This article consists of class notes from a class given at the Circle of Atonement on Tuesday, January 4, 2004.
The death and destruction spawned by the earthquake and tsunami in Asia has shocked and saddened the entire world. For those with religious inclinations, it has once again brought up an age-old question: How can we reconcile such tragic death and destruction with a loving Creator? Section 27 of the Manual ("What Is Death?"), which we will go over paragraph by paragraph here, offers a radical and liberating answer: We can't, and we shouldn't try. This is truly joyous news, for if death and destruction are not of God (and are not even real), then we need not be afraid of Him and can trust Him completely. God is only Love, and life is eternal.
"Death is the central dream from which all illusions stem" (1:1). In Course terms, life is purely nonphysical, a kind of eternal inner vitality shared by all beings in Heaven. Death is an illusory idea that includes not only physical death, but any apparent limitation on that eternal inner vitality. Death "underlies all feelings that are not supremely happy" (W-pI.167.2:4). Among the thoughts and feelings the Course specifically identifies as expressions of death (see W-pI.163.1 and W-pI.167:2) are sadness, fear, doubt, anger, lack of trust, concern for bodies, envy, weariness, loss, pain, "the merest frown," and "all forms in which the wish to be as you are not may come to tempt you."
Discussion: How do we normally regard death? Do we see it as an inevitable fact of life, "the way of nature" (1:5), perhaps even a holy part of the great "circle of life"?
Death seems to be the universal fact of this world. It's everywhere we look. The death toll of the tsunami now stands at 150,000 and counting (as of 1/4/04), but the fact is that even on a normal day, 155,000 people die, not to mention all the plants and animals. We not only accept this, but tend to regard it with a kind of reverence, as part of the great cycles and rhythms of sacred nature. We're very good at dressing up the horror of death in priestly robes:
There is a tendency, and it is very strong, to hear this song of death only an instant, and then dismiss it uncorrected….The strange distortions woven inextricably into the self-concept, itself but a pseudo-creation, make this ugly sound seem truly beautiful. "The rhythm of the universe," "the herald angel's song," all these and more are heard instead of loud discordant shrieks. (P-2.VI.2:1, 5-6)
In other words, all around us are the "loud discordant shrieks" of death, but we refuse to hear them as they really are. To uphold our distorted self-image as bodies in a physical world, we tell ourselves that those shrieks are really beautiful expressions of "the rhythm of the universe"; the dirge of death is really "the herald angel's song." Section 27 is telling us that we really need to hear those shrieks as shrieks. We need to get honest with ourselves and see that the belief in death is truly madness (1:2).
Though death is madness, "no one asks if a benign Creator could will this" (1:7). I think this sentence means: No one committed to the belief that a loving God created the world of death—a basic pillar of virtually every theistic religion—seriously considers the utter madness of this belief. Actually, many have asked versions of "How can the horrors of the world be reconciled with a loving Creator?"; in theology, this issue is known as theodicy, or the "problem of evil." Major disasters—the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the Holocaust, and now the tsunami—have always fueled this question. And the conclusion that a benign Creator could not will this has probably been the single most potent argument for atheism. The most common response I've seen to the tsunami is that it was a random, meaningless expression of blind nature. If there is a loving God, it seems He was asleep at the wheel.
Paragraphs 2 and 3
Could a benign Creator will this? The Course's answer: No (2:1). These paragraphs spell out the implications of believing that God did will it—again, the belief of virtually every theistic religion. It is a grim picture indeed. If we believe God created this world of death, we may think we believe in a God of Love, but we really don't (2:1). Whatever our surface beliefs, we really believe in a fearful god who has doomed everyone and everything to the grave, a callous monster who may capriciously decide to kill us at any moment (2:2-4). We believe literally in a dog-eat-dog world where everything lives off the death of something else (3:6-7), a vale of tears where death and life do constant battle, with death winning every time. We no longer have any idea of what love really is, because loving this god of death is a denial of true love and true life (2:5). In short, we believe "God is insane, and fear alone is real" (3:8).
Sadly, the Asian disaster is a perfect snapshot of this worldview. The tsunami looks like just the kind of thing a sadistic, callous god would do. A number of commentators on the disaster have quoted Shakespeare's King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport." Indeed, countless people have been "'laid to rest' in devastation's arms" (3:4), greeted by worms that are "doomed to be destroyed as certainly" (3:5). Death has won the day. How can we possibly believe that whoever is responsible for this insane asylum is a God of Love?
Ironically, this section suggests that the ultimate reason we believe in the grim lord of death and the nightmare world he made is that we are afraid of the God of Love. (Other sections of the Course make this idea more plain.) We are so committed to our insane desire to be apart from Him that we use death to shield ourselves from His loving Presence (3:1-2).
