Risk Assessment for the Afterlife

I am so grateful to Robert McKee for helping Paula and I come to see our lives as a story. It has changed so much for us – and deepened our love for each other in so many ways.

Each of our very life stories are complicated webs of decisions, large and small. These choices determine how our own drama unfolds. And the decisions we make related to managing risks we humans face are no different.

When Paula and I first began to talk with each other about our feelings for each other, we took an enormous risk. Becoming a couple is not permissible in our Intelligence Community, and just confessing our feelings could have ended either or both of our careers.

But risk management isn’t just about avoiding the bad…

Risk management is the term applied to a logical and systematic method of establishing the context, identifying, analysing, evaluating, treating, monitoring and communicating risks associated with any activity, function or process in a way that will enable organisations to minimise losses and maximize opportunities.


Paula and I love this definition of risk management from an Australian government web site. Their spelling is so strange, but did you see how those Australians bring out the “maximizing opportunities” side of the risk management equation too?

It was this that made venturing into openly confessing my feelings for Paula the obvious way forward. Talk about Maximizing–Maybe I wouldn’t spend my life alone! And maybe, just maybe she has feelings for me too?

I am exceedingly glad I took the risk. It was a risk that led us to all kinds of unexpected places, like the Strange Uncharted Mountains near Nibbling, Minnesota.

In the above photo taken over the Strange Uncharted Mountains outside Nibbling, Larry Kaboley, Chief Cartographer of the Royal Nibbling Society of Cartographers, engages in another of his many futile attempts to figure out how to map those mountains.

You can’t map the unmappable,
but you can join us on a journey of wonder
as we explore the mystery!

The Society for the Exploration of the Strange Uncharted Mountains

Clifford Bean, Society President

But, maximizing opportunities can include blowing up all my memory-based sense of probability. Look into McKee and keep reading, you’ll understand what I mean in time.

One of Paula’s greatest gifts is her fearless exploration of things difficult to face. When I lose my nerve, she steadies me.

One such time was when we explored how your Christian version of the story we are in fits with Stage Eight. I was unnerved, haunted by what Robert McKee wrote…

CLASSICAL DESIGN means a story built around an active protagonist who struggles against primarily external forces of antagonism to pursue his or her desire, through continuous time, within a consistent and causally connected fictional reality,to a closed ending of absolute, irreversible change.

Robert McKee, Story

A closed ending to my story – but one of absolute, irreversible change. So, if the story we are in is the one the Party embraces, then that absolute change will be to nothingness.

But, if Christianity is the story we are in, then, this is troubling for me.

So, our struggle with the Major Dramatic Question sparked an opening of our minds. What if there was some way we could look through the lens of story and begin to do…

Risk Assessment for the Afterlife

So, while Paula and I are hiding out in the foothills of the Strange Uncharted Mountains, outside of Nibbling, Minnesota, we are going to explore this way of seeing, and then show you how it could help you try to reopen the conversation in America.

Our New Way of Seeing

Like my best friend, Hector Klumpp, Paula and I — as long as our story remains in play — we fight. And, we’ll struggle. But, there’s purpose in that struggle, as we seek to find love and meaning, to make sense out of this crazy world around us.

We are so grateful to my Uncle for showing us this quote from Salman Rushdie, in the memo which contained our original assignment…

We need all of us, whatever our background, to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives.

Salman Rushdie, Secular Values, Human Rights and Islamism, Point of Inquiry, October 27, 2006

Back in our research days, before we came to your country and got into our predicament with both your government and ours, Paula came across a religion professor who has written a very helpful book. His name is Stephen Prothero. Paula had a sense that this guy and his book would be pivotal for us, and she was right.

So, as she does so often, somehow seeing ahead as she does, she tucked his book away in a bag we brought with us to America. I didn’t know she had it. And when everything got crazy and we had to go on the run, she secretly brought it along.

And just the other day, as we gazed at the stars, she pulled it out.

I was so happy to see it, I almost cried.

It was just what we needed in this time of searching under the crazy beautiful stars, on the shifting ground of these Strange Uncharted Mountains.

And when I opened the book, one of the first things I read was this…

Whether the world’s religions are more alike than different is one of the crucial questions of our time.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

I said to Paula, “If Rushdie is right, and every religion is a story, Prothero is saying we need to see the differences between the competing stories.”

Paula smiled, “Doing so could help the Christians here in America begin to reopen the conversation in America, don’t you think?”

I knew she was right. If only you would take on this project and learn how to compare your archplot story with all the other competing stories out there.

