Why Ecological Thinking Needs the Afterlife
I offer my professional opinion (in case you wanted it)
You can also watch the interview on YouTube, if you prefer something visual:
Sam is a great conversationalist and I really enjoyed the discussion which ranged from my motivations for getting into the weird field of theology, to my collaborative work with the artist (and my good friend) Krista Dragomer, to the kinds of rituals we might need to restore the balance between life and death in a world that often feels far too deadly. In Sister Death I write about Sam’s book on what he calls coexistentialism (a multispecies take on existentialism). I think there are a lot of resonances between our thinking, and this probably made for better conversation!
We mostly spoke about the themes and topics in Sister Death. If you’ve read it, then you already know that I don’t spend much time in the book addressing the whole complex question of the afterlife. You might think that this is because I’m a materialist who finds discussions of the afterlife to be unproductive and silly; like relics from the childhood of our humanity, from the time before we were modern. But this would be a mistake. I suppose I’m a materialist, at least after a fashion. But I do also have deep and abiding interests in speculations about life after death. The reason why I did not address speculations about the afterlife, in Sister Death, was because I didn’t think I would have room to say what I wanted to say. I felt like it would be a distraction from the argument that I was trying to make. So I decided to save it for another project. My new book project, on underworlds, is beginning to explore some dimensions of the afterlife (the land of the dead, in the underworld, is a variant of life after death). I will probably have more to say, even after this book is done.
But Sam did ask me, in jest, about the afterlife in our interview. And I took the opportunity to answer him seriously. Here’s a transcript of this part of the conversation:
SM: I was thinking that I should end the interview with a question where you tell us, once and for all, what happens when we die. You must know! You’ve been doing the research (laughs).
BM: My students always ask me this question at the end of the semester. I think that lots and lots of students take my class because they want to know “what happens to me, when I die?” They walk in and on day one they’re like, “this is why I’m taking this class. I just need to have some questions answered.” And I’m like, “FYI, you’re going to leave this class with way more questions than answers, and I hope that by the time we get there, you’re going to be comfortable with that.”
But the way that I generally tend to think about this is that... in spite of the fact that I do like to think about death, I think that one of the compliments to this is that I have also always been curious about the afterlife. I wouldn’t say that I have any real sense of personal immortality, or the reality of personal immortality. I don’t believe that I’m going to go on having personal, sense-oriented experiences after I die. Although, I am very confident that I will live on in many different ways that I might not experience. Because that’s just a fact. In that sense, I think that the afterlife is just a fact. We do, we continue to live on after we’re gone. Other people carry us, and the things we’ve left behind carry us. So in that extremely materialist, or concrete, sense yes I believe in an afterlife.
But I’ve also always just been very curious about how did this view on the afterlife come about? What is it connected to? What does it actually express? There’s a really common critique, of thinking about the afterlife that kind of came out of philosophical thought in the late 20th century where people say things like, “well, you know, it’s life-denying to think about life after death. Because, if you think that we’re going to escape to go to some other realm or dimension, then you’re basically just disowning the importance of life on earth.” And I think that this is an interesting, and important, and useful critique of this fantasy of not being on the earth anymore, not caring about the earth anymore. But I think that one of the things that happened, in the wake of that critique, is that a lot of people just completely dismissed theories of the afterlife as totally irrelevant, and not interesting. But I think that there are really profoundly earthy and interesting aspects to theories of the afterlife.
I mean, like, for many writers the idea of resurrection has just been a profoundly earth-oriented, cycle-embracing way of recognizing that we are taken up by other aspects of the earth and kind of reborn into them. Reincarnation is a profoundly beautiful way of recognizing our connections with other creatures. Even just thinking about how this whole idea of going to heaven came about; it was from looking at the sky, staring up at the stars and the skies and just feeling really limited by, and yet also totally inspired by, the heavens. And just wanting to imagine what kind of worlds the clouds above us contained, and harbored.
I’m working on a project on underworlds right now, and thinking about how in some ancient contexts there are these interesting passages from underworlds, up into the heavens. So we’re all kind of surrounded by primal waters. I think, in that sense, there are just really beautiful visions contained, in some of these visions of an afterlife that I think if we don’t take mortality seriously, and we don’t take our struggles to cope with that mortality (sometimes through creating visions of the afterlife) seriously, then we don’t really get to enter into those beautiful visions. I think it’s just a cool way of trying to understand how many people of the past and the present try to make sense of their life on earth.
SM: That was a really profound and beautiful answer to what I thought was kind of a silly and annoying question.
