After taking off on March 2, 2004, over ten years ago, and travelling 6 billion kilometers, last month a European spacecraft called Rosetta orbited the nucleus of comet 67P otherwise called Churyumor Gerasimenko.
It was the first man-made object to essentially catch a comet, often referred to as the solar system’s most mysterious object. On November 11, 2014, a probe called Philae will self-eject from Rosetta and land on the comet. Philae will drill into the nucleus of the comet and perform tests, beaming the results to Rosetta for onward transmission to earth. In December 2015, the Rosetta, flying along with the comet will come close to the sun at a distance of 111 million miles.
The data this Rosetta exploration will reveal will help us understand a little bit more about the history of the solar system. Scientists working on the Rosetta may even prove the theory that it was a comet that brought water and, consequently, life, on earth. They hope to answer nagging questions like: Are there other forms of life out there? If there are other forms of life could that change our beliefs and our perceptions of ourselves in this universe? If there are other forms of life in this vast and expanding universe, could that help us understand what form of life we will transform into after death?
Thanks to Facebook, I recently saw the body of Prophet Elijah Ireti Ajanaku of Christ Victory Chapel International lying in state. The church leader had died eleven months ago. Disputes within his family had delayed his burial until July. Some folks in his flock were denying that he was really dead. Instead of commuting the body into the ground and letting the dust return to dust and the ashes to ashes, they held up hope that he would rise again and return to the pulpit. The body in the coffin looked as dead as a floppy disc. The light skinned preacher who oversaw a congregation of ardent followers had turned dark in complexion. Looking at his recoiled mouth, the one that muttered feigned and unfeigned beliefs, one wondered if it had recoiled in penitence. His bushy eyelids that once flashed confidence seemed coy and pleading for absolution of sins. His hands that once clutched the holy book with gusto and the microphone with a lover’s grip were wilted.
There are essentially five great questions in life: Who am I? Where am I? Where did I come from? How did I get here? And where do I go when this is all over?
Man’s attempt to answer these questions resulted in all the religions we have had, the ones we have, and the new ones we are yet to get. The first religion that will provide irrefutable answers to these questions will win the war of the religions.
The trouble that every religion encounters is that the answers it provides today are challenged by new human awareness that comes into being tomorrow. Adherents of every religion are in constant struggle to reinterpret their religion to keep it relevant. A religion dies when it can no longer be bent to explain today's world within the context of its original precepts.
In the meantime, since we are already here, we cannot do much about where we came from and how we came here. We see bits and pieces of where we are, and our minds have conjured up little ideas of who we think we are. We can be at peace with those two questions but each day we spend here, we are one step closer to our exit. So the most urgent of the questions is: what really happens when we die?
All the shenanigan we display after the death of someone can be attributed to two things. One is our effort to reaffirm our belief in what happens after death. The other is our effort to dispel our doubts in our belief in what happens after death. When our actions are rooted in culture, it is a culture formulated for the same two reasons.
Sometimes, the dead make their own demands on how they should be buried. Being that the dead made these demands while they were still alive, the demands are often based on their limited understanding of life here and life after death. For some, being that death is the final hurrah, they make demands they hope will preserve their memory in the hearts of those left behind.
Irrespective of what religion we subscribe to, the central piece of each of them is that upon our death we cross over to another realm where we would be judged based on our performance while we were alive. With few exceptions, most striving religions do not create a loophole that says our place after death will be determined by what those we left behind do when we die.
What happens to us when we die does not depend on the number of Bishops or Imams that attended our funeral. It does not depend on the number of people in the crowd that came to wail or the number of cows that our family slaughtered to feed the multitude. It does not depend our how many masquerades danced at our funerals or how many prayers were reverently offered. Most of the things we do for the dead are actually actions aimed at serving and soothing the living.
The Igbo say that the day we mourn others is really the day we mourn ourselves. That is simply what we do. We mourn our fear that we lack an undisputable understanding of what really happens when we die. We mourn things we didn’t do for the dead, things we wish we had done. We mourn our fate in the belief we hold which death, more than anything else, forces us to confront.
If anything changes in the fate of the dead because of the activities of the living, it amounts to a desecration of the central core of most religions. It would be like taking the Joint Admission Matriculation and Board(JAMB) examination, when JAMB was still JAMB, and scoring below the cut off mark, yet making it into the university. Praying for the dead who failed the test in life to make it to heaven is like bribing someone at JAMB to get a candidate who failed to make the cut off mark admission into the university. Subscribing to that, pursuing it, amounts to a belief that God can be bribed.
Remove all the fluff, religion is man’s attempt to explain where we came from, where we are and where we will be going after we die. Each religious book attempts to do this using the worldview of the time they were conceived. The books use objects within their environment and time to advance an explanation. Those written in the Middle East use the vegetation of the region, the animals of the era and the food and the culture to explain life. When they try to explain the sky above and the world outside their reach, even in their vagueness, they make errors.
That is why the books, despite the inspirations that are said to have come from God, even the ones said to have been directly dictated by God, did not mention the dinosaurs. The reason is simple: at the time when these books were written, the writers were ignorant of life on earth millions of years before them. Nobody then had imagined the existence and, later, the extinction of the dinosaurs. If they knew they would have integrated it in their explanations. Leaving such a major factor out showed the limitations of their understanding.
Records showed that in 1676, a 20-foot knee joint of a dinosaur was discovered in a limestone quarry in England. It was the first dinosaur bone ever discovered and the people who saw the bone thought it belonged to giant human beings, the type mentioned in the Bible. At that time, there was no understanding that there were species long extinct. In 1820, a British couple in England discovered some fragments of dinosaur bones that were thought to belong to giant lizards. In 1841, paleontologist Sir Richard Owens studied these bones and determined that the bones of these creatures were held beneath the body and as such were from creatures different from lizards. He then called them dinosaurs.
It will be important to mention that most religious books mention giant men and giant creatures. The Quran talked about giant creatures and the Bible in Job 40: 15-24 and 41: 1-34 talked about Behemoth and Leviathan. Adherents of these religions spilt hairs all in an effort to argue that those were references to the dinosaur. It should be okay that the books did not mention the dinosaur especially when it is known that the dinosaur became extinct some 66 million years ago and modern man appeared only 55,000 years ago. In the days of the dinosaur man was not in existence. But the idea that the all-knowing God left that story out has adherents scrambling for an explanation.
Religions die when their explanations of life around us become inadequate. There are over 300 dead gods out there, including the likes of Zeus who once had millions of worshipers. The biography of the dead gods will read like the evolution of mankind’s belief. Of course, our God is different. Time kills all gods except ours. Unfortunately, those who worshiped Zeus believed that too.
(… to be continued)