Resurrection: some Easter reflections

Among the religious doctrines that run me axle-deep in the mud whenever I reflect on them is literal resurrection to eternal life. I’m astonished to learn via Rachel Zoll that expectation of a literal, personal, physical resurrection is coming back in serious theological circles.

Physical? What can this really mean: my body has done OK for me over the years but some parts are getting worn out, and most people die old and pretty beat up; will almost everyone in heaven wear reading glasses, and be in walkers or puffing up stairs? Will paraplegics spend eternity in their wheelchairs, the blind tapping canes? Do they get to take their service dogs? [Come to think of it, before I sign up for this, are there dogs generally – resurrected (this seems impious; I love my dogs but they aren’t people) or some other sort?] This is not an inspiring religious vision, not to mention completely unfair, so it must be that we all get refurbished and a detail job at the least. But to what stage: does eternal life freeze me into the face I had at my physical peak, probably my late twenties, wet behind the ears, unaffected by everything I’ve learned since, and therefore totally inappropriate to who I ‘really’ am now? Do I get to pick? This doesn’t settle the issue, because I’ve noticed that our current world has people in it who are even less nice, charming, or smart than I am, and yet they are a lot better looking, or run faster, or play the piano better, or all three, and conversely. Does everyone spend eternity frozen into the body randomly issued to us along with our other qualities? Can I start doing Groundhog Day self-destruction games with no consequences, not to mention plain old driving?

Personal: Of course all these other qualities are more important. So I guess we need to think about being resurrected with our physical brains loaded up exactly as they are at rapture time, or when we died. If not, what can it mean that it’s me being resurrected in the first place? There’s no question in my mind that the absolute best thing about life of the ordinary sort is knowing I’ll learn something between today and tomorrow – about/from people close to me, about science, about myself, whatever. Marvin Minsky asked, profoundly, “does the soul learn?”, a question that drives a mine under the whole idea of eternal life in the literal sense. If everyone goes on learning after resurrection with the finite physical brains we now have, the storage capacity of the brain will assuredly be reached, and then what? If there’s a miraculous exception to the information capacity limits of a countable number of neurons, then at some point everyone will know everything and all the same things; either way, I simply cannot imagine how an eternity in which there is no point in interaction with anyone or anything else can be called a heaven.

Does the overhaul contemplated for my physical body include having my racism, cupidity, and other character defects excised? Do I suddenly love and admire the people I now underappreciate? Do I get a few more IQ points? Or will I just be plain old imperfect me? If the repairs and upgrades are made, who is it that’s being resurrected?

Walt Kelly memorably noted that one indicator of what a great deal it is to be alive is realizing you won’t be stuck with it forever. E.M. Forster wrote a wonderful Zen-infused short story (“Mr. Andrews”) about this stuff almost a hundred years ago. If you’re seriously considering resurrection of the sort these theologians are trying to sell us, read it first and you can save yourself a lot of time. [It’s in his Collected Short Stories: if anyone can find it on the web, let me know and I’ll be grateful and add a link.] Literal resurrection isn’t a promise, it’s a nightmare: the more mystical this element of religion remains, the better.

UPDATE: Here’s an audio of “Mr. Andrews” from a reader, thanks!

UPDATE 2: And here’s the text, from another.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.