Plumbing Eternity, Getting Caught in the Depths

chrysalisApart from healing and feeding people as he traveled through Galilee and Judea, Jesus also spent a lot of time teaching people. Sometimes this meant interpreting the Hebrew Scriptures–explaining or reinterpreting the Law, for example, or quoting and applying passages from Prophetic literature. But frequently, when people ask him a direct question, they ask him about one specific thing: eternal life. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” is a frequent refrain (Luke 18, compare John 3, etc.). Jesus spends a good deal of time, then, explaining what humans should do to attain this state of eternal life. But eternal life itself remains more or less un-explained. When Jesus does reference it, he almost always refers not to the state of one human being existing eternally, but to what he calls the “Kindom of Heaven” or the “Kingdom of God”. And when he does start to explain and define this, he invariably speaks not directly, but in parables: “the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…”

Considering how important both Jesus’s followers, and Jesus himself, seemed to regard eternal life, it’s a bit curious that the term remains so nebulous, so undefined. His followers are exhorted to seek eternal life, to live lives of love that can lead to it, but what it is exactly is never really offered. This has left a gap in Christian thought in which a wide range of ideas has entered. A whole range of concepts and definitions have been put forward to explain what eternal life will be like. Some are sophisticated and deeply grounded in philosophy, as per the ideas around the beatific vision, explored especially in Roman Catholic Thomist thought. Others are more folklorish and popular, such as the trope about playing ping-pong with grandma in heaven. The trouble is that none of these ideas seem to have a firm foundation in Scripture, all seem to owe more to secular and even pagan ideas, cultures, and values than anything identifiably Christian (the beatific vision easily brings to mind neo-Platonism, while many lay Christians’ conception of heaven looks more like the pleasures of the Elysian fields of Greek polytheism than anything in Scripture).

That Jesus is himself quiet on the details of eternal life is itself something worth considering. As mentioned above, when he does say anything about it, it’s always indirect, constructing analogies through parables. Here, in this space, I’d like to offer one way of making sense of this unwillingness of Christ to say more, when, on other topics, he seemed quite happy to be explicit, as, for example, in his ethical instructions around wealth or caring for those in need (see e.g. Matthew 25).

What reason might there be for Jesus, if he came to reveal the Truth to humankind, to be so silent on what seems to interest us humans most of all? If achieving eternal life is so important, shouldn’t we be told more about it? It has been common for Christian authors in the past to respond to such questions by an appeal to the importance of faith: if we knew the truth fully and directly, such an argument goes, we would not choose it for the “right” reason: what use would faith be, if we simply knew what was at stake? But surely this is a churlish argument at best, and morally outrageous at worst. If God, manifest in Jesus, wished to convey to humanity the importance of living righteously, wouldn’t God be willing to use any tool, any information, to convince us to mend our ways? Isn’t faith, ultimately, to be commended only because it is necessary here and now, only because of our incomplete knowledge and deficient faculties? As Paul says: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).

Faith is necessary now, Paul seems to be saying, not because living in faith is somehow better than living in knowledge or wisdom, but rather because there is something about the way we human beings are now that makes knowledge impossible. In other words, Paul is making a point that is–to employ a perhaps over-used and often-abused term–rather postmodern. He is making it clear that knowing everything about the world–in this case, what it would mean to inherit eternal life–is not just a matter of cataloging sensory experience and then organizing it rationally. Such an attitude towards knowing assumes that human beings can basically know everything there is to know, can come to have knowledge about any and all modes of being, if only we pay close enough attention and organize our conclusions rationally and systematically.

Paul is pointing to the possibility that there may be limits to what kind of information, generally, and what modes of being, more specifically, a given kind of knowing being might be able to access, process, or make sense of. The human way of sensing and knowing, that is, may have limits. This is a point that will more formally be made by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason and  will go on to be a central plank of his critical philosophy, itself providing the spring-board to what comes to be known as post-modern thought: that is, philosophy that questions the assumptions of modernism, the mode of thought launched (to oversimplify intellectual history drastically) by Descartes and Locke.

Well, I’ve clearly gotten well ahead of myself, and have meandered far beyond the boundaries of Scripture. But I think it’s necessary to make these connections, so that we can see what Paul is really up to. What can, at first, look like a somewhat sloppy, semi-mystical phrase turns out to be, upon closer inspection, a serious epistemic point. And Paul is not alone. Scripture frequently points to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of formal limits on human ways of knowing–that is, it frequently offers a critical epistemology, or indeed a critique of overly confident epistemologies.

