April 8, 2013
"I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear." – Roger Ebert, Life Itself.
“Roger Ebert was explicit about his lack of religious commitment. In his 2011 memoir Life Itself, he comes clean: ‘No, I am not a Buddhist. I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic. I am more content with questions than answers.’” (from the column written by S. Brent Plate, Visiting Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College). His personal bias need not be presumed; in a column he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times in 2009, he said that “people who believed in either creationism or New Age beliefs such as crystal healing or astrology are not qualified to be president.”
Roger Ebert had an intriguing life as a movie reviewer, and S. Brent Plate is an intriguing person to review Ebert’s life. Plate’s role as a specialist in religious studies calls into question the foundation of belief from which he presents. From his home page: “My teaching, public lectures, and writings focus on the question: What does it mean to be human? This is tightly bound to the question: What makes humans religious? My answers increasingly come back to basic physical experiences: eating bread, smelling incense, looking at images, listening to music, and touching other bodies. These are all symbolic, meaningful activities that engage religious people. They always have been and, most likely, always will. Far from ideological arguments that pit theism against atheism, or science against faith, religion happens primarily in the sensual encounters of the human body. My teaching, writing and lectures explore how human sense perceptions affect ways of being religious, and how the operations of religious traditions impact our sensual encounters…”
All of us have opinions – about many things – but some among us have been able to elevate their opinions to a value that makes the sale of their opinions a lucrative and lifelong profession. Ebert had that status; he was regarded as best-in-class in his critique of the cinema. He was the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, which he did in 1975.
We run into trouble when we assume the transferability of expertise between unrelated fields. Did Ebert’s refined objectivity concerning the entertainment industry – as art – establish his credentials to evaluate and validate matters of faith?
Ebert – and, Plate, his eulogist – both bring their assessments concerning religion onto the stage; the event of Ebert’s death raised the curtain before the national audience who would hear them present their conclusions regarding the credibility of religion, and the mystery of reality beyond the grave. “I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear” (Ebert). Is he the most credible voice to offer certainty about what happens on the other side of death?
They weren’t giving out Pulitzers or Nobels when Jesus was here, so you have to come to your own conclusions regarding his notability. Here’s Jesus, on heaven:
“Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” (John 3:11-13)
If I may paraphrase: who are you going to believe, concerning what’s out there, beyond life: the person who hasn’t been there yet… or the person – the only person – who has come into this life from heaven, and can speak from firsthand knowledge?
We spend most of our days “living,” disconnected from the question of life-beyond-life. The professor of religious studies says it’s about sensuality. The movie critic said there was nothing to fear. Jesus says that his opinion was the only one that was founded on truth. Who are you going to believe?