Saturday, 23 February 2013

Understanding the purpose of mortal life


I seem to have an unusual level of dissatisfaction with the standard Christian explanations concerning the function, purpose, meaning of mortal life.

Typically, I adopt one or another of the explanations I come across, only to find that in practice it turns-out to be inadequate, or demotivating.


The idea that mortal life is a lifelong test leading to a dichotomous allocation - salvation versus damnation - around the moment of death - nothing else in life having any relevance... seems to suck all meaning from the sweep of mortal life and negates the idea of the gospel as good news.


Learning about the concept of theosis was a step in the right direction, the idea that life should be a progress in holiness towards sanctity.

But on further consideration the way this is typically explained is inadequate - especially when salvation is not assured.  According to some accounts, someone might spend a long life of asceticism working on theosis only to be deceived into spiritual pride and damned at the last.


So theosis only makes sense, I think, on the basis that we are already-saved (if we want to be saved) - and that nothing can take away salvation, except our own rejection of salvation.

So, Christ has saved us and mortal life is about theosis...

But then why mortal incarnate life?


Either because that was the pre-existent state of man - men just were incarnate mortals on earth, and we were saved from that state - which is to say there is no meaning to us being incarnate mortals, it was just an accident of history...

Or else men are made as incarnate mortals because only as incarnate mortals can we...

Can we... what? That is the question.


Something that can be done only by mortals, and only with bodies - in a world of decay, corruption, change, death...


(I am also unable to ignore the fact that so many - perhaps most - humans throughout history have either died in the womb at birth or as children - and how this fits into things.)


(It seems that Tolkien was concerned about this matter as well - or specifically the mortal side of things - the deepest stratum of his work was about mortality, and why men took-over from elves. What was the advantage of men that the One and the gods began with elves but ended with men?)


I don't know. Maybe it is something like the fact that in some jobs you have to work your way up from the toughest level: all doctors must begin as a lowly house officer/ intern; a general must have seen combat...


We seem to have as a default background assumption that it is better to be a spirit than incarnate - the ideal and perfect entity is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent - therefore discarnate, some kind of spirit or idea or force or form...

From this assumption we struggle to explain why we are incarnate; and why we are resurrected - because I feel pretty sure than most intellectual Christians do not concretely imagine themselves resurrected after death, but on the contrary as spirits - because spirits seem more pure and perfect, and a Heaven of actual bodies seems too childish, somehow.


So we get this gulf between an earthly life of mortal bodies in time, and that to which we hope to escape; which is (perhaps secretly and implicitly) seen in terms of its opposite - a Heavenly life of eternal spirits living in a state of timeless bliss.

(It seems very difficult to imagine resurrected bodies, limited persons, in a state of bliss out of time - it sound more like a coma than Heaven.)


From all this I infer that it is not right that we should on earth strive to make ourselves independent of time, bodies; and disease, decay, death - these 'must' - it seems - be something to do with why we are here and what we are supposed to do.

That's about as far as I have got.



There is a really excellent discussion of this general matter at

 For example: 

Since Heaven can be comprehended as consisting of stories, a number of things become clear. First of all, the childish desire to enter a certain story is a thing that is commonly experienced (if never acknowledged, or explained away as ‘wish fulfilment’).

But this is not because the story is necessarily an improvement on real life. In fact, one may still wish to enter a story where people face more difficult problems and suffer far more than the reader. However, something of the timeless and perfected nature of Heaven is perceived to be on the other side of the story. In entering the story, one hopes to enter an imperishable existence, and one in some difficult-to-define sense freed from time (as a story can be re-read and re-experienced) — but unbounded where the story is bounded.

The modern tendency to produce stories that are horribly, soul-damagingly dull (because containing excessive and purposeless suffering, or purposeless events of any other nature) can be seen as a concerted effort by Hell to deprive people of yet another hidden link to Heaven, and to get the people choosing to write and read the unHeavenly stories to thereby carry out a (symbolic, preparatory) rejection of Heaven.

[my emphasis added]
* the common understanding of salvation, a person seeking theosis comes to nothing if at the last they attain merely to spiritual pride and are damned, but I see the exact same problem with a child growing up. Was the child worth killing to produce the uncertain, unpleasant, damnable and damned adults that frequently result?

Obviously, if a perfectly reasonable child grows up, either his qualities are integrated into the adult smoothly, including the worthwhile ones — or the child has been killed, wholly or partially. (In which case, I can only hope, the promise of resurrection applies to him.) Indeed, in the worst cases the adult will have the air of a sort of gebbeth or usurper walking around in the child’s overripe skin...

This is in fact the day-to-day experience of most modern people, to a lesser or greater degree. Absent some kind of mass societal repentance, and assuming modern society does not collapse, this feeling is likely to get worse in future generations. 

We may say that the adult as a whole is often damned, and the child is worth saving. But if we extract the child from the driver’s seat, what is left? The adult’s memories? Certainly. But his intelligence, impulses, preferences, later vices and perhaps virtues? These are contingent machinery, whose addition to the child was experimentally proven to produce evil... 

And, of course, if the Enemy cannot damn the entire person, he will always seek to ensure we cannot properly earn all of the gifts that were intended for us in Creation; partial damnation...

So salvation and perfection after death is at once a very simple thing to accomplish, and a most complicated matter. And the choices made during life make every difference as to what sort of being will be raised in the resurrection. 

Thus if we cry out to God that all our gifts and talents and intelligence is a meaningless burden; we will certainly not be required to bear that burden in the afterlife. But what will be left of us then?

Thus people who merely do the best they can with what they have, pray for salvation for themselves and their close ones, believing themselves unworthy of holiness and attainment, may very well find salvation easy in the end, and awake in Heaven still very much themselves.

And people who sincerely ask God for the opportunity to grow in holiness, will be obliged with almost unimaginable extremes of spiritual despair and temptation, given for them to overcome. If they fail, it was their presumption to seek holiness that was a sin; they turn out to have been children playing with matches. But if they overcome, all glory to them...

In some sense this is literally true, and not just a make-believe for the purpose of spiritual development. Seen from outside, everyone worth saving is saved, for all that is good within them will be saved. But seen from inside, you are choosing all the time to comprise your very soul out of pieces either of Heaven or of Hell. Obviously, if your understanding tells you to choose pieces of Hell, that understanding is deluded, and will in the end come to perceive nothing but the flames of Hell. Pray to God that you will have another understanding left over after that...

Thus I can see that if we take a Napoleon and boil away his evil, we may get first a sullen and petulant child; then perhaps a perfectly reasonable three-year-old who never matured properly. Most of the glory and glamour of Napoleon has boiled away with it, for it was built on his wickedness and not on his few good qualities...

And if we take Screwtape and boil away his evil, we get an amoeba; for indeed, an amoeba’s wish to devour everything in reach is the sole and highest spiritual sentiment expressed in ‘The Screwtape Letters’; it’s the sentiment that Screwtape mistakes for Love, having no other point of comparison!