Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Survival At All Costs?

“They Want To Live,” read a headline in the New York Times Magazine a few years ago.  “Science has made it impossible to believe in the afterlife.  But acting as their own lab mice, fervent health buffs are trying to hang on until science delivers the ultimate miracle.”

The “ultimate miracle” turned out to be physical life with no necessary end - technology keeping us going indefinitely, replacing parts as needed, and maintaining health through a feast of vitamins and dietary supplements.

This is easier to believe in than the afterlife?

As noted in regard to the resurrection, I found myself wondering just when “science” rendered belief in an afterlife impossible.  Who were the researchers?  What were their fields of competence?  What questions did they ask?  What hypotheses did they propose to answer the questions?  What experiments did they conduct to test the hypotheses?  Where did they publish?  What other scientists duplicated their research and verified their results?

There were, of course, no answers to those questions.  The confidence that science has made it impossible to believe in the afterlife is nothing more than one of many beliefs associated with philosophical materialism - the idea that all reality is physical.  Believers in that philosophy tend to regard their views as “scientific,” I suppose, because science deals only in material phenomena.  In truth, however, “science” has never even asked the question, let alone constructed hypotheses and experiments to test the hypotheses.  Indeed, many of our best scientists are committed people of faith.

But back to the folks who were trying to become physically immortal.  Just for argument’s sake, let’s suppose these very earnest people were able to succeed.  Suppose that through a combination of good diet, adequate exercise, and a simple little pill that stopped cells from aging, you could put the brakes on the whole life cycle.  Suppose further, just to be on the safe side, you donated tissue samples from all your major organs so that technicians could clone a kidney, or stomach, or heart, grow it in a pig and pass it on to you if and when you needed it.  No aging, no disease, and a ready supply of spare parts just in case.  Would this be a good thing?

A life dedicated simply and solely to physical survival would be, at the very least, a life of self-absorption.  Greater love has no man than this: that he holds onto physical life at all cost?  Maybe that’s why a favorite song a few years back trumpeted self-love as “The Greatest Love of All.”  What kind of priorities would a person develop if life’s greatest good were physical survival?  What would such people know of selfless service, to say nothing of self-sacrifice?  And what kind of world would they build? 

“But isn’t this what Christianity encourages?” I hear some asking.  “By holding out the promise of heaven, religious people are doing the same thing.  The only question has to do with which idea works.”

The answer is that the two approaches come at the thing from different angles, with completely different presuppositions.  The folks quoted in the Times seek longevity for longevity’s sake.  “Dying is not an acceptable option,” said one.

Christianity, and most other faiths for that matter, take some form of afterlife as a given, sometimes even as a problem.  “Life after death is not the point,” wrote C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity.  “I’m afraid you’ve got that whether you want it or not.”

The important thing, Lewis said, is deciding what kind of life we choose to live on earth.  The choices we make here and now form the kind of people we become, which sets our course for this life and beyond.

Jesus taught that in seeking first the kingdom of God, and in learning how to live a life of self-giving love, we find, first, a source of meaning in this life and, second, we prepare ourselves for a deeper life of love and joy that carries through physical death, ultimately into the new heaven and new earth.  Aim for heaven now, living by heaven’s rules, he told us, and you’ll get earth thrown in for free.  Aim for earth alone, and in the end you’ll lose even that.  “Eternal life,” often spoken of in scripture simply as “life,” begins here and now when we recognize that in Christ God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, and then allow him to reorient our life as a totality, from the inside out: spirit, mind and body.

In the last analysis this is the problem with the quest for mere physical immortality.  It begins with a finite, but limited good - longevity - and by making that the ultimate good robs it of even the limited value it properly has. 

A race of immortals, or even extraordinarily long-lived people, whose goal in life was simply their own survival, would become even more self-absorbed than we already are today.  Their quest, self always at the fore, would result in frenzied competition for scarce biological and medical resources.  Inevitably, advantage would go to the rich and the powerful.  All memory of transcendent good would be replaced with the promise of material survival, and anything would be seen as permissible in pursuit of that goal.  The result would be a literal hell on earth.

Our calling in Christ is to learn to live for others, showing the love and the joy of God, which alone can give meaning to this world and to the world to come. 

Howard MacMullen
© April, 2012

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