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!



Anonymous said...

Our physical bodies were intended to be immortal, but death came because of sin. In the recreated world we will be resurrected with physical bodies that are immortal, like the body that Jesus had after his resurrection. We do not live eternally as spirits after the deaths of our bodies; the idea of physical resurrection is downplayed in modern times because it seems too primitive, possibly too Catholic, but is central to Christianity.

Daybreaker said...

An individualistic perspective on life, death, resurrection and meaning is a choice, and I think a bad one, both morally and intellectually.

It's a mistake we have a genetic inclination to make, because white people are exceptionally individualistic, and inclined to create culture that emphasizes individualism. (Compare the wisdom of Aesop's fables with the ferocious tribalism of Joshua.)

But not everything we have an inclination to do is good or even excusable. It may be that your father was a drinker, and your grandfather was a drinker, and your great grandfather was a drinker, but nevertheless you should not be a drinker. You should accept with gratitude and the pride of one who rejoices in precious gifts the good parts of your genotype, but you should not try to fulfill every potential in the package.

Life, death, resurrection and meaningful continuity are ultimately collective issues for tribes, nations and families connected primarily by physical descent, that is by genes, or in the language of the Bible by the "seed" of the founder(s) or "blood".

If that's not a meaningful perspective for the individual, then that individual is in a sinful state. At Pesach, it is the evil child that asks, "what does this mean to you"? Even to inquire from an outsider's perspective is wicked.

The search for a meaningful eternal life (with a mortal prologue) for an individual is hopeless. Practically, we can see that it's hopeless; the nation of blood can live forever, and in the case of Israel it does, while the individual lives on, if at all, only as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob do. But it's also hopeless because the individual state, with family, tribe, race and nation left out of the equation, is inherently empty.

Meaning that lasts and deserves to last arises in communities of blood. According to the Old Testament, one people mattered. Then, according to the New Testament, Jesus said that all nations should be baptized to Him. That vastly increased the number of meaningful lives, or if you don't think Jesus is Lord it at least increases the number of lives that can be held to be meaningful within an originally Semitic religious framework.

But it doesn't necessarily do so directly. I mean if you insist on stripping out the connections of blood and tribe (and sacred land for the children of Israel) that are meant to be there, and then you can't find the point of it all, maybe the fault is in you.

I think if you can't see meaning in "a human life, any human life" conceived as a dot of light in a dark space, I think it's reasonable to answer: your inquiry is ill-formed. That's not a really human life. And you were wrong to think about the issue in such a "de-tribalized" way. And the nation that you are part of, your extended family, is probably also corrupt or sick, or you would not have been so intellectually adrift, so lacking in guidance and correction for your genetic fault of excessive proneness to individualism. And your concern, as a good and loyal son, should be to do what you can to heal that sickness and end that corruption.

Arakawa said...

Well, after that I felt an invitation to speculate much more freely than I otherwise would allow myself. I wound up coming up with a fairly unconventional picture of the situation:

In retrospect, I'm not sure if I managed to explain cogently why this view seems to me distinct from Universalism. Perhaps it isn't really distinct after all.

Daybreaker said...

More harshly, if you want a meaningful life (before and after physical death), but it has to be within an intellectual construct that leaves out the good of your race and tribe: no! And that's good. That's the way it should be. That's not a flaw in the creator(s) of the universe. (Nor does it represent any lack of cleverness on your part.) There isn't supposed to be any meaningful life for people lacking in racial / tribal loyalty. It would not be a better universe if there was a better deal for people who thought, talked and acted as if they had no relatives.

Positively, if you ask, "what is the meaning in a single human life that is not obviously meaningful, for example the life of someone aborted in the eighth month of life in modern America?" I would answer "what is the meaning of their nation? Or since 'nation' has been scrambled by 'multiculturalism' in modern America, what is the meaning of their race? Because they had a share in it, though it was small and cut short through the fault of others." And if your answer is, "but race and nation have no meaning", my answer is "that's what everyone is saying, but they are wrong and wicked. And I won't accept an obligation to justify the existence of entire races in terms of something else, such that if that something else was taken away I would have to say, 'OK, into the ash-heap of history with us'. Which is what is happening, but not with my approval."

Ultimately Jesus hallowed, to whatever extent He could, something that had a right to exist anyway. He acknowledged what was good because it was good; it was not meaningless until He spoke, after which it became good.

