In Katmandu, walking through the city, one literally breathes the ash of bodies being cremated in accord with Hindu and Buddhist practice. The smoke on the left of is rising from the crematoria. In these belief systems, the soul of the dead person is being released on the way to its reincarnation in accord with the laws of karma.
His historical exposition gave me a timeline about eternity that I hadn't had previously. For medieval people, eternity was immanent, right there in proximity to human life, in shrines, in relics of saints, in churches, in the very cosmology shown the visible sky, the heavens. The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Luther in response to the abuse of eternity because the Church seemed to put a monetary price on admission to heaven, desacralized the world, making room for science. And science just about did away with the notion of eternity as heaven itself.
But if science had disproved heaven, what did the inescapable reality of human death mean? Perhaps nothing.
Nothing is a little much for human beings to put up with. Not too surprisingly, a western culture that cannot believe in eternity spawns such oddities as belief in ghosts, ouija boards and visiting aliens. But that stuff scratches the surface of our emotional response. In this country, most people claim to believe in God and some kind of eternity. But our intellectual environment implants a contrary reality.
And yet it seems built into human DNA to seek meaning in preference to accepting nothingness. I rather like that about us.
I think Professor Eire might agree. He's not the sort of author I turn to often -- a conservative Catholic with a doctrinaire streak -- but his history made my cosmos a little bigger and that feels like a good, whether eternity is "true" or not.
Our location within this contemporary "existential dread" is, I think, the context in which our species confronts radical climate change and global warming. Ash Wednesday too belongs quite properly within the "Warming Wednesday" series I'm posting these days.