69. immortality

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*I posted this comment to an article on my friend pantaloondescendo’s blog this afternoon, and (narcissism aside) thought it was beautifully phrased and wanted to share it with anyone reading this*

To quote Douglas Adams (via Richard Dawkins): “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

At the same time, I’m rather intrigued by the Jewish idea that God will hold each of us accountable for every legitimate pleasure that we denied ourselves in life (this coming from Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). We are sentient beings capable of thought, feeling and understanding, so for one of those beings to live a life wasted and full of regret is probably the most supreme tragedy there is in the universe.

I heard Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speak about this idea of a sort of “spiritualized hedonism” (to paraphrase slightly from John Piper and his “Christian Hedonism“) on American Public Media’s On Being (formerly Speaking of Faith) on the show “Pursuing Happiness” which was a conversation with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Jonathan Sacks, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church, and Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr at the 2010 Interfaith Summit on Happiness held at Emory University.

Sacks was responding to Schori, who in turn was responding to a question about “our physical selves in this condition of happiness.” She outlined the two traditions of ascetic approach and an incarnational approach (which I won’t post here but is in the show transcript, in the second section of dialogue). Then Sacks had this to say:

Judaism has a certain approach to the physical dimension of the spiritual life. It’s called food. In fact, somebody once said, if you want a crash course in understanding all the Jewish festivals, they can all be summed up in three sentences: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat. But I think that part of our faith is that God is to be found down here in this world that God created and seven times pronounced good. And I find one of the most striking sentences in Judaism — it is in the Jerusalem Talmud — is the statement of Rav that in the world to come, a person will have to give an account of every legitimate pleasure he or she deprived themselves of in this life. Because God gave us this world to enjoy.

I must say that quite apart — and I mean, absolutely, Judaism has taken — I think we share this, but Judaism has said there are three approaches to physical pleasure. Number one is hedonism, the worship of pleasure. The number two is asceticism, the denial of pleasure. And number three is the biblical way for sanctification of pleasure. And that, I think, is important and very profound. And I must say that sometimes the best kind of interfaith gatherance — I mean, theology is extremely wonderful. It’s very cognitive. That is a very polite English way of saying boring. And sometimes the best form of interfaith is you just sit together, you eat together, you drink together, you share one another’s songs. You listen to one another’s stories and just enjoy the pleasures of this world with people of another faith. That is beautiful.

I would add just one other thing. If there is one thing I find beautiful beyond measures — there in my own tradition in what we call hakhnasat orhim, hospitality, very real element of Christianity and Islam and Buddhism — it’s a super element in Sikhism, what’s called langar. You know, it’s not just my physical pleasures. It’s giving physical pleasure to those who have all too little. One very great Hasidic teacher once said, “Somebody else’s material needs are my spiritual duties.” And that, I think, is where we join in sharing our pleasures with others.

This is very different from the normal conservative Christian views that say you can’t (or shouldn’t) drink, smoke, swear, have sex outside of marriage, be gay, etc., ad nauseum. After all, if God created it (and he did… didn’t he??), why is it wrong to do? The smoking thing I can understand since it’s harmful to your physical body and to others; but the rest seem based on cultural norms and even personal preferences as supposed to a divine ban on said activity. Alcohol is fine and even healthy in moderation. Swearing’s probably not good, but it’s damn good fun. Premarital sex is in the Bible, so this whole “saving myself for marriage” doctrine is complete nonsense. And don’t even get me started on homosexuality.

In short, any religion or system of belief that starts becoming more prohibitive to experiencing life in its fullest on the basis of “God said so” is one that should probably be re-evaluated.

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