Just after lunch last Saturday the doorbell rang. Kay went to the door. I heard voices briefly, then a half-shrieked, “Oh no!” from my wife.
I hurried to find out what had happened. Jack and Marie were there, looking distressed. They had been weeping.
Kay too was obviously upset. Controlling herself, she announced in low tones, “Michael died last night.”
I groaned and covered my face with my hands in speechless silence, trying to get a grip on myself.
Jack finally spoke. “Barry Bard was supposed to pick up Michael this morning for a round of golf. When he didn’t respond to the buzzer, Barry got the apartment manager to open the door. They found Michael dead on the bathroom floor – a heart attack, I guess. Barry phoned me because he knew we…” Looking down, Jack sighed deeply. No one said a word until he was able to finish his sentence, “…he knew we were close friends.”
I took Jack’s hand and squeezed his shoulder to confirm our mutual grief. “What a loss,” I shook my head sadly. “A big loss.”
Kay was comforting Marie. When she suggested that we sit down in the living room, Jack said he’d rather just be alone for a while. Marie nodded agreement, so they turned silently and went on home with heavy hearts.
During the week the significance of Michael’s death has begun to sink in. I’m really going to miss him. We always got along so well. I learned a lot from him and he was beginning to understand where I’m coming from. I had been working on a presentation for an ad hoc group of his colleagues. Without Michael, that will never happen. Who else at the university would ever ask me to give a paper on “What time tells about God”?
In the last few months I had become more and more aware that Michael was quietly but deeply aware of the role of God in the physical universe. After a summer in France he gave an illustrated lecture each year on the orientation and structure of the magnificent cathedral in Chartres. Everything about that great piece of architecture had fascinated him. Now that he has died, I hope he is finding answers for the really big questions which he, like most thinking people, inevitably pondered.
I myself am now pondering some questions – about my Michael-less future and about Michael’s future. What now? His body or his ashes will probably be flown back home to England. Will his grave be all there will be now, the end of all endings?
Michael’s students and colleagues will certainly remember his British voice, his clear lecturing style, his ingenious imagination, his wisdom and witty playfulness. He didn’t publish many papers but he wrote two books. Nevertheless many will remember Michael for his efforts to promote the planetarium and foster public interest in the seasonal night sky.
As for me, I will remember him, of course, for whacking me on the head with a volleyball that made me “see stars.” Conversations with Michael always widened and deepened my perspective on the universe, particularly with respect to the role of time. He treated my ideas with respect, even when they were obviously, shall I say, somewhat unusual. Our friendship was steadily growing. I enjoyed him as a person and I always looked forward to picking his brains.
But now what? All I have left are my memories. But hey! Just realizing that I do remember is extremely important.
Sometimes when unexpectedly having a good time, a chronically depressed person may suddenly think: “This won’t last. Nothing much ever lasts. What does last doesn’t last very long.” It’s hard to ignore the truth of that realization. Time does swallow up every song that is sung. Words are no sooner uttered than they die away into silence. The hibiscus flowers in our big bay window thrill us today with their expanse of beauty, but during the coming night they will fold up like umbrellas and some won’t open again tomorrow. Poets remind us that life is like a puff of smoke, a dissolving wisp of cloud, letters written on the sand of a wave-washed shore.
Despite what time does to us and the world around us, we do possess something that gives us, at least for a while, an upper hand over all this inevitable perishing: our memory.
In a way, the universe “remembers.” The vanishing of events does not necessarily mean that they have been totally annihilated. After they have gone, information about their having occurred remains, though sometimes in an imperceptible or different form. I can’t so much as wave my hand without rearranging the molecules of air around it. If there were some way of tracking the movement of each individual molecule of air, the evidence could reveal what had happened. That’s how detectives operate: they read information from the clues which remain after a crime.
Information not only remains but influences the future. No Now-state of the universe could be exactly what it is now if the components of previous Now-states of the world had not been what they were. Each thing which ever existed and every person who ever lived left special marks on subsequent history. As I have so often said, to exist is to make a difference.
