Like all of us Carl Sagan must die*. His death is perhaps nearer than other peoples since he has been diagnosed with cancer. That caused him to speculate publicly on the meaning (or lack of meaning) of his own death. During a recent visit to Seattle he made the following declaration:
Now Carl Sagan considers himself a "sceptical inquirer." With all due deference to the famous astronomer, I wish to express my own scepticism about his assertions: 1) That belief in an afterlife is attractive or comforting. 2) That there is no evidence for such a belief.
Belief in the afterlife hinges on whether a spriritual world (God) exists. My starting point, however, is not the natural proofs for God's existence. For instance one could argue that the universe began at some point in time (the Big Bang) and that Someone had to light the fuse. Or from the order of the universe that one might conclude that a Mind exists who gave it that internal and external structure. These proofs (or "ways to God's existence" as Thomas Aquinas called them) have great value. Nevertheless, I choose to begin with something more intimate, more disquieting: the moral law.
Jesus summed up the basic precepts of the moral law when a rich young man asked Him, "Master, what must I do to have eternal life?" He replied simply: "You know the commandments. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do no lie, do not steal. Honor your father and mother."
Jesus zeroed in on those five commandments, one half of the Decalogue. They are readily acknowledged by all peoples, all cultures, all times. They form the bedrock of the moral law.
Some people attempt to brush off a universal moral law. They point to widely differing practices in various cultures, especially regarding sexuality. For example, Mark Twain humourously describes how the New Englanders tried to impose their standards on South Sea Islanders. He makes his readers laugh at the formers' uptightness and long for the latters' freedom.
I saw that fascination with unusual customs during my seven years as a missionary among the Aymara Indians of Peru. That fascination and a sense that it can somehow liberate us from a certain nagging guilt can blind us to something more fundamental. The South Sea Islanders, whom Mark Twain describes, in actuality knew the moral law even before the Christian missionaries arrived. It cannot be otherwise. Start with "you shall not lie, you shall not steal." No society, indeed no human relationship, can exist if they are not acknowledged. Even an outright liar or thief cannot afford to reject their validity. The same can be said of the Aymara Indians before the Spaniards arrived. The Inca civilization which they were part of had this code: Do not lie. Do not steal. Do not be lazy. (In his visit to Peru Pope John Paul II quoted this as evidence of the universal moral law.)
That point was made dramatically--and humorously--in a movie called "Thief." The opening scene shows him in the slow and dangerous process of breaking open a huge vault. We cannot help admire the skill and the guts of the safe-cracker who has the title role. But at a certain point someone steals money from him. He howls, "You can't rob me. I worked hard for this money." The audience laughs and the spell is broken. A thief cannot afford to say robbery is OK. A liar survives only if truthfulness is generally valued. Even if we rail against the moral law in the end we will always acknowledge its demands.
That comes through in our current debates. It is not a question of "moral" people on one side and the immoral on the other. As a "pro-lifer" I am sometimes inclined to take that viewpoint, but it won't work. I may think that pro-abortionists are totally immoral because they refuse to defend the life of an unborn child. But none will say, "The life of an unborn child does not matter to me." They will either deny that the fetus in fact is tiny child or they will say, "It is you who do not care about the life and health of the mother. You only seem to think about the child before birth; what about the misery he has to live in. And furthermore you probably think capital punishment is OK, so don't talk to me about being pro-life."
What we have is not one person acknowledging the moral law and the other rejecting it. No, both acknowledge it. Both argue from it. And not just to win debating points; in fact, we both sincerely feel its demands. As St Paul says,
Because we have a law written in our inner being, we make statements like, "It is not fair." "You must not do that." Or as President Clinton declared after the bombing in Atlanta, "It was an evil act." Unfair, evil, must not--these and their positive conterparts are the inevitable verbal expressions of the moral law. I have used citations from the Bible but that does not mean you won't find similar statements in all the world's great literature.
Living in an age of cultural sensitivity should not blind us. In fact if we really studied other cultures deeply, we would see they all contain expressions of that law. In his book, "The Abolition of Man," C.S. Lewis lines up expressions of it from a wide range of cultues (ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Norse, etc). They agree on the basic principles.
The moral law is too universal and too deep in our being to attribute it to culture or evolutionary development. Moreover, as C.S. Lewis persuasively argues, making that law into a series of suggestions or personal preferences leads to the abolition of man himself.