And she flipped to one of her favorites passages from Prothero’s book, reading it aloud to me…

There are all sorts of reasons to try to become more religiously literate. One is civic. It is impossible to make sense of town or nation or world without reckoning with religion’s extraordinary influence, for good and for ill. There are also personal reasons to cultivate religious literacy, including the fact that learning about the world’s religions empowers you to enter into a fascinating, multimillennial conversation about birth and death, faith and doubt, meaning and confusion. American philosopher Richard Rorty has called religion a conversation stopper, and who hasn’t had the experience of a knock on the door and a conversation run aground on the rocks of dogma. But religion also serves as a conversation starter. We human beings ask questions. We want to know why. Our happiness depends upon it (and, of course, our misery). To explore the great religions is to stand alongside Jesus and the Buddha, Muhammad and Moses, Confucius and Laozi; it is to look out at a whole universe of questions with curiosity and awe; it is to meander, as all good conversations do, from topic to topic, question to question. Why are we here? Where are we going? How are we to live? Does God exist? Does evil? Do we?

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

That’s when Paula went crazy, flipping through the tattered pages, excitedly showing me all she’d discovered. “Look at this Chow! Prothero expresses the Major Dramatic Question.”…

Every religion, however, asks after the human condition. Here we are in these human bodies. What now? What next? What are we to become?

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

“And he is a broad-minded thinker, like your Uncle,” she went on excitedly, flipping to another passage.

To reckon with the world as it is, we need religious literacy. We need to know something about the basic beliefs and practices of the world’s religions.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

“And check this out, Chow,” she said, rather breathlessly. “He’s all about us humans getting along, despite our differences.”

I too hope for a world in which human beings can get along with their religious rivals. I am convinced, however, that we need to pursue this goal through new means. Rather than beginning with the sort of Godthink that lumps all religions together in one trash can or treasure chest, we must start with a clear-eyed understanding of the fundamental differences in both belief and practice between Islam and Christianity, Confucianism and Hinduism.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

I blinked at this beautiful girl beside me, amazed. And excited, just as excited as she. “And the ‘new means’ sure fits with this, Paula,” I said, pulling out my phone, where I keep much of our most pertinent research.

We have already seen how doubt and uncertainty need to be actively confronted in making a hard choice. But often the most essential form of doubt involves questioning the options that appear to be on the table. Making complex decisions is not just about mapping the terrain that will influence each choice. It’s also, as Paul Nutt’s research made clear, a matter of discovering new choices.

Steven Johnson, Farsighted

“And this Johnson guy understands the power of story,” I said, scrolling to show her this.

All these narratives have compelling plot twists and vividly rendered characters, but what makes them so striking for our purposes is how accurately they map the multidimensional forces that come to bear on the choice itself. To immerse oneself in these stories is, in a sense, to practice the kind of mapping exercises we require in our own lives. 

Steven Johnson, Farsighted

And then she reminded me of these quotes she had showed before us as we thought about the challenge you are faced with in relation to your Greatest Commandment…

You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

[T]he greatest success comes only when you focus your people on what really matters. …. Are you focused on the few things that bring the highest reward?

John C. Maxwell, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership

This may be the ultimate test of leadership: the ability to think through the priority decision and make it stick.

Peter Drucker, Managing the Non-Profit Organization

As individuals, groups, and businesses, we’re often so busy cutting through the undergrowth we don’t even realize we’re in the wrong jungle. And the rapidly changing environment in which we live makes effective leadership more critical than it has ever been-in every aspect of independent and interdependent life.

We are more in need of a vision or destination and a compass (a set of principles or directions) and less in need of a road map. We often don’t know what the terrain ahead will be like or what we will need to go through it; much will depend on our judgment at the time. But an inner compass will always give us direction.

Effectiveness-often even survival-does not depend solely on how much effort we expend, but on whether or not the effort we expend is in the right jungle.

Stephen Covey, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

“Is this our next project?” I asked, expecting her to laugh.

But Paula went quiet. Still, I could see that her mind was whirring. So, I asked, “Paula Wong, where do we start? What’s the beginning of the story?”

And she whispered, “We should start at the end, Chow…” And her gorgeous lips parted to read me this from Robert McKee…

Why Your Ending Comes First

The climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap. Without it, you have no story. Until you have it, your characters wait like suffering patients praying for a cure.

Your ending is just the beginning.

Once a story climax is created, stories are in a significant way rewritten backwards, not forward.

Robert McKee

What to Keep and What to Cut, by McKee Story, April 1, 2019

All this was so unexpected for me. I thought the epiphanies were over. But here was another one, an epiphany blossoming once again from the story insights of Robert McKee.

“So, Paula,” I said, a little breathless, “We ask the Major Dramatic Question in relation to the religions of the world – How will this turn out? – and that way we could begin to discover a better way of seeing the competing versions of the story we are in.”

“Exactly,” she cried, joining in my excitement. “And by going to the end of the story, you can begin to see their differences more easily,” she said, flipping to another ear marked page in Prothero’s book.

