What do you mean when you say “eternal life.” This is one of many phrases used consistently by Christians over the last two millennia, but gradually shifting in popular understanding. Like “king” and “shepherd,” the word “life” may have a different significance for general public now than it did only 100 years ago.
For the last fifteen years, I have been working in the field of astrobiology, which deals with attempts by scientists to come to grips with “life” as a concept. Does it exist elsewhere in space? How old is it? Where does it come from? And where is it going? I know as a scientist that our understanding of life is changing. As we discover new types of viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms, we stretch our concept of life. As we explore the ever-expanding list of planets around other stars, we start to wonder about whether life could exist in other places and other times than here on Earth. Perhaps most challenging, as our technology develops, we have increasing ability to shape the most basic life processes – from birth to death and everything in between. Has this changed what life means?
At a fundamental level, no. Life is the experience of being – our very breath. No matter how much exploration changes us, at the end of the day, we are living creatures who experience life. At the same time, we are thinking creatures. The way we think and talk about ideas has a profound impact on how we understand them and what we do in the world. The most profound example of this comes from the “Right to Life” movement, which seeks to reshape public understanding of how we understand the beginning of individual humans. I need only say “Origin of Life,” “Evolution,” or “Life in Space” to invoke an emotional as well as an intellectual response in most readers and those responses change the way you treat your neighbors. Perhaps they even change the way you think about yourself.
So what is this thing called life? And what do we, as Christians, have to say about it? The more I read scripture with an eye toward the life sciences, the more I realize that this is one of those areas where neither faith nor science can give ground. Both have important insights to offer and both recognize the dangers of getting this question wrong. Life is us. That means we want and need to be careful of how we think about it.
We have a choice to make. Rather, we have several choices to make. Will we be critical of our own thoughts about life? Will we bring to bear the tools of scripture, tradition, and reason as we form personal opinions about life and breath and spirit? Will we accept uncritically what we’ve been told about life or will we reflect and pray on what life means to us personally and communally?
Over the next two years, I will be working on a project to explore “Meaning, Purpose, and the Definition of Life.” The John Templeton Foundation will be supporting me financially (Grant ID #36093) and the Haig Lab at Harvard (Organismic and Evolutionary Biology) will be hosting me, as I look particularly at the path from notions of soul in the Bible and Aristotle to modern astrobiology and origin of life studies. If you’d like to see what I come up with, keep an eye on this site.