This month’s conversation in our series exploring religion and death is with Karen Teel, who has been a member of the department of theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego since 2007. Her research and teaching focus on the essential beliefs of Christianity and the theological engagement with the problems of racism and white supremacy. She is the author of “Racism and the Image of God.” — George Yancy
George Yancy: I’d like to start with a personal question. What does it mean for you to embody the teachings of Roman Catholicism?
Karen Teel: I grew up Catholic, and I continue to practice Catholicism not out of obligation but because I claim it as my home. I try to live faithfully by what is highest and best in my church. This actually means that my allegiance is not first and foremost to the Roman Catholic Church, a human and imperfect institution, but to Jesus and to his God of love and justice. So, for me, embodying the teachings of my church means trying to love deeply, to live with integrity, to treat every person as beloved by God, and therefore to work passionately for justice in the world.
One way that I have chosen to demonstrate fidelity to my church is by raising my children Catholic. I want them to know in their bones what it means to belong to a faith community, so that when they grow up that is a real option for them. Embodying the teachings of Catholicism means living the truth that I believe, and really believing that this is the truth, while respecting and honoring the fact that others also live according to what they believe is true.
Yancy: What do you consider some of the essential teachings of Roman Catholicism?
Teel: Roman Catholics share the basic beliefs that all Christians hold in common. We believe that God is a Trinity, one god in three persons. We proclaim that Jesus saves. And we use the Bible, both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, as our sacred text.
For me, the most important distinctively Catholic belief is the Eucharist. My church teaches that when we celebrate communion, Jesus becomes present in the bread and wine that we share. The way the people come together every week to be nourished by this concrete reminder of God’s presence with us in the struggle is really beautiful.
Yancy: We are concentrating in these discussions on learning about and understanding religious conceptions of death. How is the reality of death conceptualized in your faith?
Teel: Death is conceptualized as a transition from this life into eternal life. Christianity teaches that God is eternal; this world came from God and will eventually return to God. In that sense, this life is temporary. Moreover, God created humans with immortal souls, so the death of a human being is not the end. The body dies while the soul continues to live.
When this world comes to an end, Christianity teaches, Jesus, who has already been raised from the dead, will return to oversee the general resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. The bodies of those who have died will be resurrected — rendered alive anew in a glorious, immortal state — and reunited with our souls. The bodies of those who have not yet died also will be transformed into this new state. And Jesus will separate us into two groups, those who will be eternally rewarded and those who will be punished. Christians traditionally believe that heaven is where God is and hell is where God is not, but I like the idea, suggested in the teaching of one of my graduate school professors, Father Michael Himes, that we may all have the same destiny — to spend eternity being loved by God. For those who want God’s love, this will be heaven; for those who don’t, it will be hell.
For Christians, everything that God created is good, and God will not allow anything that is good to pass away. We are never alone, in this life or in eternity. The death of a loved one brings profound sadness. But it is a temporary separation; we hope and believe that we will see each other again. Death is not a separation from God but a return to God. When a Christian dies, we say that they have gone to be with God. And when we die, we will join them.
Yancy: This all seems to work out well for faithful Christians, but what about atheists? Should they fear death?
Teel: No more than anyone else. In the 1960s, the Catholic Church’s teaching on non-Christian religions developed beyond the ancient notion that only Christians could be saved. Now the church teaches that, under certain conditions, people who do not identify as Christians may be saved. Personally, I believe that whenever a person does their best to live rightly, according to the principles they know to be true, God honors that effort. Nothing good will be lost.
Yancy: Speaking of atheism, I read recently that cosmologist Stephen Hawking said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail.” He also added, “There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” How do you respond to the charge that Christians who believe in an afterlife are just really afraid of the dark, that is, afraid of facing the inevitability of nothingness?
Teel: That’s very logical. I can see why a nonbeliever might think that. The question here is whether we are going to allow people to be the authorities on what they feel.
When my mother was 59, she was diagnosed with A.L.S., Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hawking had it too. There’s no cure for A.L.S. It’s a neurological disease in which the mind usually remains sharp, but the voluntary muscles gradually stop working, leaving you totally dependent on others. Hawking lived for decades after his diagnosis; most people live two to five years. My mother lived for three years.