Using a personalist and phenomenological approach, Pope John Paul II makes a similar case in what many (including myself) consider his greatest encyclical: Veritatis Splendor. He starts by arguing that man is free. He does this against those who assert that when all is said and done our actions are pre-determined. But he says, and this is the most difficult point for modern men, we are not so free that we can invent our own moral law. The moral law is "given." To try to escape it brings our own destruction. But if we obey that law we discover the true meaning of our freedom.
Those are the two foundational principles: Man is free and his true freedom is realized under the moral law. If you have followed me thus far, then we are ready to ask how those two principles might apply in response to Carl Sagan's dismissal of the afterlife.
Sagan is hardly the only one who brushes off Christianity (and most other religions) with the assertion that it is simply wishful thinking. That statement can be made with a sneer or patronizingly ("poor simple folks who light candles and believe in that afterlife stuff"). Or even wistfully--"I wish it were true, but I have come to know better."
That line of reasoning, which has a certain power to intimidate, leaves out one vital fact: the moral law. Christianity (and even certain other religions) are not about reassuring folks concerning some future blissful state. Jesus does not begin with comfort, but with something highly upsetting. (See Mark 1:15 for his opening statement.)
The moral law is not only disquieting, but as the Governer Felix (cf. initial quote) realized, it can be downright frightening. Once its demands assert themselves no one can help but recall he has used them to judge other people. And the behavior he has condemned in others he himself has done. "By the measure you measure, it shall be measured back to you," said Jesus. We stand condemned not by some arbitrary, external law, but by a law we have in our own hearts and use daily.
The dismissal of believers in the after-life as comfort seekers can easily be turned around. I myself have thought how comforting it would be to simply fall into a perfect, dreamless sleep. Shakespeare's Hamlet would have wanted nothing more than to put an end to the "sea of troubles...the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." But he was stopped by a further reflection: "To die, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there is the rub." At the conclusion of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Shakespeare movingly describes the power of conscience.
Wouldn't living (or even ending) this life be so simple if we did not have within us nagging compunction about the moral law? If we did not feel its present demands and fear possible future consequences of breaking it? When Paul spoke to Felix about an upright life, self-control and the coming judgement his response was to become afraid and shout, "Go away."
Behind the sneering, behind the wistful patronizing can we not see a similiar dynamic at work? Nervous fear followed quickly by bravado, then dismissal. Carl Sagan after all is not a pure scientist. No one can be. His writing are full of exhortations to make this world a better place, to apply reason (what he sometimes simply calls "science") to improving the human condition. But science can never explain where these concerns come from and why they have such a powerful hold on each of us. Sagan himself does not need to explain them. Like most of the rest of us, he simply assumes them. But he also assumes a certain guilt, a certain implied punishment if we fail to live up to them.
So the charge of seeking comfort is a sword that cuts both way.** I'm convinced the sharpest edge is against those who reject the after-life. At the very least the charges cancel each other out. We are left then with the second question: is there any real evidence for a life beyond the grave?
Before answering that question, let me clear up one misunderstanding. Some, apparently including Sagan himself, imagine that people have more or less automatically believed in the afterlife up until recent times. That the Bible and other religions grew out of a preoccupation with survival after death. A careful reading of the Bible shows a very different picture. In fact the only "immortality" Abraham and the other patriarchs envisioned was having children and being remembered by them. Books as late as Job and Ecclesiastes do not propose a belief in the afterlife (just the opposite, cf. Eccl 3, 19), even though it would have been most appropriate to the questions they ask.
The idea of an immortal soul was late in the Old Testament and only in a book like Wisdom which was influenced by the Greek culture which Alexander brought to the Holy Land when he conquered it in 333 B.C. The New Testament hardly speaks about the survival of the soul. What it does teach is the resurrection of the body, a hope confirmed by Jesus' sacrifice. But that future is only in terms of living, present relation with Jesus. "I am the Resurrection and the Life." The terror of judgement which Felix felt so poignantly can only be taken away by coming to Jesus himself and recognizing he has taken away the burden of our sins.
What the whole Bible in fact offers is a relationship with the Living God. The afterlife is certainly an aspect of that because it does not make sense that God's love for his own child would stop at the moment of death. Or that the corruption of the grave would be an obstacle for him.
Having clarified the biblical teaching, let us return to the question at hand. Is there any evidence for the afterlife? I am speaking now about evidence one could appeal to apart from the authority of the Scriptures.
I will not use here evidence based on near-death experiences nor para-normal phenomena. Not that they do not have value, but they depend on the reliability of the witnesses. What I offer is evidence that is accessible to everyone. Once again we are back to the moral law.
