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Eternity Now: How to tell a story about the good life
What kind of narrative can we build and share that motivates us to live well, in the absence of a religious story?
Some years ago, a panel of thinkers was invited to speak publicly about the question of life after death. The speakers included two rabbis, arguably the most biting atheist in the world (Christopher Hitchens), and the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Rabbi Wolpe mapped out the territory in the language of negative theology – saying what Heaven wasn’t, including that it wasn’t to be thought of literally – and closed by saying that at his father’s funeral, “whatever was in that coffin, he wasn’t there. But I also knew that wasn’t the same thing as he wasn’t. It just meant he wasn’t there...”
Rabbi Shavit echoed this spirit of doubt, claiming that he didn’t know for certain that there was an afterlife but he trusted that there was, and that similar beliefs inspire many “to live each moment with dignity and connection”. Hitchens waxed poetic about how insufferable and totalitarian an afterlife of the traditional Christian kind would be, a sort of celestial North Korea. He couldn’t be sure what happened after death, but he was very glad there was no reason to suspect the Christians had it right. Sam Harris, meanwhile, expressed (with tongue half-in-cheek) his concern about the event:
“I’ve been very worried about this – that all of you have given up a perfectly serviceable Tuesday evening only to hear the four of us tell you, every which way, that we have no idea what happens after death.”
We’ll return to this doubt later, but first: A group of people who are certain about what happens after death can be found in Eric Schlosser’s book Gods of Metal. For members of the Plowshares movement, God assures them of a place in Heaven after they die. This same God, they believe, calls them to live lives of protest against nuclear weaponry. Between them, these devout anti-war activists have spent many decades in prison for regularly breaking into nuclear storehouses, splashing their own blood across missiles, and taking up hammers to symbolically enact the Bible verse from which the group takes its name:
“...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Father Carl Kabat was sentenced to eighteen years in prison for one of the group’s incursions into a Minuteman missile complex. After serving seven years of his sentence, he was released, which he celebrated by breaking into the Minuteman complex again. He was subsequently sentenced to six months in a halfway house. Two years later, he broke into another complex and received a five-year sentence. “After gaining his freedom,” Schlosser writes, “having spent more than fifteen years in prison ... Kabat proceeded to break into Minuteman complexes three more times.”
Then there’s Philip Berrigan, who broke into a shipyard and poured blood over a warship at the age of seventy-three. He was tried and sentenced to prison. On release, he snuck into an airbase and struck a fighter plane with a hammer, earning himself yet more prison time. A year after he got out, he died of cancer, and he went to his grave (and possibly beyond) with the conviction that his life had been spent doing good.
Why would these people so willingly make such sacrifices? Many of us value things beyond ourselves, but few of us are truly prepared to give our lives for such things. We often hope someone else will do the hard work, and our commitment rarely goes beyond words or into the realm of true sacrifice. I am a vegetarian, and I like to think I would be even if it were difficult, but the truth is that it has always been a fairly easy lifestyle to live. Would I be prepared to die for vegetarianism? Almost certainly not. But is there anything I would be willing to die for? And if so, as I believe there is, on what do I rely to sustain this commitment?
For the Plowshares movement, their devotion is born of a belief in Heaven. They bear out Rabbi Shavit’s view that a belief in the afterlife inspires lives lived with “dignity and connection”. For them, Heaven isn’t a reward for following the rules (a common view that turns God into a cosmic nanny handing out treats for good behaviour). It is a gift of eternal life that, in its perspective, makes it a small thing to sacrifice one’s finite Earthly life. If you know you will have eternity, what loss is it to give up some years now?
Believers of this kind are like a rich person who gives away much of their fortune to the needy because there will always be more than enough left in the bank. There is a riposte to this idea, proposed by critics who cynically adopt the universalist assumption that all people go to Heaven: If we all end up blissful in the afterlife, why worry about this life at all?
To return to the metaphor of the millionaire, suppose the government promised everyone a living wage in a year. It would still be a worthwhile use of resources for the rich person to support the needy in the meantime. Given a choice between living comfortably until that government cheque arrives or living in squalor and suffering until then, who wouldn’t choose the first? There is a secular version of this that Sam Harris articulates in The End of Faith:
“Consider it: every person you have ever met, every person you will pass in the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything they love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?”
The presupposition for the Plowshares faith is that Heaven is more than a metaphor, it is a real place in the most literal sense. For this worldview to hold together, it must rely on a belief that life waits for them after death – that the metaphysical bank account is full. For those of us no longer able to accept religious propositions as true in this way, we now face the truly difficult and inescapable question of what other sources of spiritual finance are available for us to draw on.
In an essay on his conversion to Christianity, Paul Kingsnorth writes of his belief that the secular West is “surviving on spiritual credit”. In contrast, I believe there are other resources we can draw on: a commitment to humanism; a historical view that puts each life in perspective; a desire to outlive death through a lasting effect on the world or in the memories of those who remain. The typical objection to these is that they simply cannot sustain a system of ethics as Christianity can, but religious belief is no more stable given that it must be held in one of two ways. Either it believes in a metaphorical God and metaphorical Heaven, in which case it is no sturdier than a metaphysical commitment to the metaphorical life after death offered by humanism; or it is a belief in a literal God and an objectively real Heaven, a factual proposition that remains impossible for many of us to accept and so, until it is demonstrated to be true, is no more reliable than a secular worldview.
What we end up with is a problem of universality. We lack an absolute anchor to tie our ethical commitments to, an objective X on the map according to which we can all see when we are on the right path and when we have lost our way. Thankfully, we do at least have a shared map, even if we are drawing X’s all over the place – but even that is under attack, as the relativists and postmodernists insist that each of us has our own map and there is no actual land out there to measure them against. All maps are to be accepted as equally valid, which in the case of something intended to chart reality, makes them all equally useless.
So what are we to do? How are we to agree on a destination, even as we take different routes to arrive there? How are we to derive the moral motivation and existential encouragement to blaze a trail, to hack through the weeds, to take as our motto Tennyson’s commitment “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” no matter how tough the going gets? In short: What reason can we find for not taking the easy way out at the cost of the greater good?
I’m afraid that I must take the position of all four of those on the panel about life after death, which is to say that I live in doubt, I am uncertain about the answers. I can tell you why I live as I live, but it’s harder to convince you to live the same way absent a shared set of presuppositions about the nature of good and evil, a shared foundation on which we can build our ethical towers side by side.
Perhaps what we need in this moment is not moral lawmakers or further pronouncements on what we ought to do, but better storytellers who can communicate moral truths in a way that speaks to the whole culture. Because, in the end, the most surprising thing about the Plowshares movement is not that individuals gave up so much for the cause, but that they didn’t act alone – multiple people acted in unity towards the same idealistic end. They were members of a community that shared a story, an ethic, and a responsibility to each other and to the rest of the world. That seems to me to be a piece of Heaven on Earth, eternity breaking through lonely, finite lives.
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• Is There an Afterlife? - Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, David Wolpe, Bradley Artson Shavit, theinfiniteyes [YouTube] (2011)
• Gods of Metal, Eric Schlosser (2015)
• The End of Faith, Sam Harris (2004)
• The Cross and the Machine, in “First Things”, Paul Kingsnorth (2021)