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Sunday, April 12, 2020

Who Waits? | Easter Sunday 2020


Every day, with consumption, respiration, and excretion, the physical makeup of our bodies change. The memories I have of going on an 8th-grade trip in 1990 were made by a version of me that has not existed in a very long time. And yet, I consider myself to be the same person, even considering knowledge gained and psychological changes that have occurred across decades. Perhaps it is the sense of continuity that comforts me to think that there is a stable 'me' despite such drastic, long-term shifts.

Part of that continuity is the traceability of my composite identity all the way back to biological conception, when the DNA that guides my biology snapped into place. If that connection were broken and restored, would it still be me? What if it were broken and significant changes took place in the restoration? This has been explored in science fiction, most recently in Altered Carbon and Star Trek: Picard. In one, people are able to switch bodies, and in the other a transfer to synthetic (as an android) existence takes place. This is an idea far older than science fiction.
They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). — John 20:13-16 NRSV
The stories in the 4 accepted Gospels about what happened directly after the resurrection of Jesus are fairly confused. Who went to the tomb first, how many angels where there, whether the women who found the tomb empty say anything about it, and on what day Jesus ascended to heaven are a few of the problems. They also tend to depict Jesus in a mix of earthly and otherworldly ways. He eats with his disciples, and he appears among them behind closed doors. He's not recognized by all of his disciples immediately, and he has the wounds from his crucifixion on his body. 
What I realized is the people who came to believe in the New Testament, it’s always because they’ve had a vision of Jesus afterwards, including Paul....That led me to look into what we know about hallucinations, based on modern psychological research. And it turns out hallucinations happen a lot. The two most common kinds of hallucinations are of deceased loved ones—your grandmother dies and you see her in your bedroom two weeks later, that kind of thing. And the second kind is of revered religious figures....My view is that the disciples had some kind of visionary experiences; some of them did. And these visionary experiences led them to conclude that Jesus was still alive. — Bart Ehrman, Boston Globe, April 20, 2014
It's simple enough to explain the resurrection accounts as a combination of visions (making the 'but some doubted' easier to understand) and later elaboration. Looking at the story as it is, taking it at face value, we find a description of a wholly other type of human existence. It's both embodied and disembodied in quality, unbound by the usual laws of physics. People even then were envisioning a way of being that was rooted in what was but growing into what could be. Is this still human, though?

Our mortality shapes our perspectives and gives a framework for understanding our identities as people. Imagine a human becoming superhuman, going from mortal to immortal, and existing through eons of time without end. It seems to me that given a million, a billion, or a trillion years the original identity of the person would become utterly lost. What would then be could hardly be called truly human.
And we can have forever
And we can love forever
Forever is our today
 
Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to live forever?
Forever is our today
 
Who waits forever anyway?
                 — Queen, Who Wants to Live Forever, 1986
The only time that any of us have is this present moment. We are likely unique among other forms of life on our planet in that we are aware of our mortality. At some point we all realize that someday we will die. The most terrifying thought is that when that happens, it will be our now. Naturally, we want to see more of that 'now' beyond the horizon of our brief lives. Really, it's perplexing trying to even think of not existing. We can imagine how it will be, but we will never see it. At Easter Christians celebrate their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. To the more conservative it's a literal matter, while to the progressives it's a 'mystery.' It comes in the northern hemisphere with springtime, when life begins anew.

Perhaps for all of us the best way to see it is not a promise of eternal life, but rather the assurance that life is continually renewed, even after the harshest of times.