Yesterday Mark Regnerus reported on American beliefs about the resurrection of the dead. It’s not a universal belief among regular churchgoing Christians. That might be because it’s not a well understood Christian doctrine.
Most people think the Nicene phrase affirming the resurrection of the death is equivalent to believing in life after death. I thought that way for a long time. But it’s not. To believe in life after death means a conviction that my personhood will somehow participate in eternity. I’ll continue to exist, maybe with an angelic body, or maybe just as a “spirit” or “consciousness.”
One of the principles of transhumanism is life after death. Ray Kuzweil speculates that advances in technology will allow us to “upload” our minds from our brains to a computer, thus ensuring the continued existence of our consciousness beyond the demise of our bodies.
A belief in the resurrection of the body also involves life after death. But it’s about more. When I profess that I believe in the resurrection of the death, I’m committing myself to the view that my flesh will participate in God’s eternity.
This, in turn, commits me to the view that my bodily existence is compatible with God’s holiness. This has consequences for our view of the Christian life, for it means that, here and now, we can be holy. More precisely, it means being finite and having a body isn’t an impediment to holinessonly our sinfulness is.
My Thomist friends would put things differently. Human beings are a body/soul composite, with the soul as the form of the body. A soul alone can’t exist, at least not as a real thing rather than an idea, because it is only insofar as it’s giving form to a body. Therefore, there can be no life after death unless our souls have bodies to form.
The transhumanist recognizes this metaphysical truth about form and matter, which is why their view of deathless existence involves the transfer of our formthe consciousness that gives shape to the neural structure of our brainsto a computer where it will give form to silicon chips.
What the Thomist will observe, however, is that this might succeed in transferring my soul, it won’t constitute an extension of my human life. That’s because human beings are body/soul composites, and if you take away the human body and substitute a different one, the result will be something different.
David Gelertner gives a brilliantly simple explanation of why this is so. As a human male, when someone threatens me, my body releases a cascade of hormones that color my consciousness in all sorts of ways. That won’t happen if I succeed in transferring my consciousness to a computer, which means that over time my memories, my cognitive responses to event, my moods, and much more will change into something non-human. It will be a life after death, but it won’t be this life, which is by definition a human life.
Hopefully, all this speculation about consciousness and computers hasn’t been too distracting. The point is simple: Because our bodies are resurrected in the age to come, our life in God will be a human life transfigured, to be sure, but an embodied one. This, again, is a claim that being humana human body formed by a soulmeans being capable of the infinite. Which means you and I are now capable of the infinite. That, it seems to me, is the best part of the Good News that Christ brings. It’s also the most daunting part, because it means that we have only ourselvesand not our bodiesto blame for our worldliness.