Professors debate religion, afterlife at Veritas Forum

Although philosophy professor Shelly Kagan and University of St. Andrews professor NT Wright were on stage to discuss how to lead a happy life despite the prospect of death, they never got around to fully answering the question.

Yale’s Veritas Forum hosted Kagan and Wright for a talk on life before and after death in Battell Chapel on Wednesday evening. The topic of the discussion was ‘Living Well in the Light of Death,” but the conversation quickly strayed from its original purpose. Instead, the speakers debated Christian ideas of resurrection and eternal life.

Roughly 500 students, faculty and other members of the Yale community attended.

The speakers opened the talk by stating their views on religion. While Wright presented his Christian beliefs, Kagan said he believes there is a detachment between humans and the universe. However, there are ways to connect to the universe, he added.

“When I look at the universe, it seems to be a place of breathtaking beauty and awe-inspiring complexity. It also seems to me, sadly enough, that the universe is utterly, utterly indifferent to us. It just doesn’t care,” Kagan said. “But it’s not all dark. If we gain love then that creates a speck of light. If we gain insight, that creates a speck of light.”

Kagan said the notion of immortality defines an existence beyond life that would inevitably become boring. In response, Wright said this is a wrong assumption because the state of immortality would be constantly enlivened by the presence of God.

Still, Wright said he admits that most people would not want eternal life in the way that it is commonly understood.

“There’s a lot of people who — when they come to the natural end of their life — know that it is appropriate to go to sleep,” he said.

However, Wright went on to say that the real Christian idea of afterlife is much more nuanced than the one most people are familiar with.

When Kagan challenged Wright about the premise of resurrection in Christian theology, asking him if a literal bodily resurrection was believed to take place, Wright said the idea transcends earthly limits. God, he said, is all-powerful and not constrained by obstacles that concern humans.

“It’s not a problem for God to bring atoms back,” he said. “There’s a continuity of form, but a discontinuity of matter.”

But Kagan said he did not accept the notion of an all-powerful or omniescent God as an answer to his challenges. The most problematic notion of Wright’s depiction of resurrection is the idea that one’s identity lives on, he said.

Still, the speakers made concessions to one another. Kagan said he is not opposed to the idea of an afterlife in a philosophical sense — he simply has trouble with the idea of the afterlife as a physical reality because he can find no evidence for it.

By the end of the forum, both speakers said realized they had never approached the topic of the forum. In their closing statements, Kagan and Wright delivered their answers for how to live well in the light of death.

Kagan reaffirmed his view that there is, in effect, no afterlife. However, this should not preclude people from doing their best to improve the world they live in.

“I believe death is the end. I believe we need to push back against the darkness. We need to try to reduce suffering. We can try to accomplish something with out lives. We can try to make the world better for others,” he said.

Wright, instead, concluded by saying that Christianity is an essential force of good in the world, and said that despite its belief in eternal life, it is not a faith that neglects the here and now.

Six audience members interviewed said they think the forum was productive even though it did not focus on the advertised topic.

Laura Garcia ’16 said Kagan’s questions represented common sense criticisms of religious views that are shared by many in the Yale community.

Associate Chaplain Jon Hinkson said he had some reservations about how the opening of the talk was structured. The three-minute summation of beliefs, he said, seemed “comedic.”

Diksha Brahmbaht ’18 said her main takeaway from the talk was the fundamental lack of understanding that all humans have on the subject of afterlife.

“I have come to realize that no one really knows about death or anything afterwards,” she said. “All we can do is believe and accept something that will allows us to live.”

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