Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On Ash Wednesday, thinking about eternity

On this day when the Christian world is reminded in the Ash Wednesday liturgy that "you are dust and to dust you shall return," this photo seems to the point.
In Katmandu, walking through the city, one literally breathes the ash of bodies being cremated in accord with Hindu and Buddhist practice. The smoke on the left of is rising from the crematoria. In these belief systems, the soul of the dead person is being released on the way to its reincarnation in accord with the laws of karma.
In the cultures of the post-Christian world, awareness that we die is entangled with our various understandings of "eternity." Carlos Eire, a Yale University historian of religion, sorts out some of how our beliefs came to be in an interesting Very Brief History of Eternity.

His historical exposition gave me a timeline about eternity that I hadn't had previously. For medieval people, eternity was immanent, right there in proximity to human life, in shrines, in relics of saints, in churches, in the very cosmology shown the visible sky, the heavens. The Protestant Reformation, initiated by Luther in response to the abuse of eternity because the Church seemed to put a monetary price on admission to heaven, desacralized the world, making room for science. And science just about did away with the notion of eternity as heaven itself.

The Copernican revolution was not only a conceptual paradigm shift but also a spatial and dimensional one. ... Before the Copernican revolution in astronomy, heaven was a location, and therefore also eternity: just another place, conceived of much in the same way as we now conceIve of the orbits of the planets in our solar system. This older heaven thus shared a boundary with the physical universe and with time.

...The telescope made this old heaven vanish like a puff of smoke. Banished from physics, heaven went into exile in metaphysics, a location that Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) would soon unmask as an imaginary island. And since nearly all of the educated elites would agree with Kant on this point, metaphysics, too, vanished like another puff of smoke.

... if the new invention of the telescope and new mathematical calculations could prove that the Bible and all the churches were mistaken about the visible universe, why not also doubt their reliability about things unseen, such as eternity, and the hereafter? Among the first to take issue with Christian notions of an eternal afterlife were thinkers heavily influenced by the new science... such as John Locke, John Toland, and Isaac Newton in the British Isles, Pierre Bayle in France, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in Germany.

But if science had disproved heaven, what did the inescapable reality of human death mean? Perhaps nothing.

Nothing is a little much for human beings to put up with. Not too surprisingly, a western culture that cannot believe in eternity spawns such oddities as belief in ghosts, ouija boards and visiting aliens. But that stuff scratches the surface of our emotional response. In this country, most people claim to believe in God and some kind of eternity. But our intellectual environment implants a contrary reality.

Ghosts, recycled lives, and suburban cemeteries were not the only by-products of the death of eternity. That loss also gave rise to an existential dread so pervasive that it could be taken for granted by all within Western culture. And this dread is the ether in which we still live and move and have our being; it is as inescapable and as necessary as the air we breathe. ...

Eternity is out of the question, simply because it cannot be squared with reason or sensory input. Eternity is the most certain of uncertainties. At least eternity for us human beings. The stuff of which the universe is made may be eternal--and it may not--but we most certainly are not. It matters little that we may be the finest stuff in the universe, maybe even the consciousness of the universe itself. Each and every one of us is as much a candidate for extinction as every trilobite and dinosaur or all our forebears and descendants. It matters little whether one is a genius or a dimwit, righteous or depraved. All of us are the offspring of nothingness.

It may be painful to admit it, our sages seem to say, but terminal temporality is our common lot: nonexistence trumps existence, as far as every individual is concerned. And perhaps the entire cosmos as well. The dark abyss of nothingness that preceded our birth is no different, perhaps, from that which preceded the Big Bang. ...

And yet it seems built into human DNA to seek meaning in preference to accepting nothingness. I rather like that about us.

I think Professor Eire might agree. He's not the sort of author I turn to often -- a conservative Catholic with a doctrinaire streak -- but his history made my cosmos a little bigger and that feels like a good, whether eternity is "true" or not.

Our location within this contemporary "existential dread" is, I think, the context in which our species confronts radical climate change and global warming. Ash Wednesday too belongs quite properly within the "Warming Wednesday" series I'm posting these days.

1 comment:

Rain said...

The problem is separating eternity from religion. It's easy to disprove religion and many brush off their hands and think the job has been done. In reality all religions can be wrong (and to me they are all wrong) and there can still be something else.

A lot of the people who believe in say ghosts or contact with the spirit world also believe in religions; so it's a bit of a mishmash of beliefs as it stands and they can be in churches but still have seances (Episcopal anyway).

Ghosts are the ones that I most wonder about because I know too many sane people who have seen them and I don't mean those doing it for a living. Often it's a momentary thing and explaining what 'it' is, is pretty near impossible other than I do believe them. Those who constantly see the other side sometimes have other problems, of course. Still I don't dismiss that something is out there and maybe it's only energy waves as I don't remotely know what happens after we die. It is interesting to me to consider though and if I seriously thought I could figure it out, I'd give it another try... actually I probably will anyway but not today :)

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