The Great Conversation:
Life & Death—Part III
By Gabriel Blanchard
What is the future of life for ourselves and our descendants?
Go here for Part I and Part II.
We have discussed a few literary motifs regarding life, particularly immortality, and touched on the idea of reincarnation in the dharmic religious tradition (which embraces Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhi, and a few other faiths). What about the Abrahamic side of things—which mainly means Judaism, Christianity, and Islam? They propose a quite different idea from reincarnation, even reincarnation under the law of karma: a Last Judgment, for which all mankind is raised from the dead, followed by eternal life in heaven or hell. (Interestingly, despite their fundamental disagreement about the nature and mission of Jesus, both Christians and Muslims believe it is he who will judge the world at the end of time.)
While this general outline of the end of time is shared by Abrahamic faiths in general, the doctrine of resurrection is most typically associated with Christianity, thanks to its Founder’s cavalier treatment of the laws of nature. This also forms one element of a somewhat unique idea in Christian thought. It is easy to overstate this uniqueness; this idea is not wholly absent from Judaism or Islam, but in these traditions it tends to be confined to mystics, whereas it is Christianity’s bread and butter, though perhaps we ought to say bread and wine. The idea in question is that, while God does want “righteousness” or “surrender” from humanity—i.e., total commitment to the will of God, which, since God is goodness, means perfect virtue in thought, word, and deed—morality itself is secondary. What is more highly prized is a new kind of life, one bestowed on believers by God and which no amount of virtue (however excellent it was) could achieve or replace; in fact, a supernatural life. The doctrine of the Incarnation—that Jesus was not only a prophet, but God made flesh—underlies this. The Eastern Orthodox freely describe salvation as theosis or divinization, and while such language is less current among Christians in the West both Catholic and Protestant, certain fixed phrases like “born again” hint at the idea. Many modern American Christians would be shocked to hear St. Athanasius’ statement “God became man so that man might become God,” if only because it seems to echo the false promise of the Serpent in Genesis so closely, yet the New Testament itself is replete with phrases just like it: “I am in my Father and ye in me and I in you“; “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me“; “that ye might be partakers of the divine nature.” In other words, Christian theology calls for, and claims to provide, not only a moral change in human character from bad to good, but a metaphysical change in human nature, from mortal to—in some sense, however esoteric—divine.
But of course, not everyone believes in either dharmic or Abrahamic theology, or for that matter in any other.* Religious people may presume that the non-religious do not view life as something with inherent value or dignity. No doubt this is sometimes true; however, many non-religious people argue just the opposite—that their view makes every life far more precious, since it is absolutely irreplaceable. Whether we find this persuasive or not, it is clear that the idea of resurrection does place what we think about life and death in a new context. The Christian and Muslim admiration for martyrdom would be hard to imagine if these faiths did not include a doctrine of resurrection, for instance.
Interestingly, Judaism went in a different direction in its approach to life. With a very small number of exceptions, every commandment in the Torah is held to be suspended in favor of doing what is necessary to protect a life, one’s own or someone else’s, a principle known as פקוח נפש (pikuach nefesh) or “watching over a soul.” One of the earliest examples of pikuach nefesh can be found in the books of the Maccabees, which recount a revolt led against the Seleucid Empire in the second century BC to restore the public practice of Judaism and cleanse the Temple, as the emperor had forbidden the former and sacrificed pigs to Zeus in the latter. After a group of Jews had been attacked by the Seleucid army on the Sabbath and slaughtered, due to refusing to fight back on the holy day, the Maccabees (who were a priestly family) ruled that self-defense was permissible even on the Sabbath. A more recent example comes from the disastrous earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010: a team of rescue workers from Israel, all of them strict Orthodox Jews, recited prayers and worked right through the Sabbath in order to keep saving people.
A hoped-for life in the next world and a precious life in this world—both of these themes have a kind of echo on the speculative side. The phrase “speculative fiction” often means science fiction, but it usually means the type that focuses on strictly scientific and philosophical problems, like the writings of Isaac Asimov or Philip K. Dick (as opposed fiction with a high-tech æsthetic that is set in outer space and/or the future, but which by plot and themes are ordinary romances, adventures, mysteries, and so on). The idea of using technology to alter or extend human life is not in itself speculative at all; the present writer as he writes this, and a huge fraction of our readers as they read it, are wearing a piece of life-altering technology on their faces: eyeglasses. But people have been extrapolating the possibilities from there for a long time, and a variety of changes to individuals, or even to the human species, have been contemplated—mainly by philosophers and authors of speculative fiction who have got hold of intriguing scientific theories, but sometimes by practicing scientists themselves.
The deliberate modification of human life is a topic that gets taken in several directions, and weird, sometimes alarming terms are often thrown around without explanation: cyborg (originally a contraction of cybernetic organism) is not so hard on the ear, as it’s been around for a while now, but post-human is a little more unsettling! However, the various concepts and terms at work here can be roughly sorted into two principal groups. The first is what we could frivolously call Invent Cooler Glasses Theorists, who are interested in enhancing human abilities with technology. The other might be called the Übermenschists (though not all deserve to be tarred with the distasteful history of the term Übermensch), who want to use technology to somehow transcend human nature. Among this latter group, directly manipulating human genes in order to produce desired traits is a favorite theme, which has led to several imaginary histories of the future evolution of humans. Another is the hope of indefinitely extending human life, often by transferring our consciousness from our bodies to some more durable vessel such as a robot or a computer—the fact that this sounds an awful lot like some traditional depictions of hell often fails to faze Übermenschists! However, they have a kind of flip-side of their own, authors who are in a certain sense “interested in” these possibilities but regard them with suspicion, loathing, or anxiety; horror author H. P. Lovecraft, a man whom we might kindly describe as “easily fazed,” made it a key element of his story The Whisperer in Darkness. More commonly, such writers turn to dystopian literature to express their thoughts, from the bioengineered nightmare of Brave New World to the cultural and political rebellion of Farenheit 451.
Invent Cooler Glasses Theory is a little more approachable. Not all applications are equally appealing (or equally feasible), of course. But if it did turn out to be a real possibility, who wouldn’t want to be able to fly?
The Gospel According to John
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word
Dante Alighieri, Paradiso
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Charles Williams, He Came Down From Heaven
*Terminology can trip people up here. Religious people (at least in the US) typically use the words agnostic and atheist to mean “someone who isn’t sure whether God exists” and “someone who specifically believes there is no God,” respectively. However, this is not always how self-described agnostics and atheists use these terms; for many of them, atheist—a-theist, “not-theist”—simply means “someone who does not specifically affirm there is a God,” including both those who deny it and those who are not sure. Meanwhile, agnostic in these contexts often means “someone who thinks we cannot know if God exists,” which is clearly different from not being convinced either way.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and CLT’s editor-at-large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like this profile of Seneca the Younger, this student essay on a Christian approach to the prison system, or this piece on genre from our recently-started “How to Read a Book” series.
Published on 4th November, 2022. Page image of Serengeti Cyborg (2020) by Fanuel Leul (source).