family members, my burning question has been: How do I, as a Course teacher, fulfill my function of making no compromise with death, especially when confronted with the actual physical death of loved ones and the reactions of those who are impacted by it?
This article is my answer to that question. In it, I will briefly discuss Section 27’s teachings about death and the compromises we make with it. Then I will take a closer look at some of the specific compromises the world makes with death, many of which I witnessed in the course of my recent encounters with death. Finally, I will discuss how to make no compromise with death—both what this means on a practical level, and how to truly let go of our compromises. The teachings of A Course in Miracles on the subject of death, while certainly challenging, are ultimately liberating. I hope to convey at least some of the liberation I’ve felt as a result of contemplating these teachings and applying them to my own life.
What is death?
Section 27 tells us that “death is the central dream from which all illusions stem” (M-27.1:1). Thus, death is much more than simply the cessation of bodily functioning; it is the whole idea that we can change our eternal life as God created it to a state of corruption, imperfection, limitation, and lack. It is the basic template behind every illusion of deprivation or suffering that we experience, including fear, pain, sadness, hunger, and anger. (This article, however, will focus primarily on physical death.) Given its fearful nature, death cannot possibly be real, because God is only Love, and fear is completely alien to Him. Furthermore, God created only life, and so death cannot exist, for what God created can have no opposite.
Yet we humans believe without question that death is real, and since we dearly want to believe in love as well, we try desperately to reconcile death with the idea of a loving Creator. In short, we make compromises with death, trying to find a place for it in the grand scheme of things, so we can affirm life and life’s Creator in spite of the incontrovertible “fact” of death. In the Course’s words, these compromises are our “vain attempts to cling to death and yet to think love real” (M-27.6:9).
But in spite of these vain attempts, the fact remains that death is not real, and it is totally irreconcilable with life and love. And so the section rejects in no uncertain terms the compromises we attempt to make with death:
If death is real for anything, there is no life. Death denies life. But if there is reality in life, death is denied. No compromise in this is possible. There is either a god of fear or One of Love. The world attempts a thousand compromises, and will attempt a thousand more. Not one can be acceptable to God’s teachers, because not one could be acceptable to God. He did not make death because He did not make fear. Both are equally meaningless to Him. (M-27.4:2-10)
These lines have always struck me deeply. They are so uncompromising; in one fell swoop, they sweep away a whole herd of sacred cows. Our beliefs about death (especially our belief in its reality) are among the most sacred of our sacred cows, and yet the Course summarily dismisses them all. In their place, it tells the teacher of God that he has one function and one function only: “Accept no compromise in which death plays a part” (M-27.7:1).
How do we, as aspiring teachers of God, fulfill this challenging function? I will have more to say on that later. But first, I’d like to focus on some of the specific ways in which the world compromises with death.
The world’s compromises with death, and the Course’s response to them
What are some of those “thousand compromises” that Section 27 talks about? How do we try to reconcile death with a loving God? The following is a list of compromises that I can think of, along with the Course’s response to them. I’m sure there are many more. All of them are rooted in the unquestioned assumption that death is real; you could preface each of these with the words, “Death is real, but…” The Course’s ultimate refutation of them all, as we’ve already seen, is to declare death totally unreal.
One word of warning before I go through the list of compromises: Some of the teaching here may come off sounding pretty harsh (though, as we’ll see, what is really harsh are our compromises). Given the Course’s uncompromising stance on this subject, it is very difficult to discuss it without offending some sensitivities. These compromises, as I mentioned, are sacred cows for many of us, and having them dismissed so bluntly and completely can sting. But the Course clearly wants us to confront our compromises with death, and so I ask that you read the following with an open mind, setting aside your sensitivities for the moment and allowing your assumptions to be challenged. Now, on to the list of compromises:
Death is a natural part of the “circle of life.”
According to this compromise, death is good because it is part of an ongoing natural cycle of birth and death, in which individuals may die, but nature as a whole lives on. Death only seems tragic to us because we don’t see it from the larger perspective of the whole. If we did, we would see that death is nature’s way of giving birth to new life, and thus an essential part of the circle of life.
