Prof. Raines: To Save the Earth Re-think Life and Death

What have we done to our common planet? Why do need to save our planet? How do we view life and death? The following article is written by Prof. John C. Raines, a professor of Religion at the Department of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, U.S.A. He is a well-known persona in the discourse of Religious Studies.

In the article, Prof. Raines successfully shows us how to be critical in discussing Religion and Ecology. By rethinking life and death, he sees that it will, perhaps, help us rethink where and to whom we belong. It will also help us “redirect the gifts of our gratitude in transformed human practices.”? In the case of belonging to our common planet, we morally have responsibility to save it from worst situation.

The article was used by Prof. Raines in his class at CRCS as part of the Short-Course on “Interrogating Globalization”? on March 2010. Kindly read his article for the detailed arguments that he provided us.

To Save the Earth Re-think Life and Death

By John C. Raines

We humans die in a way other plants and animals do not. From an early age we become conscious of death, our own and that of others we depend upon to make our life worth living. Seen in that way death seems our enemy, indeed the opposite and threat to all that is living. Mortality is the way of life on planet earth, and anticipating that reality as we do, death seems a curse that haunts earthly life. In response many of the world’s religions posit salvation from this curse as a life after life on earth– in heaven or in the extinction of Nirvana that ends the cycles of reincarnation. To be happy requires, in the end, an escape from the earth to find that happiness elsewhere.

That way of thinking must change because thinking that way does not help us do what we humans must do if we are to save the earth from our speciesâ€TM destructive practices. Instead we must re-think life and death, re-think the relationship of the two, and thus begin to re-think how we belong or do not belong to our lives here where we were born, as an individual and as a species.

When we think of life we usually think of life inside individual bodies’ be it a tree or an ant or ourselves. To be alive, we think, is to be alive here inside our skins. So also when death happens it happens here inside when our life there stops living. There is truth in this and it is a truth that guides the practice of Western medicine, with its various sub-specialties directed to organs and fluids and viruses, etc. inside individual bodies. Health and illness and finally death is presented to us as a drama acted out inside individual skins.

However important that truth is, it remains only a partial truth, indeed a part of truth which if taken to be the whole of truth is both inaccurate and potentially destructive of our own life and all life here on planet earth. How so?

What is each of us doing right now at this very moment along with all other living animal life? We are breathing. We take in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, just like my pet dog is doing right now there in front of me. How then after these millions of years of animals breathing is there any oxygen left? It is because of photosynthesis. Each of us breathes and all of us breathe together only because life outside of us breathes with us. Plants, trees, grass, rain forests, the plankton in the oceans take in our carbon dioxide and return oxygen to the air that connects us in this shared and interactive community of livingness.

So where is life? Not just inside our skin. Life inside our skins is alive only because it is embedded and embraced by life outside our skin. We are alive not in one body but in two bodies, and it is the livingness outside our skin that precedes and continues beyond the end of that inside the skin breathing. And that outside the skin livingness is the gift of the earth to us. It was there before our species emerged, awaiting us and welcoming us. And our response to that gift should be clarity and courage—clarity to see where life is and what life is and courage to conform our human lifestyles to the continuance of the gift we and all other living things depend upon.


And death, as Darwin saw, is everywhere. Extinction is massive and always victorious. Today’s living species are but the surface of a vast mountain of now extinct but once living species. Haunted by such a vision is it any wonder that we seek escape? Death can be cruel. It can be painful. It can be unjust. Death seems to have no conscience. And it is the burden of humanity to know that. Listen to the groaning and the sighing of loss and grief that echoes down the eons in all religions, in all philosophy and literature. It seems a fact that we humans grieve more deeply than all other living things. The loss of a loved one can literally kill us. How often have we heard it said that “after she died he just let himself go”?? Creatures we are of such deep attachment (love-creatures) and it leaves us exposed to that everywhere successful thief called death.

Yes, but let us think again about death.

Let us return to Darwin and his vision. He was trying to decipher the story being told in the fossil record. How can we understand that life here on earth began in simple one-celled living entities but then over vast time, as the fossils showed, became more and more diverse and ever more complex in its organic base? To what end and purpose does Natural Selection do its service of selecting? Is it the story of death and extinction? Or is it the story of life flourishing and becoming ever more elaborate until at last life evolving brings forth an autobiographer of cosmic process called homo sapiens (although we are not very good at it yet). It is we humans that give cosmic process a voice (and we may hope there are many other voices out there in the universe), where cosmic unfolding begins to become conscious of itself.

So what is the story death is telling? What does death mean to us as humans? Yes, it is loss; it is painful separation. But is it punishment? Is death triumphant over this worldly life and thus points our human hopes to some else-where? Think on this. WITHOUT DEATH WE HUMANS WOULD NEVER HAVE ARRIVED ON PLANET EARTH. We, as a species, are the gift of that dance that life and death have done and still do together. And life remains the senior partner in that dance. All you need to do is just open your eyes and see what you’re looking at! Life uses death to keep itself alive, always changing, still evolving, and we humans are a part of that story and so wonderfully gifted that we can tell that story.

If we re-think what life and death mean perhaps that will help us re-think where and to whom we belong. And that will help us redirect the gifts of our gratitude in transformed human practices. In this twenty first century belonging in a responsible way to the earth is our way of belonging to Cosmic Creativity in that unfinished and challenging task of continuing.

Death is not a punishment or an enemy. It is an invitation to become part of that process that keeps life here on earth alive and, if we learn to behave ourselves, continuing to flourish.


John C. Raines is one of the founding fathers of CRCS. He had written several interesting and constructive books on religious studies and some related studies. Some of them are “The Justice Men Owe Women: Positive Resources from World Religions”? (2001) and “Marx on Religion” (2002). He serves on the Board of Directors of Temple University Press and of The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health, and Ethics. Raines and his wife, Bonnie, live in the western suburbs of Philadelphia.

John C. Raines
Professor of Department of Religion,
Temple University | Anderson Hall, 6th Floor. 1114 West Berks Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122-6090
215-204-7973 | 215-204-2535



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