I have many friends who are religious. I’m a bit of skeptic myself, but that hasn’t yet stopped me from debating theological issues with them. This being a blog, it’s not really a debate, but I’d like to put forth an idea and see if anyone has any reactions to it. Last night I had the strangest dream. No, not that one—though I’ve had it, too. This dream was inspired (I have no doubt) by my starting to read Children of God, Mary Doria Russel’s sequel to her (I think magnificent) earlier novel of Catholic science fiction, The Sparow. I should point out that these are Catholic science fiction in the same way that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a Catholic work; it presumes the existence and importance of the Church, and if you’re totally unfamiliar with Catholicism, they can seem a little odd at times. But Russel is good, and they’re amazingly good books. So read!
Anyway. In this dream, I was about to complete an important piece of work for a supervisor who I knew was (1) not human, (2) very concerned with my welfare, and (3) going to kill me (with some kind of claw?) the moment I finished my task. Similar alien executioners were standing by humans all over the world, but it would be my act—critical, for some reason, to all life, but deadly for humans—that pulled the switch. I had just said goodbye to my spouse (who is very religious, by the way) by phone, and in that moment as I finished my task (and before I awoke), I thought to myself “Please, make this quick,” and more relevantly, “In just a moment, we’ll find out who was right.”
Many, if not all, of my religious friends take the perspective that what they refer to as this life (or “earthly life” or “mortal life”, etc.) is not all that important. Or at least, that it’s not all that important in the greater scheme of things. Considered in the scale of the eternities, it’s brief, it’s full of trouble, and life will be so much better in Heaven, the Celestial Kingdom, Paradise, what have you.
So why are we here? Most often, this is referred to as a probationary state or a test, a place for us to test and try ourselves, to learn to be more than what we are, in preparation for greater responsibilities and more power (cf. Spiderman), or to be purified and brought into the presence of The Lord, or something else along that line
(I’m not trying to be flip here. I realize I’m vulgarizing vast distinctions, but that’s sort of necessary if I’m to avoid writing a multivolume work on theology. What’s important is the comparative denigration of mortal as compared to immortal life, and that’s something that seems to be shared and common across almost all religious traditions of which I’m aware.)
The problem, though, is this. If we know it’s a test, it’s not a fair test. It’s cheating. Consider the following two cases:
|It’s a lovely morning. You get up and have breakfast with your family. Unfortunately, your kids miss the bus and so you have to drive them to school. You get there in plenty of time, but now you’re going to be tight on that appointment with your boss. There are several buses in front of you so you’re not going to be able to move your car just yet. You grab your laptop to check one more time that you have the information your boss requested all set. You worked hard on it the night before. Suddenly, a car slams into your rear bumper and your head slams into the windshield while your laptop goes flying out the window and smashes into bits. Bloody and angry you step out of the car and confront the slightly woozy and very apologetic driver of the car that struck yours…
Standing across the street is your boss, who has seen everything. He has often told you that how you treat people is much more important to him than business.
|It’s a lovely morning. You get up and have breakfast with your family. Unfortunately, your kids miss the bus and so you have to drive them to school. You get there in plenty of time, but now you’re going to be tight on that appointment with your boss. There are several buses in front of you so you’re not going to be able to move your car just yet. You grab your laptop to check one more time that you have the information your boss requested all set. You worked hard on it the night before. Suddenly, a car slams into your rear bumper and your head slams into the windshield while your laptop goes flying out the window and smashes into bits. Bloody and angry you step out of the car and confront the slightly woozy and very apologetic driver of the car that struck yours…|
The impact and the damage were quite real and the same in both cases. Both Case A and Case B can be considered tests. But the test in Case A is rigged: you know you’re being evaluated and you know the standards. And, what’s more, you know the stakes.
Any test where you know the stakes is, in a sense, cheating, because you are giving the Tester what he wants, not for the sake of what he wants, but in order to earn a reward. The boss will see your behavior, which accords with his preferences, and bump you up in line for a raise or a promotion. In Case A, in other words, you act out of fear of what the boss will think, and in the hope of reward. In Case B, the alternative, the only thing motivating you is a sense of morality (let’s assume lawyers and insurance companies and so forth don’t exist in this ideal world).
When we treat this life as a mere “test” or as relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, we are treating it as Case A. Harms do not harm as much, because by tolerating them and reacting in the “right” way, we are laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
But when this life is all that there is, all we have is our personal morality. We strip away notions of reward and punishment and find out what we really are. If you are a religious person, ask yourself whether, if your god did not exist, you would act in the same way. It’s a hard question. For those who do not believe in a god, ask yourself whether if nobody could ever learn of your action, you would behave in the same way.
See? It’s not just the religious. We all do this. The symbolic interactionist school of Sociology teaches us that we conceptualize ourselves in terms of the other (and particularly, the Significant Other—usually a parent or spouse or lover). That is, part of maturing is coming to be able to see ourselves as others see us, what an professor of mine called “self-monitoring” behavior. This is why we’re not all douchebags (or assholes) all the time.
But we have to incorporate the other, and the other has to be there with us internally even when the other is far away, or simply unavailable.
If we behave well only because we’re being tested, because the Boss is watching? Cheating. The test is rigged.
This is why I think most organized religions have it all wrong. In their insistence that this life is a mere test or ordeal, they make what we do unimportant. If I know that what I’m doing is merely a test, particularly if I know that at the end of the test I’ll be forgiven for failing (a common issue with the mainline Protestant notion of the test), will I ever develop an independent morality? One that doesn’t depend on the Boss watching?
There’s an old saying: “Character is what you are in the dark.” Just so.
This life is not just a test. Whether there is an afterlife or not is something we cannot control. Personally, I tend more and more to think that the whole mind-body question is BS, and that we are what we are, bags of chemicals and electrical signals. We learn how to control those chemicals and electrical signals, but ultimately, that’s what we are—and when the bag breaks, we’re gone. I’d like to think otherwise, and sometimes I do, but at the moment, nature is enough of a glorious miracle for me.
On that assumption: This life is not just a test. What you do to and for others in this life is the sum total of what you leave behind. Whatever you learn will die with you. Whatever skills you have, will die with you. But by the same token, your immortality, fragile as it is, is in the impressions you leave, for good or for bad. In that sense, Gandhi is (for the moment, anyway) immortal, and so (likewise) is Hitler. This is so whether one is reclining in some kind of heaven and the other burning in some kind of hell or not.
This life is not just a test. It may be all you will ever have.
This life is not just a test. Make the most of it.