Information gained from a momentary experience may be stored for a whole lifetime in a person’s memory. The accumulated knowledge gained from experiences eventually becomes a vast hoard which may be revisited and “lived through” over and over again at will.
Despite the discreteness of cosmic creation time, we humans have apparently been given a small share of something resembling the unbroken continuity which must characterize the Creator’s kind of life, vital time and memory. Our memory is indispensable for our reasoning power and ability to complete the tasks we have undertaken. We have to keep in mind what we have learned, what we have already said or done and what we intend to say or do.
If we creatures are able to remember so much, the Creator’s memory must be colossal. The purposes and policies by which the universe was originated and set in motion will not be forgotten by their Creator.
We have learned how to delay time’s erasing effect on information. We record information by writing, printing and photography, as well as on disks inscribed by needles, lasers and electronics. Inscriptions on paper, stone, metal and plastic last longer than spoken words. No one knows for sure, however, in what form information is inscribed and stored within the memory of a living human being. Probably in a pattern of synaptic connections between neurons.
I have sometimes speculated about whether information which is revived in my memory may actually have come back to me from God’s memory bank. Could my brain’s memory facility be more of a receiving station than a storehouse of information? When I cannot, for the life of me, remember a certain name, sometime later that name will suddenly float into my consciousness, long after I had given up trying to retrieve it. At one particularly anxious time I found myself humming the chorus of a long-forgotten children’s hymn which I had sung a few times when I was a teenager. The thought it contained was a big help to me in those stressful circumstances. I marvel at the way a problem which my best efforts could not resolve by day so often gets solved while I am sound asleep. When I wake up, the way out of the difficulty is plain and clear.
To me the existence of my memory is highly significant. It proclaims that I as an individual am more than a quick “blip” which comes into existence only to perish with the departing moment. As a baby I soon learned to distinguish between my own body and the persons and things which were around me. My ability to remember keeps me aware of my individual identity and personal continuity. I can recall all sorts of uniquely personal experiences – things known only to myself and God. I remember that I have lived in a specific series of places for extended periods of time, interacting with successive sets of people and circumstances. In memory, the phantom form of what I once experienced can and does appear again. Because of my memory I know much, much more than what is going on just now.
How long will my personal identity continue to continue? What, if any, will be the end of my story? Why do I wonder about what will happen to me after I die? Strangely enough I never wonder where I was before I was conceived, nor do I remember what I was like before I was born or until I was about three years old. Now that Michael has gone, wondering about what his condition is now or will be is just as futile. No absolutely certain knowledge is available about one’s future after dying. All we have are the promises of Jesus – the Way, the Truth and the Life.
Right now my memories of times with Michael are particularly important to me. God not only knew that Michael and I individually existed but brought us together as friends for a significant spell of time. Both Michael and I must therefore have been somehow valuable to the Creator. God went to a lot of trouble to make us what we were. As valuables, surely our destiny will be something more than permanent annihilation.
When present time becomes the past, it turns into information which survives in both the structure of the world and the divine memory – and sometimes in our own.
Once more, with feeling
When I came home from downtown this afternoon, I found Kay and Marie out on the back patio inspecting the flats in which weeks ago Kay had planted seeds. Any day now she will be setting out the young plants in our garden and flowerbeds.
When Kay saw me she exclaimed, “Oh there you are! I’ve been wondering what kept you.”
Right away Marie touched my arm. “Barry Bard called Jack to tell him that the planetarium now has copies of a video which Michael made for use in high schools. He asked him to tell you.”
I drew a small parcel from the plastic bag I was carrying. “I know. I met Barry downtown and he told me about the video. I wanted to get one right away, so I went over to the planetarium. That’s what kept me later than I had expected.”
Handing the parcel to Marie, I added, “I knew you and Jack would want one too. Here. This is for you folks – for old times’ sake.”
