Is this all there is? Is there life after death? Is this world the only one? Maybe, maybe not. The hovering is worth a dance. And also worth a few minutes of reading on a blog—if not a lifetime’s worth of fear and trembling!
Socrates said philosophy was learning how to die. It was philosophy’s job to teach us not to care about the Peggy Lee question. If the soul were as mortal as the body, then death would be nothing more than the soundest sleep one would ever enjoy. If the soul were immortal, then one could look forward to eternal blessedness. (The prospect of Hell was one hitch in his argument.)
Either way, it was a good deal. Socrates’s wager had a similar structure to Blaise Pascal’s, but with a different emphasis. If there isn’t a God, Pascal thought, what do we have to lose by leading a pious life? And if there is, think of the added glory to be gained! Thus he could hush his fears about the vast empty silences. Socrates used the open-endedness of what happens after dying to stop us from fretting about what is to come; Pascal used its open-endedness to goad us into a life of amped up devotion. Socrates postponed the question of the next life to relax; Pascal postponed it to work.
Paul of Tarsus, however, did not want to dismiss the question. He thought everything hung on the prospect of a world after this one. The resurrection of Christ split history in two halves and modeled nothing less than the pathway to a new creation, as a person, community, and cosmos. In his first letter to the early Christian community in Corinth, he wrote, “If in this life only we have faith in Christ, we are of all men the most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19 KJV). Or in a more recent translation: “If all we get out of Christ is a little inspiration for a few short years, we’re a pretty sorry lot.” Paul regarded this-worldly religion—this-worldly anything—as woefully inadequate. The message of the cross was the death of death and the prospect of a life beyond. This life was at best a few short years.
The Jesus of the synoptic Gospels similarly rebuked his lieutenant Peter, and even called him Satan, for valuing life over death and for savoring human things (Matt. 16:23, Mark 8:33). Here you might see the origins of a longer history of Christian otherworldly asceticism or flirtation with martyrdom. Yet Jesus also authorized celebrating in the here and now: who, he asked, can or should mourn at a wedding party? He clearly did not want his disciples to mope in his presence (Matt. 9:15, Mark 2:19, Luke 5:34). There is mercy in these phrases for our limited state on earth, a willingness to let us humans live, move, and breathe in mortality as a fully legitimate and necessary condition. Paul also allowed for a finite point of view, speaking kata anthrōpon (Rom. 3:5), according to humans, or anthrōpinon (Rom. 6:19), in a human way. Paul understood the use of means and media for beings caught in the meanwhile.
Hannah Arendt would call Paul’s idea of the next world “eternity.” She contrasted that with “immortality,” a notion she derived from the Homeric term kleos (fame or renown). Eternity meant you would live on as a deathless soul in another world forever; immortality meant you lived on in the memory and monuments of earthbound people for as long as your legacy lasted. Achilles was immortal not because he lived on after death but because his rage and deeds continued to be sung by poets and treasured by listeners. Our best bid for a life beyond this one was to be remembered by those that survived us—family, friends, and artifacts. The chances for immortality were low, as it was subject to the usual pests of moth, rust, and corruption.
Eternity and immortality operate on different odds and with different scales. The odds of eternity are unknown; the odds of immortality small for most of us. And eternity unimaginably dwarfs immortality in timeframe. Eternity means endless eons; immortality decades, centuries, or even millennia if you are lucky—or great or monstrous. Even then, the mightiest immortals face the fate of Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias, the puissant king of yore whose glory has shrunk to a decaying wreck in the desert sands. By immortality’s standard of remembrance, at least 99.44 percent of everyone who has ever lived has already died again. Oblivion is the fate of almost anyone who has ever lived. Immortality is a stingy archive, a historical computer with a tiny cache. For those who play a deep game, all the bets are on eternity! Thus Woody Allen’s wisecrack: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
For my part, I wonder. If I can trust the blogosphere with my personal beliefs, I will confess that in the end, I am betting on eternity. I look forward with faith to a physical resurrection and reunion with family and friends. I do. This Mormon future feels right to me. Mormon theology holds to a continuity between the life we live now and the next life: In heaven as it is on earth, in Samuel Morris Brown’s nice phrase. The earth is my eternal home, the cosmic spot I am meant to be, both now and later. Mormons are specialists in immanence. But I have no exact idea what that later condition will be like. I would live as I do even if this is all there is, because this life might well be the stuff of eternity. If this is all there is, that itself is pretty great.
The possibility of eternity makes this life all the more interesting. It shows us features of this life we might not otherwise notice. The drenching strangeness of everything all around me reminds me not to foreclose options. If the cosmos is weird enough to include squids and acorns, quarks and quasars, clouds and cornstalks, why couldn’t it be weird enough to include universes beyond, around, and within this one in which the families of the earth, human and otherwise, could continue to flourish and carry on their various projects? We have a well-honed ability to smooth all strangeness into blind habit, but we should not mix up our temporary blindness with the claim that possibility is impossible. The universe we are in is unspeakably strange. The earth we are on is unspeakably glorious. (The earth, not the world.) I would say that is enough to dance about.