The moral law is, in fact, a kind of reasoning. To come to the moral law as more than a set of external commands, one must make this internal argument: the other person's happiness should not be sacrificed to my own. Even though I might be highly tempted by the proposition (and to be honest often give into it), it just does not make sense. I can allow others to suffer or even cause their suffering for my own fulfillment, but in the end my reason rebels against doing so.
In talking about such reasoning we are really speaking about basic self-transcendence. That drive to transcend ones own self has been summed up by Bernard Lonergan in four principles: Be Attentive. Be Intelligent. Be Reasonable. Be Responsible. (cf. Insight, Method) They are the four steps to living in accord with the moral law. Each one involves realizing ones true self by an act of going beyond.
Carl Sagan sometimes speaks as if science exists in some mystical realm above humanity. He says, for instance, that "science" has enabled the present world population to survive by expanding the food supply. In fact, food production has been increased by human persons being attentive, intelligent, reasonable and responsible.
Science at its best is nothing more than applying the transcendental principles. Real progress results not from following some magical formula, but by the self-transcendence Lonergan so incisively described.
Carl Sagan often complains that people don't accept "science." But that non-acceptance might not always be thick-headedness and superstition. After all, science itself can also be unattentive, stupid, irrational and irresponsible. In fact much of what we call "science" in everyday life is simply an appeal to authority--"science teaches us" or "my doctor said Mylanta"--often more dogmatic and all encompassing than the Church ever dreamed of being. But that is another story.
I offer this experience (daily, even hourly) of self-transcendence as a kind of intimate, but real evidence of God, and therefore the afterlife. Does not this common experience of self-transcendence imply a source and a goal? Can the depth and universality of the moral law really be explained apart from a Law Giver? (I believe I have shown above that an appeal to "evolution" just won't cut it.) Carl Sagan could speculate on the origin and future of the physical universe. Could not the same reasoning power be used to move from experience to the ultimate question? We are in fact back where the Bible itself brought us. The ground and purpose of our very acts of going beyond has a name: Yahweh ("I AM"), Jesus.
At this point one may rightly ask why not leave Carl Sagan (and those he might speak for) alone? The answer is clear. Sagan contemplates the universe and concludes how insignificant man is when compared to such immensity. A believer considers that vastness as nothing in comparison with the destiny of one human being. When the mightiest star finally burns out, Carl Sagan's existence will have barely begun. At the very minimum we must pray for him and all people that they will realize their eternal destiny. That is the one and only question which counts in the final analysis.
Sagan says he would like to live longer. The main reason, he says, is to continue discovering more about the cosmos. For him, as for all naturalists, the cosmos is everything. "The Cosmos is all there is, all there was and all there ever will be." At this point a skeptical inquirer might ask, "If that is so, why bother with it?" When all is said and done, what is the big deal? No scientist thinks the cosmos has any destiny but to sputter out. No matter how much you know, it is really knowledge about practically nothing. It would be just as good to devote your life to stamp collecting or writing down personalized licence plates. (Actually not too bad hobbies. I won't mention mine.)
However Sagan is giving evidence to something he apparently doesn't suspect. That unlimited desire to know, which he and really all human beings share, is in fact directed to Something. Something really substantial. All this discovery, all the exploration does have a genuine goal. As St. Paul said to the Athenians, "What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you." (Acts 17:23) The unlimited desire to know, as well as the moral law each one of us discovers in his own heart, does have an Origin and a final Goal. In fact, from Revelation we know it actually has a name and we can enter into a personal relation with Him.
So the question for Carl Sagan as his own death draws near is not whether belief in the afterlife is comforting (or whether it fits ones brave self-image). Rather it is the same question each of us, in our innermost self, must ask: Is your longing to know, to discover just a cruel illusion or does it have a final purpose? Do you feel within you the claims of the moral law? Do they make you tremble, even slightly when you consider your own life? And is there someone who can lift those burdens? Someone who can give you true comfort, the forgiveness of sins? If so, Come to Him.
*This article was written November, 1996. Since then Carl Sagan has died.
**In a correspondence with Alex I tried to express it this way: "It seems to me the wishful thinking of the atheist or naturalist is different than what you described. It may be that for some it is a way of putting aside the rather terrible thought of spending eternity in hell. But I think there is something more subtle involved. Maybe like going into your own house during a blackout and bumping into something unfamiliar--and hoping that it is not alive. Or like coming upon the end of a rope and starting to pull it. And then all of a sudden finding something is pulling back. That is the disquieting kind of universe we may be living in."
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