Last Sunday I did a service at the Unitarian Church about Eternity. It included a great reading called You Want A Physicist to Speak at Your Funeral.
My address followed. I hope you enjoy it.
One of the topics of the moment… is Death. It’s very a la mode. In and around Sussex we have all sorts of events dedicated to death, there’s something called a Frontline Death Network Event coming up, and there are Death Cafes, and a Last Wishes Workshop. Death is a topic of concern to many of us, particularly as we get older, and more and more of our contemporaries drift out of our lives. Death is also a business. There is a material side to it.
I have been studying Death with a real passion since the mid-1970s, yet now it seems that the more important issue may not be Death, so much as Eternity… and so I’m inviting us to give a thought to our eternal selves, and along the way, we can take in a bit of other people’s wisdom, celebrate Eternity with a touch of frivolity, admire the view and also respect the words of people of faith.
The concept of Eternity is bound into most religions – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism, and the Eastern faiths are probably the most enlightened on this subject… but the spiritual text that goes to the subject of Eternity in the most direct way, with perfect precision, is the 2,500-year-old Chinese philosophy called – The Tao.
The Tao makes reference to Eternity from the outset, but also explains the problems we meet when expressing the idea of Eternity in words. The word Tao itself has a nice broad meaning – it is the basic principle of the universe and is simply translated as The Way. It is the journey of life, taking in its potential and also the journey that goes beyond life, and it embraces many ideas and principles. Here are the opening words of the Tao:
The unnameable is the eternally real
Free from desire
You realise and understand the mystery
Caught up in desire you see only the manifestation
The expression… the unfolding action.
Mystery and manifestations
Come from the same source
And this source is known as darkness.
Darkness within darkness
Is the gateway to all understanding.
When people see some things as beautiful
Other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good… other things become bad.
Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other
Long and short define each other
High and low depend on each other
Before and after follow each other.
Therefore, the wise one acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come
Things disappear and he lets them go.
She has, but she doesn’t possess;
He acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done
She forgets it
And that is why it lasts forever.
The Tao, in saying that everything has its opposite reminds us that the opposite of the eternal is the moment, the now… the split second when you do something, like read or hear these words. The relationship between the moment and the eternal, these two polarities, and everything in-between are the essence of the Tao… The Way. The smallest and the greatest are one and the same.
So… a moment, a split second is both the opposite and the same as Eternity. At risk of overdoing the quotes, I would like to tell you what Thoreau said about this… he said: “You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your Eternity in each moment…” Ludwig Wittgenstein went one better when he said: “Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take Eternity to mean (not infinite temporal duration) but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.”
And the importance of the now and Eternity is also mentioned in the Gospel of John, where it says eternal life isn’t about the future, it’s about the ‘now… so those who accept Christ can possess life here and now as well as in Eternity, for they have “passed from death to life.”
But the prospect of Eternity doesn’t appeal to everyone. In fact, there is a phobia called apeirophobia which is a fear of Eternity — the terrifying thought that existence goes on for ever. On a frivolous note, perhaps, those who have seen the film Groundhog day once too many times, or worse still too many episodes of Pointless, may begin to feel this way. Of course, apeirophobics will have all sorts of concerns, and I suspect that coming to terms with time itself is one of them, and that is hardly surprising. Coming to terms with time is not easy at all.
For example, if we can imagine that the earth was formed 24 hours ago, human existence occupies just one second in the age of the earth… and if human history amounted to a day, a 24 hour day, it would be 10 minutes or so since the birth of Christ… In terms of spiritual awareness… we have recently been told that humans have been demonstrating sacred rites and practices for the past 70,000 years… Christ, as we all know, was born two thousand years ago… The Christian faith is young… a lot younger than the entire Egyptian civilisation of the Nile Valley, which lasted for about three thousand years. Understanding the scale of time, and its relativity within the framework of the cosmic picture is not easy, particularly when it comes to the given lifetime we have.
So being in the now is as close to coming to terms with Eternity as possible. But we also have to respect the exquisite and even unsettling patterns of our history, the lessons taught by past religions, cultures and dynasties. History empowers us to relate to time more easily. Our City and its architecture bear witness to our respect for history, the beautiful proportions and principles of Greek and Roman buildings that are to be found across Brighton drawn from the shapes and patterns in nature, and their mathematical formulae. When we resonate with the past, through form, classical form, which can be found in art, architecture, music, and poetry, we also contact our deepest and most distant memories, and we are reminded that we are eternal beings
The gateways to connecting with our eternal selves are all around us. Some may choose to walk through the emptiness of desert sands to gain a feeling for the endless nature of time; others train a telescope into the sky, or just walk on the downs and marvel at the glory of the stars. Others may choose to look through the lens of a microscope and admire the shapes and forms of nature and crystals at their most minuscule levels… but the real answer almost certainly lies in us, ourselves. We have an inbuilt programme, amidst the 1,000 trillion synapses in our brains, and the memories we also contain in our bodies, because every cell of our bodies, has memory… It is your deepest ‘self’ that has the potential and power to ‘know’ your eternal self, to appreciate that your spirit just never, ever dies. We just need to climb into the complex and profound place of self, and wander through the beautiful arcades and galleries and libraries and gardens of the mind. Meditation and contemplation are wonderful paths to knowing Eternity.
As I draw to a close I would very much like to pay homage to those people who believe they have had a brush with Eternity at the closest range. These are people who have nearly died, either through illness or trauma, and have experienced a Near Death Experience. Over and over again they find it difficult to express what they experienced as they went over to “the other side”. These people (of which there are now a great many) talk constantly about the importance of light and also darkness in terms of illuminating their understanding of life and death. I am reminded of the words of the Tao “Darkness within darkness – the gateway to all understanding,” and the recently discovered ‘Dark Energy’. Light and darkness are intrinsic to the Near Death Experience. The role of music is very frequently mentioned, music far more beautiful and powerful than anything heard on earth. Landscapes and scenery with varying degrees of familiarity are described, and time itself is also said to work differently, as does language, which seems to be no longer necessary. When we are in the discarnate state communication seems to work without words — it is instant, made possible by simply thinking or feeling about something. In a land where language is not used, it will always be difficult to explain new experiences involving words we do not have. Many of these people say that the enormity of what they encounter, and the scale of the dimension they encounter — of cosmic proportions and beauty — is both endless and indescribable. They meet people who have died, and sometimes this includes people they didn’t encounter in their present life. Eternity is both mysterious and intriguing, whatever angle it may be viewed from. Perhaps most significant of all, is that after those people have encountered Death, they no longer fear it, which is understandable, given that Death is simply a gateway to our true eternal selves.
And so it seems so appropriate to close with the words of the great Carl Gustav Jung, who said “What happens after Death is so unspeakably glorious that our imagination and our feelings do not suffice to form even an approximate conception of it. The dissolution of our time-bound form in Eternity brings no loss of meaning.”