Thoughts on Immortality

Abby Yandell died in an auto accident three weeks ago. She was 18 and had just graduated from High Mowing School. She was in my algebra class her freshman year, but I didn’t get to know her very well: she was reserved, seldom volunteering in class (but always attentive and comprehending), nor was she very extroverted outside class, either (at least not when I was around). She was smart, a very good athlete (lacrosse), and a gifted artist. She had a warm smile, a graceful demeanor, and gentle but strong presence. She had great potential to make a valuable contribution through her life.

The memorial service at High Mowing brought out over three hundred people under a very hot sun. It was both sad and celebratory, devastating yet full of love and beauty, with (as such events often are) an uncanny charge of creative energy, as her family, friends, and acquaintances were put in touch with their better selves, at least for a few hours.

Of course, the question of theodicy was not far from the surface: How could a loving God have allowed this? What is the hidden meaning of Abby’s death? Why was someone so young and full of potential taken from us?

And in addition to questions, there were the inevitable answers, meant as consolation: God has a plan, even if we don’t grasp it. Abby is in a better place now. Or else, she still among us, inspiring us, bringing her beatific smile into our desolation, if only we would notice. “Death” is not final — it is really about passing over a threshold to another kind of life.

All of this put me in mind of another memorial service in the High Mowing Community — the one twelve years ago that followed the death of our son David, class of ‘96. Many of our friends were so well meaning, consoling us with reassuring words about David’s continued life in a different form. I’m sure they spoke from deep and sincere conviction, but those were awkward moments for me, because my own understanding of what had happened and how to think about it had been so different from theirs. So I never quite knew what to say in response, other than “Thank you.” Abby’s service reminded me of those awkward conversations.

It’s not that I have an alternative view that I can articulate with much confidence and clarity. But I think I can say a little about what I don’t believe. If there’s such a thing as immortality, I don’t think it has anything to do with “life after death,” with, that is, the belief that there’s a non-corporeal part of the deceased (usually called the “soul”) that continues to exist after the biological event called “death,” typically in a “place” called “heaven” or “hell” or whatever.

Nor do I share a belief in reincarnation as some of my friends from the Anthroposophical community have explained it to me. I don’t believe there’s an individuated substance that leaves the body (“disincarnates”) during the process of dying, undergoes certain transformative experiences (e.g., purification) in the “spirit world,” and then comes to be “incarnated” once again hundreds of years later.

I wouldn’t take exception to the usefulness of such beliefs in helping us mortals make sense of our lives by creating a framework for understanding human destiny more profoundly. As pedagogical myth, these beliefs are attractive, even if I find them ontologically indefensible.

There are many variations in conventional beliefs about “life after death”, and some are held by very smart people who have thought deeply about the matter. Still, I’ll venture the generalization that most such beliefs share two aspects, both of which give me trouble. One is positing a “something” (e.g., an immortal soul) that is not subject to death but continues on in time after the transition called dying. Exactly what that immortal soul might be is something believers may disagree about, as is the matter of how it relates to the mortal person with whom it is associated (e.g., does it retain memories? does it have consciousness, preferences, disappointments, hopes? does it have agency?), but it is generally assumed to be individuated, just as corporeal persons are.

A second fundamental aspect of life-after-death thinking is taking the word “after” literally — as denoting temporal succession. Souls of the departed inhabit the same time frame that we take for granted in our lives. Whereas no one seems nowadays to insist on the spatiality of “heaven”, etc., the temporal character of afterlife is another matter: very few people seem to regard the souls of the departed as somehow “outside” time.

I am not attempting to present arguments against the widespread beliefs about life after death that entail the temporality and substantiality of souls of the dead. In particular, I respect that such beliefs bring consolation in difficult times and may also have enormous moral value. But, for whatever reasons, I can’t share them.

More importantly, I propose that it is possible to decouple the concept of life after death from an affirmation that part of the human being is, in some sense, immortal, i.e., “not subject to death.” I believe, that is to say, that there is a dimension of humanness that touches or responds to or is otherwise allied with that which is immortal or eternal in its essential nature.

This is a difficult thought, one that makes me feel like a stammering imbecile when I try to explain what I mean. Let me start with a simple example.

As a math teacher, I have the experience of introducing my students to a collection of mathematical concepts — simple ones like geometric shapes and more challenging ones like the Pythagorean Theorem and complex numbers. I am one of those people who believe that some mathematical concepts have a timeless reality to them — such that they were not invented by the ancients so much as discovered. When I have a high school student who does not simply accept the Pythagorean Theorem dogmatically (out of trust in the teacher’s authority) but thinks through the proof and “gets it” (that ah-ha experience teachers love to see), this to me is evidence of a finite human being reaching into the eternal and giving immanent existence, through his or her act of thinking, to something that is essentially outside space and time. And in thinking the eternal, the student nourishes what in him- or herself is, in some sense, immortal.

I think the search for truth, what the Greeks called philo-sophia, has the same quality, as does the love of beauty, both of nature and in the fruits of human creativity. Love in its highest manifestations (agapē) has more than a bit of the eternal in it. Human virtue, which takes many forms, is often seen as expressive of that which transcends worldly desires and motives. The wonder with which children and, one hopes, many adults meet their world is an irruption of the eternal in our midst, as are, sometimes, the contemplative moments of prayer and meditation and the thrill of scientific breakthrough (Eurēka!). In a multitude of ways we human beings, when our better selves are awakened and active, partake of that which traditionally has been referred to as “divine” or “eternal.”

The memorial service for Abby was dubbed “A Celebration of the Life of Abby Yandell.” Indeed, it was about her love of nature, her creativity as an artist, the joyful times she shared with close friends, her love of family, her desire to serve: her immortality.

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