Chapter 8: Seeking Light

or

How Shall We Decide?

     

Today, ninety-nine percent of men, perhaps, still fancy that they can breathe freely this side of an unbreakable death-barrier—provided it is thought to be sufficiently far away.  Tomorrow (and of this I am certain because, like so many other people, I am already experiencing it) mankind would be possessed by a panic claustrophobia simply at the idea that it might find itself hermetically sealed inside a closed universe.

 

The above words were written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the next-to-last page of a short essay titled “The Death-Barrier and Co-Reflection” which was composed a scant four months before his own death, in New York City, on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, but which was only published years later (Teilhard 1970, p. 397-406).  

It should be understood that by a “closed universe” Teilhard was not referring to the then current debate over whether or not the universe is “open” in the sense of infinitely expanding, which is the prevailing cosmological opinion today, or else “closed” in the sense of eventually collapsing upon itself. Instead, what he meant by “closed” was that either way, the future of the universe was limited and that sooner or later the second law of thermodynamics, which applies to all “closed” or isolated systems, would have its way and entropy would reign supreme, that is, unless reflective thought, “knowing that we know”, in some way might survive.  To his mind, it was this possibility, which he saw as to some extent already taking place in the phenomenon of “co-reflection”—humans thinking together and being drawn into a greater unity—that he seemed to think that future salvation of humanity lay. It was, one might say, Teilhard’s attempt to prove that there must be, if evolution itself is not to prove a failure, some kind of transcendent state awaiting us beyond. This was, as may be familiar to readers of his other writings, the ultimate or “Omega-Point” of evolution, which for Teilhard was symbolized in Christ.

      Teilhard’s vision of evolution and of the human phenomenon was taken up with great interest all around the world. His masterwork, Le Phénoméne humain, once it was published shortly after his death, was soon translated into several dozen languages—not always with complete accuracy. In fact, I can remember meeting several scientists from the Soviet Union (a year or so before its collapse in 1991) who knew of him or had read this book, although the Russian language version, at least the one published under the Communist regime, had pointedly omitted the epilogue titled “The Christian Phenomenon”, which openly identified the Omega-Point with God. 

However, in an appendix added to the later essay quoted above, Teilhard admitted that it was probably only through a “Revelation” … “here in its Christian sense”, that is to say, “… the beyond making itself manifest ‘personally’ to the here-below”, that the “quasi-negative evidence” presented by humanity’s inability to overcome that “death-barrier” can be overcome. Nevertheless, rather than apologize for a faith that appears to attempt to replace what science is telling us, Teilhard believed that he had shown us how there can be a faith that “animates” scientific research. This was apparently because Teilhard, later in life, saw this revelation as providing hope for a future that, despite what he had written years before, science by itself could never guarantee.

We all know, at least if we have lived long enough, how more than in one manner or another, life is like a big lottery. We also know, regardless of whatever meaning or purpose this universe may have, chance or luck has played a major role in its evolution. We’ve also seen that the chances are this universe itself is going to, one way or another, pass out of existence. And as much as we may desire it, there is probably nothing in our human nature that can guarantee our survival after death. Again, in this regard, I want to make it clear that my own view appears to differ somewhat from that of Teilhard, at least as expressed in The Phenomenon of Man. However, even if Teilhard’s view is understood in a collective sense—that is, that reflective thought will survive—this does not rule out the possibility that at least some individuals, much as is the case in the survival of any species as a whole, will necessarily do so. Nor does this situation rule out the necessity of grace (i.e., divine assistance) for its accomplishment. Given all these uncertainties, all we can do, at least as I see it, is to “buy our ticket” by living our lives as best we can, while placing our hopes and our trust in whatever (or Whomever) it is that brought it all to be.

