There are no equal partners in faith. There is the god and his ways and laws and then there is everyone and everything else.
Faced with the idea of dying and the reality that little or nothing we do remains permanent except to our own brief and intermittent self-memory, and the actions we take for those we love and who love us, the certainty of death and loss of love can seem an impossible challenge to our ego against the backdrop of infinity.
But offering answers about love and death through theology provides no comfort for the skeptic. While it does offer everything for those who do not question and who accept faith and supernatural causation.
These differences are not only a rift in our collective human perspective but it also remains a distinction between a rationalist comforted by perhaps inner-peace through a clear secular identity, and the religious child-like perspective of those looking for salvation and comfort from an eternal parent. All religions attempt to make docile children out of their adherents in some way or another, so it should come as no surprise that the obedience and reverence of the faithful leads to unquestioning acceptance, and even wars and violence to protect the philosophical and cultural construct of faith.
If you wish to teach your children, or family and friends, or colleagues and even strangers not to fear death and to understand the beauty of unconditional love, one does not need to quote any bible or believe any particular form of theology. If fact, though some very emotionally satisfying and deceptively simple (but easily undervalued) books provide a philosophical backdrop for the secular acceptance of both love and death and dying.
The first book which comes to mind is one of my favorites and was written by the late Leo Buscaglia. It is called The Fall of Freddie the Leaf. In this warm story about life and death, Freddy is a leaf on a huge tree with a good set of friends who in one year face all the seasons which bring the tree into life and to loss, and into the continuing cycle of rebirth. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
About life's purpose:
"What is a purpose?" Freddie had asked. It is a reason for being Daniel (Freddy's best leaf friend) answered. To make things more pleasant for others. To make shade...to provide a cool place...to fan our leaves...these are reasons for being."
About individuality and as we change as we age:
(Upon the approach of fall and getting older) "Why did we turn different colors, Freddie asked, when we are on the same tree." Daniel responds, "Each of us is different. We have had different experiences. We have faced the sun differently. We have cast shade differently."
On death and dying:
(With the approach of winter and cold wind). "What is happening? the leaves asked each other in whispers..."It's what happens in the fall. It is the time for leaves to change their home. Some people call it to die." Everything dies. No matter how big or small, how weak or strong. We do our job. We experience the sun and the moon, the wind and the rain. We learn to dance and to laugh. The we die."
"We all fear what we don't understand. It's natural. But you were not afraid when spring became summer. You were not afraid when summer became fall. They were natural changes. Why should you be afraid of the season of death?"
"Does the tree die? Freddy asks Daniel. "Someday. But there is something stronger than the tree. It is life. It lasts forever and we are all part of life."We may not return in the spring but life will."
Finally, about the acceptance and the joy of life:
"Daniel answered in his matter-of-fact "It's been about the sun and the moon. Its been about happy times together. Its been about the shade and the old people and the children. Its been about colors in fall. Its been about the seasons."
In the story, the "Boy" character as a child plays on the tree but as he matures he becomes materialistic and seeks to grow up to have money, and a family and a house and a boat and to finally run away from his life and troubles. All this because he believes those are the things that will make him happy. But in the process, the tree gives up her apples, then her branches then her whole trunk, leaving her alone and a stump, all to make the boy happy.
When the boy returns as an old man and the tree says it has nothing left to give, the Boy essentially says that the life he had chosen only made him old and tired. All he now needs is a place to sit and rest, for which the tree offers her stump. And the boy sits down and then again, the tree is happy.
"My apples are gone," said the tree. "My teeth are too weak to eat apples, said the Boy. My branches are gone, you cannot swing on them," The Boy replies that he is too old to swing. "My trunk is gone, you cannot climb," said the tree. "I'm to tired to climb", replies the Boy. "I wish I could give you something. I have nothing left. I am just an old stump. I am sorry." "I don't need very much now...just a quiet place to sit and rest. I am very tired." "Well, said the tree straightening herself up, well an old stump is a good place for sitting and resting. Come, Boy, sit down. Sit down and rest.
"...And the Boy did...And the tree was happy."
In both books the power and imagery of the tree as giving both life and love to individuals and whole communities (even the universe) is very clear. Perhaps this is an old literary device as the tree symbolizes rebirth and knowledge. Of course we see this in biblical imagery as well with its ties to sin and going against god. We see the use of the tree as punishment and abandonment and a participant in human guilt, suffering and pain.
But to a secular humanist in these two stories, we find the trees and their leaves and fruit, and all those taking part of the business of the tree, as being ultimately being given kindness. We are clean and brilliant and humanistically free because we are loved and we are accepted even in death. We are not born in sin but beauty; neither should we presume our end will be nothing more than a return to the open cosmos from which we came.
And for me, this is what makes the two stories so special and why they remain a counter-balance to the concepts of death and love related to religion and faith. I urge you to buy these books and read them to the people who you love. I recently did just that and the process of reading both books served to bring us deeply closer.