“I do not know how to prove physically, that we shall meet and know each other in a future state; nor does Revelation, as I can find, give us any positive assurance of such a felicity. My reasons for believing it, as I do most undoubtedly, are that I cannot conceive such a being could make such a species as the human, merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God. This Universe, this all would appear, with all of its swelling pomp, a boyish firework.”
So said John Adams, second President of the United States, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson following the death of his wife Abigail. In this letter, Adams states clearly his reason for believing in an afterlife: he simply can’t imagine that God would create something so wonderful as a human being and allow it do die. To Adams, belief in an afterlife and belief in God are mutually reinforcing. His belief in God is founded on his belief in the afterlife (“If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God”), and at the same time his belief in the afterlife is founded on a conception of God who would not simply allow life to be extinguished like a “boyish firework”.
To this, a Humanist reply: in the words of noted philosopher Katy Perry, “Baby, You’re a Firework!”
To Humanists, who do not generally believe that anything of a person’s personality persists after death, there is little consolation to be found in the idea of an afterlife. However strongly we might wish to believe that we can somehow outlive our own death, our assessment of the facts leads us to what may seem a bleaker place. We are, truly, fireworks. Our fuse is lit at conception; we gather speed through childhood, struggling to lift off the ground; we zoom through adolescence and young adulthood, gathering speed as we learn and grow; we burst into the world as adults in full splendor, lighting the sky with our endeavors; our influence spreads through middle age, the colors of our life radiating from the central explosion; we begin to fade as we age, our sparkles glinting more softly; and we slowly sputter out as we approach death, leaving nothing behind but smoke-trails, wispy memories of our brief existence, an empty shell fallen back to earth far from where we started, and ghostly afterimages in the eyes of those who loved us.
But we see this as no reason to despair. We reject the idea that the understanding of our impending death saps meaning and significance from our lives. Rather, we see this realization as infusing our lives with rich color, stunning beauty, blazing significance. The very brevity of our lives enhances their brightness. Humanists have found many ways to express this. Robert Ingersoll – the most famous orator of his age, and a passionate voice for Humanism in the 19th Century – articulated our belief with characteristic style:
Maybe death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps that love would wither from the earth. Maybe this common fate treads out from the paths between our hearts the weeds of selfishness and hate. And I had rather live and love where death is king, than have eternal life where love is not.
Ingersoll, as befits the “Great Agnostic”, couched his comments in “maybe” and “perhaps”, but I think his reasoning is sound. The rarity and brevity of life – its firework quality – is what makes it so precious. Every person, like a firework, shines in unique constellation before they are gone forever, never to be recaptured. Thus it is critical that we make our own explosion as beautiful and as light-giving as possible, as we seek to illumine the world with our brilliance. Many of us will even ignite new fireworks, perpetuating human light for another generation, a succession of life in burst upon burst of dazzling color, the greatest firework display that can be imagined.
Toward the end of his life, some doubt seemed to corrode Adams’ conviction regarding a “future state”. Writing again to Jefferson in his last months, he said “I contemplate [death] without terror or dismay. If finite, which I cannot believe, and do not believe, there is an end of it all but I shall never know it, and why should I dread it, which I do not, if transit I shall ever be under the same constitution and administration of Government in the Universe, and I am not afraid to trust and confide in it.” There is something slightly hollow about Adams’ reiteration here – “I cannot believe, and do not believe”. He protests too much, and seems to be clinging hard to the idea of an afterlife while recognizing the possibility that there is “an end of it all”. But Adams, as he recognizes, has no cause for despair even if there is nothing after. More than most, he blazed across the firmament before his light died out, and his afterimage can still be detected on the retina of humankind.
That could be you. You could do great things in service to others, as Adams did, and as many others have. So come on – show ’em what you’re worth! Let your colors burst! Make ’em go “Ah, ah, AH!” as you shoot across the sky! Leave them all in awe! And when, inevitably, those colors begin to fade, and your trajectory tilts downward back toward earth, do not despair. Do not seek solace in another life for which we have no evidence. Instead remember that you live on, etched onto the retinas of those who watched your marvelous display.
They will see you when they close their eyes. That is enough.
This post originally appeared at State of Formation, an interfaith community blog.