Saturday, April 30, 2011
View From Other Worlds. Part 2: Good is Immortal
By Ruben Rivera©
In my last post I wrote how some 'truths' once held to be beyond all doubt have been relegated to the dustbin of history as the result of some later, unforeseen development, such as Galileo empirically disproving the geocentric view of the universe.
The methods and discoveries of modern science challenged accepted notions of the world and the purpose and destiny of humans like nothing previously had done.
Ironically, some saw science as a sort of new messiah: a modernized salvation via faith in human reason, scientifically understanding and applying natural laws to create another, better 'New Jerusalem' than the one promised in the Apocalypse. It would be a utopian civilization filled not with flying angels and people in infinite worship, but flying machines and people on infinite vacation.
Others, however, speculated that natural law, science and reason were a poor Trinity upon which to bank all our human questions, needs and hopes. Indeed with each successive war -- war being the gravest necessity, and necessity being the mother of invention -- human reason and science have continually widened the circle of destruction and loss of life. Until since the mid-twentieth century a single war using Weapons of Mass Destruction can, with the utmost clinical efficiency, create not utopia but dystopia, not New Jerusalems, but old hells.
Science fiction (SF) arose as a 'literary' means to speculate on the possible futures that discoveries and developments in science, technology and modernizing societies might create.
Some SF writers -- those with optimism in human reason and scientific progress -- speculated on possible future utopias. A classical example of this is Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis (1624), which depicts the mythical island that glorifies empirical scientific method toward the achievement of a modern secular state where humans quest not to understand God, but what they can make of themselves -- all goals in keeping with 'the father of empiricism' himself.(1)
Other SF writers -- who like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) believed that life outside the social contract was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short", or who with Calvinistic pessimism of human nature -- speculated that not all the scientific advancements in the world would by themselves mean one inch of advancement in the moral goodness and spiritual maturity of humanity and society. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) took a satirical swipe at the popular optimistic utopian novels coming from SF pioneers like H. G. Wells, as well as expressed fears that American values and customs would spread around the world.
I recently came upon a short three-part dystopian story called Twilight (1991) which was nominated for an Eisner Award, the highest award given in the American comic book or graphic story genre. It's not The Watchmen in terms of story-telling quality, but it does depict a futuristic cautionary tale in which humans have achieved immortality.
Why is the story dystopian, you ask? After all, how many people throughout history have longed to cheat death? How many people today are preoccupied with preserving looks and life? Would not the achievement of immortality be utopia, heaven? Bluntly, no.
Such dystopian fiction asks us to consider that immortality without morality is not heaven but precisely hell. (I think C. S. Lewis once said something like this.) This is because it is the search for the wrong thing and for entirely the wrong reasons.
Just ask someone, anyone, why they would prolong their life (indefinitely?) if they could. Is it to work at becoming a great composer? To write the great American novel? To grow in wisdom and grace? Is it to right a wrong, or to seek a reconciliation that they never quite got around to? Is it to spend their guaranteed lease on life to serve humanity now that the universal worry is ended?
I ask, will reconciliation with others be any more likely given more time? Given more time couldn't things just as likely get worse? Will people come to serve others more than themselves now that the chief competition (survival) is no longer an issue? Will indefinite time turn beasts into beauties? I'm not going to say no, never. But somehow I don't think that Hitler would have become Gandhi if he was just given enough time.
In fact, knowing that we end may be one of the most good-producing inducements of all. We know that, here, we end. We're not around long. And the truncation, the finality brings sobriety, self-critique, putting affairs in order, repentance, reconciliation, goodness, maturity; things we might delay interminably if terrestrial life were interminable, or if actions here are believed to have no consequences in the hereafter.
Life begins with obscurity. Death brings clarity, or should (if I may paraphrase Samuel Johnson).
No, immortality of itself is not a good, nor, of itself, does it make us good. I think this is one of the biggest mistakes that Christians and other religious people can make: the belief that somehow, when they get to heaven, they will love the people they can't stand now. In heaven they will no longer cheat, or gossip, or exclude, or show favoritism. In heaven those they treat as other now, they will treat as dearest family then.
While a theology of grace can be marshaled in support of such views, it is a cheap grace indeed if one is not motivated to seek to become now what they expect to be in heaven.
Immortality has no power to beatify. Interminable existence could just as well produce monsters. The immortal gods of the ancient Greeks were powerful, but a lowly short-lived human could be the moral superior to the best of them. Rather, it is beauty that is immortal. Good that is immortal.
Should we not therefore seek that which is beauty and goodness, and in so doing find immortality?
(1) Stephen A. McKnight, "Francis Bacon’s God," The New Atlantis, Number 10, Fall 2005, pp. 73-100.