A little while ago one of the many bloggers on The Immanent Frame wrote a post defending non-eternal life. If I understand him right, he says that life really only has meaning if it ends, because if it ends it has narrative shape. A life that goes on forever would be like an endless baseball game without a winner, and so would turn to tormenting boredom. This led to the longest comment thread that I’ve ever seen on that blog.
Oddly enough, I remember making a similar point to Telford in what I think of as the Great Hell Debate last year, only I came to a very different conclusion. Basically, I agreed that the glorification of the saved and the punishment of the wicked makes a good ending to a story, but ceases to make sense if you stretch it out infinitely. Do we want Cinderella to be forever frozen at the point where she marries the prince, and her stepsisters are getting their eyes pecked out? Does being on the winning team really make you happy enough to last for eternity? This was one point I think Marilyn McCord Adams made well in her book: battles damage everybody, including the victors, so the simple assurance of victory does not mean an end to the suffering. Indeed, much of the support that faith seems to offer warriors is that the generations after them will benefit, and that they might someday be reunited with their fallen comrades. But in the afterworld, presumably, there will be no future generations, nor any hope that friends who don’t make it that far will ever return. So the cosmic battle for the world isn’t like your normal war with a normal victory. Making eternal life bearable would call for a much more radical solution.
This did not, however, lead me to conclude that life could only be finite. In fact, it convinced me that narrative isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. Must everything be a story? Or can eternal life be, to use W.H. Auden’s description of Eden, “being without becoming, and all the suffering that becoming entails”?
For some reason, unlike Patrick Lee Miller, I don’t have much trouble believing such an altered state of consciousness is possible. The perception of time is so subjective — it seems to speed up, slow down, and in some particularly “right brain” moments, become irrelevant. I can’t say I can imagine life beyond time in detail, but I wouldn’t say that it’s “beyond imagination,” even though that seems to be the general agreement at the Immanent Frame.
The funny thing about me saying all this is that I pretty much live and breathe narrative. My job consists of turning the vagaries of real life into stories, and my off-hours are pretty much consumed with stories also, whether as entertainment or instruction or creativity. Yet at the same time being in a story doesn’t seem like such a great deal; as my short-story teacher in college put it, the job of a fiction writer is to put her characters in a tree and throw rocks at them. So there’s always a part of me that’s saying, enough rocks, enough baseball, and I don’t really care who wins. I want out.