By NEIL BROOM
Most of us will have indulged in that slightly obsessive bathroom activity of struggling to squeeze that very last vestige of toothpaste from its tube. I have re-imagined this as a crude, but apt, metaphor for a commonly held view of life. It is one declaring that this life is all there is! From birth to a person’s eventual death, it is the sum total of each human’s existence, there is nothing more!
The practical implications arising from this existential belief system are pretty obvious – we need to extract every ounce of fun, wealth, status, experience, in short, grab every opportunity for personal betterment from the “toothpaste tube of life” because when it’s empty, that’s it.
And even in that final “squeeze”, let’s make sure it is as painless as possible – hence all New Zealanders being called to vote in the ‘End-of-Life’ euthanasia referendum at this year’s October election.
But, as a counter to the toothpaste metaphor, I find I am drawn to the brutal honesty of one of the leading apostolic pillars of the early Christian Church – St Paul. In his pastoral letter to the Christians in the Church at Corinth, he asserts, without mincing his words, the historical fact of Christ’s bodily Resurrection, viewing it as a kind of “first harvest” pledge for humanity – the pledge that followers of Christ will also be raised to a new resurrection life.
As a scientist with a long career in experimental research, in which precise observations of phenomena are fundamental, what I so admire about St Paul is that he really does place huge value on the evidence. For Paul, the hard data are utterly crucial, and it is for this reason that he carefully lists the multitude of eye-witness accounts of the Resurrection event. He gives no traction to a popular and theologically permissive view which holds that it is much more important that we are inspired by the Resurrection “tale”, even if it is historically untrue – we just need to be stirred emotionally in a positive way by merely reading the story.
For St Paul, there is simply no room for treating the Resurrection as a kind of Christianised “optional extra”. If the Resurrection is not true, but we cling to it as if it were true, then in Paul’s view we are the most pathetic mob of humanity on earth – just stupid, gullible believers in a downright lie. And equally, he argues, if the Resurrection is not true, then let’s not pretend anything positive can come out of it by way of comforting sentiments based on a fairytale; for in the imagery of our toothpaste tube, it’s all finished and that’s that. And here, St Paul’s advice borders on the unsaintly – if there is no Resurrection, we might as well go and have a jolly good booze-up (I was tempted here to use “street language”) and drown our sorrows and fears, for there is nothing more to be squeezed out of the now empty toothpaste tube of life!
St Paul, elsewhere in his correspondence with the early Church in Rome, provided wonderful encouragement for those many Christians who had fallen prey to horrendous physical suffering and persecution. And his message to these early Christians was not that they should seek to be put out of their misery. Rather, Paul exhorted them to take heart in the midst of their suffering, for it cannot compare with the transcendent joy that is to be part of Resurrection life.
As we each face the challenge of how to vote in the “End-of-Life” referendum, may we be emboldened by the hope revealed in the risen Christ. May we pray that people will cling to life, for, while there is life, there is surely the possibility of that life-transforming encounter with the divine.
- Neil Broom is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Engineering, University of Auckland, and has a particular interest in the relationship between science and faith.