The Chronicle Review

You're Dead. Now What?

Chronicle Review Illustration by Scott Seymour

August 08, 2010

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstein

In the final analysis I, an unrepentant Jewish atheist, cannot accept that my death—yours, too, I guess—marks the absolute end of being as I know (and love) it. For no rational reason, I presently assume that when I have passed on, when my faculty line is gathered unto my dean and bloodlessly absorbed into a vast pool of new curricular priorities, a vague flickering consciousness of sorts will perdure.

I think the vocalist Jon Hendricks was expressing something similar about the hereafter when he sang this eulogy for one of jazz's larger-than-life virtuosos:

Now, we know that nobody dies
They just leave here
So Rahsaan Roland Kirk is looking down on us and listening to us
So everybody repeat after me ...

Perhaps to channel Kirk's spirit, Hendricks asks us to repeat the phrase "bright moments" (that being the title of one of Kirk's signature compositions). With this request, the master of the genre known as vocalese implies that we must honor, or at least entertain, those who perdure.

This all leads me to wonder if a perduring consciousness gets to do more than just look down and listen. Will my enduring ghost be a mute witness to the goings-on down here, waving its vapory arms frantically at the undead? Or will it be an agent, endowed with the capacity to act? Put differently, if someone chooses to immortalize me in lyric, will I get to sing along?

Extremely odd queries of this sort kept leaping to mind as I perused four recently released books about the afterlife. Two examine what science has to say about the possibility that we persevere even after our bodies have ceased to function. One amasses perceptions of heaven and hell across cultural time and space. The other makes the philosophical case that "a good person quite literally survives death."

This is not a topic that is easy to discuss. As Dinesh D'Souza points out in Life After Death: The Evidence, the afterlife is something not to be addressed, a "big taboo." Fred Frohock, of the University of Miami, remarks that the issue is usually avoided on secular campuses. Princeton's Mark Johnston, author of Surviving Death, asks: "How can you decently talk, in an academic context, about whether or not we survive death?"

One possible answer: without any regard whatsoever for what your colleagues might think! That, at least, is Frohock's position in his captivating Beyond: On Life After Death This self-described "closet mystic" offers us a compelling story line: A tenured professor and department chair writes an academic book in which he sympathetically explores the verisimilitude of reincarnation, zombies, near-death experiences, autoscopy, nonphysical selves, and so forth.

Just to lend it all an added air of scholarly gravitas, he sprinkles in fictional vignettes about extraterrestrials, meditations on science fiction, and reflects on the preternatural Ellington at Newport 1956 recording. He's a relentlessly adventurous thinker, Professor Frohock is. I wouldn't be surprised if, like the fellow in the Dos Equis beer ad, he's routinely questioned by the Miami-Dade police just because they find him interesting.

His investigation, which I shall return to in a moment, is a good deal more open-ended than D'Souza's. The author of the 1991 screed Illiberal Education, D'Souza is an engaging writer and a ferocious polemicist. But in Life After Death, the usual vitriol of his sometimes quite entertaining anti-left rants is mostly absent. The only bad guys he can round up are a smattering of materialist thinkers and New Atheists, many of whom he debated over the past few years and all of whom, apparently, felt the full fury of his "Christian martial arts."

His alleged victims advocate what he derisively dubs "the Enlightened People's Outlook." Such a perspective maintains that "there is no life after death, and it is silly to suggest otherwise." That may or may not be a position held by those with whom D'Souza locked horns on college campuses. But my guess is that a proper scientist is more likely to argue that there is no evidence for life after death.

D'Souza, for his part, is adamant that such evidence exists. In fact, he proclaims that science "stunningly confirms the beliefs that [Christians] held in the first place." The author has read widely and, save a few chapters, writes with pace and punch. He devotes great energy and imagination to popularizing complex scientific ideas for his readers. Whether his distillation of those ideas is accurate is something that only physicists, neuroscientists, astronomers, and biochemists, among others, can answer.

Should we, for example, trust him when he concludes: "Modern physics undermines the premises of materialism"? Is there really a "physics of immortality"? Ought we accept his assertion that "evolution has gone beyond increasing complexity; it has provided the catalyst for a new order of being in the world"?

