Thursday, June 26, 2008

Life after Death

How important is it to you to live on after death? I am working my way back and forth through Griffin's Reenchantment without Supernaturalism, and I am reading a section on eschatology. Griffin notes that humans have a highly evolved - vis-à-vis the rest of our known world - capacity for self-consciousness and with it a heightened awareness of our impending death. Death haunts our living. We know that life is short. We want very much to know that our lives have meaning. We have developed elaborate rituals around death as a way of affirming the meaning of our life and death.

In most cultures and religions we also want to believe that there is something more than this life: a completion, an ultimate healing, a chance to experience in the next life what we did not get to experience in this life, a divine judgment, a second chance to get it right, ghosts, etc. Griffin says this longing is so strong in us that if there is not some form of life after death "then the universe has created an ineradicable desire in us that it will not fulfill--a conclusion that implies a form of Manicheanism."

Process Theology as elaborated by Whitehead and Hartshorne answers part of this need. All of our experiences in life become part of God. In fact this is how God "changes." Moment by moment God takes in every bit of experience and is influenced by this experience and then gives back what is appropriate for the next moment. In the process God's consequent nature evolves.

When we die what we have added to the nature of God lives on forever. Quoting Hartshorne: "Since God forgets nothing, loses no value once acquired, our entire worth is imperishable in the divine life." And for Hartshorne this is the very meaning and highest purpose of life: to contribute to the life of God.

But Hartshorne didn't believe in life after death in the form of some kind of surviving soul or continuing self-consciousness. And Whitehead speculated about it but it wasn't a core tenet of his philosophy. Griffin is more open to the idea. In fact he says it is more "probable than not." Especially for humans. Just as conscious experience emerged at some point in human history, followed at a later point by self-consciousness so "the capacity to survive apart from the body, if it now exists, could have also been an emergent capacity." Maybe. Though, I can well imagine a time coming when artificial intelligence makes it possible for our brains to live on in an altered technological state.

I like the Process notion that we are adding to and influencing the nature of God. In this way we live on forever. I like it as metaphor. But I don't feel like I need it. Last week I performed a funeral for a woman who died at the ripe old age of 94. She lived an incredibly fulfilling life. And she, along with members of her surviving family, had no belief in an afterlife. So I talked about the intrinsic value of the life she lived and the way she added love and wisdom to the world. In this way she lives on after death.

I am agnostic about life after death. But I am comfortable with the notion that my remains become part of the compost of the earth, and from that compost new life emerges. Give me a natural burial. And I am comfortable with the notion that I am (hopefully) adding some love and wisdom to the world. In this way I will live on. And that's enough for me.

But perhaps I am speaking from a privileged position. I have lived a fair number of years. Compared to countless infants and young people and the many through the ages who have died too soon I have lived a very long time. Compared to the much of the world I have lived very well. I may not feel the need for an afterlife, but maybe they deserve one. I certainly get where the sentiment comes from.

I have much less patience for the views of many very privileged Christians who are genuinely looking forward to an afterlife because they think they are going to get to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus because they "believed" while the rest of us who didn't believe in their way or have lived their lives following some other spiritual path burn in hell. They may be right, though I doubt it. But as the saying goes, I will be in good company.

In any case, how important to you is an afterlife?

1 comment:

Mystical Seeker said...

I am also intrigued by the idea of "objective immortality" (that we live on through God's memory of our subjective experiences) rather than "subjective immortality" (that we ourselves continue on after death). The idea that we enhance God through each moment of our own experiences gave me a wholly different take on my relationship with God, and it has been very influential in my ideas about God. I love the idea that every joy I have, God also haves--and that God also perfectly sympathizes with my pains.

I am, like you, an agnostic on the question of life after death, although I am more inclined not to believe in it than to believe in it. Still, I am not a fan of reductionism either (the idea that we are nothing but the bodies we inhabit), so who knows? I think that maybe Hartshorne addresses this question in "Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes", but I can't find my copy of it so I can't be sure.