Eternal Life

Eternal life and the meaning of life

Fresno Bee, March 26, 2016

  • Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life
  • A good life includes resilience in the face of adversity
  • Friendship, culture and perseverance are keys to happiness

Belief in heaven remains strong. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 70 percent of Americans believe in heaven as a place where “people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded.”

Easter is a good time to contemplate the possibility of eternal life. Even if you are not a Christian, thinking about eternal life helps clarify the meaning of life in this world.

Some imagine paradise as spring break without a hangover. But sensual pleasure is not sufficient for a human being. Pure hedonism distracts us from higher goods. An eternal life of sensual pleasure would quickly become boring.

14129765799_e904af13b7_bBeyond sensual delight are the goods of ethics and culture. It is unclear how ethics would work beyond this vale of tears. But social relations and loving friendships are an important part of happiness. Of course, even the deepest romantic love may wear thin in eternity. Whom would you really want to spend eternity with?

Maybe cultural activity is the key to eternal happiness. Music, art, sports, philosophy and science are all activities done for their own sake. In these activities we create and discover meaning. Visions of eternity usually have included the goods of culture. Socrates imagined the afterlife as a place of unending philosophical conversation. Christians imagine music in heaven, with harp-strumming angels and choirs singing hymns of praise.

Perhaps heaven is a place to do activities we love. For skiers, heaven may be an eternity of untracked powder. For dancers, it might be a place of perpetual graceful motion. A golfer may dream of birdies, eagles and holes-in-one.

A MEANINGFUL LIFE RESTS UPON THE NARRATIVE ARC OF THE TOTALITY OF OUR DEEDS.

The problem is that play – like sensual delight and friendship – becomes dull when imagined in the context of eternal life. The happiness generated by human activity is connected to our need for variety and challenge. No human action is perfect. And every joyful activity must come to an end.

Conversations and songs become tedious after a while. At some point skiing, singing and dancing become boring and exhausting. And if every drive landed in the cup, golf would cease to be interesting.

A meaningful life requires more than completion and consummation in the ecstasy of bliss. In addition to play, we need practice. We also need failure, loss and the challenge of overcoming obstacles.

The enjoyment of the choral singer includes the process of learning the song, the camaraderie of the rehearsal, and the delight of the performance. Skiing, golf and dance are lifetime projects. Golfers seek out challenging courses. Skiers look for black diamonds. Dancers create new styles.

The joy of philosophy and science is not found in dull repetition of facts and theories. Rather, our inquiries are driven by questions, puzzles and paradoxes. And friendship grows through shared suffering and the process of overcoming disagreement.

EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN HEAVEN, LIVING WELL IS ITS OWN REWARD.

A meaningful life involves surmounting challenges and mastering new skills. Perseverance and tenacity are important, as are thinking and problem solving. The bliss of the moment is less important than a life of labor. We build happy lives through discipline, disappointment and diligent work.

A meaningful life rests upon the narrative arc of the totality of our deeds: the good and the bad, the painful and the redemptive. Through the whole, we become who we are. Perhaps in the afterlife, we simply reflect upon our earthly lives – our triumphs and tragedies.

The reward for living a good life may be the memory of that good life. Even if there is no afterlife, we should hope to look back on life with pride, celebrating our successes, and satisfied with how we handled failure and defeat.

There is no meaningful progress without suffering and loss. But we can turn tragedy into triumph. Every skier falls. Every dancer stumbles. And everyone we love will end up dead. Happiness is about resilience and perseverance. It’s not about how many times you fall but about how quickly you get back up.

Life without loss, risk and failure would be boring. Which is why heavenly bliss is so puzzling. Perhaps there is an afterlife. But even if you don’t believe in heaven, living well is its own reward. Joy is fleeting. Character endures. And if death comes tomorrow, you’ll want a good story to tell at the Pearly Gates.

Calendars, Politics, Religion, and History

Culture has deep influence on Easter

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2014

Political and religious histories give shape to our lives. Holidays like Easter remind us of the deep influence of culture. The power of culture extends even into the way we organize and count time.

Consider the mystery of the date of Easter. The Easter date is determined according to an arcane system, which links the phases of the moon and the occurrence of the vernal equinox. This is based upon the ancient calendar for calculating the celebration of Passover. The Easter dating system, codified in the fourth century, continues to influence us. Secular spring break is linked to this ancient notion of ritual time.

To complicate matters, western and eastern churches celebrate Easter according to different calendars (although they converge this year). Eastern churches rely on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar who instituted it. That calendar does not properly calculate leap years. Over millennia, it slowly became untethered from the solstices and equinoxes. Western churches updated their calendars in the 16th century under Pope Gregory XIII.