The Course's position on death, not surprisingly, is absolute. The Course always insists that only absolute positions can be truly consistent, and it is the same here. There is either death or life, a god of fear or a God of Love. "No compromise in this is possible" (4:5). The Course says much the same thing in Lesson 167:
Either all things die, or else they live and cannot die. No compromise is possible. For here again we see an obvious position, which we must accept if we be sane; what contradicts one thought entirely can not be true, unless its opposite is proven false [life cannot be true unless its opposite, death, is entirely false]. (W-pI.163.6:3-5)
Yet "the world attempts a thousand compromises, and will attempt a thousand more" (4:7). We constantly make compromises with death, trying desperately to reconcile its apparent reality with goodness and life and love.
Discussion: What are some of the compromises we make with death? In what ways do we try to "cling to death and yet to think love real" (6:9)?
Some compromises I can think of:
• "There is part of dying things that may go on apart from what will die" (4:1). For instance, we go to Heaven after we die—"he's going to a better place"—or we are reincarnated.
• The death of one thing gives life to another: "What may seem hurtful to the individual tends to the good of the cosmos as a whole" (from a TV show about Taoism). (Voltaire's sarcastic rejoinder: "Individual misfortunes give rise to the general good; so the more individual misfortunes exist, the more all is fine.")
• Death is peace ("rest in peace"), a release from all the pain of life.
• Death is okay, because the memory of the deceased one lives on. He or she leaves a legacy.
• Death makes us appreciate life more.
• Death is a great mystery, and we must trust that God has some benevolent purpose for it. "God would not allow any evil to exist unless out of it he could draw a greater good. This is part of the wisdom and goodness of God" (St. Augustine).
I've heard a number of these and more invoked regarding the tsunami deaths. Many have consoled themselves with the idea that the people who died live on in some way. One editorial took comfort in the idea that "even as life is lost somewhere, there is new life springing up elsewhere." Some have said that this event makes us appreciate the beauty and fragility of life. Others have pointed out that good has come out of it because it has sparked so much generosity and caused nations to come together: "Perhaps even Mother Nature is now convinced that regionalism and internationalism are the way to go." One person even said the disaster caused him to reflect on the blessings of being American, since America has a much better system for responding to natural disasters.
As teachers of God with the function of extending salvation to our brothers everywhere—which includes salvation from the belief in death—our job is to give up all these compromises and teach that God is Love, and He did not create this insanity (4:8).
This paragraph gives us the last major helping of bad news before the section gets to the good news. It starts with a crucial point: "The 'reality' of death is firmly rooted in the belief that God's Son is a body" (5:1). This is obvious. When we think of death, we think of a body dying. The tsunami was a physical wave that crashed onto physical shores and killed all the physical bodies in its path.
This sets up that last volley of bad news. The message is blunt: If God created bodies, death would be real, but God would not be loving (5:2-3). Indeed, if death is real then the God of Love Himself is dead (5:5). He has been killed by the god of fear, the destroyer, the avenger. As the Course says elsewhere: "Fear, with ashen lips and sightless eyes, blinded and terrible to look upon, is lifted to the throne of love, its dying conqueror, its substitute, the savior from salvation" (T-23.II.15:6). Have a nice day.
Now for the good news. This section's stripping away of the things we normally use to console ourselves about death may seem cruel at first, but the ultimate purpose is a compassionate one: to replace solaces that don't really work with one that really does. The things we normally use to make peace with death are "mindless magic, ineffectual and meaningless" (6:9). As long as we cling to them, we will not truly find peace. Now we will learn the true source of peace in the midst of the illusion of death: the recognition that God is only Love, there is no death, and life is eternal.
"'And the last to be overcome will be death.' Of course!" (6:1-2). This quote is a paraphrase of the Apostle Paul: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (1 Cor 15:26). This makes perfect logical sense, given what this section says. If all illusions are born in death (6:6, 1:1), then the way to end all illusions is to recognize that there is no death. This undoes the entire terrible picture the first five paragraphs have painted: the fearful god, the cruel world, and all the tortured compromises we make in our "vain attempts to cling to death and yet to think love real" (6:9). If we want an end to the world of earthquakes and tsunamis and death in all its forms, all we need do is recognize the glorious truth that will set us free: "God is, and in Him all created things must be eternal" (6:10).
As with so many sections of the Manual, this one concludes with an injunction that is meant to help the teacher of God fulfill his function of extending healed perception to others. This section is not just about releasing ourselves from death, but about releasing everyone from death. Now we are given instructions for how to do this: "Teacher of God, your one assignment could be stated thus: Accept no compromise in which death plays a part" (7:1).
How do we do this? By setting aside compromises like the ones discussed earlier in this commentary. By renouncing our belief in cruelty (7:2). By withdrawing our faith from the death the body's eyes show us, and placing it in the eternal life revealed by the eyes of Christ. By bringing the illusion of death to the truth of eternal life, there to be dispelled (7:4). By steadfastly refusing to be "deceived by the 'reality' of any changing form" (7:5). Above all, by coming to the one realization that brings about "the end of death" (7:7): "the Son of God is guiltless now and forever" (7:8). In other words, by forgiving. The way out of death is to see the innocence in all our brothers. "Nothing but this" (7:8; 7:9).
