Last week, October 25-27, students and faculty from hither and yon met in Wheaton for the 48th conference in the series. The theme was "Immortality and the Philosophy of Mind;" the keynote speaker was Peter van Inwagen, author most recently of Ontology, Identity, and Modality: Essays in Metaphysics (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Papers were given by a half-dozen other scholars as well.
Of all these riches I was only able to take in van Inwagen's second lecture, Friday night, "'I Look for the Resurrection of the Dead and the Life of the World to Come.'"
We've been hearing a good deal lately from Christian philosophers about the resurrection of the dead. Many are eager to enlist this doctrine in their battle against dualism. They reject the most popular current understanding of the afterlife, the view that I've been taught since I was a child: that the soul of the believer ascends to heaven at the time of death, to be united with a glorious new body at the general resurrection.
As I listened to him, I recalled a recent piece in The New Republic by Leon Wieseltier, who observed in the aftermath of September 11 that:
Mourners can be imbeciles, too. "[M]any of those people who died this past week," Billy Graham instructed the prayer service at the National Cathedral on September 14, "are in heaven now, and they wouldn't want to come back. It's so glorious and wonderful." This was Mohamed Atta's eschatology, too. It is not consoling, it is insulting. We are not a country of children. Nothing that transpired on September 11 was wonderful, nothing. The only effect of these fantasies is to loosen the American grip on reality at precisely the moment that it needs to be tightened. If it makes sense to call on religion in times of trouble, it is not because religion abolishes spiritual pain, but because religion acknowledges spiritual pain.
Among the many viciously obtuse responses of the last several weeks, Wieseltier's comments certainly rank high. (They come, remember, from an exquisitely learned man who presides over TNR's superb books section!) And yet, Wieseltier's scorn for what he regards as grotesquely childish Christian sentimentality was echoed to a degree by van Inwagen. While strongly affirming the ultimate hope that resides for Christians in the promise of the resurrection of the body, van Inwagen suggested that the popular Christian view of the afterlife—as expressed by Billy Graham, for instance—is far closer to the kitsch of Ghost and similar Hollywood productions than to anything found in Scripture.
What then might resurrection look like? Here van Inwagen drew on his 1978 essay, "The Possibility of Resurrection," written shortly before he became a Christian, with some afterthoughts from 1997. (A marvelous essay recounting his conversion, "Quam Delicta," first appeared in God and the Philosophers, edited by Thomas Morris , and was also included, in a slightly different version, in van Inwagen's 1998 volume, The Possibility of Resurrection and Other Essays in Christian Apologetics.)
This included some rather far-fetched speculation presented with a cocksure insouciance that the author duly acknowledged, c. 1997 and in the lecture as well—though he immediately went on to say that while it was easy to see why his notions might strike someone as preposterous, "it might be questioned whether any of us is in an epistemic position to make a judgment of this sort."
How preposterous? Well, for instance: "Perhaps at the moment of each man's death, God removes his corpse and replaces it with a simulacrum, which is what is burned or rots," the real corpse thus being preserved until it is needed at the resurrection.
I remained unconvinced, as on first reading these arguments, but also challenged and energized by van Inwagen's agile mind. "I'm glad he's on our side," a philosopher remarked as we milled around the coffee and goodies after the lecture. But it was clear from comments overheard in the hubbub of conversation that not everyone present shared a sense of exhilaration. To begin with, van Inwagen had repeatedly violated the first commandment of consumer-oriented education: Thou shalt not say anything that a student will fail to understand. And he is something of an intellectual gangster, not sensitive.
Finally, the sort of philosophy van Inwagen practices—like that of his contemporary, David Lewis, whose death the Times reported on October 20—is simply not everyone's cup of tea. Can a man who says, as van Inwagen does in his book Material Beings, that "there are no tables or chairs or any other visible objects except living organisms," can such a man be serious? Isn't this precisely the sort of thing that has given philosophy a bad name in many quarters? And isn't there something particularly dubious about such a fellow parading around at a Christian philosophy conference?
He may not be your cup of tea, either. (There are significant stretches of van Inwagen, not to mention David Lewis, that you couldn't pay me to read.) That's fine. But the God who created such an excessive variety of beetles might also, perhaps, see something of his own rigorous prodigality in the restless intelligence of Peter van Inwagen.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
"Science and the Spiritual Quest" | A place at the table for Christians, but at a price. (Oct. 22, 2001)
Beyond Belief? | Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's accounts of Islam presuppose the superiority of modern skepticism. (Oct. 15, 2001)
Covering Islam | Getting beyond the feel-good bromides. (Oct. 8, 2001)
Christian Scholarship … For What? | Academic speakers affirm the value of beholding God's creation. (Oct. 1, 2001)
Myths of the Taliban | Misinformation and disinformation abounds. What do we know? (Sept. 24, 2001)
The Imagination of Disaster | "We thought we were invulnerable." Really? (Sept. 17, 2001)
More Sex, Fewer Children | Mixed messages on condoms, contraception, and fertility. (Sept. 10, 2001)
The Strange Case of Napoleon Beazley | The latest poster boy for death row chic. (Aug. 27, 2001)
Apocalyptic City | The dream and the nightmare of megalopolis (Aug. 20, 2001)
Megalopolis Forty Years On | The ambiguous face of the city. (Aug. 13, 2001)
The Future Is Now | You want the news? Read science fiction. (Aug. 6, 2001)