When National Public Radio does a series on life after death, you know the question of what happens to us after we die is more than just a religious matter.
Religion is personal, but there’s another concern, larger than the individual and even more important: What about the human race? Are we approaching some sort of cataclysmic event that will end civilization as we know it? Should humanity become extinct, will there be an afterlife?
Consider the following: nuclear bombs, new and virulent diseases, worldwide pollution, demographic changes that unbalance the social order ... the list is long. Too many educated people are beginning to believe mankind’s days may be numbered.
I’m not ready to accept that, but I’m sure life as it is being lived in our highly industrialized, corporate-controlled society is not sustainable. It’s time to get serious about mankind’s future.
Most of us believe there is some sort of life after death, but there is no consensus on what that might be. The Judaic scholar Joseph Telushkin believes that “... the concept of God is incompatible with the idea that life ends at death.”
Islam promises paradise to the faithful, a paradise where all desires are granted. The Eastern religions lean toward some form of reincarnation.
Along with various theologians, NPR interviewed NYU philosopher Samuel Scheffler. His position is basically nonreligious. Imagine, he says, we learn that without a doubt everybody on the planet will be gone in the very near future. How would that impact the concept of an afterlife?
Even atheists understand that their own death does not mean the end of their existence. The elements in their body are not destroyed. They turn into something else. The deeds they did in life live on in the memory of others.
In a sense, individual life lives on as long as humanity walks the earth. But what we believe and what we do today has no meaning tomorrow if the earth is devoid of people.
Scheffler contends that not only does the welfare of our descendents depend on what we do today, we depend on our descendents to give our lives meaning.
Contemplating one’s own death is difficult enough, but thinking about the fate of the human race is beyond depressing. That is why it’s so hard to make people understand extinction is a distinct possibility if we don’t learn how to live and work together.
Just as death and the prospect of death don’t have to be depressing — I know; I just lost my husband of 59 years — the vulnerability of the human race doesn’t have to reduce us to despair. Consider this: Are we an old race nearing its end, or a young race going through adolescence?
Both of these similes have been suggested by philosophers and theologians alike. I chose the latter. Anyone who has had teenagers knows there is a point when the child slips from parental control: old enough to drive, old enough make his or her own decisions no matter how unwise, and old enough to crash and burn in all sorts of inappropriate ways. I chose to believe our race is adolescent.
There is not a lot a parent can do besides pray. I pray for my 17-year-old granddaughter and for the human race, but there are things we as human beings can do for our species right now.
First, we can recognize our own vulnerability. At present we are trashing our planet. It has to stop.
Next we have to consider the consequences of our acts, not just to our own lives but also to the lives of people around the world. We have to consider not just the welfare of our nation but also the welfare of the community of nations. This perhaps is the hardest of all.
One defends their family; one defends their nation. We even defend certain select species, (save the whales) but who defends the human race?
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.