One of the most influential books that I have read over the past few years has been Marcus Borg‘s The Heart of Christianity, specifically his comments on the distinction between faith, belief, and knowledge and the concept of truth in all of them. These have had a great impact on my own faith and the ways in which I interact with and think about fellow Christians and people of other faiths. As Christians, we (or most of us) believe quite a bit but know relatively little about what we believe. Perhaps the epitome of this tension can be seen in our assertions of life after death. We might believe in eternal life, but we certainly don’t know that it exists, much less what it looks like or what we will “do” when we arrive. In his first work of fiction, SUM: Forty Tales From the Afterlives, neuroscientist David Eagleman gives us a wealth of afterlife possibilities. Few of these mirror the common Christian notion of heavenly mansions and streets of gold, but they all have deep moral, spiritual, theological, and justice implications.
God exists across these vignettes in a variety of forms: female, male, both parents, a lesser-intelligent being, the incomprehensible cosmos, a microbe, and the list goes on. Heaven is anything from a waiting room, self-realization, a place where we act in other people’s dreams, a place where our separating molecules mourn our passing, and this list goes on. While some vignettes resemble one another, they each offer a fresh perspective on the possibility of the afterlife. Yet like most concepts of the afterlife, each of them are tinged with moral implications for how we live our life here and now. It’s tempting to give away the best of Eagleman’s vignettes. It would be easy to do so given their brevity. At the risk of spoiling some of them, I want to some of the more interesting ones that might as well speak to the human experience here and now.
In one of the vignettes, humans carry their self-destructive ways with them to the afterlife, specifically their penchant for violence. In this afterlife, wars break out that destroy the paradisiacal possibilities of life after death. I find this one especially interesting in light of Jesus’ emphasis of experiencing and making the Kingdom of God here on earth. His admonitions challenge any passive waiting on a pie-in-the-sky heavenly reward. Like the destructive wars in Eagleman’s vision of the afterlife, our earthly violence conflicts block our path to the kingdom of God here and now.
In one of his final visions, Eagleman presents a version of God who understands the meaning of everything, the underlying reality of it all. Yet She also knows that the beliefs of her people are off the mark, and She is content to leave them that way. Eagleman argues here that if we would cast off our traditions and dogmas we would be closer to a clearer understanding of that reality. Yet, because this reality is beyond us (and one assumes the author as well), Eagleman doesn’t venture a guess as to what the secret really is. So when the believers arrive and remain in “heaven,” they refuse to exchange their false beliefs for the truth that She offers them: “So She finds Herself unappreciated and lonely, wandering in solitude among the infinite cloudscapes of the nonbelieving believers” (100).
While some of Eagleman’s vignettes are quaint, other sare quite profound. In the end, all of them are entertaining and thought-provoking. SUM has received positive reviews from sources much more noteworthy than this one. Philip Pullman is also a fan, which I find most compelling because his vision of the afterlife in His Dark Materials triology is just as insightful and compelling as any of Eagleman’s accounts. SUM should challenge any accepted, and especially un-reflected-upon, notions of the afterlife. This is a quick, yet engaging read, especially for the religious/spiritual/theological speculators out there.