Essay: Existential Questions, part 2
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Essay: Existential Questions, part 2

Last week I discussed how attempting to answer the universal existential question “Where did I come from?” lends itself to answers that favor empathy and compassion with other people and animals. This week, I explore the implications of our attempts to address the question “What happens to me when I die?”
Perhaps because of an innate survival instinct, our knowledge of the inevitability of our death can cause great anxiety. We naturally want to know what will happen to our sense of self after we die, and for many people the prospect that the self might be totally obliterated is terrifying.
Our own mortality is a personal concern, and consequently reflections about our mortality tend to turn our thoughts inward. As we contemplate our mortality, we feel separated from other beings, who cannot experience our own death with us. Though having loved ones nearby as one approaches death may ease the pain and fear, ultimately each of us dies alone.
In addressing the question of what happens to us when we die, religions generally offer egocentric answers. For example, many religions offer promises of eternal bliss to those who either do the right things (such as good actions or proper rituals) or who believe the right things. The focus is on the individual rather than the wider community or the world at large.
Because many religions relate post-mortem destiny to the individual’s actions or beliefs during life, many people wonder whether they are worthy of a contented everlasting existence. I suspect that widespread concerns about worthiness derive in part from a lifetime of having rewards and punishments tied to performance, from behaving properly in childhood to being an effective employee in adulthood. With this lifetime of experiences, it seems natural that any eternal rewards would relate to activities during our lives.
Related to concerns about worthiness is a commonplace deep-seated sense of guilt derived from our failures and feelings of inadequacy. To the degree that people internalize this guilt, they run the risk of feeling unworthy of eternal reward – an unpleasant prospect. Often, in an attempt to relieve their guilt and increase their perceived prospects of eternal reward, people try to project their sense of guilt onto others. They blame others for their own shortcomings and failures, and this is the hallmark of scapegoating.
So, addressing the question of our origins tends to encourage empathy with others, while thinking about our mortality prompts us to look inward for answers. Next week, I will consider how this tension influences our response to the third universal question: What is the purpose of my life? I will also explore how Christianity addresses this tension.

Go on to: Essay: Existential Questions, part 3
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