This is a very popular view in our environmentally conscious time; the “circle of life,” along with everything “natural,” is regarded by many as the Holy of Holies, to be worshipped as God (or Goddess). It is eulogized in everything from Ecclesiastes to ecofeminism, from the Tao Te Ching to The Lion King. It even appears in children’s books about death, like The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, in which a child whose beloved cat Barney dies is consoled by the fact that Barney’s decomposing body helps the flowers grow.
But is this view really that comforting? The Course thinks not. As far as the Course is concerned, the so-called circle of life is really a circle of death: “And so do all things live because of death. Devouring is nature’s ‘law of life'” (M-27.3:6-7). These are devastating words, but it is hard to argue with them. All living things live off of the carcasses of other living things, whether of cattle or of carrots. The entire world is just one big feeding frenzy in which everything is devouring everything else—what Robert Perry likes to call the “circle of lunch.” And the fact that the whole goes on even though individuals die is little consolation. It is like saying of a brutal war, “Sure, individual soldiers die, but the good news is that the war goes on.” If we look without blinders on the laws of nature, it is hard not to conclude that the god who made them up must be a cruel god indeed. How could a god who made death real (and such an integral part of his system) be anything else?
Death brings peace, either through oblivion or through a peaceful afterlife.
This popular compromise sees death as the great escape from the pain of living in the world. It has two basic versions. The first says that when I die, I simply become a totally unconscious nonentity, and so I will be free of pain. True, I won’t have any joy either, but since I’m unconscious, I won’t know that, and so it’s okay. The second says that when I die, I will go to some sort of peaceful eternal afterlife that is free of pain, like the Heaven of traditional Christianity. Either way, I will have peace because I have escaped the pain of being in a body.
The Course clearly refutes this view. It tells us that “there is a risk in thinking death is peace” (T-27.VII.10:2). Why? Seeing death as peace is risky because this idea is actually an ego ploy to get us to seek death (consciously or unconsciously), which is exactly what the ego wants us to do. Oddly enough, the ego sponsors both versions of the idea that death is peace. On the one hand, it encourages us to “leap from hell [this life] into oblivion” (T-15.I.5:3). But on the other hand, it also encourages us to believe that death is the way to eternal life (see T-6.V(A).1:1-2). To the ego, it doesn’t really matter which we choose; either way, we will be choosing death. When we listen to the ego, we “see in death escape from what [we] made” (M-20.5:2). But in truth, “death cannot be escape, because it is not life in which the problem lies” (M-20.5:4). The only real life is our life in God, and this life is forever untouched by death. Seeing death as an escape from the painful “life” of the body is no solution at all; the Course would have us see instead that “nothing is accomplished through death, because death is nothing” (T-6.V(A)1:2). Seeing death as escape simply reinforces our belief that death is real.
Death is okay, because although the body does die, the soul lives on in some form.
This compromise obviously includes those who believe that death is the gateway to a peaceful eternal afterlife, as discussed above. But it is broader, because it also includes those who do believe life continues after death, but don’t necessarily believe that death will bring immediate peace. It is the category for those who believe that the soul is in a process of gradual evolution and growth, either moving from body to body (reincarnation) or going on to different dimensions of one sort or another (astral planes, etc.) to continue the learning process.
The Course specifically rejects this compromise in Section 27 of the Manual: “The curious belief that there is part of dying things that may go on apart from what will die, does not proclaim a loving God nor re-establish any grounds for trust” (M-27.4:1). This flat rejection may seem surprising at first. Isn’t it true that we go on after the body dies? Yes it is, but the clue to what the Course is targeting here is in the words “apart from what will die.” It is targeting the belief that we have a real body that really does die, but fortunately, we have this other part of us, the soul or spirit, that lives on. The point is that if God created anything that could truly die, then He is not a loving God. The body does seem to die, but it is only an illusion in our minds that was never alive to begin with. Believing that our body really dies but our spirit lives on is just one more way to insert into God’s deathless creation the idea that death is real.
