Monday, November 18, 2019

A time for contemplating eternity

D.L. Sayers, as she probably looks today.
It's November, so it's time to pray for the dead and contemplate the coming of Christ, not just by remembering/celebrating Christmas, but also by looking forward to his Second Advent. 

Sorry for recycling old goods, but perhaps few have read this column. I published it in The Record, the newspaper of the archdiocese of Perth, Australia, once upon a time. (I would link the page, but alas, they seem to have removed all but six of my columns from their archive.)

Death and Dorothy L. Sayers

Have you heard the joke that begins: “An Anglo-Catholic theologian, a delusional geneticist, and Death walk into a bar…”

No? Well, that’s because the joke doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have to, when we have scientists who actually believe that temporal immortality is not only possible but desirable. 

For Catholics, November is traditionally a month to remember the dead, and to ponder the Four Last Things. Advent looks forward not only to Christmas, but also to Christ’s second coming. Some misguided theologians consider this emphasis on death a quaint anachronism; science would like to eliminate it altogether. 

Some years back, on a Canadian science programme called “The Nature of Things,” I heard an interview between the host, Dr. David Suzuki (a geneticist turned climate guru, who now has the dubious distinction of being the Canadian Al Gore), and another geneticist whose name (alas) I do not remember. Let’s call him Dr. G. I do recollect that he was presented as a credible and serious scientist (as opposed to the assorted kooks you’ll find online today if you Google the phrase “Immortality Gene”). 

The excitement of mapping the human genome caused Dr. G. to declare that science would soon find –and eliminate—the “aging” gene, so as to achieve immortality for mankind. The science itself is debatable; what struck me is that neither geneticist sought to explain why living forever would be a good thing.  

While Suzuki ventured that immortality might engender ethical dilemmas for society (ya think?) it did not seem to occur to him that the implementation of such genetic manipulation would itself be a huge ethical problem. He cited, for example, the need for population control, suggesting that once the Immortals had been genetically engineered to perfection, fertility could be eliminated. But not entirely. 

He further postulated that only the rich would be able to afford genetic ‘immortality’ treatments. On the assumption that these folks would not wish to spend any part of their eternity cleaning toilets, they would need to employ the poor (mortals), who in turn would be allowed to reproduce, but only under controlled circumstances (Aldous Huxley, call your office). The drones, naturally, would not desire immortality: a life of eternal servitude? No thanks. 

Of course, for earthly life to be (ahem) heavenly for the Immortals, all war, disease, pestilence, infirmity, strife, and natural disasters would also need to be eliminated—good luck with that. But then the naïveté of post-modern science is boundless. Dr. G. declared that, thanks to the ability to perfect our DNA, “human evolution will stop.” I submit that this happened long ago, in the Garden of Eden, when the serpent beguiled Eve: “Ye shall be like gods.” Little has changed since then. 

There is no guarantee that immortality would make life enjoyable, or even tolerable; I suspect it would be precisely the opposite. It’s ironic that many scientists consider the traditional concept of heaven (and an all-loving God, who can fulfill the deepest longings of the human heart) a silly fairy tale, but believe that a genetically-modified and climate-controlled heaven on earth, engendered by MA’s and PhD’s, is a concrete possibility. Rather makes you think that science is the opiate of the Masters.

I have long admired the brilliant mystery writer, scholar, theologian, and staunch Anglo-Catholic Dorothy L. Sayers. In her poem, “Hymn in Contemplation of Sudden Death,” Miss Sayers gives thanks to God for the many blessings of her life: 

“For all things merry, quaint and strange / For sound and silence, strength and change / And last, for death, which only gives / Value to everything that lives.”

In other words, it is death that makes life worth living. Life is precious, not because it is fun, but because it is fleeting. In a 1937 letter to a clergyman and school headmaster, Miss Sayers wrote of the effect of Christ’s resurrection: 

“It is precisely because of the eternity outside time that everything in time becomes valuable and important and meaningful. […] ‘Eternal life’ is the sole sanction for the values of this life. The revelation in Christ is the means by which we get into touch with what the eternal pattern is.” 

We needn’t strive in vain for a shabby imitation of immortality; the Lord of Life offers an infinitely more glorious option, if we but choose to accept it. Christ our Saviour has already conquered death (genome maps not required, thank you), and thus we need not fear it. 

All ye saints and holy souls, pray for us.

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