2/15/11

Professor Alan Segal wrote about the Afterlife, Heaven and Hell

Alan Segal taught religion at Barnard College. We returned just now from his funeral. It is so sad to lose such a brilliant scholar and wonderful friend. We are re-posting our brief notice of his wonderful book.

For ten years Alan worked on this book Life After Death (880 pages, Doubleday, 2004) subtitled, A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion.


This brilliant book is chock full of quality facts and insights and rightfully takes it place among those sweeping, comprehensive and analytical interdisciplinary works on great ideas in western culture.

This is a work by an accomplished scholar for others who seek humanistic understanding. Segal does not advocate for the existence of a realm called heaven or hell. He treats religious ideas in general as mirrors of cultural creativity. Each society writes its own imaginary, fictional account of what the afterlife looks like in accord with its own particular social and historical reality.

Those readers who cherish books that deal with sweeping histories of ideas will find much excitement and nuance here. If you liked the intellectual journey in The Great Chain of Being by Arthur O. Lovejoy or The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn, you will find much more to like here.

Caution. Readers expecting some more down-to-earth treatment of the subject (or up-in-heaven in this case) such as recent best sellers like The Afterlife Experiments by scientist Gary E. Schwartz, or Visits From The Afterlife by psychic Sylvia Browne, may be disappointed by this work of purely academic scholarship.

In fact, although a PhD in religious studies is not a sine qua non for reading this book, it will help the reader of this tome immensely to be familiar with serious scholarship in the humanities.

The book's sweeping range of this survey of ideas of life after death includes the following cultures: Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Iran and Greece, Israel, the early rabbis, Christianity in Paul, in the Gospels, in the pseudepigraphic literature and in the Church Fathers. The author also summarizes Muslim beliefs in the Qur'an, in Shi'a mysticism and in fundamentalism.

In some forty pages on the Early Rabbis -- my own area of scholarly expertise -- Segal treats the meager data on the subject of the afterlife from the literature of the rabbis. He comments at length on one major discussion in the Mishnah and Talmud in the tenth chapter of tractate Sanhedrin of people do and do not have a portion in the world to come. He makes reference to the prominent declaration of god's promise in the Amidah prayer of 'vivication of the dead.'

Segal compiles and comments on several references to life after death in the midrash, targums and in Jewish mysticism. He continues his treatment with a more detailed description of Elijah's trip to heaven where he assumes that the stories of two biblical immortals, Enoch and Elijah, bear directly on his book's theme.

Segal then discusses the quite pertinent rabbis' views of the rights of Gentiles in the world to come and the less obviously relevant depictions of Isaac on the mosaics of the synagogue floors of late antique Israel.

The events of 9/11 make it well-nigh impossible for anyone writing on this subject to omit a treatment of Islamic ideas of the afterlife and martyrdom. Segal provides a sensible account in the first part of his chapter Islam and the Afterlife. It is not hard to get carried away while discussing this issue. Segal continues in this chapter to discuss the following topics: fundamentalism in general, the American origins of fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, the bellwether role of women, Al-Qaida, martyrdom as consolation, cultural pluralism and religious life, and the afterlife and cultural pluralism.

Religion in general and Judaism in particular has always demonstrated a complex ambivalence towards the notion of heaven and life after death as Segal's masterful book show in great detail.

Tzvee's Very Brief Interview with Alan Segal...

Q: You seem to suggest at the outset of your book that both the 9/11 terrorists and the West Bank Israeli settlers have been motivated by their respective beliefs of life after death. How do you explain your comparisons between these groups?

SEGAL: I didn't equate them. I merely said that they both had views of life after death that helped govern their behavior and made sense in terms of their world view. In the Islam chapter I make very clear that I don't find any moral equivalence between them.

Q: How do you reply to those who bristle when you suggest that all these details of the religious views of the afterlife are fictional?

SEGAL: In the last chapter I said that good faith includes doubt. This is what Buber said as well, as well as Tillich. I believe I noted both. Without doubt--that is without being cognizant of doubt, faith can be become intolerant, arrogant, and even lead to murder. This is one lesson of 9/11, and the catastrophe of suicide bombers against Israel. I suggested that this is a lesson from 9/11--namely that faith and doubt are part of the same modest and compassion view of a truly religious person. And I suggested that fiction (great fiction like Shakespeare) gives us a metaphor for how religion operates in society. It gives us a structure or a script in which we can watch ourselves play ourselves and conclude that the best of what we believe and accomplish in life is transcendent. It is a mirror in which we view the self and evaluate those parts which we feel are the best we are and can be. That is not the same thing as saying that religion is a fiction. It is only saying that the claims of religion are, in an important way, beyond confirmation in the same way that the ideas that Shakespeare gives us are beyond confirmation and disconfirmation, like beauty, truth, and justice.   [Repost from 9/2006]

2 comments:

Bryce said...

Doubt has its downside, too:

The Talmud (Yerushalmi Sanhedrin 4:2) says, “There is no joy greater than the resolution of doubts”

S and C said...

Alan devoted his pp. 315-317 to one of my books, but I went away from his treatment feeling like he had missed much of the point of my work. In short, I was disappointed. I also went away from his treatment of the First Temple period feeling shortchanged. Recently, I've been working hard at a more accurate understanding. If you have a moment, check out: http://biblische.blogspot.com/2006/10/burial-and-hereafter-in-yahwism-part-6.html