Popes and emperors determine how we keep time. Two of our months are named after Roman Emperors. July is named after Julius Caesar. August is named after Augustus. And our calendar is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory.

Our seven-day week appears to reflect the Judeo-Christian creation story: God labored six days and rested on the seventh. But the Genesis story is not the only source. The names of the days of the week commemorate the seven ancient planetary gods: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Saturday is named for Saturn, Sunday for the Sun and Monday for the moon.

The English names for the other days of the week reflect the names of Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is named for Thor. This trace of paganism in our calendar is a reminder that our culture is an impure mixture.

All of this makes one wonder whether we know what we are doing when we commemorate these ancient stories. Does it make sense to celebrate a Christian holiday like Easter on a day named after the Sun in a calendar with Roman imperial residue?

Things could be different. Christians might like to rename the days of the week to purge the calendar of pagan elements. Secularists might want to update the calendar and make it more rational. Is there a good reason for seven-day week that is not connected with ancient theology?

A scientific calendar would fix our odd 12-month year and its irregular number of days per month. A more rational system would make each month exactly four weeks long. We would then need 13 months (plus one day) to complete a 365-day year. (Do the math and you’ll see!). But perhaps superstitions about the number 13 would prevent that.

In the 1790s French revolutionaries attempted to rationalize the calendar. They created a 10-day week, along with a decimal system for clocks. The revolutionaries also introduced a decimal system for measuring other things, which eventually became the European metric system.

Unlike the metric system, decimal calendars and clocks did not catch on. Some traditions are apparently woven too deeply into the fabric of our experience. It is difficult to imagine a week without a Thors-day or Easter not falling on the Sun’s day.

We inherit a cultural matrix of meaning, language, traditions and symbols. Although our cultural inheritance is not permanently fixed, it does form a nearly immovable background for our lives. Imagine how difficult it would be to change our calendar or time-counting methods.

However, the Easter season reminds us of the possibility of freedom and a new future. The Hebrews escaped from Pharaoh during Passover. Jesus escaped from death at Easter. Whether these stories are true or not, one cannot deny the transformative power they symbolize. This includes the most radical change in counting time: the move from B.C. to A.D. Imagine the difficulty of the cultural shift that led from Roman paganism to Christianity.

We are captive to the great cycles of objective time. The motions of the planet — the equinoxes and lunar phases — are all beyond our control. But human beings give meaning to these changes and create a cultural world that is as real as the stars themselves

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/18/3884398/culture-has-a-deep-influence-on.html#storylink=cpy

 

Soul, Heaven, and Butterfly Dream

Easter is a good time to ponder what happens to the soul

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, Mar. 22, 2013 | 04:16 PM

What happens when the brain and body die? A popular book, “Proof of Heaven,” by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander offers an answer based upon an out of body experience he had while in a coma. He claims that his experience proves that death is not the end of consciousness.Zhuangzi-Butterfly-Dream

“Human experience continues beyond the grave,” Alexander writes. “More important, it continues under the gaze of a God who loves and cares about each one of us and about where the universe itself and all the beings within it are ultimately going.”

Skeptics have argued that Alexander has not really offered proof of the sort we expect from science. Are we sure, for example, that Alexander’s comatose brain really was entirely “off-line”? A further interesting question is the cultural presuppositions we see in Alexander’s account of his experience.

Our interpretations of experience, including near-death experiences, are infused with meaning that we acquire from culture. Alexander speaks of heaven and of a loving God. If he were a Buddhist or a Hindu, would he interpret the experience differently?

From the Christian perspective, when the body dies, the soul moves on to another spiritual realm. But in other traditions, when the soul separates from the body, it transmigrates, moving on to another life. How can we know which interpretation of the afterlife is the correct one?

If we left our bodies and brains behind, wouldn’t we also leave behind our experiences, memories, and cultural standpoints, including the language, images and ideas we use to interpret our own experiences? Would we recognize or understand anything without the cultural experience that the brain has worked so hard to accumulate in this life?

The deeper puzzle is the connection between soul and body. If the mind is distinct from the brain, how are mind and body able to interact? This problem has puzzled philosophers for centuries.

The philosopher Descartes proposed the pineal gland as the focal point for the interaction between the body and the soul — an appropriate choice given the location of the pineal gland in the center of the brain. But we know better now: the pineal gland is a part of the endocrine system, not the seat of the soul.

The idea of soul points toward a substantial mystery. The soul is not supposed to be a material thing. It has no size or shape or density. So how does it interact with the matter of the body? And where exactly does it go, when it leaves the body?

