John Polkinghorne on ‘the faithful God’ who will resurrect ‘the pattern that was me’

Lex Fridman’s recent interview with Bishop Robert Barron led me to discover the late John Polkinghorne, whom Bishop Barron mentions at one point. An Englishman, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist who became an Anglican priest. In his book Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, he speculates about how it is that we are separated from our bodies at death and yet have hope of the resurrection.

How can it be that we die, our bodies are buried and decay, are burned up in cremation, or worse, defiled, and yet we have hope for resurrection? Polkinghorne writes:

“Christian people sometimes talk about death as ‘falling asleep’ or even, in words that are occasionally quoted at funerals, as ‘going into the next room’. I am not very happy with this language. You can find the sleep metaphor used occasionally in the New Testament (for example, in 1 Thessalonians 4.13 where, to disguise the fact, the translators of the NRSV have quite unjustifiably taken it upon themselves to turn the original ‘fallen asleep’ into ‘died’). But today’s passage [Mark 14.32-36], which is one of the most moving and holy in the whole gospel story, shows us with what seriousness Jesus himself faced his own approaching death. He is ‘deeply grieved’—Luke (22.44) even speaks of ‘sweat like great drops of blood’—and he asks that if possible this cup should pass from him. Yet he is also resolute to accept the Father’s will. Death is clearly in no sense a trivial or easy matter for Jesus.

“People have often compared this scene with the end of another famous figure in the ancient world, Socrates. He too was unjustly condemned to die, in his case not by crucifixion but by the much gentler process of drinking a cup of hemlock. Before he did so, he talked with his friends in a philosophical way about his belief in the immortality of the soul. This discourse ended, Socrates then calmly took the poison and tranquilly allowed it to bring about paralysis and eventual death. The contrast of this peaceful scene with Gethsemane is very striking.

“So what is happening? Is the Greek philosopher a nobler figure than the Jewish Messiah? To understand Gethsemane I think that we need to understand that the Christian hope is not belief in a spiritual survival, such as Socrates believed in, but it centres on the double process of death and resurrection. Even for Jesus the two are separated by the silent tomb of Holy Saturday.

“I can best explain how I understand this by asking a related question. What should we believe is the nature of the human soul? Socrates thought that the soul was a purely spiritual entity which during this life was housed in the flesh of the body, but which would be released at death to enter into the immortal life of an unencumbered spiritual existence. Someone once caricatured this view as being the picture of a human being as a ‘ghost in a machine’. It seems to me that today it is very hard for us to think in this Socratic way. What we know about the effects of brain damage on the mind, and of drugs on behaviour, suggest a much more unified, ‘package deal’ picture of a human being, understood as an integrated, animated entity. This idea would not have shocked or surprised the writers of the Bible, for it was also they way in which Hebrew people thought about being human.

“But if that is the case, what has happened to the soul? Have we lost it? I don’t think so. The soul is ‘the real me’. Now what that could be is a bit of a problem even in this life, let alone beyond it. What makes me today the same person that I was 60 years ago? It is not, as you might think, physical continuity, for the atoms that make up our bodies are changing all the time, through wear and tear, eating and drinking. I have very few atoms that were in my body even three years ago, let alone 60. What really maintains the continuity of the real me is not matter itself, but the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which that matter is organized. That pattern is the soul.

“It will be dissolved at my death with the decay of my body. Therefore, I have no natural expectation of surviving death. This is why death is a real end. Yet it is perfectly consistent to believe—and we can indeed believe—that the faithful God will remember the pattern that was me, holding it in the divine memory, in order to reconstitute me again in God’s great final act of resurrection, taking place beyond history.

“I shall have more to say about this later. For the moment, just note that when God does bring about that re-embodiment, it will have to be in some new kind of matter, for if it were the old kind I would just have been made alive again in order to die again. And where will that new ‘matter’ come from? It will surely be the redeemed matter of this world, transformed by God after the death of the universe itself. The future of the cosmos and the future of humanity must lie together, in the life of that new creation that will succeed the demise of the old. Again, I shall have more to say about this later in relation to the resurrection of Christ, which is the pattern and the guarantee of the hope that we are given through the steadfast faithfulness of our creator.

“Meanwhile, we can think of the moment of death as being the great final act of this life, in which we shall commit ourselves fully into the hands of God.”

Later in the book Polkinghorne further elaborates his notion of the soul as a sort of divinely-remembered pattern:

“We have already seen that today it is natural to think of human beings as a kind of package deal: psychosomatic unities, as people like to say. I think that we are right to think in this way and St Paul would agree with me. Today’s rather difficult passage [2 Corinthians 5.1-3] shows him expressing a horror of being found ‘naked’, that is to say as a soul without a body. In this life, and in the life of heaven, human beings have to be ‘clothed’ with some sort of body, be it earthly or heavenly in its character. (Paul has a lot more to say about this in 1 Corinthians 15.35-49.)

“What then is the soul? It is surely the ‘real me’, but what that can actually be is a bit of a puzzle in this life, let alone beyond it. What is it that connects me, a bald, ageing academic, with the young lad with the shock of black hair in the school photograph of 60 years ago? It is tempting to suppose that the connection lies in material continuity, as that young body changed gradually into today’s elderly body, but that is really an illusion. I mentioned earlier that the matter in our bodies is changing all the time… Philosophers sometimes like to talk about a boat that is continually being repaired at sea, so that when it eventually comes into port again every plank in it has been replaced. Is it still the same boat that left the home port, if all its material bits and pieces have been changed in this way? I would say yes, provided that the pattern had been maintained. Of course if that had been altered, so that it had sailed out as a single hull but arrived as a catamaran, the answer would have to be no. Continuity lies in the pattern and not in the planks.

“It is similar for us. The real me is not the ever-changing atoms of my body, but it is the immensely complex, information-bearing pattern in which those atoms are organized. It is that pattern that is the soul, an idea that fits in with what twenty-first-century science is beginning to discover from the study of complex systems, that information is as fundamental a category as energy.

“This concept of the soul as informational pattern is quite an old one. Aristotle believed something like that, and so did the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. I believe that we should think this way too. If this is right, it follows that the soul, in itself, is not immortal. When I die, the pattern that is me will dissolve with the decay of my body. But it is a perfectly credible and sensible hope that God will remember that pattern—hold it in the divine memory after its natural decay—and then rebuild it when I am resurrected into the life of the world to come. Once again we are reminded of a central truth, that the true ground for hope of a destiny beyond death lies solely in the everlasting faithfulness of God.

We might think, along these lines, about the consequences of cutting ourselves off from relationship with God as a sort of willful and intentional dis-figuring of ourselves, of a disruption of our pattern that can only be restored through confession and repentance.

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