11 December 2011

The fixed and the fluid

Coming from the Mormon worldview, it is hard to break free from the concepts of permanence and constancy. I don’t necessarily know their doctrinal origins, but I do have a good theory about why they are maintained: they feed a basic human desire to be emotionally secure, to feel that despite the empirical evidence of our individual insignificance, we are in control of at least the little spheres around us. But evidence everywhere tells us that constancy and permanence are illusions. Change is constant, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but ubiquitous. And interestingly, other doctrines of Mormonism (like the seldom spoken-of idea that God was once like man and evolved into His current position of deity, and the concept of continuing revelation), run counter to these strains of constancy. Doctrinally, Mormonism is a mix of change and constancy, but it is certainly the latter that has the upper hand theologically these days.

Think for a minute of the atoms and molecules that make up our bodies – the flux of matter in and out of us with every meal and trip to the restroom. Most of the atoms that make me today will be somewhere else a year from now. Even the atoms in the DNA molecules that instruct cells to synthesize such and such molecules at such and such times are replaced over time. Only the information in the DNA, encoded via its physical structure, is relatively constant during the lifetime of an individual. However, slowly accumulating mutations in individual cells and in the evolutionary lineages of species and higher-order taxa point to its ultimate impermanence as well. As individual organisms we age, we lose functions gradually, and then die.

By doctrine, Mormonism attempts to escape some of the inevitabilities of death. Through the doctrine of a bodily resurrection, we may inherit bodies that become immortal and never again subject to die (1). Through sealings to spouse and children we can bind relationships beyond the separation of death (2). Through covenants we can forge a relationship with God that cannot be touched by other forces in the universe. Many Latter-day Saints become very attached to these concepts, evidenced in part by emotional testimonies born in congregations about the truthfulness of the afterlife, sealings and a literal resurrection.

I have little problem with the motivations behind such hopeful concepts of permanence, because they are born of the human need for emotional security (I doubt I differ much from anyone else in this respect) and, at their core, they are really innocuous systems of belief that of themselves probably have little negative effect on how life carries on. But there is scant empirical evidence that any of these amendments to the constitution of death are close to being true.

Given belief in an afterlife, there are two general alternative paths for how a person engages with life. The first is a proactive existence that uses belief as a motivation to do one’s absolute best in this life. Belief in an afterlife isn’t required to live a purposeful existence by any means, but for some it serves a useful role. The second path is an unfortunate one – belief in the afterlife becomes an excuse to be passive about making the most of experiences in the here and now. I imagine, for example, the mindset of people who want to wait until a future existence to find happiness, or who shy away from asking the really hard questions of modern life or fully accepting themselves.

Hope doesn’t release us from change. It will not keep my atoms from recycling into some other organism somewhere on the planet. My atoms will soon enough find themselves in the soil and in water, and, if in another lifeform, a bacterium (likely – they make up most of the earth’s living organic biomass), a plant perhaps (how wonderful, I’d love to participate in the miracle of photosynthesis!), or, less likely, in some animal. Basically, my atoms no more belong to me than to the other creatures that use them, past and future.

Hope is a beautiful concept applied to the here and now. It is the fire that burns in those pushing for civil rights. It is the extra energy to forge new and exciting relationships. It can encourage individual sacrifice for causes greater than one’s self. But it is less attractive as an escape from the inevitability of change. I have hope; I work hard; I cling in some ways to concepts of permanence. But I also must know deep down that these are games of the mind. Death is the great arbitrator of our existence. If my mortal relationships and experiences, if my own identity even, can survive the inevitability of death, then I will be genuinely pleasantly surprised. But I may also gain much more out of life by living without that “certainty”.

(1) The cycling of physical matter among organisms and inert matter presents some technical challenges for belief in a literal resurrection that is based on the concept that organisms “own” their own physical matter. Life forms other than humans will also be resurrected in LDS theology. Thus, if an atom finds residence in several creatures, which will gain ownership of an atom in the permanent hereafter?  Also, given the short generation times of bacteria, their large cumulative biomass relative to other organisms, and their long evolutionary history, resurrection of all bacteria that ever lived on Earth would materially swamp the elemental requirements other multi-cellular organisms like humans. There is another strangely literal LDS teaching about the resurrection: blood is the Mormon symbol of human mortality, so our immortal bodies will be bloodless in the hereafter but will otherwise resemble our present anatomy.

(2) LDS sealings are only performed between husband and wife and between children and parents. This is nice, but I would vote for a heaven where I am sealed to friends and nice strangers too.