Alex Wright, Executive Editor at I.B.Tauris, talked to Philip Almond about his new book Afterlife: A History of Life After Death, which is published on 9 June 2016.
ALEX: Phil, I realise to my great satisfaction and pride that you and I have been working together since 1988, the year I published The British Discovery of Buddhism at CUP. Over the last decade you’ve become a pillar of the IBT list and have written four previous books for us, and now Afterlife is the fifth. How would you say that your work has developed over the – wow! almost thirty – years, and do the same themes interest you now as they did back in the late ‘80s? In other words, can we see a linear progression in the subjects you have tackled in print, or are you drawn to topics – for instance, the Devil; the first manual of magic; the Lancashire Witches – on a more ad hoc basis? I’m trying to get to the bottom of what really motivates you as an author.
PHILIP: This is a very difficult question to answer. In the end, I love writing. I love the way it’s me who starts and then, if it goes well, the writing takes over. Some of my academic colleagues love doing the research and don’t like the writing. I have always been the other way round, preferring the writing. That said, I have always enjoyed research too which, for me, has always been curiosity driven. I’ll come across something and think, ‘now that’s really interesting’ and off I go. And generally, the more research I do, the more interesting it becomes. On reflection, the themes have a kind off overall consistency that goes to ‘big ideas’ – well ‘biggish’ anyway – how an eastern religion arrived in the West, the story of Adam and Eve as our determining myth, magic and religion, the conflict between good and evil, the afterlife. All of which leads me to say that, like your recent book on the meanings of life, I am drawn to projects about the meaning of life.
ALEX: Thank you Phil. Now this new book of yours, Afterlife, offers a characteristically readable and intellectually sinewy synthesis of what people have really thought about life after death, over the varied centuries of human history. Despite the impact of the Enlightenment, and the progressive secularization of culture in the West, it’s clear from what you say that belief in a life beyond remains extremely widespread and durable. Why do you think that’s the case, despite the prevalence (especially in countries like your own Australia and my UK) of a rationalistic, scientific worldview? Is it because people are looking for a panacea for the unpalatability of their own inevitable ending? Or is there something endemic in the human psyche, a sort of predisposition to immortality (what the Dominican theologian Karl Rahner might equate with God being rooted in the deep subsoil of human beings themselves, whether they be believers or not), which in the end will always come out?
PHILIP: You’re absolutely right. Belief in a life beyond this one remains, as you say, widespread and durable. In a very general way, I am probably trying to say something a little ‘revisionist’ in the history of ideas. Something like, in the light of the durability of this belief, we need to rethink an idea like ‘the progressive secularisation of the West’. And we may need to rethink these because it is of the very nature of being human to be radically dissatisfied with a ‘secular’ story about the world that says it has no point and a ‘secular’ story about us that says that, as individuals, our own lives don’t have any ultimate point. We are ‘meaning-making’ animals! There is a vogue at the moment for ‘big history’ – telling the history of the world from big bang through to the evolution of the human and on through to the present. ‘God’ doesn’t get a mention in these. But there is nonetheless an underlying ‘deep theology’ which hints at meaning and purpose and a point to it all. So you’re right about a predisposition to immortality. And it’s part of this more general human predisposition to find meaning and purpose and direction in the world and in our lives, however differently it is culturally configured.
ALEX: One of the chapters in the book that I most enjoyed was the one on the geography of the underworld. The ancients all wanted to be able to conceptualise and evoke a place where they could imagine themselves (as well as their family, friends and even enemies!) heading after death. Several locations fulfil this role: Tartarus, Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and Limbo. Are these post-death repositories all different, with utterly different characteristics, or do you think when it comes down to it they’re fundamentally the same: a bit like staying in a large chain hotel in different cities, where the contextualising local scenery changes but not the uniformly predictable interiors? Is there in fact a recurring proto-myth in antiquity whose underlying features recur in all cultures?
PHILIP: The analogy of the hotel chain is a good one. But I think that it could be developed in a slightly different way. For the ancient Greeks and Hebrews, everyone stayed in the same hotel, dark gloomy and under the ground (Hades or Sheol). In the history of the afterlife, the key moment came when, around say 500 BCE, there developed the notion that the accommodation I have in the Afterlife should reflect my behaviour in this life. Thus we find the development of 5-star hotels for the good (heaven) and 5-star hotels (hell, gehenna, tartarus) for the wicked. The next key development came with the realisation that while most of us hadn’t been good enough to merit heaven, we hadn’t been bad enough to merit hell. So we needed a place to stay after death between the two (purgatory) where we could be purified sufficiently eventually to merit 5-star accommodation. This relation between ethics, justice and the afterlife is one of the key themes of the book.
