Faith Demystified – What Happens When We Die?
The deepest mystery of faith is what happens when we die. Some would say that we go dark like a candle that is extinguished. Others would suggest that there is a part of us that continues. There is a whiff of smoke as the candle is extinguished, and heat energy that continues forward in time.
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come? – Hamlet
As there is no definitive answer to the ultimate question, we choose between uncertainty and illusion.
Earlier I have pledged that I would not polish the standard illusions of organized religion. The following exercise is about creating our own illusions. This is an important skill for all spiritual sojourners. In order to thoroughly understand the nature of illusions is it necessary to be able to construct your own. A musician must have skills in composition in order to understand music at all.
Illusions are not bad things, unless we delude ourselves into believing that they must be true. The story of the Tooth Fairy comforts a young child who has just lost a body part. If an illusion of death makes it easier to die, and especially if it makes it easier to live, then it is a good thing indeed. As to what illusions you subscribe to is up to you within certain conditions. If you want to believe in Charlie Brown’s “Great Pumpkin” it is no concern of mine.
Illusions are not judged by their connection to reality. Please note my prior discussion of astrology. Rather, illusions should be judged by their fruits. Does the illusion cause you to relate to the cosmos? Does it connect you to other people, even those beyond your own tribe or faith tradition? Is it a compelling expression of love? Does it advance the causes of justice and compassion? There are many forms of malevolent illusions, such as racism, violence, addiction, sexual predation, financial predation, and more. But so far as an illusion is benevolent there can be little harm done in embracing it so long as you realize that it is in fact an illusion.
Here I would like to share you my own illusion, fully cognizant of the fact that the following is an illusion.
The universe is filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. There is no much real estate out there that it is impossible to comprehend. Every human being that is now living, has ever lived, or ever will live, has a claim to an entire galaxy. Imagine that galaxy as an extension of yourself. Imagine it as a vast reservoir of love that is a part of you. You can draw love and energy from your own personal galaxy at any time. It makes your life, and the lives of all of those around you, limitless and unbounded. The sacks of flesh in which we dwell is not who we are. It is simply a temporary manifestation of our mortal existence. Our past, present, and future are vastly more than a face in the photograph.
When we die we cast off our sack of flesh, and return to the cosmos. What we take with us from our mortal life is our memories. Our memories are who we truly are in this mortal realm. They are the sum total of the experiences that we have had, and the decisions that we have made. Those things are our immortal selves in their purest forms.
Some would ask if we face judgment. Does God separate the sheep from the goats? I believe that the only judgment comes from our own memories. In death we become enlightened. We come to know what is really important and what is not worth worrying about. Perhaps those failures that we fretted the most we might find are nothing at all, like when President Jimmy Carter confessed that he had lusted after women in his heart. The most serious failure may be in seeing a homeless person on the street and passing by without helping. The real moral test is how we loved. Did we focus on ministries of justice and compassion, or were we too busy grasping after wealth, power, beauty, or some other vain pursuit.
The universe is even much fuller than I have already described. M-theory tells us that there are not four but eleven dimensions of spacetime. The added dimensions are not fully understood.
We know that there must be more than the four dimensions of ordinary space. Einstein proved that gravity causes spacetime to bend space. That very bending does not take place in ordinary four-dimensional spacetime, but must of necessity bend in one or more of those extended dimensions.
Perhaps one of those extra dimensions are where memories go. There is a basic principle in physics that says that information may never be lost. And what is memory but information?
What we tell ourselves about what happens when we die informs our mortal existence about how to live. We construct our lives from each decision that we make. We are aware of the montage of memories that we have collected. Layer by layer and frame by frame we construct a record of who we are. Our personal montage is both powerful and profound. It is only finished after a lifetime of striving. It is the unique and authentic story of our life. It is more enduring than our flesh and more powerful than our dreams. And yes, it does continue.
The Spirituality of String Theory
String Theory or its close cousin M-theory, with their ten or eleven dimensions, is a universe beyond our comprehension. Cosmologists are still struggling with its workings and what it means for our existence. The origin of String Theory was in trying to describe what happened before the Big Bang. Cosmology and theology are drawing ever closer together as both sides seek to answer such basic theological-cosmological questions as:
- Where did we come from?