What the world’s religions share is not so much a finish line as a starting point. And where they begin is with this simple observation: something is wrong with the world.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

I showed her your Koukl guy on my phone next…

It is clear to most people that the world is not the way it ought to be. Something has gone terribly wrong, and everybody knows it.

Greg Koukl, The Story of Reality

“And that fits with Stage One of Story,” said she.

Paula knows McKee, much of it by heart, and she quoted:

Stage one of the creation of a story is deciding on the target audience, that target audience’s need, even if they don’t know what they need. You know what they need and once they have what they need they’re be happy to have it.

Why Is Robert McKee’s Marketing Strategy The Only One That Works?, By Bruce Weinstein, Forbes, March 20, 2018

Then she took her eyes off the eternal stars and grabbed my arm. “Chow, think of the Christian story. Things went wrong beginning with the inciting incident in the Garden of Eden, which is Stage Three.

“But, she went on, listen to how this fits with Stage Two” And she quoted…

Identifying the consumer’s unfulfilled need in Stage One leads to the first step of Stage Two: identifying the core value that best dramatizes the solution to this problem, the cure to this pain.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

Then, hardly taking a breath, she flips through Prothero’s book again and showed me this…

Religious folk worldwide agree that something has gone awry. They part company, however, when it comes to stating just what has gone wrong, and they diverge sharply when they move from diagnosing the human problem to prescribing how to solve it.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

This conversation gave us a starting place as we contemplated what some possible new means and new choices might be. And, under the cover of our rustic cabin the next day, we started our new quest with our new epiphany: the place for us to begin is with the ending – the Major Dramatic Question: How will this turn out?

Not far into our new quest of starting at the end of the story, Paula showed me this from McKee…

To answer this question, we have to distinguish between four, actually, four different kinds of endings. There’s the straightforward ending, that is either a happy ending or a negative ending. There is an ironic ending. There is an ambiguous ending, and then there’s the open ending.

What Is the Difference Between Ironic Endings and Ambiguous Endings? by McKee Story, June 10, 2019

Four different kinds of endings. We gathered all we could find that McKee had to say about each.

And Paula said, “we will see how each religion fits with McKee’s different types of endings.”

“All religions?” I asked, feeling overwhelmed.

She laughed at me.

“What? There’s got to be thousands of them, maybe millions. Just think of India alone!”

“I know, you’re right. But what if the best way to explore the endings of the stories of the world religions is to just go with the religions Prothero chose for his book?”

So, Paula showed me this in Prothero’s book, telling why he chose them…

In selecting the religions for this book, I have not made any effort to separate the wheat from the chaff. I have simply tried to include religions that are both widespread and weighty-religions that “for better or worse” have been particularly influential over time and continue to influence us today.16

The world’s religions appear here not in chronological order of their founding but in order of influence -from the most to the least great. But how do you determine greatness? Statistics obviously matter. Strictly by the numbers, Christianity and Islam, which together account for over half of the world’s population, are the greatest; Judaism, with a mere 14 million adherents, is in last place by far. But another key factor is historical significance. On this score Judaism may well be the greatest, since it gave birth to both Christianity and Islam. In the end, however, the rankings presented here focus first and foremost on contemporary impact to what extent each religion moves us and shakes us and sends us scrambling after words.

Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One

And here is the list of religions which he covers in his book…

The Islamic Version of the Story We Are In

The Christian Version of the Story We Are In

The Confucian Version of the Story We Are In

The Hindu Version of the Story We Are In

The Buddhist Version of the Story We Are In

The Yoruba Version of the Story We Are In

The Jewish Version of the Story We Are In

The Daoist Version of the Story We Are In

The Sikhist Version of the Story We Are In

This made sense to me, and I felt relieved there was a way forward for our new worthy project.

But you’ll notice, we are not including the Secular Version in that list, because it ends with nothingness. And Paula showed me this, which is painful…

Secularism is the only worldview whose members must find their main meaning within this life. All other ways of understanding the world hold that “this life is not the whole story,” but with secularism, it is. That is why all previous religions and cultures have been able to find in suffering and death a way to affirm something that matters beyond and more than just this life.“ When secular people create their meanings, however, it must be around something located inside the material world. You might be living for your family or for a political cause or for career accomplishments. To have a meaningful life, therefore, life must go well. But when suffering disrupts this, it has the power to destroy your very meaning. The secular approach to meaning can leave you radically vulnerable to the realities of how life goes in this world. 

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God

Painful for a secularist like me, sure. But, also strangely hopeful. For the first time in my life I could see a way forward, a way to evaluate my risk. We had found a way to confront the major dramatic question which haunts me: How will my story turn out?