Mom’s decline never hit a plateau. The disease’s progression was gradual and relentless. Her arms went first, which seemed particularly cruel, since she was a pianist. When she could no longer climb stairs, she and my father moved to be near me and my children. She began to need help with everything: eating, using the bathroom, controlling her wheelchair, breathing.
During Mom’s last weeks — especially after she asked us to stop feeding her, when we took turns sitting with her around the clock, so that she would not die alone — I realized two things: She was going to die soon, and I believed that I would see her again. This had nothing to do with being afraid of losing her. I was losing her. We had known for three years, with reasonable and devastating certainty, the precise manner in which we were going to lose her. But I also believed, with a conviction I had never before felt, that she would not cease to exist upon her death. She was going to join her parents, and one day I would see them all again.
Before facing my mother’s death, I never really knew that I believed that life continues. I still don’t expect others to believe it. But I know it as I know the sun will come up in the morning, as I know I’ll get wet in the rain, as I know I love my own children. It isn’t about fear. It’s a gift and a mystery, this conviction that we come from love and we return to love.
Yancy: That is a powerful story and I thank you for sharing it. How do we explain the fact that even Christians continue to fear death despite the fact that they believe that there is so much more after we die?
Teel: Well, Christians hope to go to heaven, but ultimately it’s not up to us. Perhaps the outcome of the last judgment will not be in our favor, or a loved one won’t make it. That’s a pretty terrifying scenario. Then again, some of us probably imagine that heaven will be boring because we will no longer be doing any of the exciting stuff that we had feared might land us in hell.
Change is scary, and death is a big change. Many ways of dying involve pain. Even if we expect a good death and something better beyond, this life is familiar and beloved, and we are in no hurry to go. We also fear for the loved ones we leave behind. Who will take care of them when we’re gone?
Yancy: It has occurred to me at times that the atheist belief — expressed by Hawking — that there is no afterlife, that there is nothing after we die, might have an upside of adding value to our current lives. For example, I might treat people differently knowing that I will never see them after this life. Given that, do you think believing that one will exist forever could negatively impact how one lives in the present?
Teel: I suppose there are Christians who use their hope of heaven as an excuse to be lazy or immoral, though I don’t know very many. More common, and more problematic, is our tendency to look down on people who don’t believe what we do. Yet believing that life ends at death can also lead to nihilism, or to treating people horribly. Neither belief guarantees good character.
Yancy: Do you think that people lose anything by taking an atheist stance? And if they don’t, why should they invest in the belief that we exist beyond the grave?
Teel: I’m not terribly interested in convincing others to believe what I do about life after death. I may turn out to be wrong; and anyway, whatever is going to happen will happen whether or not anyone believes in it. I’m much more interested in working to make our world more just.
In this life we have right now, people are suffering. This is not new. In his “Urbi et Orbi” blessing on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis, praying with the world from a dark and empty St. Peter’s Square, suggested that perhaps we can learn from the pandemic what we have failed to learn from war, injustice, poverty and environmental catastrophe: We need each other. If God is love, then we must do everything we can to reduce one another’s suffering, now and always. In fact, Jesus says that God cares far more about whether we do that than about whether we invoke God as our reason to do it. So, if believing in life after death motivates you, great. If not, then let’s find another reason, pick a cause, and get to work.
Yancy: You say that your views on death and the afterlife could turn out to be wrong. If so — if death were in fact final — would it render life meaningless for you?
Teel: No. I don’t believe that life matters because it continues. I believe that life continues because it matters. If it doesn’t continue, it still matters.
We love each other imperfectly, yet love remains. My mother’s love for me did not begin or end with her. She could love me because others loved her, they could love her because they had been loved, and so on. Her love is with me now. And it will continue, through me, through everyone I love, through everyone they love, long after we are all forgotten. Whether I actually see my mom again, in the specific way I anticipate, doesn’t change that. As love, we live forever, we always will have lived.
George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. His latest book is “Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.
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