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Clergy Discuss Mystery Of Death

Scripture, traditions reveal little about afterlife, speakers say

By Gary Stern - July 6th 2006
Source:The Journal News

YONKERS - The pop image of what happens at death cuts across many religious lines: The soul breaks free from its bodily prison and drifts toward a bright light, where the souls of loved ones await like at a celestial surprise party.

The Rev. John Garvey had a near-death experience as a child and recalls a glimpse of the light. But he does not discount the possibility that oxygen was being cut off from his brain.

"All we know is dying; we cannot know death," Garvey said yesterday at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary in Crestwood, where he opened a weeklong institute on the most mysterious and dreaded of all subjects. And it's not taxes.

Garvey, an Orthodox priest and a popular columnist for the magazine Commonweal, said that Scripture and Christian tradition say little about the afterlife.

"Our hope is that we will be raised again to an existence we cannot even imagine," he said, adding that he does not think it is particularly fruitful to spend much time imagining the afterlife.

He lamented the fact that religious traditions, including Christian traditions, have popularized age-old Neoplatonic ideas of a disembodied soul that go far beyond Scripture. And people of faith have adopted formulae philosophies of death - "it's part of God's plan" - that sidestep the true mystery of death and provide little consolation to those in mourning.

Garvey described his reaction after being under anesthesia for surgery and awakening to find that he had lost all sense of time.

"If anesthetic can cancel me that way, what will death be like?" he said.

There was a hum of nervous laughter from some of the more than 70 clergy and lay leaders from across the country who will spend the week together. They'll cover lost of difficult ground, from how to care for the dying to preparing living wills to what Scripture and the church fathers said about what comes next.

Garvey pointed out that Philip Roth's despairing new novel, "Everyman," describes the tightening grip of death on a nonbeliever. "It is a desperate book," he said, comparing it to Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych," in which a dying man finds meaning.

In a presentation about the Old Testament, the Rev. Paul Tarazi gently laughed at the modern obsession with the individual soul and the afterlife. The Old Testament is focused on the need to obey God, not on the journey of the soul, he said.

"When you hear the word 'death' in the Bible, it's always as punishment," he said. The three most common deliverers of death in Scripture, he said are water, enemy armies and God's verdicts.

Tarazi, who teaches at the seminary, said that people should be more concerned with their behavior in this life and less with where they're going next.

"The interest of Scripture - both in Old and New Testaments - is our behavior according to God's will in this life," he said.

Tarazi said he is partial to the statement "It's now or never."

Paul Meyendorff, professor of liturgical theology at the seminary, will speak this morning about the Christian funeral. In a preview, he said that the Christian liturgy for death wasn't developed until the medieval period, and that it incorporated Neoplatonic ideas about the immortality of the soul that have become a basis for modern belief about death.

Few people really want to talk about how little we know about what follows the last breath, he said.

"Nobody wants to deal with death," Meyendorff said. "We live in a death-denying culture."

Peter Bouteneff, who teaches theology, said that people should face the fact that they know little about death and should be skeptical of those who insist they have the afterlife worked out.

There's also no way to avoid the yearning that people feel for understanding, he said, which goes beyond religious teachings.

"There is more than our Christian conviction that tells us death is not the end," Bouteneff said. "It is a human conviction."

"We don't believe in life after death because this is what is taught us," he said. "This is our faith; this is our conviction."

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