What Obama's grandmother may already know

Dunhams.jpgOf the many articles written about the death late Sunday of Barack Obama's grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham, nothing expressed Christian hope quite so well as these pithy words from blogger Andrew Sullivan:

Obama was so right to make sure he spent time with her before she passed on. But what an emotional blow on election eve for the candidate from Illinois. He has survived this campaign with remarkable emotional maturity and self-control. I just wish this didn't have to add to it. None of his parents will witness tomorrow. But somewhere my faith teaches me: they know already. Maybe Toot couldn't wait for the actual results. Maybe she's now a few steps ahead even of Chuck Todd. May she rest in peace. She did good.

I mention this because I've been meaning to write about a most frustrating essay, "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death," which appears in the October issue of Scientific American Mind.

Scholar Jesse Bering of Queen's University, Belfast, begins his essay with banal lyrics by folk singer Iris Dement, which pose an easy enough target to criticize:

Everybody's wonderin' what and where they all came from. Everybody's worryin' ’bout where they're gonna go when the whole thing's done. But no one knows for certain and so it's all the same to me. I think I'll just let the mystery be.

It should strike us as odd that we feel inclined to nod our heads in agreement to the twangy, sweetly discordant folk vocals of Iris Dement in "Let the Mystery Be," a humble paean about the hereafter. In fact, the only real mystery is why we're so convinced that when it comes to where we're going "when the whole thing's done," we're dealing with a mystery at all. After all, the brain is like any other organ: a part of our physical body. And the mind is what the brain does -- it's more a verb than it is a noun. Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn't it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

Bering does not drag anyone's grandmother into the discussion -- I alone am guilty of that. For him belief in an afterlife is an irrational matter of thinking that a human mind may continue to function after the death of the brain. At no point does he address the Christian teaching of resurrection, even in order to dismiss it.

Bering is a lively and entertaining writer who makes his field of cognition studies more accessible through self-effacing humor such as this:

According to proponents, you possess a secret arsenal of psychological defenses designed to keep your death anxiety at bay (and to keep you from ending up in the fetal position listening to Nick Drake on your iPod). My writing this article, for example, would be interpreted as an exercise in "symbolic immortality"; terror management theorists would likely tell you that I wrote it for posterity, to enable a concrete set of my ephemeral ideas to outlive me, the biological organism. (I would tell you that I'd be happy enough if a year from now it still had a faint pulse.)

By essay's end, Bering suggests that a concept -- person permanence -- "may be the final cognitive hurdle that gets in the way of our effectively realizing the dead as they truly are — infinitely in situ, inanimate carbon residue."

I don't expect scientists to include "And then a miracle occurs" in their explanations of natural phenomena. Still, Bering's neglect of a basic idea -- Perhaps belief in an afterlife is universal in human cultures because an afterlife may in fact exist -- rather limits the scope of his inquiry. His inquiry, in fact, may be beyond the ability of science to explain, now or ever.

Finally, while I'm on the topic of death and resurrection and stuff: Brother Russert, say a prayer for your fellow journalists on this Election Day.

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