Not long ago, I watched, on television, a discussion between a prominent religious commentator and several reputable theologians representing various Christian denominations. The commentator hosting the show had asked the theologians the question: “Should it make any difference in the way a Christian lives whether he or she believes in life after death?” All the theologians on the panel and the host himself agreed that it should not. They all asserted that, whether or not there is life after death, it should make no difference whatsoever in how a Christian lives his or her life.
They went further. Explicitly or by insinuation, each suggested that a positive belief in life after death might even be harmful as it could falsely focus a person so much on life after death that he or she never quite gets around to living life after birth. They felt that people who do believe in life after death tend, in a rather childish way, to let a system of promised rewards and threatened punishments affect their behaviour as opposed to living out of a more mature moral inner-directedness. Moreover, they suggested that belief in life after death tends to deflect people from deep involvement in the world. Those who believe in a life beyond this one end up being otherworldly in an unhealthy sense.
For all of them then, the question of life after death was not an important religious and Christian question. They left the viewer with the impression that to think otherwise, to have any preoccupations whatever with thoughts of life after death, was a sign of an immature faith.
There is a certain commendable stoicism in that kind of an attitude but, in the end, it masks a belief which, beyond being religiously false, wreaks much havoc in actual life. Simply put, when we stop believing in life after death there is a very real tendency to demand that this life, here and now, give us something it cannot give, namely, full consummation.
Karl Rahner once remarked that we will be haunted and driven by restlessness until we accept the fact that here all symphonies remain unfinished. Our age would do well to listen to him because we demand too much from life. We demand the finished symphony.
We enter this world with mind and heart built for the infinite, with tortured complexity, and with deep insatiable congenital longings. We ache for a great love, to embrace the whole world and everyone in it. There is, as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, a certain timelessness inside of our hearts that puts us out of sync with full peace. We are built for the infinite, but what we meet in life is always the finite. We ache to achieve the perfect, in love and in art, but what we achieve is always limited and blemished. We ache for the eternal, but are frustrated in time.
It is no wonder that we are so demanding … in our relationships, our jobs, our vacations, and life in general. It is hard to make a full peace with our own very real limits, of body, mind, and achievement. In all of our lives, there is a huge gap between what our hearts demand and what we can actually attain in this life. Consequently we are frustrated, never able to attain the finished symphony.
When one does not believe in life after death there is the very real temptation to demand that this life give us the finished symphony. After all, we only live once and what a tragedy it would be to go through that one life unfulfilled!
In the parable of the conscientious steward, Jesus points out how the steward who does not expect his master’s return then sets about beating his fellow servants and eating and drinking with drunkards. The images of violence that Jesus inserts here are metaphors precisely of the type of violence we do to life when we demand that it give us the finished symphony.
Conversely, the person who awaits the master’s return, who does believe this life is not all, can live in a greater patience with the frustrations of a life that refuses the full symphony. When this life is not all, then it is easier to not demand all from it.