Friday, May 22, 2020

On life, contra Pinker

Yesterday saw Twitter graced with this from the popular science writer Steven Pinker:
Is that right?  Leave aside the Washington Post article to which he links, which I think makes a rather more nuanced point: is it right to state that belief in an afterlife devalues actual lives and discourages actions that would make them longer, safer, and happier?

First of all we'd have to clarify what was meant by 'an afterlife'.  It is common in the handling of religion by our new atheists to try to lump things together as if they were all the same; indeed, the notion that 'religion' can be treated as a monolithic thing is one of the hallmarks of contemporary approaches.  But not all afterlives are the same.  'Afterlife' could cover views including reincarnation (a further life, or further lives, to be lived within this physical world, albeit possibly in a different animal form) as well as some sort of spiritual survival (a ghostly element of the human make up to live on in some form, probably in another world).  Different forms of afterlife will have different effects on the understanding of the value of this life.  For example, the ancient Greeks believed in an afterlife, but it was a grim old business, and would hardly have made one keen to go there.

Christians, as N.T. Wright is keen to point out, believe not so much in an afterlife but in life after the afterlife.  That is to say, we look forward to real flesh and blood resurrection, on the model of the resurrection of Jesus, in a renewed physical creation.  That is a particular view of what happens after death.  It has, moreover, other concomitant beliefs  - in a judgement based on the way this life has been lived; in that life as being therefore related to this life by way of consequence.  That matters.

Okay, so not all afterlives are created equal.  Does the Christian view of the afterlife devalue actual lives in the here and now?  Does it discourage action to make lives in the here and now longer and happier?

The history of Christianity would point to the opposite - and again I can't adequately recommend Tom Holland's overview of that history in Dominion.  But I think we can also think it out from first principles.  What does the physical resurrection of Christ demonstrate?  Amongst other things, that God is interested in and committed to this physical life.  Resurrection - rather than, say, the survival of the human spirit - says that this world is not a mere preliminary to a better more spiritual existence.  This world is the goal.  It is for the restoration of this world that Christ gave up his life, and it is the firstfruits of the restoration of this world which we see in his resurrection.  Not pie in the sky when you die, then.

But what about all those biblical references which seem to downplay the value of this life in comparison with the next?  When the apostle Paul says that the sufferings of this time are not to be compared with the future glory isn't he basically denigrating this life?  When he says that we Christians are pitiable if we only have hope for this life, isn't he devaluing this life?

We need to keep firmly in mind that in both cases Paul is talking about resurrection, and the restoration of creation, and not the immortality of the soul - that is to say, not escape from this physical world and this ordinary human life, but the hope of the renewal of the world and the perfection of this human life.  That is the consistent perspective of the Bible.  But more than that, it's important to consider that Paul is in fact expressing his willingness to pour himself out for others, in their service, because he doesn't need to squeeze everything he can for himself out of this mortal life.  He doesn't need to, because resurrection is assured.  The hope of resurrection, then, gives Paul the liberty to put his life wholly at the service of others.  Now, I'm sure Steven Pinker wouldn't like the way Paul serves others - as a missionary preacher - but that's because there are fundamental disagreements between Pinker and Paul on the subject of what life and the world is all about.  But for the purposes of this argument, the key thing is just this: the Christian's resurrection hope - being a certain hope, based on Jesus' resurrection - liberates from self-interest and enables devotion to others.  And of course over the centuries that devotion has expressed itself not only in missionary endeavour but also in nursing the sick, or raising up schools.  Because it is commitment to life.

To conclude, it's worth briefly considering the alternative.  Suppose we emerged from a meaningless world, sentient by accident, by a cruel trick of fate concerned for - indeed, needing - meaning and purpose in a universe which ultimately has none...  It is not clear to me why any of this should lead to valuing life.  It may lead to a clinging to life, because the alternative is the collapse back into the meaningless darkness from which we came; but then, why prefer the meaningless light to the meaningless darkness?  I just can't see it.  And you know what, if you only live once, I think there's a huge amount of logic to getting as much out of it as you can, regardless of the impact on others.  I'm glad atheists like Pinker don't typically think like this - but I think they're hugely illogical in not drawing this conclusion.  You see, the expectation of post-mortem judgement by God for the Christian is simply a reflection of the profound certainty that in God's meaningful world every action matters; our being and doing are significant, of consequence.  Remove God and you can of course removed the burden of that responsibility; but you also remove the significance of human life.

Take out the resurrection, and you may well be committed to making human lives happier, longer, safer.  But who cares?  What is the value of a human life?  What would it matter if you had chosen differently?

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