Frankly, D'Souza's nonscientific pronouncements do not inspire confidence that his scientific ones are spot on. He ascribes to Augustine the idea "that when we become Christians, we immediately become citizens of the heavenly city." He never cites a text for this claim (which sounds much more like something Augustine's enemies, the Donatists, would have believed). Nor does he mention that for the Bishop of Hippo, even those who reside in the heavenly city on earth might be wicked and depraved. Similarly, when D'Souza parrots the theologian N.T. Wright's musings about the "historicity of the resurrection," he is advancing ways of thinking that no scholar, other than a member of the Society of Biblical Literature, could possibly see as appropriate for discussion outside of a church study group. (See "What's Wrong With the Society of Biblical Literature," The Review, November 10, 2006.)

The rhetorical operation performed throughout Life After Death is well known to those who study conservative Christian culture warriors. First, D'Souza must Manicheanize social reality by dividing the world into atheists and theists. There is, after all, "complete agreement among the world's religions that there is life after death." Having bifurcated the earth into two unequal parts, he must then cast himself as a defender of God-fearers far and wide. The truth is, however, that D'Souza is arguing not on behalf of the world's religions, but for one particular Christian view of death. The "stunning evidence" he finds for the afterlife would leave Jews and Muslims, as well as many Christians, scratching their heads, not to mention damned.

The study terminates with a not very veiled appeal to the reader's immortal soul. An orator who aspires to "offer a highly persuasive legal brief for the afterlife" loses most of his jury when he intimates that by coming to Christ, we can experience "eternal life right now." While he urges us to "be open to learning something new," D'Souza merely wants science to confirm the old things he read about in the Scriptures and hears about at a Calvary Chapel in San Diego, where he worships.

Like D'Souza, Frohock is appalled by the ultramaterialism of the New Atheists. "The deep certainty of atheists that all of reality is material with no spiritual presence, and certainly no God," he laments, "is a species of arrogance utterly unsupportable by deep and sophisticated understanding of true science." But whereas D'Souza is confident that science obediently verifies his theological convictions, Frohock expresses critical doubts about science's ability to tell us anything about the hereafter.

"Science in any of its incarnations," he argues, "produces a form of knowledge that is precise, powerful, but limited to certain sectors of experience. ... There are many forms of reliable knowledge outside of the scientific community of investigatory rules." Materialism, by itself, cannot "express the full scope of the real," and for that reason Frohock looks to other narratives to help him make sense of his subject matter.

To get at the real, Frohock creatively intersperses fictional conversations of guests at a dinner party talking about past lives and other unsettling experiences. He analyzes literature and cinema with verve, all in an effort to see what those narratives can offer. It's original and clever, and the attempt to escape from academic publishing's genocidal war on professorial creativity accrues to the honor of both Frohock and the University Press of Kansas.

Still, I wonder if he underestimates the awesome legitimating power of science. We have, after all, no dearth of fictional accounts about death. Dodgy ruminations on what follows our demise have been around since ancient Egypt. We don't lack narratives about the Beyond—we lack science about the Beyond. We want something factual, anything factual, to falsify the apparent truth that when we perish we won't see our children ever again or hear the chuggy groove of a Hammond B-2 organ. God bless nonscientific narratives! Our need for knowledge of the Everlasting is something that only science can slake.

But science, Frohock freely admits, is not up to the slaking. To his credit, the author never forces any discipline to testify on behalf of his mystical hunches. What he does do is usher us to certain epistemological precipices, unknowable dilemmas that render science wordless. By the end of Beyond, Frohock offers advice on how we can constructively discuss such puzzles. Just to unnerve us, he signs off with the observation: "If individuals live on after death, where do they go? Perhaps nowhere. They're still here."

Classic Christian doctrines, of course, tend to put the dead way out over there. Those far-off realms are surveyed in John Casey's After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory . Casey, a fellow of Caius College, at the University of Cambridge, is equal parts thoughtful and disheveled in his presentation. For some reason, the author of this lengthy study never identifies a central theme—an oversight that causes him to trundle insightfully, breezily, and seemingly arbitrarily from one culture's reflections on the hereafter to another.

Casey is certainly correct that there are no "general formulae," "pattern," or "inclusive theory" to serve as a common denominator for cross-cultural conceptions of the afterlife. But if that is the case, then what motivates him to explore the particular subjects that he does? Why does he devote 100 pages to Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Israelite, Greek, and Roman views of death? Why spend nearly 50 pages discussing the 18th-century seer Emanuel Swedenborg and the spiritualist movement that arose in his wake? Why does the book end with an interview Casey conducted with the Coptic Bishop Grigorius nearly 20 years ago? Our guide in After Lives is a most whimsical Virgil.