So: what if one of the states of being that human knowledge is unable to make sense of is the state of being called “eternal life”? That would make sense in at least two ways. Exegetically, all of the sudden, the fact that Jesus refrains from any kind of clear-cut discussion of eternal life looks to make a lot of sense. Secondly, it also may, somewhat paradoxically, tell us something about eternal life, even in the moment we announce our necessary ignorance of it.

This latter point is actually contained within the quote from 1 Corinthians above. Paul says that we see darkly now, that we have limited knowledge now–but he also says that, “then”, that is, once eternal life is present or has been achieved, we will see “as face to face”. He seems to be suggesting that the epistemic limits he points to in the first clause will themselves be transcended in the second. So how does this tell us something about what it might mean to attain eternal life? It seems that Paul is telling us there will be a transformation, from the kind of knowing being we are now–one with serious limits to our knowing–to a kind of being who will know differently, and indeed, better, perhaps even perfectly.

This idea of transformation is not limited to this one passage. Paul will himself say, later in 1 Corinthians: “we will not all die, but we all will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51). Likewise, too, Jesus in the third chapter of the Gospel of John says that we must be “born again” or “born from above” in order to enter the Kingdom. Whatever this may mean, it certainly suggests a serious transformation of our way of being.

Now, some may see such a move as a way of shutting down the question: by saying that eternal life will involve a transformation of some kind from the kind of knower that we are now to a different kind of knowing–that is, that an ontic change in our mode of being will effect an epistemic change in our mode of knowing–it may seem like we are just kicking the can down the road, avoiding hard questions. I’d like to conclude by providing two examples which may show, formally, the logic of this move. Pointing to analogies does not provide a shatterproof argument, but it may allow us to understand a previously-made argument with greater clarity and sophistication.

First off, we can quote Paul again, who speaks about the change between being a child and being an adult, in the sentence which precedes our original quote from 1 Corinthians 13: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Imagine trying to explain certain adult experiences to a young child: sexual attraction, or the stresses of the workplace, or the responsibility of paying bills. We can, of course, use language to present these experiences. But there is no way to really understand what it’s like to feel sexual attraction, occupational stress, or the burden of bills, until one actually undergoes those experiences. One has to be the sort of being who goes through those experiences to really understand any linguistic expression about them.

Another, more radical example is that of the caterpillar and the butterfly. We talk about the process through which the former becomes the latter as one of transition or growth, but in many ways, the process actually involves the death of the caterpillar and the birth of something totally different. Yes, they have the same DNA, but the two beings are constituted completely differently. The body shape, the legs, the mouth, the digestive systems, even the eyes and other sensory equipment of each are completely different. The caterpillar builds a cocoon which becomes a chrysalis–and within this, the caterpillar is effectively dissolved, and its matter reorganized into a totally new mode of life: the butterfly.

Now, presumably, neither the caterpillar nor the butterfly has what we humans would call self-consciousness. But imagine that they did. For the caterpillar, the chrysalis is really a death. Its consciousness would end as its brain and sensory organs are dissolved. However, it could be the case that the butterfly, upon its birth from the chrysalis weeks later, might look back upon the caterpillar’s existence as an earlier stage of its own life–just as I do, in fact, look upon my life as a 5-year old as an earlier stage of my own identity, even though the life I live and the consciousness I now have would be totally unrecognizable to that 5-year old version of myself–who has, in a real if figurative sense, died.

We Christians may be eager to imagine eternal life as our current identities, or at least some best-version of them, living on for eternity. But I don’t think that’s what Jesus was referring to. He was calling for us all to endeavor to be changed–to be re-created into the true of image of God, that which we were meant to be but which we fail to attain in this fallen life. Imagine that a prophet-caterpillar came to a colony of caterpillars and promised them renewed life in the chrysalis. Imagine that they all rejoiced in the thought that they would enter the chrysalis and then live as caterpillars for eternity. Of course, that’s not what the chrysalis is, what the chrysalis does. It will transform them. Looking back from their butterfly-future, they may identify with their past selves, their caterpillar-selves. But first, they must be transformed into something radically different.