To explain where the soul goes, we must postulate another sphere of reality — the spiritual realm. But that spiritual realm would not be extended in space, since it is outside of material reality. The spiritual realm is not a place located in space.

Nor is it clear that the soul is a “thing” in any ordinary sense of that term. Existing things are defined in terms of space. They have location and size and mass. But the soul is not a thing with weight and shape. Nor is it clear where it is located in relation to the body, let alone in the afterlife.

And yet, the religious viewpoint maintains that the soul and the spiritual realm are more real than the material world. Alexander asserts that his experience was “real in a way that makes the life we’re living here and now completely dreamlike by comparison.”

Alexander described one part of his experience as flying on the wings of butterflies. Butterflies have symbolic meaning. It is amazing that the lowly caterpillar is reborn as a beautiful flying insect. One wonders whether Alexander’s butterflies are a metaphor or supposed to be real. Would there really be flying butterflies in the spirit realm outside of space and time?

The butterfly dream is reminiscent of a Taoist story about Chuang-Tzu, a sage who had a dream in which he felt he was a butterfly. When he woke up, Chuang-Tzu wondered if instead of being a man who had dreamt he was a butterfly, was he really a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.

Easter is a good time to ponder those sorts of questions. Can the soul really fly off to another life? Or are we merely caterpillars who dream every spring of becoming butterflies?

Bible and Proof

We need faith, but we still want answers

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-07

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala is contributing his column from Israel, where he is on sabbatical.

Is it possible to prove that religious belief is true? One approach would be to look for archaeological evidence. When ancient scrolls were found near the Dead Sea — the Dead Sea Scrolls — this discovery provided evidence of the antiquity of the Bible. But Christians and Jews still disagree about the meaning of these texts. Evidence still needs to be interpreted.

And archaeological evidence can be faked. Consider, for example, the findings of Ron Wyatt, who claimed that he had found the Ark of the Covenant buried in a cave in Jerusalem, directly beneath the spot where Jesus was crucified. Wyatt claimed to have found blood that had dripped from the cross. When he tested the blood, he found that it had only 24 chromosomes (23 plus a mysterious Y-chromosome), proof that it came from a man born of a virgin.

I learned about Wyatt when we visited a place called the Garden Tomb, which was where Wyatt claimed to have found his evidence. In the 19th century, this spot was suggested as a possible place for the crucifixion. Other Christians think it happened across town on the Mount of Olives. But most Christians believe that the Easter story unfolded at another place, at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is an uncanny place, full of candles and incense and filtered light. The church holds shrines and altars commemorating the location of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. This ancient building conceals strange nooks and crannies. At one point, I took a candle and crawled into dark and dusty tomb in a hidden corner of the church. Later I entered the holy tomb itself and touched the stone of the resurrection. It was cold and dark and slightly spooky.

The Garden Tomb is not nearly so mysterious. It sits in the open air, near a rock that looks like a skull. This fits the Biblical story that Jesus was crucified at Golgotha — the place of the skull. The empty tomb here is much bigger and airier than the tomb in the Holy Sepulcher. There is a groove cut into the ground in front of the tomb, through which a rock could have been rolled away on Easter morning.

Our tour guide in the Garden Tomb was a retired minister. He acknowledged the dispute about the location of the first Easter. But he said that the essential thing was to believe that on Easter morning the tomb was empty — wherever that tomb may be.

He also said that for him, the most memorable part of the whole Easter story was the moment when Jesus asked God to forgive those who were crucifying him. I like the message of forgiveness, too. But I wonder what kind of archaeological evidence would prove that Jesus actually said those words? The Gospel stories contain differing accounts. The words of forgiveness only show up in Luke.

How do we know what Jesus said or where he said it? Archaeology simply cannot dig that deep. The religious answer points away from knowledge in the direction of faith. Faith comes in when evidence is lacking.

The hunt for archaeological evidence of Biblical events thus points to a paradox. If the evidence were indisputable and obvious, then there would be no need for faith. If we really could see the blood and believe that it wasn’t fake, then we wouldn’t need faith at all. It might even be that, from a religious standpoint, there is more virtue in believing when the evidence is lacking, more virtue in faith than in knowledge.

Sometimes the craving for evidence can inspire wishful thinking that leaves us vulnerable to frauds and charlatans. Even Jesus warned about false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing.

But who do we trust, who do we believe? And what do we do when there is no evidence? What do we do when there are conflicting interpretations of the evidence we possess? These are the sorts of questions that keep you awake at night. These are the sorts of questions that can lead you to want to crawl into a dark tomb with a candle in your hand, looking for something, waiting to be shown the light.