Today I listened to a very informative radio programme about the effects of climate change on our crops. It was part of Radio4’s “Costing the Earth” series. A number of plant scientists talked about the ecology of global warming with reference to plant life, indicating the genetic profiles that made plants more or less susceptable to changes in seasonal temperatures. Plants that for example rely on a specific insect species for reproduction are obviously dependent on how that species copes with climate change and are therefore more at risk than plants that have no such dependence, or attract a great variety of insect partners. The programme highlighted a great amount of precise practical research which will assist our agriculture as change occurs. I was reminded of the value of patient, well-tested investigation of the world, with its emphasis on finding and respecting the facts.
Today also I’ve continued to mull over a theological theme aroused by the aftermath of the Manchester atrocity and its aftermath, in which bereaved people expressed the faith that their murdered children had become angels. As a parish minister I know that many people who are otherwise not religious find comfort in popular images of an afterlife. And in truth I also find consolation in the vision that those who have been deprived of life, or deprived of a decent life on this earth, are given new life by God. But two questions arise. One, how can this belief in an afterlife be reconciled with the kind of science of which I have written above? And two, does not the notion of an afterlife devalue life on earth and possibly lessen our determination to eradicate its evils? There is ample evidence in Christendom that the poor were often discouraged from holding the rich to account by the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom. It also seems that gross carelessness with human life, their own and others, by jihadis, is supported by a faith in the heavenly reward of Islamic martyrs.
This second criticism is somewhat undermined when we look at how the most confident developments of capitalism took place in the protestant societies of northern Europe and America, many of whose citizens looked forward to the riches of heaven. It’s clear that you can be greedy for both worldly and heavenly rewards. And if it be argued that these were corrupt forms of Christianity, then the evidence of the first three centuries CE is that the same Christian faith that helped people face death rather than surrendering their allegiance, also helped them form a world network of communities which challenged and survived the Roman Empire. Evangelical Christians with a strong belief in eternal salvation were part of the movement which abolished the slave trade in Britain. These examples suggest that the precise nature of faith in life after death is important. Doubtless some beliefs can foster either laissez faire attitudes to worldly evils or even promote them, but it is at least arguable that the classic Christian faith in resurrection promotes a sense of responsibility for earthly conduct.
The first criticism is more difficult to answer. The science of human biology has more and more insisted on the unity of the human person. The old division of body and mind has been challenged so successfully that the notion of a soul separate from both lacks all credibility. There is no “ghost in the machine” that has separate existence from the body and survives bodily death. Our mind exists in all parts of our central nervous system and in every physical organ of sense perception. Our body functions in all its parts as a cognitive agent. And our souls or spirits must also be seen as functions of our whole selves. The fact that physical damage to the brain also changes the person, so that a widow’s phrase about her late husband who suffered from dementia, “he died two years before his death” make perfect sense, reminds us of the physical basis of personality. Psychological science has put forward evidence that we are not ever simply individuals but defined by our relationships with other people. No man is an island, as John Donne knew.
All of these scientific discoveries can rid us of the kind of popular Platonism with which Christian faith has been contaminated for centuries. Nothing of us survives physical death. When we accept that fact we are set free to recognise that this also the teaching of the New Testament. The resurrection of Jesus is never presented as any kind of survival. There is no Jesus-Spirit that survives crucifixion. Rather the Jesus who appears to his disciples is a bodily presence, bearing the marks of bodily injury. The authors are careful to deny that he is a spirit or ghost. Certainly he is not a physical body, as he can appear and disappear. In some appearances he is not immediately recognisable, but he is clearly identical with the Jesus who had been.
St Paul explains that physical bodies which are subject to decay cannot share God’s eternal life. But rather than denying the body, he denies the physicality of the resurrected person, who is, in his language, a spiritual body. The person is with God and shares God’s mode of being; she is no longer an item in the universe but a person in God. He asserts both the identity of the resurrected person with the earthly person, and the difference between them, by using the image of the seed and the plant.
Since Paul wanted believers to model their lives on that of Jesus, to express his exhuberant goodness even at the risk of their lives, he wryly notes that if there is no resurrection, “we are of all people the most pathetic” since they will have risked their only lives for nothing. Again here we can see evidence that it is precisely faith in the resurrection that gives Paul and his converts the freedom to act courageously in the world.
But is it true, in the sense that it’s true that “deep-rooting plants are best at surviving climate change” as I learned from the radio programme. Clearly the latter is a truth about this planet in this universe, while resurrection is a truth about God and life in God. Does that mean it’s merely a metaphor for an particular attitude to life in this world? No, it’s a assertion about One who is not the universe and the life he/she gives to sentient beings, which will, according to St. Paul be one day extended to the universe itself. That makes it a truth which is “in this world but not of it,” a phrase which has also been used to describe Jesus. Theologians call this an eschatological truth, that is, a truth about the end or purpose of the universe that we know.
Of course, Paul and the New Testament also speak of God’s judgement and God’s anger, so I should speak of these too, in my next blog.