Sheep and Eternal Life


Like King David in the Old Testament, I grew up among sheep. The biggest difference was that where David’s sheep numbered in the dozens, our flocks were in the thousands. One of my earliest lessons about sheep was not to be concerned about individuals.

Dad forbade us to keep sheep as pets, knowing the heart-ache that came when a pet was killed for meat. I noticed too the seeming indifference to a sick sheep. If a sheep was suffering, it may have been simply killed, but in general, sick sheep were left to get better on their own – or not. The only exception to this was revealing: if a ewe was having trouble lambing, Dad would sit beside it, all night if necessary, and be midwife in every possible way.

Dad wasn’t a callous man. He was gentle and generous in character. His was the most humane way of keeping the flock healthy. The sheep’s purpose was to feed people, not to be our friends. But Dad’s emphasis on the flock was instructive.

I looked to nature. I loved watching ants go about their busy lives. I noticed that ants had wonderful powers of restoring their apparently dead companions. They would push them gently with one of their six legs, and the motionless ant would pick up its load and continue walking. But they simply walked around ants that were dead or too sick to recover.

I confess as a boy I sometimes stirred up their nests. They would rise up in anger, climbing my legs and stinging all the way. Ants from other nests would come to join their attack on the intruder. They did not care how many I slapped to death on my legs: their task was to defend the queen and her nest, and even their neighbours’ nest.

My studies at school and since have confirmed that in nature survival of a species is paramount over that of individuals. The health, comfort and life of an individual simply do not stand up against the powerful drive for the species to survive.

Nature is species-centred. Most animals seem to accept this reality. It is only humans, fired on by two important events in our history, who think differently and therefore unnaturally.

The first event was when human beings became self-conscious. Because we know we are alive as individuals, we can choose to protect our own life at the expense of others. It is notable, however, that in dangerous situations, people don’t always choose their own life over that of others. We hear often of people who choose to sacrifice their own safety to protect others, particularly women and children, who are the future of the species. They act naturally.

The second event was the European Enlightenment which encouraged us to think very highly of individuals. The Enlightenment accorded to individuals human rights. The Enlightenment encouraged individuals to greater self-expression.

Could it not be that the Enlightenment project is against nature?

It is natural to think not of the individual but of the species. It is natural for people to be stirred up about the damaging effects of climate change: our species is at risk. The plight of low-lying island nations like Kirabiti and the Maldives stirs deep emotions. We don’t want human habitat to be wiped out.

To think that God’s imagination can provide nothing better than the survival of individuals after death is to think poorly of God. God’s mind is on the main game, which is played by species not their individual members.

This is why I find the usual ideas about life after death lame in comparison with the glorious visions of future humanity put forward by say, Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio. As individuals we are secure in Christ. But as a species, how much more secure is our life.

Teilhard’s vision was that homo sapiens continues to evolve. We have come to self-consciousness and are moving towards a complete humanity in Christ. Jesus, the true human is coming to his Omega Point, where humanity converges with God. We will be raised up into the One who has made us.

Ilia’s focus, it seems to me, is on a slightly closer time. What is the next step of this evolutionary journey? How close will humanity come to its machines? Will brains be uploaded into computers? Will human beings extend their thinking power through new digital media? Is our destiny – short-term – to be cyborgs?

In the broader vision, I suspect the speculations of Ilia and others will be swept aside by an even grander picture of what homo sapiens will become, and will have more to do with what happens as the individual is transcended and we each become part of a greater whole. Again, the technological revolution gives us the clue, as the Web becomes more and more an extension of individual minds into the minds of others.

It is true that there are dangers. Monsters may be born. But the teaching of evolution is that that which is best suited to its environment will flourish, and homo sapiens will become more a creature of the cosmos rather than less.

These are extraordinary and beautiful visions of our future life. Bring it on!

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Author: Ted Witham

Husband and father, Grandfather.Franciscan, writer and Anglican priest.

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