I came across a news item recently that probably belongs in the “News of the Weird.” A mechanical engineer, with a background in ship building, claims to have formulated a scientific explanation for human consciousness and the afterlife. He theorizes that human consciousness, the soul, merely inhabits the human body, but does not belong to it. Rather, the soul is stored in a universal spiritual memory bank in the same way that digital files can be stored in the computing “cloud.” Evidently, after death, our individual OS gets uploaded to a new platform.
This might explain a lot of what goes on day to day. If our individual souls are stored “in the cloud,” then perhaps our strange behavior is someone else’s fault. Perhaps the growing sense of entitlement among individuals is merely the result of Marie Antoinette’s soul being hacked and tweeted to all the rest of us. Perhaps too many people have “Liked” Mario Andretti’s Ethereal Facebook page, and this has led to the rampant speeding on US 19. The increasing incidents of gun violence might be the result of streaming too much John Wayne or Tupac Shakur.
The fellow who proposed the “cloud-based” theory of the afterlife is a man with urgent questions about matters of spirituality. Sadly, with spirituality, as with science, merely having questions is no guarantee of finding adequate and accurate answers. The ordinary difficulty of finding adequate answers to our questions is often made worse when our curiosity is random or unfocused. This is very true with regard to matters of religious belief.
Our society is very curious about religious matters, but very unwilling to make a commitment to religious truth. One of the results of this is a phenomenon that has been called “seeker spirituality.” Spiritual seekers are those who pursue spiritual growth through the widest possible range of means; their spiritual practices tend to be a heterogeneous compilation of Asian mysticism and western cultural mythology. While they tend to be very sincere in their desire for spiritual growth they suffer from the self-deception of thinking that spirituality is a strictly individualistic effort that can be accomplished through generic means.
Nicodemus, who appears in today’s Gospel reading, was just such a person. He was curious about Jesus; he had heard about, and perhaps witnessed, some of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. However, the darkness that surrounded him was not merely physical. In an earlier part of the conversation Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus had performed miracles by God’s power. Unfortunately, Nicodemus was unable to see beyond the physical aspects of the miracles (and the world); as a consequence, he was unable to grasp Jesus’ words. He lived in the spiritual darkness that is the realm of the curious but uncommitted.
Curiosity makes religion a matter of speculation, while commitment makes religion a way of life. Nicodemus was curious, but non-committal. He is a perfect candidate to be named the patron saint of American secular religion. He was the seeker who came by night, with an urgent question. He received an answer to his question, but left with his curiosity unsatisfied. He lacked the capacity to see what is “above.”
In a very real sense, the spiritually curious are born again and again, but never from above. It might not be a coincidence that a line from this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has become so entrenched in American popular culture. John 3:16 is emblematic of American culture’s furtive and frustrated pursuit of distant truth. Ours is an aspirational, consumerist culture; we tend to reduce even the most precious of human experiences to nothing more than objects to be acquired. The Love of God has become just another product to be advertised (at sporting events), and another item on our “been there, done that” list.
At this juncture, I should point out that seeking, but not finding is not a modern problem or a new phenomenon. Jesus chastised many of his contemporaries for having ears, but not hearing and having eyes, but not seeing. It is all too common to let our curiosities run wild, and thereby lose the capacity to recognize truth when we encounter it. In another place in the Gospels Jesus said, “Seek and you shall find.” (Matthew 7:7) The difference between seekers and finders is that finders know when to conclude the search.
The truth that Jesus preached was a way of life in harmony with God and neighbor. To live this life, one must be born “from above,” that is, given life by God’s Spirit. A life of harmony with God and neighbor is one founded on trust: trusting and being trustworthy. Trust, (Faith), isn’t something that yields its secrets to the merely curious. The obvious problem facing those who wish to find the truth is that there is a great deal of risk involved in the sort of commitment required by Jesus. Faith requires a commitment to the Other because faith is commitment.
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross is an opportunity to be confronted by the only reliable religious truth in the universe: that, in matters of the spirit, certainty is the result of commitment. When seen from outside, religion has much both to commend and condemn it. The truth of religion, however, can only be perceived from inside, by those who commit themselves to the truth. The Gospel says that the One who was lifted up is the only one who possesses truth from above. If you want to find the truth about human existence (and even the afterlife), it is to be found in the Cross of Jesus and in a commitment to the way of life he preached.