So goeth the customary greeting between Christians in this Easter season. We are in the middle of the Octave of Easter, which really is a week of Sundays, every day a solemnity, with full liturgical pomp, joy and splendour. And, yes feasting after the fasting of Lent.
Of course, some readers of this column may not believe in the resurrection, which is rather sad. Here is the thing about the future life of Man:
Either we die, and cease to exist, experiencing the same sort of awareness we did before we were conceived (if zygotes are ‘aware’, but you get the point…at some point in our life journey, we became aware of our existence, even if we no longer recall that point).
Or we will exist in some type of altered, ghost-like state, as disembodied souls, sort of akin to the Hebraic notion of Sheol, where the shades dwell. In a variation on this theme, there are forms of transhumanism that consider the human personality (the soul?) to be analogous to a computer program, ‘uploaded’ to a body. I just read an article on a movie director and author who thinks that mankind’s only hope of continued existence is to create artificial intelligence, for bodily Man is doomed. Curious, but I don’t buy it. As Kurt Goedel proved, algorithms cannot think and self-reflect, but I will have more on this later.
Or, as Christian revelation teaches, we will continue to live some kind of transcendent (and, we may presume, eternal) bodily existence after the dissolution of this body here.
Of course, it is not easy to believe in such a ‘resurrection'; Saint Paul himself was ridiculed when he mentioned it to the Athenians. In Catholic doctrine, this belief requires supernatural faith in God, and the promises He has made. “I give life to whom I will” , and “he who believes in me shall never die”.
As Saint Paul says, the resurrection is the basis of our hope: If it is false, then we (Christians) are of all men most to be pitied. But if it is true, how great a hope we have. Let us not forget that pity is a two-way street. We Christians ‘pity’ (in a good sense!) those who live without such hope; for then life indeed is Hobbesian, ‘nasty, brutish and short’, before the snuffing out of the candle.
Speaking of which, the Easter candle in our liturgy is a symbol of the eternal life that Christ offers, witnessed to by His own rising from the dead. I am fascinated by the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, the concreteness of the eyewitness testimony, and, not least, the fact that Christ’s resurrected body could walk through walls and doors and appear as He willed. Saint Thomas, following the patristic interpretation, describes this property as subtility, the adjectival form of what in English we term ‘subtle': Christ was not limited by space, time and matter as we know them.
One may at first consider that Christ’s body was therefore ethereal, ghostly and less real than the physical things of this world, subtle, as in ‘easy to miss or not perceive’. However, the opposite is far more likely, as C.S. Lewis alludes in his allegorical tale The Great Divorce: The resurrected body, and the heavenly realm in general, is more real, more ‘there’ than this world, which are in fact ‘ethereal and ‘ghost-like’.
For scientific corroboration of the etherealness of matter, all of the ‘stuff’ we see around us (and of which we ourselves are made), think back to high school chemistry, and the nearly-unbelievable discovery of Ernest Rutherford in 1909. Rutherford was trying to peer into the structure of the atom. Things at that point were believed to be composed of large bundles of round bits of matter, ‘atoms’ jostling together (following J.J. Thomsom’s earlier model), sort of like those play-pens in amusement parks filled with plastic balls. To test this theory, Rutherford fired high-energy alpha particles (basically a nucleus of helium, two protons stuck together) at a sheet of thinly-stretched of gold foil.
What he discovered was that almost all of the alpha particles went through the foil as though nothing were there, no atoms, no gold. But not completely: About 1/10,000 of the alpha particles rebounded at radical angles.
Hence, we have Rutherford’s model of the atom, still the basis of atomic theory: The atom, and therefore all of matter, is more or less empty space, clouds of swirling electrons (which are so small and light that if they stopped moving, they would have no mass). In the centre of this vacuous swirl of negative charge is an infinitesimally small nucleus, where all of the ‘mass’ of the atom is stored. We, and all we see around us, are in one sense just bundles of static electricity. What holds this all together?
I, at least, find it profitable to ponder this at Easter, and our hubris in thinking this is all there is, and the fullness of reality. If so, then even science corroborates the scriptural warning that ‘the form of this world is already passing away’, our bodies wearing out, entropy, death and universal annihilation loom. Yes, it does all seem rather hopeless and unreal, at least from this natural, earthly sense.
But not in a supernatural sense, which gives us hope that our true life, our ‘real’ life awaits, a life that hinges in some mysterious way upon the decisions we make here, upon what we do in our bodies. Do we choose reality and truth, or falsity and lies, emptiness and despair? For only the truth will set us free, and, to paraphrase a pop slogan, ‘make it real’.
Easter Tuesday, 2015