I’ve been thinking about this question, since our interview. And I’m not actually going to make the case that, universally in human life “the afterlife” is a necessary feature. But what I do stand behind is the point that I don’t really elaborate clearly enough here, which is that while it’s been argued that there’s something life-denying about the afterlife (it’s a way of imagining ourselves outside of the earth, no longer on it), I actually think that theories of the afterlife are often deep and profound expressions of our bonds with the the world, the natural world: the earth itself.
I think that Christian views of the afterlife have more or less colonized how people tend to think about “the afterlife” as a generic figure of thought in the modern era. So when you say anything about life after death most people assume that you’re talking about the (naïve, from a modern and scientific point of view) idea that we are spirited away to place in the clouds, when we die, to join all of our departed loved ones. Or they assume that you’re affirming the endurance of your own consciousness and/or sense experience after the death of your body. But there are views of the afterlife that don’t quite posit either of these specific outcomes. And there are ways of talking about the reality of life’s endurance after our own death that don’t orient themselves around either of these conceptual problems.
The philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that most of us, whether we realize it or not, believe in and depend deeply upon a form of the afterlife. It’s one that’s unarticulated in our culture (we don’t tend to label it as a theory of the afterlife.) But it’s a vision of the afterlife that matters deeply to many—if not most of us—on earth. It matters to most of us more than our own lives matter to us. It’s also one that current conditions on earth are throwing into question. That is to say, the current conditions of life on earth are making this belief look less rational and more like a speculative, fantastic hope. They are making it look more like other, premodern, theories of the afterlife.
In his book Death and the Afterlife Scheffler stages what he calls a thought experiment, in which he is essentially asking people to contemplate the possibility that the entire planet will be destroyed shortly after our own death. In this thought experiment, we know this before we die. But we can’t stop it. The point he’s trying to make is that most of us will experience a complete and total loss of meaning and value. Most of us will stop hoping for much of anything. Most of us will stop doing any sort of work that requires us to invest in long-term thinking. No one is going to work to cure cancer, or to cultivate right relations among groups of people on earth. Because, in essence, no long-term investment will be worth it in a short-term future. His point, ultimately, is that most of us (even those of us who consider ourselves modern) still believe in the endurance of human life on earth after our own death. Most of us believe that other people will go on living, after we die. And this is a theory of life after death that gives our present life verve and power and meaning.
Scheffler’s thought experiment is totally artificial, and when I use this reading in my classes students love to poke holes in the premise, or ask endless follow-ups, rather than contemplate the question. But Scheffler is only just reframing a problem that many of us speak and think about today: human extinction. You could say that a larger-scale, longer-timeline version of Scheffler’s thought experiment is playing out constantly in our public discourse. And given the fact that we are witnessing mass extinction events play out in more than human lifeworlds, the possibility does not seem at all unrealistic.
In the face of a problem like extinction, I think that we have a responsibility—both to ourselves and to other species who face the possibility of extinction—to think about our collective mortality. Imagining that we are immortal, or fantasizing that this is the case, is a delusion. When we can face the fact of death, when we can admit that we (not simply as individuals, but as collectives) are mortal, then we can attend to our mortal vulnerabilities and help to empower one another.
And yet nevertheless, I also think that we have a responsibility—to ourselves and other earthlings—to continue to invest in and dream about our survival and ongoingness. Whatever form it takes. I think about extinction, yes. But I still continue to invest in the endurance of human life on earth. I continue to hope for, and maybe to expect on some deep level, that this life after my death will be real. I feel like my work, my emotional well-being, my relationships with other people, all of these things depend on me cultivating this wild expectation.
And when this particular wild expectation fails me, I am also rooted in—I take comfort in—the wild expectation that the lives of other earthlings that I’ve known and met will endure somehow long after I am dead. I take comfort in the wild expectation that what I am participating in now is—in some way—a taste of how things will be. Some of the smells will be the same. Maybe the sun will even feel the same as it touches skin. Though it will undoubtedly be different, too. I think that there is some relationship—some mysterious relationship—between the actual endurance of earth life and the wild expectation that it will continue in some form. Even if changed and altered by time and space.
I believe (against reason, perhaps) that the most glorious dimensions of earth life as I know it will continue, even after I die. And this wild expectation is what I live and work for. So, as far as I’m concerned, belief in an afterlife isn’t a fantasy, a premodern delusion, a relic from the childhood of humanity, a denial of material reality, an anti-scientific hoax, or whatever else you might want to call it. It’s something on the order of a necessity. Let’s keep dreaming big dreams together.
If you are in the Louisville area, please come and join me at Carmichael’s Books next week, on Friday June 2nd at 7 p.m.. The poet Martha Greenwald, who just published a collection of memories of those we lost to COVID, and I will be hosting a conversation about life and death in (and after) a pandemic. Details here. We would love to see you there!
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