Eternal Life is happening to all of us, here and now.
It is not a private island of fantasies to look forward to after putting up with life on earth. It is not a carrot to be dangled in front of us as a reward for good behavior or proper belief. We don’t need a priest to confirm it or a witch doctor to evoke it. It is the most basic, axiomatic truth at the core of everything that exists, and the logical extension of every assertion made by religion and science alike. There is nothing we can do to remove ourselves from it.
Realizing Eternal Life, however, is a process that happens in fits and spasms. There is no good way around this either. We are intellectual creatures, and the function of the intellect is such that it draws a line around itself, and defines itself as this local base of operations known as an organism. This is good and proper. We need a well-defined sense of personal boundaries just to navigate through the world, and by that I mean the social sphere, but also the most basic locomotion through the physical world.
The problem arises when the intellect takes this boundary as absolute, and concludes that life is nothing more than the collective functions of our individual organisms. I liken this to a wave that somehow acquires the ability to think for itself, and subsequently forgets it is also the ocean. Something in its collective memory tells it that all waves eventually crash and dissolve on the shore, so now this self-believing wave lives in fear, powerless to stop the momentum toward its own destruction. All the intellectual wrestling and wrangling and existential angst and bad behavior that we know so well from the annals of human history will follow. It can all be avoided if the wave comes to understand that when it dies upon the shore, it essentially becomes what it was all along: the ocean.
A more accurate way to explain it: while it exists, a wave is a pattern of behavior of the ocean itself. And so it is with you and me and everyone and everything that exists. We are patterns of behavior of the universe. Our ability to think abstractly and imagine ourselves something other than the universe, something with its own independent existential integrity –this does not change the fact of what we truly are, for even these thoughts, if you trace them to their origin, are patterns of the universe’s behavior, part of a complex chain of causes and effects of the universe’s interaction with itself.
Not an easy concept for the intellect to grasp, but it can be done. It has happened to diligent individuals since long before the dawn of recorded history.
Let’s be very clear about something rather important in that regard: this isn’t my idea, and though I may be trying to forge a new way of looking at it, the concept isn’t new at all. This is the core, innermost knowledge and message behind every world religion. Each one is a distinct recipe for cultivating awareness of the Life you share in common with all of creation, the Ocean at the base of your wavehood.
A religion is also a powerful apparatus designed to limit awareness of Eternal Life, dispensing it in doses deemed appropriate for its audience by religious authorities. In the words of Carl Jung: “Religion is a defense against the experience of God,” and perhaps for good reason. Time and space and the whole sum of various life circumstances happening to our organisms dictate that not everyone is ready to know Eternal Life at once.
So the individual’s spiritual path is a unique, circuitous combination of open roads and cul-de-sacs, moments of liberation framed by long days of facing brick walls. Few will see their way through to the end of the labyrinth. But it is crucial to know that no one is ever trapped. There are no dead ends. There is always a chance to turn around and go forward.
Before going any further down that road, I want to back up and lay down the intellectual foundation for understanding what I mean by Eternal Life. If my intellect is where the fission occurs that seems to separate the inseparable, essential unit of being that is the universe into “I” and “everything else,” I believe this is where we must go to begin reversing this process and eventually produce fusion in the laboratory of the mind. Traditionally, this is seen as one of the toughest nuts to crack in the path of liberation from self, but, despite what I said with tongue somewhat in cheek with this poem, I think it can be made much simpler by clearing up a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be eternal.
THERE’S NO BEGINNING, AND THERE’LL BE NO END….
Eternal Life has been juxtaposed with its character foil, eternal damnation, and used as a carrot-and-stick tool for behavior modification by the Christian establishment for as long as anyone knows –maybe from the beginning, if the sad tale of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 is at all authentic.
I can understand why. Not everyone is naturally inclined to mysticism, and for some people –fewer than one might suspect, I believe, but some– behavior modification is the best we can expect in this lifetime.
But that doesn’t make the carrot-and-stick any less of a desecration, nor the persecution of those who deny it any more sensible, and the clergy should know better. Sure, there must be many priests and ministers and rabbis and imams and the like who assumed their vocations out of duty to tradition, or lust for political power, or even a loving but misguided urge to “save” who they can and damn the rest. Perhaps the problem is, just as in the political sphere from which they are indistinguishable, these are precisely the kind of clergy members who are motivated to rise to power in their respective institutions. That explains the religion-politics crossover scene well enough. But where are the voices of those who truly did lay down their separate selves for a lifetime of service to souls? Who is demonstrating by example within mainstream religious organizations a vocation spawned by transformative experience that brought them more than an eyeblink glimpse of Eternity? Have the years of training by behaviorists and lawyers shaped them so much that they no longer feel moved from within to speak something of their innermost truth to the rank and file? Or (and I suspect this is it) does fear of offending their “superiors” breed the same kind of conformity among clergy that it does among the flocks?
