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