We’re having a big religious weekend in Judeo-Christian circles. Jews are celebrating their deliverance from slavery, but of course nothing is simple for the Jews, so we get to argue about inconsistencies and errors and missing pieces in what presents itself as a very detailed instruction manual for the Seder. And try to figure out why a just God would exterminate a generation of Egyptian children to start the Israelites on a (potholed) multi-millenial journey of growth and capacity-building.
Christians are celebrating their more general salvation, conditioned on the sacrifice of one person (God is a lot less bloodthirsty in the New Testament) and Christ’s resurrection to eternal life. This is the most important Christian holiday, but for some reason the secular culture gives it much less support than it does to Christmas, so a Moslem or Hindu tourist might reasonably infer it to be a celebration of new threads, lately evolved to center incoherently on marshmallow, rabbits and eggs. The public celebration is mostly held in drugstore aisles, with less salience than Hallowe’en, and setting children to poke around under bushes for hidden eggs.
For all the missteps and absurdities of religion, it’s not a bad idea to take a weekend like this to reflect on big questions like the immortality of the soul, man’s place in the universe, and like that. Do we go to heaven; and what are we when we do? Mark Twain gives us a hilarious take on what our traditional ideas of an afterlife heaven really imply, but no satisfactory concept to replace what he demolishes. We do not readily give up the hope that we are engaged in something much longer than threescore years and ten: For here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come. (Hebrews 13:14)
In my view Marvin Minsky put paid to the idea of a literal eternal soul with anything like a human personality simply by asking, in The Society of Mind, “does the soul learn?”. But someone who combines the skeptical, cleareyed perception of humanity-warts-and-all of a Twain or a Bierce with more underlying kindness, and what I might call a lyric impulse, presents an eschatology I can get behind, along with a good model of immortality. I think Forster gets this right.