ALEX: Another chief theme in your book is the dichotomy, in how the afterlife has been imagined, between body and soul. What seems a very earthy, earthly and bodily idea in antiquity later becomes etherialized owing to the influence of Greek and Platonic thought. The body gives way to the spirit. And yet corporeality never really goes away. One thinks of Stanley Spencer’s extraordinary The Resurrection, Cookham and the eerie way the just-resurrected are emerging from the ground like newly-hatched chrysalids. Can you give us some of the background to this tension between flesh and spirit and indicate what, in your discussion of the afterlife, it signifies?
PHILIP: Yes, a key moment in the history of the afterlife is when the Greek and Platonic understanding of us as consisting of a mortal body and an immortal soul becomes fixed in the Christian tradition. This fitted nicely the two understandings of the afterlife within Christianity – that it was about the on-going life of the soul immediately after death and its eventual reunion with the body when it was resurrected on the final day of judgement. The problem was that, as a bodiless entity, it became very difficult to say anything about the soul. So it attained a kind of quasi corporeality, existing in a ‘spiritual body’. This made it easier to locate it after death in heaven or hell or purgatory. By the same token, it was difficult to make sense of a physical body re-emerging from the grave on the last Day. Hence the resurrected body was given a kind of spiritual body. In all this, the history of the afterlife reflects fundamental debates about who we essentially are as humans – bodies, souls, spirited bodies, embodied spirits, or some complex combination of all of these at different times.
ALEX: Another tension you explore in the book is that between the hope of human revival at the Last Day or the Day of Judgment (as at Cookham) and the expectation that many people still have of a life anew – but where is it located? – immediately following an individual’s death. How does this work? Can you explain? There seems to be a contradiction, or at least inconsistency, here.
PHILIP: One of the really tricky issues in writing this book was the conceptual and historical messiness of the Western idea of the afterlife. This messiness goes exactly to the issue you raise. The history of the afterlife is the history of two quite different stories – one about what follows my death and the other about the end of history. So, in writing it, I was always trying both to tease out both the incoherences and the coherences. Where is the soul located? The answers would be, for all sorts of good and some not so good reasons – nowhere, everywhere, in a spiritual body out there beyond the stars, in a spiritual body beneath the earth, later in a resurrected spiritual body, in a dimension beyond this one altogether, on a reconstituted earth after the Final Day, and so on. So my aim is both to make what is really complicated intelligible to the reader, while at the same time showing how what we might have thought to be quite simple is really very complex and complicated.
ALEX: Talking of complexity, I find it extremely interesting that even Enlightenment figures like Robert Boyle, the father of chemistry as you put it, had a strong belief in bodily resurrection. How did these pioneering individuals reconcile their burgeoning scientific outlook with a strongly maintained and adhered-to theological and spiritual sensibility? Could there be a message here for the likes of Richard Dawkins?
PHILIP: We’re very used, in the 21st century, to thinking of there being an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, to think that ‘materialist’ science rules out the spiritual. So it is really interesting to see how the early ‘scientists’ saw no such distinction and turned to the new science to prove matters theological and to theology to bolster the findings of the new science. The message for Richard Dawkins is that his sense of the ‘natural’ conflict between science and religion – and his belief that truth of the former rules out on principle any truth in the latter – is itself a very modern Western belief that stretches back only some 150 years.
ALEX: I liked the skilful and imaginative use that you made in the book of authors and materials as rich and diverse as Ursula LeGuin, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, spiritualism and theosophy, Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies and even the TV comedy Rev. Do you think this impressively varied melange will help your readers unravel and engage with ideas that are, in the end, quite complex?
PHILIP: Yes, my use of these materials was to stress, alongside the richness and variety of ‘elite’ views about the afterlife, that there is an equally fascinating ‘popular’ tradition that weaves in and out of the ‘elite’ traditions. These too have a complex and interesting history to which I try to give due attention.
ALEX: I suppose I should ask if you hold out any hope yourself of there being a life after death. I wonder if this is a subject which, like the presence of God, we should treat with the admission of a proper and honest agnosticism. There are a great many things which, despite hundreds of years of sustained intellectual inquiry, we simply don’t know. Maybe that is what makes speculation about the transcendent so fascinating! Despite the absence of any answers that we could adduce in the way of proof or evidence, it may be a good thing for human beings to be aware of their own limits.
PHILIP: I fear that death is one event in life that I will not live to regret. More’s the pity. But you’re absolutely right. If we rely on reason (and don’t adhere to some form of revelation about the afterlife), a proper and honest agnosticism is, I think, the right position. But that doesn’t stop us from appreciating the history of human imaginings about the afterlife. For good and ill, these have enormously influenced how humankind has understood how we should think about life in the here and now and how we should act until life is no more. They result from our being members of a species who know we will die – this is our triumph and our tragedy.