       Yet, what does it really mean to live our lives as best we can?  This is the second big question—after that of why we have a universe to begin with—that has preoccupied philosophers from almost the very beginning, and the answer all depends on how one sees one’s fate. If one sees no purpose or meaning in our existence other than whatever we dream up in our own head, then the old slogan “eat, drink, and be merry (if you can), for tomorrow we die” makes a lot of sense. After all, why bother to care about our neighbor, especially once we get over caring what our neighbor thinks about us? Or even, why bother to care about ourselves? Why not just live quickly and riotously and pack as much as we can into the little time we have left?

On the other hand, if we are willing to bet the meaning of our lives on the possibility that there just might be an eternity awaiting those who prepare themselves for it, then what, in the meantime, will we really have lost? Anything of lasting value? Certainly not, especially if nothing belonging to this world lasts.  Fame (even just fifteen minutes worth) or fortune (for at least fifteen years or more) or pleasure—what can any of this mean on a planet, or even universe, in which the ability to support life of any kind may just turn out to be limited? But if there is an eternity, an existence beyond all time, then what is any of these worth against the calculation of oblivion or nothingness?      

      As we’ve already seen, there is a real calculus involved. Despite all the incentives, ranging from the more or less selfish, on the one hand, to a genuinely cosmic concern on the other, what we are attempting is a genuine leap of faith, an attempt to break the bonds of our human limitations, and to soar, like astronauts, beyond the boundaries of our terrestrial home.  Ventures like this cannot succeed in a climate of passivity and self-doubt. Windows of opportunity come too infrequently to be caught unprepared. Unless we make a firm decision and commitment in the present, we will not be ready when the time comes.

      Risky? Yes: no doubt it is. It means staking the meaning (and the conduct) of our lives on a goal that transcends purely human concerns and limitations. One could turn out to have been wrong. But suppose one is proven wrong? What truly worthwhile or of really lasting value would we have lost?  After all, we could hardly end up being thought fools if there is no one left to do the thinking! Wouldn’t we prove to be the much bigger fools if we had the chance to live forever and threw it away?

The reader may have been disappointed to learn that such a world-renowned theologian as Hans Küng does not accept the many gospel stories of the appearances of Jesus after his resurrection as being literally true. Indeed, scripture scholars have long attempted, mostly in vain, to make even much chronological sense of the differing, and seemingly contradictory accounts. All of which, as I pointed out in Chapter 4, leads me to see them, even if taken as literally true, as only being visible or even tangible representations of a state of existence that we cannot comprehend. When the first man to orbit the earth back in 1961, the Soviet “Cosmonaut” Yuri Gagarin, reported that he had looked all around him out in space and had failed to see God or Jesus, I was not the least surprised. Indeed, if he had claimed he had had such a vision, I would have presumed he was hallucinating.

       On the other hand, we have seen how, according to Teilhard’s view of the very structure of evolution and the improbabilities that, even if only by chance, have been overcome to produce life, the chances are that life is destined in some way to endure, despite whatever happens to the universe. This means that a contemporary theologian like Hans Küng is not acting irrationally when he chooses to believe that death is not the end of everything.

       So what can we expect after we die?  Maybe Gagarin, who died in a plane crash only seven years after his historic orbit, now knows the answer. But if he is seeing anything, it is not as if he were someone looking at God, as it were, from outside, but rather, in the opinion of the great theologian, Thomas Aquinas, as someone seeing God according to God’s essence or being, hence, at least to some extent, sharing in God’s own consciousness. Or as Aquinas put it in his massive Summa Theologica (I, Q 12, Art. 1&2), as well as in his final summation in his much shorter Compendium of Theology (Chap. 106), quoting Psalm 36:9, “…in your [that is, God’s] light we see light.”

      Thus despite all the esoteric symbolism of the Book of  Revelation, with its pictures of saints dressed in white robes, strumming harps, or wearing crowns, etc., or the promise, found several times in the Bible, of “a new heaven and a new earth”, heaven is not a place or location.  It is to enter into, as we said to begin with, eternity—which is, by definition, “beyond” or “outside of” either space or time.  Thus all the arguments about what a resurrected body would be like, or over who would be married to whom, or over how someone could be possibly happy if someone they loved in this life did not make it into the next, are all so much idle or even irrelevant speculation and, at least to my mind, are probably worth no more than the storied medieval debates over how many angels could dance on the head of pin.

