June 2009 - Vol. 31

So Long Live This

by James Munk

A few years back, the city of Ann Arbor sponsored a program to set-up large, concrete planters for flowers and trees along the main streets of its downtown. They were subsidized by various people, some of whom marked their planters with plaques commemorating family, friends, and sometimes even themselves.

From an urban planning point of view, it was a great idea. They certainly added a lot of interest to the streetscape – and serve as great benches in a pinch.  But I had trouble with an idea that appears on a few of them – best summarized by one of the planters: in memoriam it boldly proclaimed the Shakespearean refrain: 

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, 
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
The premise of the sonnet runs like this: my poem speaks about a person; the poem is good enough that it will be read by others for a long time to come;  when the poem is recited years from now, the person in the poem will also be talked about and remembered, thereby continuing to have life. 

It can be presumed that the sponsor of the planter hoped, in the same way, that the deceased would in a way continue to live on as long as passing pedestrians read and remembered the above phrase: somehow tying the deceased's afterlife to human memory and the longevity of the planter. 

The pessimistic side of me puts my money on the planter – I have more confidence in the permanence of concrete than I do in people's ability to remember. But even if we were to possess perfect memories (or make better cement) this notion – eternal life though our cultural and remembering progeny – would still fail in at least two ways. In one way now (in this current life), and again in the future.

Treating the future failure first: though this philosophy projects the optimism of the infinite, it is in fact a deadend proposition. Certainly, such an ideology cleverly camouflages itself as immortality: well crafted poems and powerful memories do indeed transcend the age of their creation. But ultimately, calling them a source of eternal life is an attempt to gain immortality by mortal means.  The “life-giving” sonnets of Shakespeare and the memories of future generations are dependent for existence on the very thing they claim to give: life – human life. Their power is self-referencing, and ultimately bound within this universe – a universe that has an expiration date.

I think the singer John Mayer sums up best (though probably unintentionally) this lack of logic in his song No Such Thing.  What he says about himself can easily be used to describe the real nature of eternal life given through mankind's memory:

I am invincible!
I am invincible!
I am invincible!
As long as I'm alive! 
The “invincible” life sustained by remembrance is not immortality, just delayed oblivion.

The second shortcoming of this school of thought, the one concerning the here and now, was clearly illustrated to me while talking to a university student who had rejected his Christian faith. Though he denied the possibility of an after life, his current life was consumed with the business of being remembered. He had given up friends, family, and the possibility of marriage in sacrifice to his own legacy.

And for what? Why should anyone be concerned with how those we will never know considered us? To a dead man, obscurity and celebrity feel awfully similar.  And, after all, a life dedicated to occupying the memories of others is an investment in a ticking-time-bomb – the final curtain is just a matter of time. 

It is in this second failure of the “remembrance ideology” that our two problems unite for an even greater catastrophe. As this philosophy derives immortality from remembrance, it encourages those who adhere to it to spend their lives dominating the memory of others. But having done this, its faithful are trapped by the ultimate and unavoidable demise of this universe and everything in it – man's memory included.

Thus, memory as the source of immortally demands the endless pursuit of fame during this life, but gives limited hope for the next. It makes us gluttons now, paupers later; overtime with no retirement.

I am exceedingly glad that this solution does not enjoy a monopoly. Jesus Christ offers another.

In response to the failings above, we are offered two opposite alternatives. First, the life Jesus asks us to live – that of a Christian – is not subject to the economy of memory: we are not penalized by less life later if we achieve less fame now. In fact, quite the opposite: we are told that the first shall be last, and that greatness is achieved by service. In Christ, our lives can be put to better use that getting others to notice us.

Second, our hope for eternal life comes to us by way of life in Christ: the very Jesus who is “begotten before all ages” and located unassailably outside time and its finality. He is immune to the ending of his creation – our universe and all it encompasses. Hope in Jesus Christ is truly a more reliable proposition than an appeal to man's memory – or even to concrete planters, for that matter.

Praise be to our risen Lord who gives true life, and life truly everlasting.

James Munk graduated from the University of Michigan School of Architectural Design in May, 2007. He is a mission leader for Kairos North America and a member of the Work of Christ Community in Lansing, Michigan.
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