Religion has, for centuries, been fairly obsessed with the afterlife. For some, what awaits us after our physical death is fairly central to their faith. But thanks to the Internet, many of us end up having a sort of life after death, whether we intended to or not.
In a recent article published in the New Yorker magazine, Pia Farrenkopf experienced the sort of digital life after death that some might find appealing, while others would consider it rather horrifying. Pia traveled frequently for work, so it was not unusual for her neighbors not to see her for long stretches at a time. They would mow her lawn when the grass got long and kept an eye on the place during her long stints out of town.
As such, she lacked many close ties near home, and like many of us, all of her monthly finances were automated and tied directly to her bank account. So although she died in early 2009 while sitting in her car in the garage, it was not until very recently that anyone actually discovered she was dead.
It took that long for her checking account reserves to run out, which led to utility shut offs and a visit from the bank to issue an eviction notice due to missed payments. So although her body had set partially mummified in the garage for nearly five years, as far as the outside world was concerned, she was still alive.
In his book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil speaks of a not-so-far-off point in our future when the ability of computers to process information and replicate human thought and behavior will get to the point that we will question what it means to be conscious, and to be a person.
It seems like the stuff of science fiction, to consider the possibility of people uploading the entirety of their life experience, or even some iteration of what we understand to be their consciousness, to a network of computers. But the fact is that we already are wrestling with these sorts of ethical implications, even today.
I have a friend who lost his wife to cancer recently. For some time following her death, her Facebook page was used to keep people posted about everything from her memorial service to how their daughter was faring during the transition. Since then, people have used her page is a sort of ad hoc memorial site, where they post memories, photographs, and the like to commemorate their love for her.
But I have noticed that some people continue to post messages not just about her, but even to her. There is new content on her page every day, and if someone didn't know any better, they could easily assume that she was still alive. As our physical and virtual selves continue to intertwine and the lines between them blur, it is increasingly difficult to make a clear distinction between where "we" begin and end.
As our understandings of self and society become increasingly complex and abstract, it is incumbent on those engaged in the practice of pastoral care and spiritual stewardship to consider such questions, not with the intent of dragging us back to some idyllic, if not entirely real, time in our past when such challenges didn't yet exist, but rather to help those who seek meaning and guidance from us to cut through the noise and discern what it means to live a life filled with meaning and interdependent relationship.
If my consciousness is uploaded to a computer network, does my soul follow? Who knows? But our desire, or even resistance, to explore such mysteries reveals much more about our own needs and desires than about the existential nature of the human soul itself.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
Image: Virtual life concept, agsandrew / Shutterstock.com