Immortality, death and desire (part 1 of 2)

June 26th, 2014

In the course of the years, the human family has seen no shortage of plots and plans about how to prolong human life indefinitely. Ray Kurzweil's is one of these. In the words of Woody Allen: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Ray Kurzweil wants to live on, not in his apartment (or Woody Allen’s), but through further implementing his own bio-technologically powered, transhumanist vision. He works for Google. You can read all about his projects, opinions, and true and false predictions anytime from now to the hour of your death.

Nearer to most of our lives and deaths, though, is the consideration that Kurzweil’s immortalist vision is just our society’s anti-aging obsession given ideological consistency and writ large. (Consider Gilbert Meilaender's thoughts.) One might even think there are enticing connections to be noticed between our technological and medical immortalist aspirations and our lust for the (outwardly) cold power yet (inwardly) persisting human warmth of vampires. (As in here from 1994 or especially here from 2008.)

On the other hand: In Christian thought, death is to be embraced as a twin extreme, as both vital friend and graven enemy. First, death is foe: Death is the result of the fall. Death is the last enemy, the wages of sin. In Catholic thought and Aristotelian thought, death is in one sense natural: For Aristotelians (like St. Thomas Aquinas), humans are soul and body, and the soul is the form of the body. Because the body is material, changeable, and actually changing in all sorts of ways, its changes will eventually actuate in the death of the human person. Yet God had destined humankind not to die; and had humankind not sinned, God would have given the aid to make this ‘supernatural’ potentiality actual. Death, then, is humankind’s enemy, and contrary to the plan of God.

Yet, second, and without at all diminishing the enmity of death, death is also the Christian’s friend. This is because of the work of Jesus Christ. Our human death is transformed by the death and resurrection of Jesus: What was a curse has become a blessing. More, the death that will come calling on each of us sooner or later is an opportunity for intimacy with Jesus Christ, who himself died on the cross. Our death is our doorway to eternal life, to the face to face vision of God. Crowningly, our death is the doorway to the eventual resurrection of our own bodies, the resurrection of which Jesus Christ’s historical resurrection is already the first fruits. The truth of the resurrection of the body does not diminish the truth of the beatific vision: At the last, those in heaven will exult with bodies glorified and see God in the company of all the saints and angels.

With death as simultaneous friend and foe, the saints and martyrs feel and say many things that Americans usually do not. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (St. Paul). “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (also St. Paul). “My earthly desire has been crucified… there is living water in me, water that murmurs and says within me: Come to the Father” (St. Ignatius of Antioch). “I want to see God and, in order to see him, I must die” (St. Teresa of Avila). “I am not dying; I am entering life” (St. Thérèse of Lisieux).

Death is the last enemy. Death, tamed by Christ, is the friend who brings you to God. Death is thus, and in precisely this light, a good to be desired in a way that the immortalist visions of our culture — promising only to extend our dying life or living death — should never be.

Read part 2.

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