The late Robert Bellah’s philosophy on death

UC Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah, a preeminent scholar on the soclology of religion, died July 30. Below is an email he sent in 2006 to his friend and former student Samuel Porter in response to the death of Porter’s father, Charles Porter, a former attorney and U.S. Congressman.

Monday Feb. 3, 2006

Subject: Death

Dear Sam:

Where were you before you were born? That’s where you will go after you die.

Robert Bellah (1927-2013)

Well before I was born, I was in the sperm of my father and the egg of my mother, I had within me the earliest beginnings of the components of a billion or more years of life, the genes that I share with worms (a lot) and with mold (some), and the atoms that I share with the universe all the way back to the big bang. So returning to all that isn’t so bad.

Further, I will join the company of saints, of all those whose cultural work has made it possible for me to have been a half-way decent person, and what I have added to the cultural pool, even when I am long forgotten, will go on having an influence (unless we become extinct soon, which is also possible) for a long, perhaps an immeasurable time.

As for eternal life, that is now. If we don’t see eternity in a grain of sand, when will we ever see it. As for resurrection, as Tillich said, dead men don’t walk. But Christ was surely resurrected in the consciousness of his disciples and is more alive today than the day he was crucified, in the faces of all those who follow his example and who keep him alive.

Many wonder workers have resurrected the dead. I never understood those who think the truth of Christianity hinges on the physical resurrection of Jesus. If that is the test then a lot of nutty religions are also true. Eternal life is here and now. Christians have hardly come to a consensus on life after death. Augustine thought we would join the choir of angels in singing an eternal Hallelujah. Fine with me.

But most Americans who believe in life after death think they will rejoin their dead family members and live happily ever after. A very modern, bourgeois, kind of afterlife, hardly what traditional Christians thought. But I have no interest in destroying the beliefs of others. If thinking one will rejoin one’s loved ones helps bear the pain of death then I’m all for it. I have to look elsewhere, and, with Heraclitus, declare that life and death are one.

Best, Bob