Fortunately, we heretics have to conform to no one, so I can speak of my truth without any such concerns. And we will find that even the carrot-and-stick illustrates something of value when taken metaphorically.
First, back to the nuts and bolts. The confusion starts with misunderstanding of the word “eternity,” and another word with which it is inseparable, “infinity.”
Generally, as a matter of usage, eternity refers to time, and is considered the opposite of temporal, which means pertaining to measurements of time. Infinity is a broader term; it can pertain to numerical values of anything, and also to spatial relationships. Either way it is considered the opposite of finite. It shouldn’t be hard to see, then, that eternity is simply a way of expressing “infinity” that pertains specifically to time.
Less apparent is a deeper connection between the words when infinity pertains to space. But even a rudimentary understanding of what Einstein explained about relativity shows us that time and space are essential to each other –one without the other is a mere abstraction. You cannot chart the movement of an object relative to other locations on a spatial plane without inferring the time it takes to move that distance; likewise you cannot measure the duration of an event without putting it into a spatial context. To make measurable, finite calculations on one scale necessarily implies finite measurements on the other. An infinite number of widgets, for instance, occupying a finite space for eternity is an illogical absurdity. Switch the finite measurement(s) around in any manner, and as long as you try to make it boundless in one dimension, you run into the same absurdity.
Now, here’s the problem with the common use of concepts like eternal life as a reward or consequence of something. Eternity means having no finite parameters of time –timelessness. You cannot start at 1 and count without ceasing to reach infinity –infinity is numberlessness. Equally so, you cannot have an event with a definite starting point in time and extend it out indefinitely. This is an illogical abstraction, not eternity.
If my life began on July 2, 1972 in Northampton, Massachusetts, nothing can make that life span infinite. If my life is concurrent with this organism, and this organism is going to die, that’s it. I’ve written any chance for eternal life out of the script.
OK, the theologians answer, that’s fine because no one is saying the organism has eternal life. It is the soul that is eternal and continues after this world….or is it? It is not contradictory because the soul wasn’t born with the organism….or was it?….suffice it to say, this once popular concept of mainstream Christianity, the immortal soul of the individual, is catching a lot of heat on the interwebs, as a Google search of “Bible reference to soul” or “Christian evidence of soul” will show. You’ll see a lot of dry talk about Hebrew words like nephesh and ruach, Greek words like psuche and pneuma, and a whole boatload of cross-reference between them. I’ll spare you the trouble: there is surprisingly little if any notion in Jewish or Christian scripture of a component of the individual human that is immortal, and numerous references to the contrary. The carrot-and-stick construct is breaking down from within as a result of this more thorough scrutiny. From the United Church of God website:
If the soul is immortal, it would be impossible to say that sinning would produce death. Rather, if mainstream Christianity were correct in its doctrine of hell, Ezekiel 18:4 would have to say, “the soul who sins shall be condemned to eternal torment.” But it, along with the apostle Paul in Romans 6:23, plainly states that the penalty of sin is death , not never-ending fiery torment in hell.
Given that the soul is capable of death, and taking into consideration the fact that the word translated “soul” is used in reference to all sorts of living creatures, we can only conclude that the soul talked about in the Bible is a living being itself—not an eternal component of mankind.
This one really tickled me, because it utilizes pretty much the same logic I did above. From a rather thoughtful peace of scholarship by a fellow at Grace Communion International:
“Immortality,” of course, suggests infinite existence not only into the future but also throughout the past. Nothing in Scripture suggests that the “soul” has such a quality. Some early church fathers, such as Origen, taught the preexistence of the human “soul,” but this is not sustainable by Scripture.
As we have seen, the “soul” in Scripture is really the person as human being, who has been created by God. That which is created does not have eternal preexistence. As far as the “spirit” is concerned, this is something that is “breathed into” the human, and which creates the life of the person, as it were. Again, no idea of preexistence of the person as “soul” or “spirit” is implied in Scripture.
In some ways, from the biblical perspective, it seems that the phrase “immortal soul” may be an oxymoron…Our hope – and the emphasis of Scripture – is that in the resurrection we shall “put on” immortality, and through this “putting on” we shall have eternal life in God.
Yes, “putting on”…..as a wave puts on the ocean.
So, if all of the evidence –including the biblical– points away from the idea that the human organism includes any component that can be called immortal, and I am rejecting the notion that anyone or anything can make something eternal that has finite parameters of space/time, where do I get off insisting that we have eternal life?
I don’t. I insist that Eternal Life has us. It’s an equation that doesn’t work both ways, and understanding why this is so is the key piece in putting together the puzzle of pantheism.