February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
April 3, 2012
It’s been drawn to my attention that the blog Everyday Revolutionary recently posed a question:
Two bastions of Christian dogma that I have great difficulty accepting are the concepts of resurrection and afterlife. Biology and physics (i.e. “the facts”) seem to be enough to discredit the ideas that earth will eventually be restored (since all things tend toward degradation) and that we (or at least, our spirits/souls) “go” anywhere when we die. Is it possible to be a faithful Christian without these ideas?
Fascinating question, honestly asked. Quick thoughts:
• Belief in the “resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed) or “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting” (Apostle’s Creed) is not the same as belief in a spontaneous, disembodied afterlife based on a two-substance theory of the self. Also, as C.S. Lewis put it, “it seems quite clear that in most parts of the Old Testament there is little or no belief in a future life” (Reflections on the Psalms, Ch. IV). It seems to me Christians are not obliged—in fact, are probably ill-advised—to conceive of a human being as a ghost haunting a machine, said ghost to be liberated at death by the breakdown of the machine.
• Science is concerned only with what can be measured—the physical world. God is not measurable or observable in any relevant sense, so science tells us nothing about whether God exists or what God can, can’t, might, or mightn’t do. This is relevant to all the dogmas of religion, since we are not invited to believe any of them, or attempt to make sense of any of them, apart from God.
• Scientific habits of thought sometimes make religious doctrines seem less “plausible” in an emotional sense, but not usually as a matter of logic. E.g., human virgin births do not occur in the course of nature (though they are the norm in a few species of lizard), but if there is a God or gods, then virgin births might well be within the competence of such entities; biology has nothing to say about the matter. Ditto for resurrection and thermodynamics (the aspect of science that so famously tells us that “all things tend toward degradation”).
Walden Pond, 1998. Photo by Larry Gilman.
• For myself, as a science-educated person, resurrection is actually more psychologically plausible than any other form of “afterlife” belief precisely because I cannot credit the popular notion that we are immaterial, portable “souls” somehow containerized in neurons. I feel quite sure, rather, that I am physical and spiritual at the same time, however that works, and there is no “me” without my brain. On these terms, resurrection is the only form of “afterlife” that makes any sense at all—though any attempt to picture its particulars produces instant bathos.
• But Christians aren’t obliged to worry about what resurrection might look like, or what exactly it might consist of, or what sort of “world to come” it might transpire in. It would be bold to the point of foolishness to even speculate about such things, and there has been (thank goodness) little such speculation in the history of the Nicene Christianities.
• Articles of faith like the Creed’s “resurrection of the body and life everlasting” are not statements of claimed knowledge about testable facts. They are ultimately statements of trust in God. When I say the resurrection bits of the Creeds, I do so from the midst of a sort of cloud of intentions that, partly articulated, might go something like this:
“I love you, God, in my dim, paltry way—me, the only me there is—this embodied, confused, mortal meat puppet standing here in church. I don’t expect to fly off as a ghost and haunt Heaven when my heart finally stops. I do affirm my hope that your love for us is such that in some way and time, or some time-beyond-time out of reach of my knowledge or understanding, you will enable us to love you and each other again and to be loved by you. I do not assume that there is any ghostly ‘me’ for you to love apart from this flame or waterfall of transient matter that is presently speaking, so in hoping to be loved by you, maker of all bodies, yourself embodied, I am hoping in some way to be embodied again, ‘resurrected.’ That’s unimaginable for me, but not necessarily for you. Those of us standing and saying this creed are therefore affirming together our weird, ancient, shared hope that you shall grant to us the ‘resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ And we trust that if all our images and doctrines fall short of your Reality, as they avowedly do, your love is such that you will give us more and better, not less and worse, than we can imagine. In fact, you have already done so. Thanks.”
• But how embarrassing, after all, to even speak of such things, to toss around words like “resurrection” and “afterlife” as if they could mean anything sane. Our sense of the whole subject’s inherent absurdity—mine’s keen, at least—mostly bespeaks our conditioning, our place in history and culture; but not entirely. Some things, like a stomach or a brain, really are absurd and repulsive when ripped out of context and laid dripping on a table, for the good reason that they make no sense by themselves and have no life by themselves. They have meaning and life only when embedded in a living body, the context of a person. In the case of beliefs like “resurrection” or “afterlife,” excision from the context of faith produces pure absurdity (in the case of resurrection) or wishful pseudoscience (the literature of afterlife as quasi-material “survival”). Resurrection makes no sense except as a mystery of hope handed over to a mystery of love. Intellectually speaking, it has no cash value: it cannot be exchanged for something else. Any attempt to give it such value by puzzling out a plausible mechanism is futile, like looking at a stomach or severed tongue lying on a tray and wondering how exactly it is that human beings ever see each as other as sexually attractive. An organ without a body; a body without a world; an article of faith without the whole faith; dead on arrival.
• Not that any old whackazoid belief can be rendered deeply meaningful just by stuffing it into a religion. Faith has its breast implants and accidentally swallowed knick-knacks, too—internalized artifacts that don’t really belong in the body and are doing it no good. It also contains its own endogenous retroviruses and other genetic flaws, the myriad birthmarks of an evolutionary history inextricable from error, and no doubt has its vermiform appendices and other vestigialities.
But let us not be too hasty to declare, on the basis of our shifting personal and historical moods, what is unhelpful or vestigial, and to chop it out. Very soon there would be nothing left.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.