Casey's allergy to connecting the dots often obscures his considerable skill for sketching the transhistorical Big Picture. A better title for this work might have been The Christian Revolt Against Hell. For the author demonstrates that Catholics in particular have been perennially uncomfortable with church teachings on the afterlife. Ideas like eternal damnation, original sin, and predestination have evoked a wide array of fight-or-flight responses from the faithful. Forged in the crucible of the theological particle accelerator that propelled Paul's gloomy ideas into Augustine's even gloomier ones, these doctrines entail a radical rejection of human free will. To read Casey is to be reminded that these concepts are not only deeply contradictory (why repent and perform acts of do-goodery if God has your future all planned out regardless of what good you do?), but also psychologically unbearable.

As I see it, the central lesson of After Lives is that "the vast majority of Christians—at least, in the West—are now Pelagians without knowing it." Here Casey refers to the group that first enthralled Augustine, then vexed him, and whose ideas granted far more import to human agency and far less centrality to sin. Their dissent was overcome only by brute force. But not entirely overcome. Most churches nowadays, argues Casey, downplay "any idea of essential, inherited human depravity, and of the powerlessness of the human being to achieve anything good of their own efforts." That argument could be brought into conversation with D'Souza's scientific confirmation of Christian beliefs. For even if molecular biologists were to verify church teachings on heaven and hell, Casey's work suggests that countless Christians would ignore them anyhow.

A philosophical confirmation of the afterlife is attempted in the fourth book, Surviving Death. From the outset, let me confess that Professor Johnston's argument went so far above my head that it jettisoned booster rockets into the poppling ocean of my incomprehension. Five long lectures full of numbingly dense, abstraction-and-neologism-riddled prose await the reader. A representative sample: "Reference magnetism would therefore predict that the genidentity condition for human bodies that we have in mind by default, and so can use to predicate things of the first human animals we grow up with, is not the disjunctive genidentity condition required for resurrection by reassembly."

Got it?

Yet, out of something resembling intellectual spite, I soldiered on, vowing to survive Surviving Death. Predictably, an academic version of the Stockholm syndrome set in: The more I subjected myself to the cringe-inducing complexity and caprice of Johnston's proofs, the more I warmed to the author's considerable charms. Surely the bulk of this book should have been published in some micro-specialized journal emanating from Central Europe. But when the author lets himself go—particularly when he stops fencing with other philosophers—he reveals himself to be an engaging wit, a swaggering polymath, and, over all, a major talent.

Which is not to say he has in any way convinced me that "that a good person quite literally survives death." Johnston claims to be working within the boundaries of methodological naturalism, not supernaturalism (which he nevertheless does not reject out of hand). Unless I am missing something, this can't really be the case. The conclusion he reaches—"The good after death are conscious, they deliberate and they act ... in and through the multitude that comes after"—cannot possibly be grounded in any naturalist framework. Neither purely materialist nor supernaturalist, his methodology is a bewildering combination of logical analysis, metaphysics, and moral theology.

It would be pointless to try to summarize his hypotheses. The entire argument about life after death hinges on Johnston's view of the person as protean. If you can accept that "our essence could allow changes in our form of embodiment," then you can look forward to life beyond life! But you had better be good. Continued existence in the "onward rush of humanity," according to Johnston, is a privilege strictly reserved for a person whose "practical outlook is an expression of agape." Such a moral ringer "becomes generally embodied; his constitution is made up of the constitution of all present and future beings with interests." 

 As with Dante's concept of contrapasso surveyed by Casey (by which one receives in hell an appropriate retribution for a crime committed on earth), Johnston too has death perform a moral audit; it consigns the bad to the "collapse of presence, the severance of life with others." For this philosopher, the world beyond has no autonomy. What happens to you there is a consequence of how you lived here. Citing Kant, he reminds us that "morality by its nature requires the support of the afterlife."

There is, of course, a counterpossibility: If we do in fact perdure, perhaps we transit into a realm beyond good and evil—a realm so radically other that science, theology, and philosophy cannot fathom its contours. That does not mean we should stop asking questions. But insofar as there are no answers, a recommended course of action might consist of living according to some minimal standard of decency and cherishing our bright moments.


Books Discussed in This Essay

After Lives: A Guide to Heaven,Hell, and Purgatory, by John Casey (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Beyond: On Life After Death, by Fred Frohock (University Press of Kansas, 2010)
Life After Death: The Evidence, by Dinesh D'Souza (Regnery, 2009)
Surviving Death, by Mark Johnston (Princeton University Press, 2010)

Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor of Jewish civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is author of "The Secular Bible" (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and of the forthcoming "How to Be Secular" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).