Daybreaker said...

So in answer to "why should we have awkward, embarrassing, sweaty embodied life, when it would be so much better for us each to be just a drifting spirit', my answer is: the life of blood and 'seed' and sharing food together at the table and talking together is part of us. And we are good, we have a right to exist as us that is prior to all talk and all intellectual constructs. And for the many people who are so corrupted now that they would really rather be a disembodied spirit like Saruman at his very end, then as far as I'm concerned if they will not listen to sense and leave off being wicked and stop harming the shire, they can get what they want and blow away.

George Goerlich said...

dl - What would that actually be like though? Why physical bodies, made to be fed nutrition, breath air, defecate, reproduce, etc.? Physical bodies seem completely unnecessary and even out-of-place in a timeless Heaven, unless we imagine it in a somewhat materialistic hedonist sense. It is possible many people did imagine it and desire such a sense, full of pleasure and free of disease, but for us living in a time of excessive material pleasure and absence of spiritual insight it seems quite odd.

Daybreaker said...

Should there be a special, ethereal heaven for the sort of people who, in the name of some higher good than mere corporeal attachments, sell the gates of a city to the army besieging it? Why should such "objectivity" and "transcendence of mere tribalism" be rewarded better than they already are?

Would it be a better universe if the One True God maintained a Heaven for the eternal benefit of such people? I'm not seeing it.

Jonathan C said...

This is one of the problems of leaving theology in the hands of intellectuals: intellectuals are famously out of touch with their bodies. For a lot of them, their body is just the carrying case for their brain. More ordinary people can instantly sense the limited vitality below the intellectual's neck (as opposed to the stomach-centered presence of the martial artist). No surprise they're not much attached to their dirty, inelegant bodies, rarely used well and prone to malfunctioning. Not to mention those inconvenient sexual feelings, which are a particular albatross to those in whom they are customarily thwarted.

I've recently encountered the theory that thinking itself is usually a response to distress, that it's mostly harmful to social interaction, and that happy, social people who are getting their needs met are not prone to thinking much. Many of us intellectuals got that way because social awkwardness put us into chronic, 24/7 distress, which the body unsuccessfully tries to counteract by thinking. I'm rather quite enamored of this theory.

I suspect in heaven, we'll experience ourselves primarily as bodies, spend more time playing with chi and chakras, be sexual to a degree we can hardly imagine now, and do a good deal less thinking. It will take a few millennia for the intellectuals to get used to it.

George Goerlich said...

Jonathan - It is an interesting theory, but it rather sounds like a poor justification for over-socialization.

Regarding your literally description of Heaven - it appears to be mostly about physical pleasure. Sexual intercourse primarily serves the purpose of reproduction. Your theory would mesh with the Mormon beliefs (that we literally make lots of children in Heaven), but are you arguing for that or just the idea that Heaven will be some sort of hedonistic dreamland?

Because that's what we've tried to pursue in the materialistic sense here on earth, unlimited and easy access to sex, a very comfortable physical life, etc. We've already given up on our highest forms of intellectual and spiritual abilities in favor of physical pursuits.

Arakawa said...

Just a minor point about the portion of my speculations Bruce was kind enough to excerpt in the actual article: the paragraph starting...

"In some sense this is literally true, and not just a make-believe for the purpose of spiritual development...."

actually immediately follows a quote by Fr. Seraphim Rose advising:

"Don’t criticize or judge other people—regard everyone else as an angel, justify their mistakes and weaknesses, and condemn only yourself as the worst sinner. This is step one in any kind of spiritual life."

That is the intended context for that paragraph, which is not visible in the excerpts -- I was trying to get into a viewpoint where this is made obvious to be actually true.

I've also repented of a couple of points in my analogy between angelic and microbial beings. (None of those points are excerpted in the above article.)

Matthew C. said...

The purpose, as you intuit and see with your reasoning mind, is theosis. In order to progress in theosis we must struggle against the temptation to do and be less than our purpose -- which to serve and love God "with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind..." Without the struggle, there is no choice. Without choice, there is no story. That is why we live in a world of shadow, where we can perceive Him only through faith, and trust, and after seeking Him (not before!)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mc - Indeed; but I still lack something important in my understanding of theosis in mortal life - why mortal life, why incarnate, what is it that *must* happen in mortal life (and not after, or before)?...