Death is okay, because the memory of the deceased lives on.
I heard this one a lot at the memorial services I attended. It says that while the person who dies is really dead, we can take consolation in the fact that as long as her loved ones remember her, she lives on in their hearts. The memory of all that she gave them and all that she stood for is still with them, and in that sense she still “lives.” (This one is often applied to great historical figures like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I can’t find a specific refutation of this idea in the Course, but it seems to me that the line I just quoted above (M-27.4:1) would apply to this as well. This compromise is just another way of saying, “Part of her is really dead, but part of her lives on.” And this version of that idea is particularly grim, because the only part of her that lives on is a fading memory in minds that themselves will eventually die. Like the other compromises, this one proclaims loud and clear that death is real.
Death makes us appreciate life more.
I heard this one on a Bill Moyers television special I watched recently entitled On Our Own Terms. On this program, which was about new ways of relating to and caring for the dying, a number of people who were facing imminent death were profiled. The idea some of them expressed is that the very impermanence of life makes it precious. Therefore, death is good, because it is a kind of “time limit” that forces us to make the most of the limited time we have. If life were really unlimited, we’d probably get bored and not really appreciate it. Death fixes that problem by getting us to live every moment as if it were our last.
Yet the Course, characteristically, completely overturns the idea that the impermanence of life makes it more precious. Real life, according to the Course, is permanent by definition, being eternal. The Course even makes permanence the standard by which to measure what we value:
If you choose a thing that will not last forever, what you chose is valueless. A temporary value is without all value….What fades and dies was never there, and makes no offering to him who chooses it. (W-pI.133.6:1-2,4)
If we value something because it will not last, how much do we really value it? It must not be very good if the only thing that gives it value is the fact that it will end. Valuing the impermanent because it is impermanent is a way of appreciating death, not life. It is another way to make death real.
Death is a great mystery; we cannot know its meaning, but must accept it and trust that God must have some benevolent purpose for it.
This is the last resort for everyone who still clings to the belief in the reality of death, but can’t bring himself to wholeheartedly accept any of the other compromises. It is the great escape hatch for theologians stumped by the question of how to reconcile death with a loving God. The idea here is that however horrible death (or any form of suffering) may seem, God is Love, and so there must be some benevolent purpose for it. While we don’t know that purpose now, perhaps we will sometime in the future. Until then, we must simply accept the mystery of death, and trust that God had a good reason for creating it.
But this final compromise of appealing to mystery is another that the Course specifically refutes. It rejects the entire notion of mystery, telling us unequivocally, “God has no secrets” (T-22.I.3:10). Addressing the idea that God gives us suffering and death for a benevolent purpose which He will explain later, the Course is clear that such a God would be a god of punishment, not a God of Love:
Why should the good appear in evil’s form? And is it not deception if it does?….And you seek to be content with sighing, and with “reasoning” you do not understand it now, but will some day. And then its meaning will be clear. This is not reason, for it is unjust, and clearly hints at punishment until the time of liberation is at hand. (T-26.VIII.7:1-2,6-8)
God does not give us pain now in exchange for a juicy reward later. “He does not lead you through a world of misery, waiting to tell you, at the journey’s end, why He did this to you” (T-22.I.3:11). The meaning of death is no mystery; it has no meaning, because it is nothing. It is not real, and so we must not accept it.
How do we fulfill our function of making no compromise with death?
Now we turn to the question that prompted this article. The short answer is really very simple, and has been alluded to a number of times already: If all these compromises are rooted in the belief that death is real, then the way out of these compromises is to recognize that death is not real. This, indeed, is what Section 27 of the Manual tells us:
What seems to die has but been misperceived and carried to illusion. Now it becomes your task to let the illusion be carried to the truth. Be steadfast but in this; be not deceived by the “reality” of any changing form. (M-27.7:3-5)
To make no compromise with death, then, means to deny the reality of death. But as succinct as this answer is, it leaves two vital questions unanswered: First, what does making no compromise with death mean in practical terms? Second, how do we truly let go of our compromises with death? I will now answer these questions in turn.