Marie was silent for a moment. Then with misty eyes, she gave me a hug and said, “Thank you. Thank you, John. We miss him terribly. At least now we’ll have his voice.”
The silence was thick with emotion. Kay shifted some containers of little plants around in one of her trays. At last she remarked, “It’s kind of ironic that a material tape can have Michael’s voice and image but we living persons don’t have Michael.”
Marie nodded thoughtfully. After a longish pause she looked me in the eye and said, “I have a problem. We went to church last Sunday, and in the service they said the Apostles’ Creed. That part about believing in ‘the resurrection of the body’ doesn’t make sense. We could always recognize Michael even at a distance by his bodily features. But when people die, their bodies disintegrate. After Michael’s body has been turned to ashes, how could it be put together again, let alone be brought back to life, so that we could see and recognize him?”
Taken off guard, I could only say, “God alone knows how to put life into what’s dead.” I looked down and shifted some dried-out grass clippings with my shoe.
Then I had a helpful thought. “I do know something about the background of the Apostles’ Creed though.”
She looked interested, so I continued. “Traditional Christian theology centered around the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He had claimed to be uniquely related to God, and his resurrection was taken to be God’s stamp of approval on everything he had said and done. God would surely not have brought back an incorrigible liar from the dead. Jesus had claimed that he had power to raise the dead and had demonstrated that power. Before he was killed he promised to give everlasting life to people who took seriously his unique relationship to God. He told his followers that he would go and prepare a place for them so that they could be with him and be like him. Having been crucified and certified as dead by Roman soldiers, he was buried. Three days later only graveclothes remained in his tomb – no body. Later many people saw him quite alive. Although the constitution of his risen body was different, Jesus was still recognizable by his form, voice and manner. Because he had risen from the dead, his followers believed that Jesus had really been speaking the truth. Now beyond the power of death, he would be able to keep his promises. That’s why the first Christians believed in the resurrection of their bodies to life in another kind of world. That ‘good news’ circulated informally for three centuries throughout Eurasia before it was formally enshrined in the Apostles Creed.”
I couldn’t be sure that Marie had followed my historical account. She was no longer looking at me. After a moment’s silence, she voiced a practical question. “But all those people knew what happens to dead bodies … buried at sea … burned … eaten by animals. Dead bodies decay. Their remains disperse. They could even be assimilated into the bodies of other creatures, maybe even other people. In that case sorting out which particular atoms belonged to whom would be kind of hard, wouldn’t you think? How could all of the scattered bits that had once been part of a particular person’s body ever be brought back together and reassembled as that person?”
I nodded my head slowly in affirmation. “For centuries people have asked those kinds of questions, Marie. In the end, believers usually say, ‘Well, God made us once. I’m sure God can do it again.’”
Kay picked up a little green plastic container with two of her young marigold plants in it. She tipped it over so that Marie could see the soil in which they were growing. “The organic stuff in this compost is dark, dead and poisonous. Dear knows what former living things it all came from. But as these marigolds are stretching up, some dead stuff is becoming alive again in them. The unorganized soil is somehow being organized into growing plants that will soon be showing off their sunny yellow flowers. Nobody but nobody understands this … this kind of resurrection that takes place in full view for us all to see. Nevertheless this miracle I’m holding here in my hand gives me hope and helps me believe that a resurrection which I can’t see is possible, even though I don’t know how.”
While Kay was speaking I remembered an insight which had suggested itself to me as a feasible solution to problems with resurrection.
“When the Apostles’ Creed was being formulated, those early theologians were simply expressing their faith in the resurrection of the body because Jesus had risen in the body. They knew little about the structure of matter – how different configurations of the same kinds of subatomic particles make the various elements different from each other. Although none of the physical particles in a human body bears a personal ownership tag, each of them does participate in a different set of physical relationships. Fingerprints and the structure of the iris of the eye are different for each person. Differences in the specific sequence of the atoms in personal DNA molecules are reflected in specific differences between individual human bodies. So it is the distinctive, particular relations between atoms, molecules, cells and organs of each person’s body which specifically identify a person. Material bits are one thing, but information about their constituent relations is another.”