Obviously, letting go of our belief in death entirely is a long-range goal for most of us, one that will be accomplished only by diligent Course practice (Lessons 163 and 167 are good lessons on the topic of death). It's not something we accomplish overnight, but a process. I'm reminded of the process of changing thoughts, outlined in Lesson 284, "I can elect to change all thoughts that hurt":
This is the truth, at first to be but said and then repeated many times; and next to be accepted as but partly true, with many reservations. Then to be considered seriously more and more, and finally accepted as the truth. (W-pII.284.1:5-6)
When we say, "There is no death. The Son of God is free" (Lesson 163), we might be able to do little more than repeat the words at first. But that is where mind-change begins. If we persist long enough, we will come to the point where it is "finally accepted as the truth." That is the Course's promise.
The idea that death is ended by seeing the Son of God as guiltless points to the ultimate source of our belief in death: guilt. The Course claims that we made this deadly world to be a punishing device for the sins we believe we have committed. As we've seen, the world does this job frighteningly well. Indeed, many have seen the Asian tsunami as punishment for sin. I read of one woman in India who cried out, "Why did you do this to us, God? What did we do to upset you?" A number of Christians as well see the tsunami as God's wrath on sinners. I saw one Christian website that claimed everyone deserves God's wrath, even those we consider innocent:
Since "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), there is no one who has the right to freedom from God's wrath on the basis of his own innocence. As far as babies are concerned, and others who may be incompetent mentally to distinguish right and wrong, it is clear from both Scripture and universal experience that they are sinners by nature and thus will inevitably become sinners by choice as soon as they are able to do so.
My point is not to pick on these Christians. On the contrary, my point is that according to the Course, we all believe this. As Course students, it's easy to tell ourselves that we don't believe in sin anymore, but deep down that belief is still there. One Course friend of mine courageously admitted that when the tsunami happened, he was shocked to discover that something in him did see it as punishment for sin. Belief in sin is why we made death. and this is why forgiveness is the end of death. If there is no sin and no guilt, there is no need for a punishment.
What does making no compromise with death look like in everyday terms, especially regarding our response to the Asian disaster?
This paragraph's counsel may bring to mind an image of telling tsunami survivors, "Get over it, dude. Death is an illusion." But of course, this is not helpful to anyone. Our response on a form level should be guided by the Holy Spirit, so it will vary from person to person. But given the emphasis on forgiveness as the end of death, I think He will guide us to do something that communicates our love for our brothers—our recognition of their innocence—in some way that they can clearly recognize as loving. The way to help people overcome their belief in death is not to bludgeon them with a spiritual teaching, but to communicate the Love of God to them in thought, word, and deed.
So, we may be guided to donate time, talent, or dollars to alleviating the suffering in Asia, as so many have done. But the key is that whatever form we engage in, the content of our minds is the message: "I love you, you are my brother, and I honor you as a holy Son of God." Even as we compassionately deal with death on the level of the illusion, behind our actions is the recognition that there is no real death, for all living things are innocent children of God who share in His eternal Life. "Nothing but this."
Visualization: God Is Love and Life Is Eternal
Bring to mind a situation in which you are confronting death. It may be the Asian tsunami disaster, or it may be some event in your personal life. Do you believe death is real in this situation? Be honest with yourself about this. Whatever your Course beliefs, if you are feeling any distress about this situation, then you do believe that death is real here.
Now, consider all the compromises you have tried to make with this situation—ways in which you have tried to reconcile death with a loving God. Perhaps you have told yourself that death is okay because part of those who die lives on. Perhaps you have told yourself that those who die are "going to a better place" and will be at peace. Perhaps you have simply resigned yourself to the idea that God must have some mysterious loving purpose for this death. Or perhaps you've made some other compromise.
But all of these compromises are futile. You use them to shore up your belief in a God of Love, but they don't really work. Deep down, you still believe death is real. And since you do, whatever you say you believe, you must believe in a cruel god of fear, who has condemned everyone and everything to the grave as punishment for sin. Do you really want to believe this?
If not, then resolve right now to accept no compromise in which death plays a part. As you look upon the situation you're facing, gently remind yourself of the truth that God is Love and life is eternal. Don't use this truth to bludgeon your belief in death. Don't use it to aggressively deny your belief in death. Rather, use it to strengthen your willingness to let your belief in death be undone. Allow it to gently shine that belief away, with the Holy Spirit's Help. As you look upon what seems to die in this situation, gently tell yourself, "I will not be deceived by the 'reality' of any changing form." Tell yourself, "God is, and in Him all created things must be eternal." Tell yourself, "The Son of God is guiltless, now and forever. All is forgiven; there is no punishment for sin." Tell yourself, "There is no death. The Son of God is free" (W-pI.163.Heading). God is Love, life is eternal, and all is well.
Let us conclude with a prayer to our Father that we may see beyond death to the glory of eternal life:
Our Father, bless our eyes today. We are Your messengers, and we would look upon the glorious reflection of Your Love which shines in everything. We live and move in You alone. We are not separate from Your eternal life. There is no death, for death is not Your Will. And we abide where You have placed us, in the life we share with You and with all living things, to be like You and part of You forever. We accept Your Thoughts as ours, and our will is one with Yours eternally. Amen.