Is There Life After Death?
A review essay of James and Whitehead on Life after Death by David Ray Griffin
Life is entwined with death from the start, for death is the price we must pay for being born, even though we don’t choose it, which may be why some people who are very angry at the deal, decide to choose how and when they will die, as if they are getting revenge on someone who dealt them a rotten hand, even if they don’t believe in the someone.
The meaning of death, and whether humans do or do not survive it in some form, has always obsessed people, from the average person to the great artists and thinkers. Death is the mother of philosophy and all the arts and sciences. It is arguably also what motivates so much human behavior, from keeping busy to waging war to trying to hit a little white ball with a long stick down a lot of grass into a hole in the ground and doing it again and again.
Death is the mother of distractions.
It is also what we cannot ultimately control, although a lot of violent and crazy rich people try. The thought of it drives many people mad.
No one is immune from wondering about it. We are born dying, and from an early age we ask why. Children often explicitly ask, but as they grow older the explicit usually retreats into implicity and avoidance because of adults’ need to deny death or their lack of answers about it that makes sense.
David Ray Griffin is not a child or an adult in denial. He has spent his life in an intrepid search for truth in many realms – philosophy, theology, politics, etc. He is an esteemed author of over forty books, an elderly man in his eighties who has spent his life writing about God, and also in the last twenty years a series of outstanding books on the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the demonic nature of U.S. history. He fits T.S Eliot’s description in The Four Quartets:
Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Though the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning
In his latest book, which is another beginning, James and Whitehead on Life after Death, he explores the age-old question of whether there is life after death and concludes that there probably is. It is a conclusion that is arguably shared in some way still by many people today but is clearly rejected by most intellectuals and highly schooled people, as Griffin writes:
The traditional basis for hope was belief in life after death. Modern culture, however, has so diminished this belief that today, in educated circles, it is largely assumed that life after death is an outmoded belief….The dominant view among science-based modern intellectuals is that the idea of life after death is not one to take seriously. That conclusion, however, is virtually implicit in the presuppositions of these intellectuals, such as Corliss Lamont. According to these modern intellectuals, there is no non-sensory perception; the world is basically mechanistic; and the world contains nothing but physical bodies and forces.
Griffin argues the opposite. His book is devoted to refuting these presuppositions with the help of William James and Alfred North Whitehead. It is not an easy read, and is not aimed at regular people who would find it rough going, except for the middle chapters on mediums, extrasensory perception, telepathy, apparitions, near-death out-of-body experiences, and reincarnation – the stuff of tabloid nonsense but which in Griffin’s scholarly hands is treated very intelligently. Moreover, these chapters are crucial to his overall argument. However, the book will mainly appeal to the intellectuals whom Griffin wishes to convince of their errors, or to those who agree with him. It is scholarly.
Without entering into all the nuances of his rather complicated thesis, I will try to summarize his key points.
Griffin is what is called a process theologian and his work of philosophical theology is intimately linked with scientific thinking and the idea of evolution, even as it rejects the modern mechanistic w
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