MEMORY AND IMMORTALITY
Once a number of years ago, when I still routinely watched television, I heard a Hollywood celebrity assert that he did not believe in an afterlife. He added, with a smart aleck grin and a note of privileged gusto, that one's life on this earth is sufficient if he or she lives it right. Big deal! For him, that obviously meant faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money. The man died this past year. His last days were as pathetic as his philosophy of life was morally bankrupt.
The idea of personal immortality surfaced again as I was teaching a short course, which was recently offered through my church. A host of challenging issues were discussed under the rubric What Bothers Me Most About Christianity. This, incidentally, was also the title of our text, which was written by Ed Gungor. You may have seen it. It is a very readable little book that comprises a good jumping-off place for a discussion of perennial problems of the Christian faith.
Christians think of immortality under a variety of images. Perhaps the best known, but not at all popular nowadays, is that of Divine Judgment, followed by eternal reward and punishment. Under this image, heaven is a place with streets of gold, while hell is a hopelessly miserable inferno in which "the worm shall not die . . . [and] the fire shall not be quenched. . . ." Horrors! Why shouldn't these metaphors be unpopular? They imply moral and spiritual accountability for the way one has lived on earth. Nobody likes that, right? Homilies such as Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" are no longer heard in mainline Protestant churches or, if so, rarely. Also, just to think that, during the First Great Awakening, the Rev. Edwards was, believe it or not, a far cry from being the fiercest Calvinist of them all!
However a Christian conceives the idea of an afterlife, the doctrine is more often than not viewed as, dare I say it, an extraneous appendage of the faith. Clergy broach the subject primarily, if not exclusively, at funerals. It is then to emphasize reward, not punishment. Other than on those occasions, as well as on Easter, one wonders if the doctrine of immortality is ever seriously considered, much less analyzed, at all.
Let me ask the following question: Long after one's death, who will remember his life – its joys, tears, righteous struggles, and accomplishments? Not those who are then living; that's for sure. The human capacity to remember is, and always has been, flawed and deficient. Only God can and will remember perfectly. Without positing a Cosmic Memory, the passage of time constitutes a terrible cruelty, which finally abrogates all life's meaning. I defy anyone to tell me that, if one's life is bound eventually to be forgotten, it matters even a whit that he ever lived on this earth.
So the issue of immortality involves, as I see it, a choice between a meaningful life and a meaningless one. Of course, those who dismiss the notion of a Cosmic Memory as nothing more than superstition or metaphysical nonsense will attempt to argue that advancing the species through procreation and fighting for a higher quality of life for one's progeny are sufficient reasons to live and to die. (Some lawyers, I guess, enjoy prosecuting lawsuits, and some physicians prescribing medicine for sore throats, all in the name of improving people's quality of life. But that surely seems to be a narrow perspective.) I guess that a neo-Darwinist can make his peace with the procreative and survival goals of the species, but they are ones that trigger, at best, limited incentive for virtue in me.
Dr. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi, might have been inspired by a Darwinist mentality to create an Aryan race and even to experiment with otherwise healthy human lives in order to do it. The late Dr. George Tiller might have reasoned that terminating the lives of innumerable viable fetuses, many during the last trimester of pregnancy, was simply the elimination of inconvenience for expectant mothers and was without moral consequences. Why should we be bothered by a Mengele or a Tiller anyway? With time, it will be as if they never even existed, right? Life has no ultimate meaning, does it?
As for myself, I choose to accept the premise that life is a gift endowed with eternal significance. What we do here matters, and it matters forever. I pay this level of respect to earthly life precisely because I believe in a loving God who remembers. Without that, nothing else matters, at least for long.
March 15, 2010