Do I Tell My Dying Daughter That I Don’t Believe in Heaven?
- 2009 September-October
My roommate insists it’s impossible to prove the existence of God. I’m not sure. What’s your take?
It all depends on how you define the word “God.” For example, if you define God as a mixture of sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate or sodium palm kernelate, water, sodium chloride, sodium silicate, magnesium sulfate, and fragrance, then you can prove the existence of God by holding up a bar of Ivory soap. If you define “God” as an invisible, transcendent, and incorporeal being outside this world and beyond our capacity to find with our senses and machines, proof is much more difficult. Rather than engage in this kind of dialogue, why not share with one another what “God” means to you. God’s meaning, rather than God’s existence, may be the more fruitful conversation.
My daughter is dying. She isn’t in any real pain, and with proper medication her doctors say she won’t be. She has lots of visitors — her friends and mine — and many of them are filling her head with thoughts of heaven and how she is going to a better place. She keeps asking me what I believe. I don’t believe in God or heaven. Should I tell her the truth or let her have these fantasies?
Tell her the truth, but truth has nothing to do with belief, yours or anyone else’s. The only truths that matter are these: She is dying, she won’t be in pain, she won’t be left alone unless she wishes to be alone, and she is surrounded by people who love her. Where she goes after death is less important than where she is now, and where she is now is with you. If she insists, tell her you don’t know what happens when we die. Tell her that all you do know is that she has blessed you with a gift of love too strong for death to steal. If she wants to talk about what she believes, listen lovingly. Affirm what makes her strong, and gently free her from what makes her afraid.
I’m a Jew who really admires Jesus. When I mention this to my family, they are hurt and call me a traitor. Can a Jew follow Jesus without being a Christian?
I, too, admire Jesus, and the Jesus I admire is a Jew, a rabbi, a mystic, and a prophet. I don’t worship Jesus; I learn from him. I believe Jesus is God’s son the way all of us are God’s children and that Jesus teaches us how to live as such. I don’t believe that without Jesus, heaven’s gates are barred; I believe that heaven is here and now when we live as Jesus challenged us to live. Following Jesus means loving God (Deuteronomy 6:5/Matthew 22:36) and loving one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18/Matthew 22:36). Add to these loving the stranger (Leviticus 19:34), and you are talking about Judaism at its best.
I’ve been reading a lot of Krishnamurti lately, and I’m struck by and stuck on his notion that “Truth is a pathless land.” Is he saying I should give up all religion?
Yes. A path implies both a destination or goal and a journey in time to reach that goal. Truth is pathless, first because it cannot be reduced to a system of thought — religious or otherwise — hence, no goal. And second, truth is pathless because it is already and always was right here. You can’t get “there” from “here” when “there” is already “here.” Krishnamurti is suggesting we drop all systems, all paths, and then drop what’s left after that. When we are free from all thoughts about Truth, we are at last free to encounter Truth.
I sing in an interfaith choir, and though I’m a Muslim, I find myself opening to Allah regardless of which hymns and chants we sing. My friends are urging me to drop out of the choir. They say my faith is weak. Is my faith weak?
On the contrary, it’s because your faith is strong that you can open to God in so many forms. The Hindu Rig Veda says, “Truth is one. Different people call it by different names” (1.64.46). In Islam we are taught that Allah has 99 names. You are simply discovering a few more. The deeper your faith in the One, the greater your capacity to find that One through different names. It is not the name that matters but the reality toward which the name points. Not everyone believes this, of course, and many are willing to kill one another over these names. But human madness doesn’t negate divine oneness. Allah is too big to be limited to one name, faith, or ideology. Whatever hymns fill you with the presence of God, sing them powerfully.
My pastor told me that if you don’t pray to Jesus, you pray to Satan. His proof is John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Is this passage true? Is my pastor right?
I do think the passage is true, just not the way your pastor does. When Jesus says “I am the way,” he isn’t referring to the egoic Jesus but to the cosmic Christ, the state of consciousness that awakened in him at his baptism and which reveals all things to be part of the One Thing that is God. It is the mind of Christ, not the ego of Jesus, that matters. Saint Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:16 that “We have the mind of Christ,” and in Romans 13:14, he urges us to put it on. When we put on the mind of Christ we know that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). At that moment, love replaces fear, and all satanic slander ceases.
I stopped believing in God when, despite my prayers, God let my brother die a horrible death. My mother says God answered my prayers for healing but said “No.” I think my mother is in denial. What do you think?
I think your mom is in pain. I think she can’t bear to lose both her son and her God at the same time. And I think you’re hurting deeply as well. I think there is only one prayer worth praying: Thy will be done. For me, God is Reality, and whatever happens, good or bad, is part of that Reality. Praying for things to be other than they are is magical thinking. Praying that reality be just what it is helps cultivate radical acceptance and strengthens our capacity to live with compassion and grace, regardless of what horrors we encounter.
If you could whisper only two words to a dying person, what would you say?
Courage. Love. I’d whisper the same to a newborn as well.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, poet, and teacher. His most recent book is The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness (Jewish Lights). To send him questions, email rabbirami@SpiritualityHealth.com.