Instead, I would like to take the reader back to one of the earliest Christian theological sayings, or adages, one that has stood the test of time, even though it continues to puzzle many who consider themselves traditional or even conservative Christians. In its shortest and most startling form it is simply this: “God became man that man might become God.” The object of this theme, or dream, of theopoesis or theosis—humans becoming like God—has also been treated from the Jewish perspective by psychologist Eric Fromm, in his book, You Shall Be as Gods, with obvious reference to the Book of Genesis. The specifically Christian expression of this theme dates back to St. Irenaeus (c. 125?-202 CE) and was quickly taken up by succeeding generations of theologians.

     To unpack this terse saying, of course, we need to understand “man” as meaning any human being or even all humanity. But even then, how can humans become “God” or even somehow “as if” they merely shared a little bit of divinity?  The answer begins with the recognition that only God is by nature immortal or incapable of dying. So if God took on human nature so that God could experience death, which is what Christians believe God did in the case of Jesus, then it becomes possible for humans, in turn, to share in God’s immortality. Thus, the logic of this exchange is that once God took this step, God allows us to share divine nature and that by sharing this life, we can become, even if only in the slightest degree, but still, in a very real sense, like God. Or as the Second Epistle of Peter (1:4) says, we become “sharers in the divine nature.” Or, still again, as Jesus is portrayed as saying in the Gospel of John (10:10), “I have come to bring life that you may have it more abundantly.” 

Yet, is any of this believable?  I suppose that the answer to this question is whether or not we believe in God to begin with. For those who do believe, then almost anything is possible, at least providing that God wills it. And for those who do not believe, the idea that we could possibly live a new life after we have died would certainly seem far-fetched or highly unlikely.

      In fact, we have already noted how Pascal tried to calculate the probability of this happening.  Many have criticized his argument as being self-serving. Perhaps so: it seems that just short of eight years before his death, he underwent a kind of mystical or “peak experience” in which the presence of God was so palpable that he wrote an extended note or record of what had happened and sewed it into the lining of his vest. The note was discovered only after his death. This experience marked what he called his “second conversion” and caused him to largely leave mathematics and scientific experiments behind and to turn instead to devote the rest of his short life—he died at age 39—to philosophy and theology. Thus, it could be that his famous “wager” may have been mostly his own attempt to persuade himself that what he had already experienced was not some kind of self-induced hallucination.

If so, then perhaps we may learn something, and that is that faith and doubt are not so much opposites as they are simply two sides of the same phenomenon. If our beliefs were about absolute certainties, would there be any room for real faith?  I very much doubt it.  Our puny minds can only grasp so much.  It has taken millions of years of evolution for our primate ancestors to even reach the point of self-awareness, not just to be able to know, but “to know that we know” and thus wonder about our own existence. So should we be surprised that we cannot conceive exactly just what a life after death might be like or that our powers of reasoning can only, at the most, tell us only what it must not be?  Thus, the Book of Revelation (21:4), despite all its lavish attempts to tell us what heaven will be like, probably comes closest when it says,

 

Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…

      

So how, or perhaps just as important, when shall we decide? Can a decision about something this vital to our future―presupposing that there is a chance of such a future―be postponed indefinitely? I suppose it can be, but only to our detriment.  Instead, I will take up Pascal’s challenge, aided by Teilhard’s recalculation of the odds, and repeat the other quote (Rev 22:5) that Hans Küng used in closing his book on The Beginning of All Things, a book which he began by quoting the “Let there be light” of Genesis 1:3. Thus, in view of what we now know about the explosion of energy that marked the beginning of the universe, we can envision of how it might all end for those who choose wisely…

 

And there will be no more night; and they need no lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

 

 

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