By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
02 Mar 2017
There are enough arguments to convince the best minds regarding the plausibility of immortality from a philosophical and not just religious viewpoint
Whitehead has referred to basic insights or initial intuitions or feelings of mankind calling for explanations or justifications. Our desire for immortality is one of these initial intuitions, or persistent dreams, or impulses. If we begin with this fundamental impulse of the human spirit, the question is not disputing their “truth” on this or that so-called scientific ground or explaining it away but how to express it. Believers and non-believers needn’t dispute the matter taking all or none position but may better have a dialogue regarding how far we have succeeded in defining or understanding it correctly.
Taking affairs of life in a playful spirit – but not our assigned or chosen roles in that play – is taking Heaven seriously. Often, believers believe in Heaven but hardly mind it and it is so-called non-believers who take it seriously. How many people we know who are virtually living in heaven here and now or seeing them one recalls God/Heaven? If very few it means most people choose to dwell in hell. Darshan or Deedar of a saint or prophet is a vision of Heaven. It is prophets, saints, sages, artists – messengers of love and beauty – that invite us to exchange the hell of our own making for the Heaven. Heaven is accessible here and now, albeit partially, to all. And if we haven’t found a semblance of heaven here, we can’t get it there. It isn’t a deal with insurance company that you pay premiums for life here and get returns there. Every moment is, to transpose Renan’s metaphor for nation, a plebiscite for heaven or hell. God has ordained self determination.
There are enough arguments to convince the best minds (from Plato to Ibn Sina to Kant to Whitehead) regarding plausibility of immortality from a philosophical and not just religious viewpoint. Those who aren’t convinced have a difficult task of avoiding despair or resignation that is tinged with sorrow. The problem – or grace – is that, deep down, man refuses to believe his mortality. If both the desire and somewhat intuitive conviction and over a dozen rational arguments that cumulatively do mean a lot if not individually so compelling are corroborated by countless experiences men traditionally have had and even modern do have occasionally – one can go to YouTube and see hundreds of videos by not only gullible believers but former sceptics that seem to imply some sort of survival and good news from the yonderland, one has, a s a rational being, reason to believe essential immortality of intelligence that asks the question about its own mortality and thus seems to presuppose its own transcendental status as outside spatio-temporal frameworks. There is no harm in hoping for the best while preparing for the worst in any case. None of us can easily grant that love – whose very mention evokes supernatural or eternal aspect – can die, that beauty is merely natural phenomenon, that intelligence or that consciousness isn’t somehow primordial.
History knows very few die hard consistent sceptics. However some doubt is widespread and occasionally infects most believers as well. However these doubts are only skin deep as could be gleaned by the fact that it is hard to find a person who would consent to a proposal that we throw our corpses to dogs in streets (if it is all dust, what is the problem?) convert all graveyards to tillable or other kind of land, destroy all shrines (where “dead” are honoured), do away with all kinds of acts that involve remembering/experiencing our ancestors as if they are with us. If theonomous conscience is a function of intellect and the later implies immortality, we may have to conclude that we have to say goodbye to conscience as well if we refuse to believe in immortality. We keep cherishing memories and what is faith in immortality but the same obsession for memories carried further forward. Civilizations have been built by ignorant dreamers and its greatest products are there thanks to delusions about immortality. Name dozens of wonders of the world and one can trace in most cases a connection to immortality. Imagine how one can conduct mourning to relatives of deceased friends without funeral prayers or Fatiha or Quran recitation or really consoling words. We don’t consent to throw away even our pets or domestic animals in graves. We don’t consent to close accounts of the dead. They keep us visiting in dreams – a two way traffic indeed.
What a grace it is to believe in immortality grounds for rationality of belief in immortality as it implies, as Schuon makes clear, that whatever experience we cherish – every trot in a garden, every smile from the loved one, beauty of our youth and vibrancy of childhood – is eternally etched or fixed for us and will be with us. Whitehead’s great contribution to immortality debate is to ground this insight more rationally. So those who believe in heaven have nothing to grieve for. Do you grieve for anything or passing things? If yes, you don’t believe in the Messengers who preach to us of Heaven, in the saints and sages who tell us how they saw some glimpses of it and the poets who travel with the holy wings of Imagination to Heaven and recreate for us a joy and beauty that we can keep invoking. Religion will always be man’s chief nourishment of soul and its chief dish to woo us is Heaven. Stay tuned.
It is something evoking or invoking (or parasitic on) Eternity/Heaven or semblance of it in ordinary experiences such as sunshine and women and beaches and friends and music and wine that secular writers propose for our earthly salvation. Modern drug culture and alcoholism is ultimately linked to squeezing of spaces for cultivating safer and tested methods for tasting Heaven or securing our seat there. So the question of immortality is of great practical significance for governments and police is better equipped if it knows it. Daredevil driving that kills thousands annually is seeking shortcut to heaven here.
None of us – not even among atheists – is ready to go for certain sins. It means all of us live lives with some consciousness of sin that costs us exile from heaven that is the serenity of spirit that accompanies clear conscience.
Our greatest or most beautiful buildings are mosques/temples/cathedral or tombs and all are modelled on the other world or seek to evoke that. Taj Mahal’s design is copied from Quranic description and Ibn Arabi’s diagrams of heaven. Our houses, the sciences of Vastu and its counterpart in Islamic tradition inform us, should be consecrated to God and be places where Heaven is felt. Heaven is a space to be cultivated – “Ad-Dunya Mazra’atul Aakhira” – and unfortunately few succeed in the job. Every small act of gratitude and love and attention to beauty is nurturing this space.
We have heard the good news but we have not paid heed. There is a great news broadcast in all scriptures, in the writings of saints, symbolized in great art works, hinted in virgin nature, dreamt in dreams or seen in visions, lived by children and simple minded, tasted by lovers, that is the Good News of Heaven. Heaven has been promised by God, His prophets, his saints. We haven’t just heard of it we have lived it, seen it through a veil. It is thanks to Heaven’s ecstasies that we continue to cherish life, sex, music, beauty. “Earth was Heaven's womb, Heaven's nursery, Heaven's dress rehearsal. Heaven was the meaning of the earth.” As Peter Kreeft says:
“The big, blazing, terrible truth about man is that he has a heaven-sized hole in his heart, and nothing else can fill it…
Talk about heaven and you'll get sneers. But talk about a mysterious dissatisfaction with life even when things go well—especially when things go well—and you'll get a hearing from man's heart, even if his lips will not agree.
No one longs for fluffy clouds and sexless cherubs, but everyone longs for heaven. No one longs for any of the heavens that we have ever imagined, but everyone longs for "something no eye has seen, no ear has heard, something that has not entered into the imagination of man, something God has prepared for those who love him."
Isn’t life and our love of it something that commands us and we can’t do anything about it. This speaks we know something – are gripped – by that what is a gift. A sense of gratitude for this gift is life of faith that results in lightness of Spirit that is like travelling in the shade of trees in Heaven. The promised heaven awaits those who carry its image, its seeds in their hearts here.
I conclude on this note “Once you go to Heaven, you don't live on earth anymore.”