Red Lightning said...

Johnathan C, there's a lot to be said for your understanding of the intellectual temperament.

I've spent much of my life trying to get into my body and achieve some balance because my natural tendency is to divorce from it.

Indeed, one thing I have in common with all the people I've met who think similarly... We look to power over nations and institutions before physical power and pleasure.
We dream of getting transferred into supercomputers and leaving behind messy bodies forever.
A hate and fear of physical existence and living in the mind go together.
Or at least... the body becomes just a mechanical tool that performs necessary functions.

In casual settings, whether dancing, playing team sports, or bowling, people do catch on immediately if you're not really comfortable in your fleshly form.
It makes dealings with "ordinary" people rather difficult. They can always "smell" something is not quite right.

Kristor said...

This whole discussion is very good - thanks go out in particular to Arakawa - but for me it comes down to something that hit me with peculiar force just yesterday morning, and upon this very subject. I was driving through our neighbourhood, and suddenly, as so often happens, I was amazed at the glorious beauty of the trees. I thought, "This is why the resurrection of the body is so important, and why the angels will envy our experiences in Heaven as resurrected animal bodies: because as animals we will be able to see and taste and hear things that no other sort of being will be able to apprehend at all."

It's like, what is it like to be a bat, and to be able to appreciate things using echolocation? I have no idea; but there must be something inherently good about it, quite apart from its instrumental usefulness, *or nature would not have exploited that niche.* If the niche had been *nothing but painful,* it's exploitation would have been uneconomical, and nature would not have gone there. Since it has, we may infer that there is something beautiful about living echolocatively, something that is inherently and forever and by definition obscure to us, in just the same way that animal existence is inaccessible to the angels.

The answer to the question, “what good is embodied animal life,” then, is just like the answer to “why are there angels, and indeed choirs of angels?” or “why are there shrimp?” or “why are there planets?” It’s the notion of the Great Chain of Being that links together all that is in a pleroma, in which nothing is left out, or left unrepresented: that God would not omit to create any sort of good thing that he could create, that was compossible with the other things he creates.

Jonathan C said...

@GG: You are reading some things into my comment that I did not mean to imply (though I don't blame you; I left a lot out). I don't know whether there is intercourse or reproduction in heaven at all. But I do believe that masculinity and femininity as we know them are reflections of heaven's much stronger versions of yin and yang, that the sexual polarity we feel in heaven will be even stronger than we feel on earth (especially in the English-speaking West, where sexual polarity has been all but abolished), and that the pleasure we obtain from that polarity in our interactions with each other will be immense. And while I think earthly intellectuals will experience heaven as hedonistic and "mostly about physical pleasure", I think earthly football players will experience heaven as unimaginably spiritual and intellectual. The point being that in heaven, we will be most surprised by the faculties we most suppressed on earth. Or to put it another way, all our chakras will be fully opened.

@Red: I'm in the same boat as you. We try to use our strengths--the power of our intellects and our wills--to overcome or patch over our weaknesses. It doesn't work very well. You're absolutely right that it doesn't smell right to ordinary people. When we try to overthink our way through social interactions, they read the telltale tension in our faces and bodies, and they know instinctively they can't trust us to speak honestly from our limbic systems without corrupting everything through our cerebral cortexes. (I wish it had taken me fewer decades to figure this out.)

George G. said...

@JC - sorry for misunderstanding you & thanks for the additional explanation.

David said...

@BC - Just a thought that bothers me? How do physical and intellectual disabilities fit into this grandiose scheme of theosis? It is appealing as you describe but it strikes me as an idiosyncratically intellectual conception. I'm not sure how someone with sub-normal IQ, with Downs Syndrome or Autism is endowed to limber up the theotic ladder that you hypothesise or are they exempt for some reason?

Taking things a step further does this mean if they are saved (how an autistic person can make this informed theological decision to avoid damnation or engage in spiritual growth as you describe it also strikes me as a dilema) that the impediment of low iq in incarnate life is removed in the next so that if I were to meet them in heaven they would no longer have low iq or lack theory of mind? They would be emancipated somehow from the limitations of the flesh in mortal life? Does this mean those able to write on this post have a substantial theotic head start over such other souls? I find these kinds of consideration raise some problematic questions to the model you propose. But perhaps you can dispel them for me. Your thoughts on this would be interesting.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David S - Interestingly, I tend to think the opposite: that people of low intelligence would (like children) almost-never refuse Salvation; and it is those of high intelligence who are much more likely to do so, and apparently are apparently currently doing so in their multi-millions.

