Because a lot of scientists don't believe in God, they have trouble explaining religion. One of the popular ideas, touted especially by Sam Harris, is that religions are failed attempts at science. Harris seems to think most religions resemble the Just So Stories of Rudyard Kipling, with its fanciful tall tales of how the elephant go this trunk and how the camel got his hump. Of course, if Harris had bothered to do much research he would find that only a very small amount of most religions' sacred writings or stories are devoted to explaining natural phenomena. Yes, they tend to have creation stories but the main point is not so much how things came to be but why they came to be and what is their purpose. Religion is more about the meaning of life than its inner workings.
Another popular idea is that religion is merely a reaction to our fear of death. It reassures us of an afterlife. But this is not a universal feature of religion. Of the more than 40 religions I checked on, roughly 1 quarter of religions either espouse no afterlife or are vague on the details. Another 16 opt for reincarnation, which actually leaves less than half calling for a supernatural afterlife. So, like all reductionist theories of religion, this one is inadequate.
Religions tend to be more about how one should go about living one's life rather than being primarily about death. The motives may or may not be rooted in the afterlife but the important actions take place in this life. And some people are exemplary in the extent to which they were able to, as Jesus said, take up their cross and follow him. We have come to call such people saints. The problem is that the Bible doesn't restrict this term to super-Christians.
In the Bible the words translated “saints” means “holy ones.” And “holy” means “set apart” as in “ set apart for God's purpose.” And who sets us apart other than God? So when the Bible talks of the saints it is simply speaking of God's people. In the New Testament, the word “saints” is a synonym for “Christians.” Because our salvation is not based on how good we are but upon God's grace.
Nevertheless, some Christians let God work in them more fully than others. Eventually, the church started using the word “saints” almost exclusively to refer to these exemplary Christians. And many of them, even today, are good examples to emulate. Indeed, most of the original saints were martyrs, witnesses to the gospel who were killed for sticking to their faith. The church came to posit that these people were certainly in heaven. Which opened up the idea that asking them, the people really connected to God, to pray for you was much more effective than asking the people in your church to pray for you.
This, unfortunately, led to the cult of the saints. Heaven came to be viewed almost like a political bureaucracy, where to get things done you had to contact the right person. Saints became facilitators or patrons of certain things, like childbirth or certain professions. These connections were often drawn from their life or even their method of execution. St. Catherine of Sienna was one of 22 children born to her mother. Her twin brother died but she survived and so she is the person to whom Roman Catholics pray to prevent miscarriages. St. Apollonia was tortured by having all her teeth pulled out so she is, ironically, the patron saint of dentistry!
Some saints were probably the product of popular folklore. My favorite is St. Wigglesfoot the Unencumbered. At first her story begins like those of so many virgin saints, betrothed against her will to marry a pagan king. So she prays that God will prevent this unholy union and preserve her virginity. The result is that overnight she grows a beard! She became the medieval patron saint of women who wished to be free of their husbands.
Some saints were, quite frankly, just pagan gods repurposed. Some scholars think the Irish St. Brigit could very well have started out as the pre-Christian goddess Brighid or that the two were conflated. Both are associated with sacred wells and perpetual flames.
How this syncretism came about can be understood this way: when pagans came to Christianity, often it was because their king or chieftain converted and told his subjects to follow suit. They were baptized but were imperfectly educated in the faith. The conversions did not come from the heart and they missed their old gods. They used to know whom to pray to for the harvest or rain or healing. Now they only had one God, a new one. So somehow the saints took over the functions of the multiple gods as objects of prayer and the reasons for shrines.
Back then the Roman Catholic Church's current mechanism for checking out and confirming saints was nonexistent. Some saints began as parochial figures, either favorite sons and daughters from a region or just local legends. Modern Catholic scholarship cast doubt on some of the saints. So in the 1960s the Roman Catholic Church re-evaluated their calendar of saints and some of the ones with shaky attestation were demoted, like my namesake. St. Christopher was supposed to be a giant who carried people across a dangerous river. When a small boy presented himself to him, the big man thought him a small task to carry across the water. But as the giant sank deeper and deeper into the river, he asked the child why he was so heavy. The boy answered that he was the Christ and thus carried the weight of the world's sins on his shoulders. The man converted and got the name Christopher: “Christ-bearer.” Like a lot of the saints' stories, it's a nice tale but patently fiction. St. Christopher, patron of travelers, motorists, mountaineers and surfers, is no longer a first class Roman Catholic Saint whose feast must be observed universally. He is, however, commemorated locally in various towns across Europe and on the island of St. Kitts, of course.
