What We Shall Be
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. – Isaiah 6:5
Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. –I John 3:2
Today’s Gospel always makes me think of the belief—manifested, if memory serves, in more than one Biblical passage like the one from Isaiah quoted above—that to see God is death. Although the details are never specified, the older passages suggest that the ordinary human frame would be destroyed by whatever unimaginable forces would constitute the direct experience of God. The passage from St. John seems to be the other side of this coin, implying that one must in some way (also unspecified) become like God in order to survive his presence, and that this change is in store for the redeemed. (It also suggests, interestingly, if the English grammar is reflective of the original intent, that it works the other way—to see Him is also a cause of the change.)
Much has of course been written about the nature of that vision, and its position as the summit of all imaginable happiness. But I sometimes wonder, thinking of the accounts of the risen Jesus: what else might this change allow us to do?
One of the taunts of the materialist to the believer is that the universe is so vast, so inhospitable and indifferent to human life, that the latter cannot really mean very much. If the numbers involved in counting the objects in the universe and measuring the distances between them are so great that we can only express them as mathematical concepts so far out of scale with anything we are capable of experiencing that we can’t really claim to grasp them, how is it possible that our existence is anything other than an insignificant by-product of the forces that have produced those numbers and distances?
That’s hardly a syllogism, of course—as many have pointed out, it’s a mere subjective impression, and not a very convincing line of attack for someone wanting to prove that others are operating on subjective impressions. The numbers and proportions prove nothing, they only amaze. And the imputation of purposelessness is an unsupported materialistic preconception that has nothing to do with science. We assume that because we do not see what purpose distant galaxies have, they must have none. And we assume that because we are very much smaller than, and very distant from, them, we must be insignificant to them, and they to us. So might a cell in the far reaches of my little left toe assume that nothing as far away as the heart could possibly have anything to do with it.
It’s odd that we inhabitants of technological civilization should make this sort of assumption, since we know there is more to the world—our immediate world—than meets the eye: electromagnetic radiation, for instance, of which our ancestors of even two hundred years ago knew nothing, and of which we make very ingenious use. Isn’t it likely that there is also more to the cosmos? When we look up into the night sky we see tiny lights which we are assured are terribly vast and distant balls of something which is like fire but far, very far, more intense, and which is produced by an altogether different physical process. There is no reason whatsoever to think that this is the last word on stars. In fact, there is very good reason, based simply on extrapolation from past progress in knowledge, to assume that there is a great deal more to learn, and I don’t mean simply the filling in of details in the picture we have.
Who knows what the phenomena available to our senses really are? One supposes that the resurrection of the body, as mysterious as it is, means that we will have some relationship to the physical world. What will the stars and planets look like to the resurrected person? What will they be? Is it possible we could live among them? Having deduced the conditions on or in them, we feel certain that they have no inhabitants anything like us, but could they have as inhabitants, or somehow be material manifestations of, living entities whose nature we don’t even have the means to conceive?
Before you laugh too much at that, think of what Alexander the Great might say if someone traveled back in time and showed him a radio. No matter how much he and his sages studied it, they would never be able to guess what it was for, and if you told them, they’d either call you a liar or think you were describing magic—which might make them a bit more open-minded than the average modern, who believes he knows what is and isn’t possible.
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of people complain that they don’t understand the ending of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The astronaut who is the only human character in the latter part of the story is seen, in a series of vignettes, to go through the process of aging, and in the end to be on what appears to be his death bed. And then a human embryo is seen floating in space above the earth: The End. Maybe it’s because I had already encountered the basic idea in one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earlier novels, but I thought what had happened was obvious: the hero had been taken away to a world ruled by super-beings of some kind who had conveyed him into a new mode of existence and sent him back to earth for some mysterious purpose, probably having to do with the enlightenment of his fellow humans.
Clarke was not a Christian (I think he was a sort of atheist with Buddhist trappings), and he was only daydreaming, as science-fiction writers often do, about a god-like race of aliens who would rescue us from our earthly misery. But perhaps he was closer to the truth than he suspected. Perhaps “Mother Earth” is more than just a figure of speech. Perhaps the moist, warm atmosphere of our planet is a sort of amnion in which we are only passing through the first stage of our growth, and death will be the doorway to a mode of life in which we are hardy enough to live outside it, much as a baby, when its time comes, is ready to live outside the womb.
This is only a flight of fancy; I’m not proposing anything for belief. I’m only trying to find ways of saying that we should take seriously all those Biblical passages that tell us we have, and for the time being are capable of having, only a faint hint of how very much more than we have imagined may be true. It doth not yet appear what we shall be.