Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

“Do we really want this—to live eternally?”

Posted by metaphorical on 16 December 2007

A reasonable question, but not one you would expect the Pope to be asking. Bob Parks noticed this in his unending and endlessly useful “What’s New” newsletter of 14 December.


Under Pope John Paul II, from whom so much was expected, there was little progress. However, in his second encyclical letter to the faithful last week, “On Christian Hope,” Pope Benedict XVI, reveals an unexpected side. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had headed the Vatican office once known as “The Inquisition,” and was the defender of traditional Catholic doctrine. About “eternal life” he now asks: “Do we really want this – to live eternally? It appears more like a curse than a gift.” Elsewhere he finds: “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is – in its origins and aims – a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history.”

Here’s more of what the Pope said, in his second Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, a title which apparently comes from Rom 8:24, “Spe salvi facti sumus”—in hope we were saved.” I’m quoting extensively, but it’s still only a little of a very long essay. Paragraph breaks are my own, for easier reading.

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus: “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”

A little earlier, Ambrose had said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation.”

To some extent, this is simply the usual confusion about infinities. We can no more imagine living forever than we can imagine a set of infinite numbers, to say nothing of a set of numbers even greater than a set of infinite numbers.

Then there are the additional puzzles about eternity. During this eternity – and the word “during” is already misleading, as if it has an endpoint – would we have new experiences? Or simply relive the old ones? If the latter, than every experience we could remember would be remembered an infinite number of times, which certainly seems unpleasant, even if each of them were pleasant in an of themselves. After all, even a great experience could have been made better by just the right choice of word, by a look, by a gesture. An eternity of remembering seems like an eternity of remorse and regret.

This Pope is willing to squarely face this hard truth:

To eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view.

I have always found all of Christianity’s talk of infinities to be meaningless, and this is the wellspring of much of my atheism. Omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with one another; the classic paradox along those lines has never been effectively resolved. And if an omniscient Christ, knowing how many people would eventually die in his name, for naught, as the Calvinists battled Roman Catholics, and each enslaved the Africans, and on and on, chose to die on the Cross anyway, then wasn’t he the morally worst human being to have ever lived?

Eternity have always been impossible to imagine, as has a disembodied soul. The soul, after all, is the form of man; as such, it is indistinguishable in you and in me. Only the body differentiates. (Hence, as Aquinas argues, each angel is its own species, since they are distinct souls yet disembodied.) The idea of each of us, individually, sitting at God’s side, for all eternity, is, then, doubly meaningless.

It’s nice to see this Pope address some of this, and I like the way he does it. After quoting Augustine, he says,

I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt.

It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

To some extent, the Pope is simply substituting one infinity for another – the infinite ocean of love for eternity, and, for the infinite number of natural numbers, perhaps the infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1.

But he is onto some poetical, if not analytical, insight when he talks about both desiring and not desiring life. We push on in life, even knowing that it’s end is death.

We cling to life, without knowing why. We do so out of fear, but also out of hope, unjustified hope. In our ambivalence, time stops. Yet it starts again, and for no reason at all. And yet, could it be any other way? Life is meaningful only if it ends, love is meaningful only if it can be lost. And yet a single moment of joy can give us hope, a reason to reject death or statis in each moment of life. For each moment of life, we hope for a next one, just as, for each number, there is a next one. It is an infinity of hope, which is faith.

5 Responses to ““Do we really want this—to live eternally?””

  1. Mateo said

    You don’t have much of an imagination… :-)

  2. Mateo said

    I should say that I was only referring to the passage below. The rest of your reflection was quite love.y.

    “I have always found all of Christianity’s talk of infinities to be meaningless, and this is the wellspring of much of my atheism. Omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with one another; the classic paradox along those lines has never been effectively resolved. And if an omniscient Christ, knowing how many people would eventually die in his name, for naught, as the Calvinists battled Roman Catholics, and each enslaved the Africans, and on and on, chose to die on the Cross anyway, then wasn’t he the morally worst human being to have ever lived?”

  3. Jan B. said

    There’s an unusual comment on immortality in Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. I find I’ve lent my copy out and can’t consult it, but the protagonist’s deceased wife or girlfriend comes back over and over from some kind of oblivian (not heaven), and she begs to be released from it. He keeps killing her and she keeps coming back, unwillingly. But this is the atheist’s immortality. If one has faith, or even if one had that particularly joyful sixties drug experience (perhaps to have that kind of experience, one had to have a foundation in faith in the first place), it’s possible to conceive an endless consciousness in the presence of a Loving Other. Possible to imagine it and possible to desire it with all your heart. Do you know how you feel when you are not loved by someone who ought to love you? Is there any feeling more intensely sad? Conversely, have you ever been really loved? Even just for an instant? Then it’s possible to understand how unspeakably happy the love of a God could make us. A God! the God who made all the pink mornings and the sweet smells and the stars and grass, who is Honor Personified, who knows all and knows us more than we could ever know ourselves. How we could live in it eternally, happily, blissfully! Maybe St. Augustine’s early, atheist’s, prayer applies here, ‘Lord, I believe–help Thou my unbelief!’ Lord, I do not know you, and so of course I do not desire immortality. But give me that one spark, that first grace, and I will want to live with You eternally!

    Dear friend, if it should turn out to be true, that the immense space inside your head is eternal as the ancients taught and many still believe, because they are unable to escape the possibility, you can live it in one of two places, in that Presence, or you can live it outside that Presence, in Hell, where immortality is the greatest of all curses and can never be escaped. A place of no love or honor or goodness or sweetness, just the awful grind of unloved consciousness. That is an atheist’s immortality. It is the only one he can imagine. B16 refers to this one, the one atheists reject because they cannot bear it.

    Today is Gaudate Sunday, the one that says rejoice! Rejoice in the midst of this painful life, because you are meant for God, and one is coming, He is almost here again, who will pay your debt and make your unescapable immortality bearable. Oh how lucky are those who have the grace of faith! But those who do not can humble themselves for a moment and pray with St. Augustine, I believe–I want to believe! Help me!

  4. I desagree with this stupid pope: I want eternal life if possible! Only depressed and unhappy people (like him) want to die. And I believe that very soon on Earth, without need of any supernatural salvation or grace we will have a choice: have children and die or, for those who want only (pick me!!!), be regenerated in a young body, thanks to a technology more explained in the free ebook Yes To Human Cloning. Of course you have to be happy first of all, or it can be a nightmare to live forever unhappy.

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