Death & Genesis

By Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Words for the Journey

What you believe happens when you die depends entirely on what you believe is happening while you are alive. While my understanding of such things is rooted in my contemplative practice, the language I use to articulate my understanding comes from the Hebrew Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis. 

Genesis gives us two different and opposing views of humanity. In Genesis I men and women are created without any reference to nature: God simply wills us into existence: 

Then God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis I:26)

In this story, humanity is alien to this planet and to the natural world. We are sent to an already thriving world to rule over it and use it as we see fit. In Genesis 2 we get an entirely different view of creation:

This is how earth and sky were created, when God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground. Then dew came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. God formed the earthling from the muddy earth, and breathed life into the earthling’s nostrils, and the earthling became a conscious being. (Genesis 2: 4-7).

In Genesis I humanity is an afterthought: nature is already flourishing, and people are not needed at all. Our arrival is for our sake alone, and not that of life on earth. Indeed, we are alien invaders sent to rule life on earth not be its servant. In Genesis 2 humanity is essential to the flourishing of nature. We emerge from the earth organically the way an apple emerges from an apple tree. Our purpose is to work the soil from which we came, that is to say, we are here to serve the earth. Where Genesis 1 imagines us as alien overlords, Genesis 2 imagines us caretakers, gardeners, and midwives.

If you are partial to Genesis 1, if you imagine yourself to be alien to this world, chances are you imagine yourself leaving this world when you die. After all, you really don’t belong here. Where you go depends on your religion. You may go to heaven or hell or some other plane of existence, but the “you” who goes wherever you go is the “you” you imagine yourself to be now. After all, what’s the point of going to heaven if the person enjoying heaven isn’t you’ and where’s the fun in imagining others in hell if those others are the others you know here on earth?

If you are inclined to the organic view of Genesis 2, if you imagine yourself to be organic to nature, if you see yourself as a way nature becomes aware of herself and cares for herself, chances are you imagine that when you die you return to the source from which you came. You have no need of heaven or hell, or any “you” that is other than your physical self.

My own sense of the matter is more organic than alien, but with a slight twist. My experience tells me that you and I are nature become self-aware for the purpose of caretaking. But the awareness is not simply personal: self–aware with a lower case “s;” but rather inter–personal and transpersonal: Self–aware with an upper case “S.” 

I am not simply “Rami” but Life “Rami’ing.” This is what Jesus means when he says he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). So am I. So are you. Because you are the Way/Tao you understand and can nurture the Way of nature. Because you are the Truth you can defend the Way against those who would pervert it. And because you are the Life when you die, you die into the greater Self that is the Living of all life.

Of course, this need serious unpacking, and I look forward to doing that when I visit Chrysalis in October. 

Emma Peugh