Sunday, 2 November 2014

Death and Afterlife

Yesterday's Doctor Who saw the "Nethersphere", somewhere which apparently appeared to be a kind of afterlife, but turned out to be a place where minds were uploaded after death. They would then be stripped of emotions, and returned to function as the conscious part of a new breed of Cybermen.
It is interesting that John Polkinghorne, a priest and scientist, suggested a similar analogy for explaining how the resurrection worked. The essence of you, purged of all that is bad, would be like software, taken from your current body - like a hard drive - and downloaded onto a new and more perfect hard drive:
 In some way the soul might have, in an extraordinary, elaborate sense, doors into the information bearing patterns of the body, which of course dissolve at death. But God remembers it all and God will re-embody it when I am resurrected. That will be the continuity between life in this world and life in the world to come".
John Hick summarises this as the idea that the body has a code or formula expressing its entire nature and structure, and this formula is re- embodied as a resurrection body in the resurrection world. But as he points out, there are problems with this view:
"There does however seem to me to be a problem in it. Some people die in infancy, some as the result of an accident or war in early adulthood, some in middle age, most in old age. Whatever the age, the information or code or formula is that of the person at that age and in that condition. So a resurrected woman in her eighties dying of cancer will be the same woman in her eighties dying of cancer. And likewise with everyone else."
"Are we, then, in our resurrected state suddenly miraculously to be cured of all diseases, and do we suddenly grow younger or older to some ideal age? All this is no doubt possible, but it complicates the theory to a point at which it ceases, to my mind, to be attractive or even plausible."
Perhaps part of the problem comes from thinking of the self in terms of maturity rather than infancy. We assume that as adults, we will somehow be adults in any afterlife. Our identity will have been largely formed.
But Paul, writing in the letter to the Corinthians, uses the metaphor of a seed.
"And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain."
"What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable."
The spiritualists of the Victorian age, with their séances, resurrected the body in a world not unlike that of the Victorian parlour. They shaped their concept of afterlife from within their current understanding. And for all that Polkinghorne brings modern metaphors of computers to illustrate his concept, there is a degree in which he is also looking into a mirror, and seeing a reflection of the present world in his imagining of the future one.
It reminds me of the words of T.S. Eliot
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Transformation forms part of the narrative in "The Power of the Daleks", where William Hartnell's Doctor transforms into Patrick Troughton's younger one:
Ben: Now look, the Doctor always wore this. So if you're him, it should fit now, shouldn't it?
(And slips it on the man's finger. It's far too big.)
Ben: There. That settles it.
Doctor: I'd like to see a butterfly fit into a chrysalis case after its spread its wings.
Polly: Then you did change!
Doctor: Life depends on change and renewal.
Ben: Oh, so that's it. You've been renewed, have you?
Doctor: I've been renewed, have I? That's it. I've been renewed.
What these have in common is continuity and discontinuity. The butterfly and caterpillar share a common identity, yet the pattern of their lives is very different.
And Charles Kingsley's "The Water Babies" takes a look at transformations. Tom, the runaway chimney sweep, is transformed into a water baby, while a strange bug is transformed into a dragonfly.
"Do not even you know that a green drake, and an alder-fly, and a dragon-fly, live under water till they change their skins, just as Tom changed his?"
Paul brings us to the heart of resurrection in Corinthians; it is about transformation, of seed into growth. All we have seen so far is the seed, and that is a long way off understanding what the final plant will look like. And with seed, it is as Eliot says: "In my beginning is my end."
Of course there may be no afterlife, nothing to come except the grave, only endings. No one knows for sure. But attempts to understand ideas of afterlife seem to falter on comprehension, on trying to understand too much, and in so doing, to create an afterlife in our own image.
Language itself, as Eliot noted, is too deficient for expressing what might be. And he strains at what language can say in East Coker, and perhaps only in myth or poetry can we begin the grasp the ungraspable, and to go beyond what can be said:
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,
The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant,
And we all go with them, into the silent funeral,
Nobody's funeral, for there is no one to bury.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

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