The works of Belinda Carlisle were preserved for just this moment: As the credits roll, “Heaven is a Place on Earth” sparkles to life; a sundrenched California is glimpsed in long view; in close-up, a dose of lethal chemicals course through an IV and a coffin descends into the earth, as the consciousness of the euthanized appears in that California landscape as a young woman, ready for a new life in the digital hereafter. The protagonists dance in an eternal youth, and the camera pans back on a server farm glowing with thousands of encoded souls of the departed, like candles in a vast cathedral. Heaven, a place on earth.
The anthology series Black Mirror is alarmingly astute on many aspects of our rapidly changing relationship with technology, and perhaps never more than in this episode, “San Junipero.” Like all science fiction, it is most arresting when it is most plausible. The near-future setting of “San Junipero,” with its routine euthanasia and digital immortality, is closely continuous with our world. And within that setting, it explores significant questions of meaning, loyalty, life and death. Crucial to the story are two modes of death: the first is bodily, administered by a medical facility. The second is digital, available by request of the translated soul that has tired of life in its virtual environment–a second death, as it were. In both cases, death is administered at will; contingency in dying has been eliminated.
That this would be a sort of progress is hard to deny. In the Great Litany, we beseech God to free us “from an unprepared and evil death.” I remember catching on those words when I was new in church, and when I was reading Dante’s depictions of the late-repentant and unshriven in Purgatory. Those folks had a long, long climb ahead of them. The threat of an unexpected, unplanned, unworthy death was a threat to the very coherence of life, the classic moment of crisis that could obliterate so much godly effort. The ancient Stoics proposed suicide as a way out of that evil. If you can’t beat the world’s evils and misfortunes, you can at least deprive them of the humiliation they will impose on you. Perhaps we will be in a position to learn from them again. What bodily evils could be endured when leaving them is so simple? What pains of soul–what anger, dissipation, let alone boredom–could be so great as to inspire anyone to delete themselves from eternal youth and sunshine?
Death, it must be admitted, is on a pretty impressive run versus humanity. The all-time record stands at roughly 100,000,000,000 – 1 (I’ll leave the cases of Enoch, Elijah, and the Blessed Virgin Mary to the experts). Death racked up some more wins in the 2016 elections, as Colorado voted to allow medical euthanasia and three states affirmed capital punishment. We’ve managed to create some very impressive adaptations in the course of this rather dismal record–cave paintings, the aria, blackjack, etc. But it is hard to guess what will happen to these adaptations as we progressively remove contingency from death. What will life look like when death has become instrumental? What would death look like if it were to become the therapeutic step into the Singularity?
The second question is hypothetical. The first, increasingly, is not. Having gained the means to rationalize death, even if we can’t defer it past a certain point, we are accountable for how we will use those means. Our experiments with execution and euthanasia, while they are promoted on different places in our political spectrum, should be judged together in this regard, and they are ominous. We promise ourselves something antiseptic and rational–the swift purging of a defective cell in the social body, the painless exit from degenerative disease, depression, or even addiction–and end up revising our picture of humanity in the process. It is not an accident that advocacy against both capital punishment and medical suicide focus heavily on disability, poverty, and racism. Where our society diminishes the humanity of people, the legal and medical systems all too frequently oblige. The lives taken and forfeited in these ways will, and already do, shift our notions of what kinds of lives are worth living. More to the point, they will shift our notions of what kinds of lives are worth collective effort and sacrifice to preserve. Our long-term care system is already approaching crisis and our retirement programs are continually threatened with cuts. Physician-assisted suicide will eventually appear to be a responsible way to manage the fact of an aging population. Capital punishment can easily be promoted on budgetary grounds as well, after the legal rights of the convicted are adequately pruned back.
That this deployment of death will move slowly, rationally, and perhaps inevitably, is not a reason for Christians to make peace with it. Fear and suffering exist to be borne together, not privatized. Life, however threatened or prolonged, needs a shape and a purpose, even if it is one we can only fully grasp in the face of contingency and a world that will never be under our command. The hopes and fears written into our scriptures and our liturgies will risk seeming quaint, as they always have. But perhaps that is what will leave those hopes and fears open to people who are threatened in very fundamental ways by our brisk and efficient use of the machinery of death. Contingency is the ground of fear, but also of freedom. And heaven will still have to be heaven before it can ever be glimpsed as a place on earth.