- Where are we going?
- Are there other worlds like ours?
- Why is there something rather than nothing?
Perhaps the most theological question raised by cosmology today is:
Is there a design for the universe, or is it simply the result of random chances raised to the billion-billion-billion-billionth power in some cosmic roll of the dice?
There are scientists of all stripes on both sides of this divide. Both sides can make elegant and impassioned arguments to support their positions.
The old paradigm of science vs. religion basically required that you had to choose one side or the other. Either you could check the weather forecast or pray for rain. Either you could believe that everything happens by the uncaring forces of random chance. Or, you could believe in divine providence.
In the old “normal-space” view of the universe, we were bound by the three dimensions of space plus one of time. We lived in a series of boxes divided by walls, floors and ceilings representing height, width and depth. Anything that did not fit into such three-dimensional boxes was simply not part of the normal-space universe and could be ignored.
But the three dimensions of normal-space could never capture all that was happening. For example, Chinese acupuncture seems to have no medical connection to our physiology. Perhaps a better way of stating that is that western medicine cannot make that connection. And yet acupuncture seems to be providing health, strength and vitality to its adherents. The skeptic could say that any benefit derived from acupuncture could be purely delusional, caused by wishful thinking or caused by the placebo effect. But let’s not be hasty.
Acupuncture involves the flow of a special energy called “qi “, which travels along meridians of the body. But these supposed meridians appear on any western anatomy charts. The literal translation of qi is wind, breath or gas but is often translated as life force. The equivalent word in New Testament Greek is pneuma, which means air or breath but is usually translated as spirit.
Visualizing String Theory requires the ability to think in paradox, where two seemingly contradictory ideas can be held together with a sense of deeper harmony. Paradoxical thinking requires a more expansive view of the universe than does our ordinary normal-space existence with its notion of certainty. Perhaps there is some efficacy to acupuncture, even if western medicine cannot understand it. This is neither to support nor deny acupuncture, but only to suggest that there is more going on in the universe than we can comprehend with our limited, normal-space thinking.
Perhaps the extra dimensions in String Theory give us the space to allow for dimensions of existence that we have previously thought of as magical, mystical, spiritual or religious. And, here is a radical thought. Perhaps String Theory not only allows for the mystical, but perhaps even requires it.
Energy conduits enter our homes to provide radio signals, electricity, clean water, natural gas, telephone service, Internet access, and a host of other connections to the outside world. These special conduits or channels enormously affect the normal-space boxes in which we live, and provide a host of special powers that would have been seen as miraculous even a few hundred years ago. This analogy may help us to explore the extra dimensions of String Theory. Perhaps one of the String Theory extra dimensions is a channel for qi, a force that we cannot access until we understand it.
As a Christian, and more specifically a Calvinist, I have always found the universe to be a sacred place filled with divine logos. “Logo” is Greek for “word” in standard New Testament usage. But it means more than just the spoken word. It also means order, pattern, or design. When we speak of divine logos, we are speaking about the divine order that pervades all things. It covers the birth of the universe, the mating habits of tsetse flies, the DNA molecule, the Van Allen radiation belts, the formation of the planets, and the life cycles of stars.
To perceive the divine logos in all things is to live in a spiritual dimension. And now, String Theory may allow such a metaphysical statement to be incorporated into an expanded view of the universe. Perhaps there is actually in the physical universe a place beyond normal-space where spirit dwells.
Try to envision a universe with nine spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. Such is the emerging view of our universe according to String Theory. Or, if you prefer the closely related M-theory, you will have to live with a universe of ten spatial dimensions and one of time.
I used to lie awake nights pondering where the extra dimensions were to be found. I would concentrate on a corner of the room, where two walls and the ceiling met, and try to envision a fourth spatial dimension. Our whole world view of normal space is constricted to three spatial dimensions, length, width and height. Trying to envision anything beyond those is very difficult.
But the extra spatial dimensions are not like the familiar width, length and height. Rather, they seem to be curled up inside of ordinary space as the image above suggests. They are closer to us than our own skin, and yet the open up to the very edges of our universe and perhaps beyond.