What does making no compromise with death mean in practical terms?
In answering this, it might perhaps be helpful to first discuss what making no compromise does not mean. First, it does not mean denying that we believe in death, and deluding ourselves into thinking that we will not experience death within the illusion. On the contrary, the Course wants us to acknowledge our belief in death squarely, and not attempt to sweep it under the rug, as so many of us try to do when faced with death. The whole point of targeting our compromises with death is to show us just how deep our investment in death really is, and how grim the implications of our belief in death really are. Acknowledging our belief in death (and the inevitable effect of that belief: that we and those around us will die, at least within the illusion) is not a compromise with it; rather, it is the first step toward questioning that belief and ultimately renouncing it.
Second, it does not mean that we should confront people who are facing death with the Course’s challenging teachings about it. This cannot be too strongly stated. We should accept no compromise into our own minds, but that doesn’t mean that we should try to argue other people out of their own compromises. Dying and grieving people need love and support, not attack; the last thing they need is someone ripping away the very things that they are clinging to for solace. Besides, some of the compromises, particularly the ones that emphasize life after death in some form, have a grain of truth in them: “There is always some good in any thought which strengthens the idea that life and the body are not the same” (M-24.2.8). We can honor whatever truth there is in other people’s compromises, even as we refuse to accept the compromises ourselves. Above all, in deciding what to say and do to help dying and grieving people, we should always turn to the Holy Spirit for guidance. He knows what they need; we do not. Praying for guidance was a real lifeline for me in my recent encounters with death. While I’m sure my hearing of Him was far from perfectly clear, I am convinced that my responses were a lot more loving than they would have been if I had relied on my own judgment alone.
Third, it does not mean that the Holy Spirit has no positive use for the experience of physical death. While the idea of death is of the ego, the form of death is actually neutral, just like every other form. Even though physical death is caused by the ego (unless the mind is totally healed, in which case physical death is a conscious decision to lay down the body when we no longer have a use for it—see S-3.II), the Holy Spirit can still use that death as an opportunity for forgiveness, love, and joining. Even within the most difficult and painful death, the Holy Spirit embeds the one lesson that He would teach through everything we experience: “Forgive, and you will see this differently” (W-pI.193.3:7). The death of a loved one can truly be a beautiful experience when viewed from this perspective. I personally was privileged to witness and experience a lot of love and forgiveness as a result of the deaths in our family.
All of which brings us back to our initial question: What does making no compromise with death mean in practical terms? In a nutshell, it means inwardly denying the reality of death, even while outwardly working with the form of death. It means doing everything we feel guided to do outwardly to deal with death as a form—helping the dying, consoling the grieving, acknowledging and planning for our own death, etc.—while at the same time affirming that the true Self of everyone is forever deathless. Now, it will likely be a very long time before we fully recognize the truth of this affirmation. But until we do, our job as Course students and aspiring teachers of God is to practice this, gently but firmly denying that death is real, and affirming the truth that death is unreal. This is the practice that will one day lead us to full recognition of the truth.
How do we truly let go of our compromises with death?
I’ve already mentioned one practice above, and certainly there are many other Course practices that can help with this. But here, I want to focus on two steps that are suggested by the teaching of Section 27 of the Manual: 1) Look honestly at our compromises with death, and 2) Let go of those compromises through forgiveness.
The first step is pretty straightforward: We need to take an honest, unflinching look at our compromises with death, and realize just how brutal and fearful their implications really are. We’ve already done some of that in this article, but let’s take a closer look at those implications now. The assumption behind all of our compromises, as we’ve seen, is that death is real. Yet if death is real, what does that really say about our nature and about the nature of our Creator? No matter how much we try to dress it up, I think all of us realize on some level that death just isn’t a good thing. This is reflected in the fact that we reserve the death penalty for our most horrible criminals. And herein lies a clue to what death really says about us: It says that we are horrible criminals, guilty sinners who rebelled against God and now sit on Death Row, awaiting His final punishment for our unforgivable crime. “The sinful warrant only death and pain” (W-pI.101.2:4). If this is so, what can we do but fear God? “He is not Father, but destroyer. He is not Creator, but avenger” (M-27.5:7-8). All of this leads to the grim, inevitable conclusion: Our nature is corruption, and the nature of our Creator is fear. This picture is so terrifying that we must make compromises with death. We must find a way to make death look like love, so we can keep the bitter “truth” safely out of sight.