And that’s when it dawned on me. “Paula, we hope to begin an exploration of the endings of Prothero’s selections of world religions to help us with our desire to develop a way of seeing, right?”

“Right,” she agreed.

“What if we called it: Risk Assessment for the Afterlife?”

I could see immediately that she loved it. She nodded and said, “flowing from the concept of risk management?”

“Right.” I returned.

The essence of risk management lies in maximizing the areas where we have some control over the outcome while minimizing the areas where we have absolutely no control over the outcome and the linkage between effect and cause is hidden from us.

Peter Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

And thus we began our new quest.

One of the first things we encountered was McKee helping us to see that people do want to have a choice for their ending…

So those are all four very different shades of endings.

And, uh, the problem, often, is that people who want to create an open ending end up creating an ambiguity. So that the audience is really left hanging. They cannot, in their own minds, make a choice of how it might have ended in the future because the material doesn’t allow that.

I think audiences or readers find ambiguous endings particularly annoying. They understand the principle of the open ending, but they do want to be able to choose a possible future.

What Is the Difference Between Ironic Endings and Ambiguous Endings? by McKee Story, June 10, 2019

So, it’s a key question…

Do we want to have the option to live forever? That is a global, species-level decision if there ever was one. 

Steven Johnson, Farsighted

And that desire makes sense to us, because risk management is something we all do in every day life… 

Even though we may not always be conscious of it, we are all risk managers. As we navigate daily life, we must make a host of decisions that more or less explicitly reveal our attitude about risk. Shall I travel by plane or train? Which detergent has fewer noxious chemicals? Which over-the-counter drug is less harmful? Should I buy a lottery ticket instead of a sandwich? Should I invest in mutual funds, stocks, or bonds? Which securities should I buy, and how long should I plan to own them? Should I give up smoking?

Ron S. Dembo & Andrew Freeman, Seeing Tomorrow: Rewriting the Rules of Risk

“Part of our study has to be exploring whether the religion stories include a choice,” Paula pointed out.

“And along with that we are also going to be asking the upside/downside questions,” I added, writing this out on one of the cabin walls (somehow, as dilapidated as our accommodations were, there was chalk a plenty)…

Are there stories which say there is an afterlife, but everyone will experience the same upside?

Are there stories which say there is an afterlife, and you could experience either an upside or a downside in it?

“Because,” I went on, clapping chalk dust off my hands, “if a story claims all humans will ultimately experience the same upside, then you won’t miss out on that upside. There’s nothing you can do to miss out on it. Don’t worry about it; there’s no risk.”

“Right,” she agreed. “But if a story claims that you could experience either the upside or downside, then that is where you will want to focus your attention. Because the possibility of an ultimate downside is like a worst-case scenario. This is what the story claims will happen to you in the afterlife if you fail to believe in or adhere to that religion or worldview. It’s like saying, ‘Here’s the worst thing that could happen to you under our belief system.’”

And she showed me this…

[Y]ou have to think about the consequences of what you’re doing and establish that you can survive them if you’re wrong. Consequences are more important than probabilities. 

Peter Bernstein, interviewed in “Peter Bernstein Interview,” Jason Zweig, Money Magazine, October 15, 2004 

“So, it’s this last category, the story which claims you can miss out on the upside, which is where one should focus one’s search,” I realized.

Well, I hope you don’t mind that I jumped forward to the end of our story on the run here in America, but I wanted you to see it here, joining hands with our epiphanies about the major dramatic question and our struggle with judgement.

We hope to explore all these stories. And we hope the day may come when another major revision of this report will help you see what we found.

Not that it matters, if we’re in the secular story, that is…

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.

Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden

So our version of the story says the desire to have a … “And they lived happily ever after” — ending is an illusion because there is no God and our story ends in nothingness.

We are saying, “What you desire cannot be attained.”

The human soul is made up out of atoms, just as the body is made up out of atoms and that the soul will disintegrate when the body disintegrates. Therefore there’s no afterlife. Therefore there’s no judgment in the afterlife. No punishment, no reward. Whatever meaning we have in the universe is here and now, in this world, and whatever political, ethical, moral meanings we can make, we have to make here and now by ourselves because there is no God who will determine whether we’ve made the right decisions or not, and reward or punish us accordingly.

Stephen Greenblatt, The Poem That Dragged Us Out of the Dark Ages

See why we find these questions so haunting?

See why we are in anguish?

But, strangely, at the same time, we possess an overwhelming sense of peace, accompanied by a turbulent sense of awe.

How can it be both?

Maybe it’s a little like the stars above that seem to show themselves in these Strange Uncharted Mountains in a way unique to the world—

Greatness…Stableness…Grand Immoveable Structure…


Rushing, Flowing, Flooding, Rising, Take-Your-Breath-Away Overwhelming…

This is something I know you Christians understand.