To envision String Theory, we must leave behind our normal concepts of space. Normal space that is bound by boxes demarcated by width, length and height. String Theory does not involve a fourth or fifth box dimension, but something much more exciting.
Think of the extra dimensions not as spaces but as channels or conduits. Our houses are not just boxes stacked together. What makes our houses actually work are the conduits that supply us with water, electricity, heating and cooling, and connectivity. When we flip a light switch, we expect the light to come on. We do not need to know the location of the electrical wiring, and so we do not even think about it.
Of course one could argue that these conduits are simply small boxes hidden within the big boxes of the house, and that would be technically correct. An electrical cable actually does have dimensions, and does occupy specific spaces within the walls, ceilings and floors of the house. But there are no dimensions to a Wi-Fi signal. There is no wiring schematic to show where the WI-Fi signal runs. It seems not to exist in ordinary space. Because Wi-Fi is totally disembodied, it makes an even better analogy for extra dimensions.
For most of human history, if you wanted to send a message a long distance, you would have to entrust it to a human (or string of humans), who would bodily carry the letter to its destination. A human being, moving under her or his own power, can cover something like 32 kilometers (20 miles) per day, and that assumes the most optimal terrain an weather conditions. At the end of the War of 1812, hostilities continued for more than sixty days after the war had officially ended because of the difficulties in spreading word of the wars ending to remote frontier regions.
Radio communications were as much a part of the universe back then as they are now. The problem was that the combatant in 1812 lacked the understanding of radio as well as any technological infrastructure to exploit it.
Today is a much different world. It is now possible for a person in Nome, Alaska to play a chess game with someone from Pretoria, South Africa, and to conclude that game real-time within in five or ten minutes. In the old days it would have taken many years of postal chess, where one move at a time would have been mailed from one participant to another, with each move requiring weeks or even months to arrive at its destination. We have achieved on this planet a state of simultaneity. And what I mean by that is that whatever happens at any place on the planet is now knows instantly across the whole planet, or at least in those places that have the technological infrastructure to tap into the planetary communications grid.
But once we leave the confines of this planet, that state of simultaneity vanishes. On earth, light speed communication counts as instantaneous, as radio waves can circle our planet seven-and-one-half times in one second. As we reach out into space, even a signal to Mars can take up to forty-five minutes. There is no need for a message to Curiosity telling it to, “Look out for that rock!” because by the time the message gets there, the rock will be just a distant memory.
Captain Kirk could always call Star Fleet Headquarters on “sub-space” communications links.
Now back to String Theory. What if some of these extra dimensions could provide us with simultaneity throughout the universe? This unfamiliar concept would totally change our society, not to mention our conception of the universe.
Think of two stars that are 10,000 light years apart. Now let us assume that both have civilizations and that both of these civilizations construct radio telescopes at the same time. Can we call this a simultaneous event? I think not because these two civilizations are not aware of each other’s presence. It also works to say that they are not aware of each other’s presents. Because of the messaging time, neither could be aware of the other’s existence for at least 10,000 years. A signal followed by a response would take at least 20,000 years. After such a long time interval one or both of those civilizations could have died out, or have been pushed back into the Stone Age.
Civilization on earth has only been around for 10,000 years. Civilization refers to the creation of walled cities, the development of agriculture, and the creation of writing and mathematics. The earth has had radio telescopes for only 100 years, and really good ones for about 50 years. While radio has been around since the late 19th Century, there was not much in the way of outbound radio messaging that could be intercepted in other star systems until World War II. Thus, our messages have been streaming out for only about sixty years to star systems in a sphere with a 60 light year radius. The Milky Way Galaxy has a radius of some 60,000 light years.
Now, let us suppose that String Theory allows for one or more of the extra dimensions to function as a channel or conduit through which connectivity is possible. Imagine if these two civilizations could sit down for a friendly game of chess in real time.
Somehow logic demands that there be universal simultaneity. We have just not discovered the technology to understand and exploit that technology. String Theory gives us at least the possibility of knowing what is happening on Proxima Centauri right now, without the need to wait 4.2 years to receive the message via light waves.