by Carolyn Roncolato
I often invite students to bring to class their most befuddling theological question. This week a friend asked me what mine is- I quickly answered “the afterlife.” Though I have never had a sufficient explanation for or understanding of the afterlife, I never worried that much about it. It felt like one of those “I will cross that bridge when I get to it” issues. However, in these first nine months of parenting, I have often found myself pondering the question of heaven, caring more about whether it exists and if so how. Maybe its Ben’s newness to the world and his close proximity to the other realm, maybe it’s a clearer sense of mortality that comes with meeting the next generation, maybe it’s a desire for the wisdom of ancestors- But what I think it is actually about, is a sense that the small particular embodied moments of life with this child transcend this world.
Parenting forces me to be radically present in a way that very few things do. That radical presence allows me to appreciate the profound unrepeatable and indescribable moments of loving another body so deeply. There are countless small moments with Ben that I pray live on somewhere or may be known again- the first moment I met him, holding his feet, the way he raises his hand when he is eating, him rubbing his hair as he is falling asleep, the first time he laughed, the sound of his voice in the other room, and on and on. I don’t want to just remember these things I want to remember what it felt like to experience them.
This new interest in heaven has led me back to the concept of subjective immortality, proposed by Charles Hartshorne and elaborated upon by Marjorie Suchocki, among others [Charles Hartshone and Subjective Immortality]. Within process theology, objective immortality refers to the idea that all things that happen in the world are objectively included in God’s consequent nature and are therefore eternal. Subjective immortality on the other hand, suggests that the present moment lives on in God as we experience it. It’s the difference between what it feels like to fall in love (subjective immortality) and hearing from someone else the story of how they fell in love (objective immortality).
According to the concept of subjective immortality, my experience of the small particular moments with Ben are a part of heaven. They live on, not just as events that happened but as the feelings of loving and caring in concrete embodied moments. I definitely don’t have the afterlife all figured out but I do finally have an image of heaven that makes sense.