Once we clearly see what death really implies about us and our Creator (and recognize just how undesirable these implications really are), the next step follows naturally. If our belief in the reality of death is rooted in our perception of ourselves as guilty sinners in the hands of a punishing God, then the way to undo our belief in death is forgiveness, the recognition that, however real our “sins” may appear to be, in truth we are innocent Sons of a loving Father, who remain as incorruptible as the moment He created us. Our true nature is purity, and the true nature of our Creator is Love. No crime was committed, and so we have never really been on Death Row. This is the recognition that will one day overcome not only our compromises with death, but death itself:
And what is the end of death? Nothing but this; the realization that the Son of God is guiltless now and forever. Nothing but this. (M-27.7:7-9)
In practical terms, realizing that the Son of God is guiltless means forgiving our brothers. As the Course puts it, “You have called [your brother] guilty of your sins, and in him must your innocence now be found” (S-2.I.4:6). Forgiving our brothers means overlooking everything in them that speaks of corruption and death—their bodies, their personalities, their “sins”—and seeing instead the Christ in them: the deathless, eternal Self Who has never sinned, the true Self Whose Identity we share. By constantly overlooking everything in our brothers that seems to sin, suffer, change, and die, we deny the reality of death. By seeing our oneness with our brothers, we recognize that if death is unreal for them, it is unreal for us as well. Seeing death as unreal, we will no longer need to compromise with it. Seeing death as unreal, we will no longer be distressed by physical death, because we will realize that it has no effect whatsoever on the true Self of those who “die.” And seeing death as unreal, we will recognize that God is pure Love, a kindly Father Who gives only life to the Son He loves.
In closing, I want to encourage you to really spend some time reflecting on your current views of death, and weighing them against the Course’s uncompromising standard. As I said above, this may be challenging, but it is ultimately liberating. At least that has been my experience. Personally, my response to the Course’s teachings about death has been a huge sigh of relief, and I found them immensely comforting in my own recent encounters with death. For me, there is something so incredibly freeing in the teaching that death is pure illusion, and that the reality of my loved ones is totally unaffected by it. This thought reassures me as I contemplate my own death as well. And best of all, the recognition that God did not create death or suffering of any kind frees me to love Him with absolutely no fear and no reservations. He is a gentle, loving Father Whom I can trust completely. No other teaching I have found has given me this kind of comfort.
We have all pondered the question of death, and many of us have tried very hard to reconcile death with a loving God. But can it really be done? I don’t think so. We have attempted many compromises with death, but I think if we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that these compromises are all deeply unsatisfying. I think that no matter how hard we try to compromise with death, something deep within us knows that death and love just don’t mix. “There is either a god of fear or One of Love” (M-27.4:6). There is either a god of death or One of Life. We cannot have both; we must choose one or the other. If we want the God of Love, we must choose the God of Life.
Isn’t the God of Life a lot more satisfying than our compromises with death? If our answer is “yes,” then let us make a firm decision to “accept no compromise in which death plays a part.” Actually giving up our compromises will take time and practice, but setting the goal is the first step to its accomplishment. If we commit our minds to this goal, the day will come when we finally recognize the truth about death, the only answer to the question of death that will ever really satisfy: “There is no death. The Son of God is free” (W-pI.163.Heading).
If you would like to learn more about the Course’s teachings concerning death, as well as how to apply those teachings in your own life, I recommend Allen Watson’s booklet What is Death?It can be ordered from the Circle of Atonement Bookstore.