Ian Harris Otago Daily Times June 14, 2013
IT is a central Christian conviction that Jesus overcame death, and that his followers can do so too. What that means has been interpreted in many different ways, including immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body, depending on people’s understanding of God, the universe, the laws of nature, and humanity.
But the beauty of Christianity is that it is continually evolving, so its followers need not be frozen into past understandings based on outmoded world-views – though some will insist that is precisely where truth lies. Instead, people are free to think the questions through in the light of new knowledge and new circumstances and see where that leads them.
My previous two columns described how in the United States today a lot of energy is going into finding ways to overcome death by circumventing it, and how, long ago, notions of immortality and resurrection emerged to promise that after death the essential “I” will live on. These days, however, the life sciences make it far harder to sustain the idea of a soul or disembodied mind continuing to exist once the brain has ceased to function, or of the body being reconstituted in some magical way. Those sciences come much closer to the old Hebrew idea of human beings as body-mind or body-spirit, fused and dependent on each other.
Even near-death and out-of-body experiences can be explained in terms of brain processes (such as oxygen deprivation, endorphin release and random neural firing) rather than as proof of a disembodied consciousness. In short, death happens and the whole self dies.
Nevertheless, within the contemporary secular world-view it is still possible to talk of victory over death, a victory that accepts its finality but takes away its sting. The key is to place each life within a wider context than concern for one’s own destiny. This is because the Christian approach is centred not on what happens after death but on what we make of life, both individually and in community with other people.
So for English Bishop John Robinson, author of the explosive little book Honest to God, the good news of Christianity “is not of the rescuing of individuals out of nature and history . . . but the redeeming of all the myriad relationships of creation into a new heaven and a new earth, the city of God, the body of Christ”. The language is metaphorical, but the application is to this world of space and time.
Robinson underlines that by saying: “The resurrection of the body begins not at death, but at baptism.” For Christians that is not just a pretty naming ceremony, but a rite symbolising death to a cynical, self-centred world, and welcome to the new world of Christ’s inspiration, whose hallmark is unconditional love.
People who live by that insight find it liberating. It opens up a trusting orientation to life and its possibilities. Hope expands. So does concern for the pain, suffering and deprivation around them, since this new quality of life is seen not as something to be hogged and hoarded, but shared. They find Christ somehow resurrected in the body of his followers, the church – not always, admittedly, but at its best. To the extent that they reflect his spirit, however fleetingly, they are sharing in the Godness discernible in him. And that Godness is timeless. So that is where the experience of eternal life begins – right here on this messy planet. Its validity does not depend on whether it extends beyond death: rather, that becomes a matter of supreme indifference.
But what about meaning? The churches once taught confidently that the point of this life is to prepare for the next one, though that message is more muted these days. It seems to me perverse, however, to locate the ultimate meaning of life in what happens when it ends. That would be like saying that the after-match function for a rugby test is more important than the way the game was played on the field.
People’s search for meaning in their life is as important today as it has ever been. Some never find it, and their sense that life is meaningless can lead to listlessness, despair, hostility, even suicide. But meaning needs to be created in the context of a modern understanding of life and the way the world is, not by ignoring it. While some will continue to pin their faith on the promise of life in a world beyond, victory over death can be confidently affirmed without it.