Marie looked puzzled. “Sorry,” she admitted, “but I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“That distinction between substances and relational information is really important,” I said. “In schools and the media these days everybody gets brainwashed by materialism. We are taught to think of our bodies mainly in the general terms of physical chemistry. People know very little about the relational and informational aspects of bodies. There are over two hundred different types of cells in our bodies and hundreds of thousands of cells of each type. Each cell looks after the arrangement and functioning of its own internal structures and also participates in unique relationships to other cells, organs and systems. Through time the Creator receives and retains an immense amount of detailed information about every part of each person’s body, activities and relationships. Although Michael has died, the detailed information which God already has about Michael can be used to reconstitute his unique personality. Organizing material substances according to that information would be no problem for the Creator of all.”
I could see that she didn’t know what to say. What I had in mind about resurrection obviously hadn’t gotten through to her.
Trying again, I said, “Okay, how about this? Suppose I am a wealthy world traveler and I have been impressed by the beauty of Japanese gardens. I decide to have one on my estate. On the far side of my pond I would like to have a picturesque tea house like one I saw in Kyoto. I decide to get one.
“If the tea house in Kyoto could be purchased, I could buy it. Carpenters over there could take it apart, numbering the pieces according to a detailed set of plans, and pack it into containers. It could then be shipped bodily across the ocean to my place and reassembled. That procedure however would likely be cumbersome and expensive. Some of the pieces would be sure to get damaged.
“A more efficient plan would be to have a Japanese architect draw up plans for a duplicate of that particular tea house, detailing the exact dimensions and forms of the various parts, their angles and joints. Any special features could be photographed. When all of that information had been gathered, it could be sent to me electronically without transporting even a single wooden peg. From that transmitted information, under the guidance of a master builder, a completely authentic reproduction of the original tea house could be constructed for me. If later the original one in Kyoto were somehow destroyed, I would regret it, of course. But that would not entirely devastate me.”
“Oh, now I see the connection with bodily resurrection,” said Marie. “Jack would understand that process completely. Like the ‘specs’ of the tea house, information about the cells, organs and form of a person’s body could be transmitted over any distance without having to transport a single morsel of matter. Information about Michael could be used any time later to … to reconstitute the form of his body and the style of his actions. Oh, Jack will be really interested in this idea.
Kay was nodding with a broad smile. “If God already possesses the essential information, the remains which lie in graves or on the bottom of the sea don’t really matter much.”
I turned to her. “If my understanding of the two-way nature of time is correct, information about every moment of Michael’s life as he lived it was immediately carried back by time to God. Probably Michael had finished the work God gave him to do here. When he died, all of the information about his mental and bodily life had already been received and registered in the Creator’s memory system. What will be done with that information is God’s business, not ours. Anyway, that’s when ‘the resurrection of the body’ could become meaningful. God could use any or all of Michael’s information for special purposes anywhere, anytime.”
Kay added, “I think that the messed-up parts of anyone’s detailed life-story are being edited even as it is being lived. Episodes we’re truly sorry about are always being erased from the record. Every day is a ‘judgment day’. God will preserve those sections of our lives which were lived much as Jesus would have lived them. Lots of Michael’s life was well worth keeping on record.”
For the first time Marie smiled a little smile. “I can imagine a special future for Michael.”
“Tell us,” Kay said, encouraging her. Marie silently collected her thoughts and then suggested, “There’s a big universe out there with sun-like stars and planets. Perhaps the world we live in is only God’s ‘workshop.’ Here the Creator has us trying out all sorts of possibilities – seeing what we do with different kinds of materials, life-forms and relationships, and what could be done with them. Doesn’t the Bible say something about God intending to make all things new in a new heaven and a new earth, using people who have lived in synch with God’s aims? I can see that someone like Michael might be quite usefully employed in the process of developing new worlds and better civilizations throughout the vastness of the universe.”