In a nutshell, I believe that theosis depends on what choices we make in the situation in which we find-ourselves (which, to some extent, is a God-given situation, and to some extent is a result of accident and sin).

David said...

@Bruce - Thank you for your replies. I have to say Christianity is winning me over again in many ways and I am finding my faith in God is growing day by day. I continue to ask for God to guide me in my life and to forgive me my sins so that I can come to know him better and to place him at the center of my life. Perhaps a post on repentance and what this exactly means might be useful for hopeful Christians? Also, specifically in relation to this post about the purpose of Mortal life I can't help but wonder about the traditional belief in reincarnation in Eastern belief systems such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It occurs to me that if there is proposed spiritual potential in 'theosis' as the purpose of mortal life that there are striking parallels with the Buddhist dharma/8 fold path and path of cultivating virtues such as generosity, joy, loving-kindness. More controversially, I seem to remember reading about the possibility that the doctrine of reincarnation had been removed from the Christian tradition historically because it was not expedient to political forces shaping the early church. Perhaps these claims are entirely bogus but I am by no means a learned archaeologist and I must confess potential ignorance on this point but I do often wonder about it nonetheless. What I do find interesting is the possibility of a soul incarnating as a human over several life times (in order to learn and develop spiritually) and a decision to come to Earth as a volunteer seem harmonious somehow (at least they do to me) with these persistent Eastern doctrines. In particular a book about Jesus's life by Deepak Chopra argues that Jesus might be regarded as a spiritually enlightened being or what might be considered a Boddhisattva in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. I find aspects of these Eastern faiths hard to dismiss in preference for a belief in a single life and resurrection in heavenly life (assuming salvation)and so I am tentatively both a Christian and a Buddhist until I can resolve these kinds of conflict. Simply deciding that I would like to choose one version of events as true over another does not seem like a sufficiently robust reason to do so but they both seem credible at an intuitive level. I have asked God for guidance and so far the answer I am getting is that Earthly life is a spiritual school for the development of my soul but I cannot help wonder if the lesson of several lifetimes might be necessary to account for the vast gulf between the wise saints of human history and their rarity. I think one life would be quite sufficiently hard work for my tastes but I can't help but wonder why this belief in reincarnation seems so stubbornly natural and intuitive to me. I have found it similarly confusing to note that there are many 'Christians' arguing that the resurrection is symbolic as the attainment of a kind of enlightenment of the spiritually or 'theotically' advanced soul and that literal interpretations of resurrection as a physical event post-death are to misunderstand the ministry of Christ. These may be silly hypotheses to get hung up on but I feel I need to 'exorcise them' where appropriate if I am not to mislead myself in future. Thanks for your time in considering my posts it is appreciated. They feel a bit silly sometime when I read them back but they are hopefully helping me progress.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I find a great gulf between 'Eastern' religion and Christianity.

Reincarnation is not of the 'self'/ soul or human spirit as understood in the West - but something lesser that clothes itself in body after body. It is part-of a greater whole, but itself less-than an individual soul - which is why it has no memory.

Buddhism or Hinduism is not going anywhere but round in circles, Christianity is directional, linear.

Nilrik said...

For decades I struggled with the How, When, Where and Why of life and God and everything.
I really tried to figure it all out, seeking answers everywhere. Why are we born? What is the purpose of suffering? What will happen to all those who die as infants? What of reicarnation? Is Hell for real? Etc. You all know the line of questions.

Sometimes I thought I found a clever answer, but after a while it simply faded away or was struck by some serious anomaly. Every brilliant theory I came up with sooner or later fell apart like a house of cards.

So finally, I gave up trying. I realised that I will never grasp it no matter how hard I try. This insight was a huge relief!

Thus, I'm no longer tormented with endless, intellectual efforts to understand how the universe is actually organised. I don't have to. All I really need is to put my trust in the ultimate and supreme Goodness and Justice of God - through Christ. The rest is mere technicalities.

/Nilrik, Sweden