Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
A good friend of mine posted a blog a couple of days ago in which he floated the idea that to achieve an afterlife you have to "nurture and exercise your potential immortal soul to enable it to survive the death of your body," in much the same way that you have to make the effort to learn algebra in order to solve quadratic equations. (http://blog.american.com/2012/01/a-policy-free-post-on-life-after-d...) In short, an afterlife doesn't just happen, you have to work at it. The souls of atheists would become extinct at death (epic fail on the final exam), and so, presumably, would those erstwhile slackers who undergo deathbed conversions (only to realize at the last minute that they really should have attended class). Neither, according to my friend's theory, would people who have merely lived good lives - but never actively exercised their "God muscle" - get a free pass when they shuffled off their mortal coils. Folks, however, who had done the necessary "soul work" would "graduate" to Whatever Comes Next.
It's an intriguing idea that pretty much trashes some of Christianity's most fiercely-held doctrines, from the predestination of the Calvinists to the John 3:16 formulaic approach of evangelicals and fundamentalists to the Extreme Unction-last minute conversion of the Catholics. For Quakers, however, it's not an entirely unreasonable theory. For starters, unlike most other religious traditions, Christian or otherwise, we spend very little time either imagining or worrying about the afterlife. We're much more concerned with what is happening in the here and now and tend to work very earnestly towards achieving the peaceable kingdom in this life. We're reluctant to define "God" but strive very hard to be in His/Her/Its presence. Most Quakers of my acquaintance cheerfully acknowledge that they just don't know what happens next. No seventy-seven virgins for us or Pearly Gates, or, for that matter, hellfire and brimstone. Personally, the furthest I am prepared to go is to claim that whatever the afterlife consists of is utterly beyond the very limited comprehension of our earthbound selves, but that there is a "rightness" about it that totally transcends the picayune worries and concerns and preoccupations of our individual pre-death selves. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if in my current very limited human state I could imagine anything close to whatever it is.
Interestingly, I believe this seemingly feckless disregard as to the final landing place of one's soul is not a modern outcome of the secularization of liberal Quakerism, but has its roots, ironically, in the apocalyptic beliefs of early Friends. When George Fox had his revelation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself," it meant much more than that people could dispense with priests and doctrine, because humanity now had the ability to interface directly and unmediated with the Divine. Fox and the early Quakers believed they were experiencing the unfolding of the Second Coming and the thousand year reign of Christ was at hand, with themselves as the vanguard. With enviable fervor, they set about establishing, quite literally, "the Kingdom of Heaven on earth," and it was in this extremely fertile growing medium that Quaker testimonies began to take root. Practice - living the "Kingdom life" - superseded what they saw as the now redundant doctrine and ritual, much of which was done "in remembrance" of Christ, because Christ was now with them.
Of course, as time passed, early Friends had to readjust their expectations regarding the end times, but the essential idea that we are called to help establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth remains to this day. While our language and descriptors may have changed, and while some modern Quakers may be uncomfortable with the Biblical language implied by "the Kingdom of Heaven," the concept runs like a golden thread throughout the 350 years of Quaker history. Even after Friends embraced a more mystical interpretation of "Christ among us," they sought (admittedly in their flawed human way) to make Quaker meetings and communities templates for the Kingdom of Heaven. The most ambitious of these projects was William Penn's Holy Experiment - the founding of Pennsylvania - in which Friends succeeded to a remarkable degree (at least in Penn's lifetime) in establishing a peaceable kingdom. Yes, it was far from the ideal Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but it was a brave attempt.
I think this visceral belief in the presence of Christ in the here and now, whether an individual Friend uses traditional Christian language or not, remains at the very heart of the Quaker experience. We do not live in a state of anticipation of either reward or punishment. We do not imagine some eventual day of reckoning. We accept the mystery that is our existence and our relationship with the Divine, and are content to know that living the faithful life while we are on this earth brings its own reward. Perhaps, as my friend surmises, our efforts in the here and now will qualify us for the afterlife, but isn't it a relief to simply greet each day as a new opportunity to live a with God life? Whatever happens after death is as it should be.