There will be roombas in heaven…

On James McGrath’s “Religion Prof” podcast is an interview with Douglas Estes, which talks of the intersection of technology with Christian belief (my link is to the second part).

Estes is more conservative than McGrath, and definitely far more conservative than I am. He talks, when discussing Revelation, of interpreting scripture in many ways, including metaphorical and symbolic, but when it comes to resurrection and the “New Jerusalem” plumps for a literal answer. This leads to the conclusion that, as on this view we will have new material bodies and will be living in the New Jerusalem which is located on earth (albeit, one assumes, a remade earth), we will also have technology. Including smart phones and roombas…

I find that a ludicrous image. I grant that if you accept Estes’ presuppositions, it’s a logical consequence of this view of the resurrection, and it’s a fascinating play with concepts – but to me, it means that at least one of the ideas on which the logic is based is wrong, and I strongly suspect that taking the passage literally is the best candidate. It’s a kind of reductio ad absurdum – the absurdity of the conclusion means that the premises of the argument are false.

Even before hearing this podcast, I was quite confident that the scripture (Revelation 21:9–27) was a visionary experience, and thus will have involved a substantial usage of symbols from the mind of the person who experienced it. As is probably appropriate, given Prof. McGrath’s interest in the intersection of Christianity and science fiction, it is best regarded as a vision of utopia. Estes’ vision of utopia, were he to construct one today, would probably include smart phones and roombas. Personally, I can’t construct a vision of utopia in which I can have any real belief  – not only am I confident that, as technology advances, the concept will change radically, but I am also extremely sceptical that any embodiment which might occur would be in a body which is anything remotely like the one I currently occupy (or, probably more accurately, a body which I am). Indeed, I recoil at trying to constuct any vision of utopia – too often, if you push the conception far enough, our utopias turn out to be dystopias…

It is fairly probable that the visionary in question was Jewish, and will therefore have been working with Jewish conceptions of what is possible – and the Jewish mind of the time (unlike the Greek) regarded non-material entities as needing to be embodied (Walter Wink gives an extended argument for this in “Naming the Powers”). Any conception of post-mortem existence will thus have had to be in a physical form, and the writer will not have had available to him various forms of technology in which we can now envisage the essence of “that which is us” being preserved, such as those who expect in due course that we will upload ourselves into the cloud. A similar line of thinking leads to the Jewish insistence that the particular is important, indeed often more important than the general, resulting in the Talmudic statement “He who saves one person, saves the world”.

In my own rather simplistic philosophical stance, I am inclined to something much like the Jewish position – for me, there is “stuff” and there is “pattern”. We don’t have access, ultimately to the “stuff”, although at a higher level we can distinguish between (for instance) a chair made of metal and one made of wood – there is no chair there absent the metal or the wood, but neither material is essential to there being a chair. If there is, post-mortem, something which can legitimately be called “me”, it will need to be the “me-pattern” expressed in some kind of stuff. At the moment, the “me pattern” is a biological entity, whereas if one day I could be uploaded to the cloud, the “me pattern” would need to be expressed in patterns of electrons. Personally, I question whether that would capture enough pattern to be regarded properly as “me”, but I could be surprised.

The concept of a set of patterns of humans resident in some way in a distributed sense over a lot of computers is, of course, a concept which I in the 21st century can just about get my head round, but would be totally inconceivable to a first century Jew. And similarly, what (if anything) awaits me post mortem is very likely to be as inconceivable to me now as the cloud (or, for that matter, a roomba) was to John of Patmos. But the scriptural picture we have which is supposed to represent that is in 1st century concepts… update it at your peril!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.