From the beginning Protestants have tried to diminish or eliminate the role of saints. Yet every denomination encourages its members to honor and imitate its founders and even exemplary Christians of the past, regardless of their church affiliation. And stories of Christians demonstrating wisdom, compassion and moral courage are always edifying, even if we don't agree with them on every doctrinal point.
But what about ordinary Christians, those who didn't reach the heights of Christlike thought, speech and behavior but who nevertheless chose to follow Jesus till their death? That's the purpose of All Soul's Day, which is November 2nd. This is when we remember those who were our companions on our pilgrimage through this life, especially those who have left this world in the last year.
This highlights one of those things that people who claim to be spiritual but not religious, those who claim they can be Christian without being part of a church, miss out on: community. Community offers us what we cannot get by ourselves—acceptance, fellowship, satisfying roles and knowledge of life outside our personal experience.
A good church offers acceptance. We are all sinners redeemed by Christ. Churches should be like A.A., open to all who show up figuring that if a person comes it indicates a willingness to change and be part of the program. Excluding sinners on the basis that some sins are acceptable and some aren't is ludicrous. Jesus did not turn away any who came to him.
Besides acceptance, we also find fellowship. It is a form of kinship, though one that is not about being part of a biological family. It is not about sharing genes but about sharing interests and concerns and passions. Fellowship binds people together, which is at the root of the word "religion." It can also lead to friendships. Ours is, after all, a faith in which showing love for others is central.
In a church there are many jobs to be done and many roles that need to be filled. Using the gifts one has been given and the skills one has developed, one can serve God and his people in any number of ways—through music, speaking, organizing, building, teaching, helping, fundraising, word processing, sewing, cleaning, bookkeeping, praying, greeting, painting, mowing, and lots more. We all contribute to the mission and maintenance of the church. And sharing one's gifts makes them much more meaningful.
In church we learn about God. Even outside it most of what we learn comes from others. When we are infants and toddlers we learn from our parents and caretakers. When we children we learn from our schoolteachers and from our classmates. Throughout life we learn from bosses and coworkers and friends and church members. Some sources are founts of wisdom and some wells of folly. Some are great examples of what to do and others are great examples of what not to do. And if you find yourself in a church that is filled with the latter, finding a new church is easier than transferring schools or finding a new job. (I've never understood people abandoning their faith because they were unhappy with one church. That's like abandoning healthcare because you didn't like one doctor. Most people simply look for a physician they like better.)
And when a person in the church dies, we lose that particular source of acceptance, love, and knowledge. As an African proverb says, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” All that experience, all those insights, all that personality is gone. And so we remember these unique persons and our losses. But they are not permanent losses. They may have been removed from the board, so to speak, but they are not destroyed. God does not waste such goodness.
God creates and re-creates. He gives life and he gives it back again. Just as matter and energy cannot be destroyed but can be changed, so too the life God gives us cannot ultimately cease to exist but it can be changed. As Paul says, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52)
We commemorate the dead; we miss them and feel our loss of them; we mourn them but as Paul said, we do not mourn as do those who are without hope. Death is not the end. It is not “goodbye” but “au revoir,” “so long till we see each other again.” And so for the Christian, our seeing the person off is more like a retirement celebration or a bon voyage party. There are tears and we are sorry to see them leave, but for them it is the beginning of a new life, an new chapter, a new adventure. And we will see them again. Not in this world but in the next.
And so celebrating All Souls is a balance between our sadness for ourselves and our gladness for them. As Paul said when contemplating his coming execution, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain.” All that God created he pronounced good, both this world and the next. We have not totally ruined this world and the pleasures God created are still here for us; but the next will be better still. The departed are with Jesus and while we can no longer share the simple joys of this life with them, we will in the next life share joys indescribable.
Are the dead conscious of it now? I don't know. The Bible speaks of being asleep in the Lord and resting in Abraham's bosom and leaning on the everlasting arms. And yet some passages indicate an awareness of being in God's presence. Perhaps right now they enjoy restorative sleep. And maybe it like when my granddaughter falls asleep on my chest. She can be out like a light but if I lay her down she often wakes immediately and cries, knowing I am not holding her. I pick her up again and she goes right back to sleep and naps a long time and then wakes up happy and smiling and eager to explore the world. And that's how I like to think of the interval between our death and our resurrection. We sleep in God's arms, nestled against his chest, sensing his warmth and love, feeling totally safe. One day we'll awake and feel refreshed and renewed and look upon a new creation, with delights untold, just waiting to be discovered. And if it it not like that, it will be even better. Because no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9)