'A Very Brief History' Abbreviates Forever

Host Scott Simon interviews historian and theologian Carlos Eire about his new book, "A Very Brief History of Eternity".

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(Soundbite of music)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Here's a cheery way to begin a book. In his new book, "A Very Brief History of Eternity," Carlos Eire reminds us that every word ever written, every trace of our brief existence will one day burn up. Everything we know, every trace of whatever was - from Antony and Cleopatra to Bill and Melinda Gates, Albert Einstein and Nelson Mandela - every trace of whatever was will be annihilated, the good and the bad, without distinction. So like, what's the point?

Carlos Eire, professor of history and religious studies at Yale, has written his first book since his memoir. "Waiting for Snow in Havana" won the 2003 National Book Award. Professor Eire joins us from Yale.

Carlos, thanks for being with us.

Professor CARLOS EIRE (Author, "A Very Brief History of Eternity"): Oh, thanks for inviting me to be on your show.

SIMON: We should explain, we went to high school together - three or four years ago, I think.

Prof. EIRE: That's right. Yeah.

SIMON: If I'm not mistaken. Did people use to believe in eternity- more than maybe people do today - because they didn't know as much as we do now?

Prof. EIRE: Oh, I think yes. There were more people who believed in eternity because belief was easier, for two reasons. One is, in fact, the amount of knowledge that we have about the cosmos now, and the kind of specific knowledge we have about the universe. That's changed. But also, it was easier for people to believe in eternity because the social structures - the cultural structures supported such belief in the West.

SIMON: So, just give us a brief, collapsed history from Plato and Augustine to, you know, Stephen Hawking.

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SIMON: A lot's changed.

Prof. EIRE: Yeah. That's - well, belief in eternity in the West since the advent of Christianity has been linked to belief in an eternal God who has promised eternal life to human beings. Concerns about, you know, where this eternity is to be located, because you need a place, have changed dramatically.

But the biggest change has taken place in the West, which began about the 16th century, is the very gradual moving of all discussions and belief in eternity to the private sphere rather than the public sphere. So that now, yes, people still believe in eternity in the West, but it's a strictly private belief. It's not something that is supposed to be common discourse.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And eternity nowadays takes many different forms of what amounts to the perpetuity of one's private self.

Prof. EIRE: Yes. And that - in my book, actually, that's my chief concern - is not the history of the eternity of the cosmos, which belongs in astrophysics, but eternity as it pertains to human beings, eternity as conceived of by human beings for human beings, and the continuation of every individual's existence, not some kind of corporate existence that terminates the existence of the individual.

SIMON: Has skepticism, as it's accumulated over the centuries about eternity, assisted - if not enabled - people to make sometimes irresponsible or immoral choices with their lives?

Prof. EIRE: Oh, definitely. But I think it cuts both ways. Belief in eternity also leads people to do terrible things sometimes, and not just in terms of, you know, the West. Let's say that the Crusades are a prime example - or in our own day, Muslim suicide bombers. But in the 18th century, the enlightened philosophes, who first began to dismantle the concept of eternity and actually attack it outright as nonsense, worried about the fact that if one left justice just to this life, people might act very irresponsibly and immorally.

And Voltaire - when he said, if God didn't exist it would be necessary to invent him, what he meant was specifically, belief in an eternal God who metes out eternal justice. Because without the threat of hell, Voltaire wondered out loud more than once, how can you get people to behave? It was of great concern to them, how one might motivate people to act ethically without some kind of eternal justice on the horizon.

SIMON: You make a kind of fascinating side trip in this book, from eternity into purgatory...

Prof. EIRE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...and I wonder if I could get you to talk about that because of course, purgatory is related to idea that you can somehow earn your way into eternity.

Prof. EIRE: Purgatory came into existence very early on in Christian history. About the second or third century, we already have some sort of belief in a continuation of justice past this life. The interesting thing about purgatory is that it acquires its own time. It's somewhere between earthly time and eternity.

By the 12th century, the Western Latin Church had come up with a formula, which they used to calculate with great exactitude time in purgatory, because the formula was very simple. One day suffering on Earth equals 10,000 years of suffering in purgatory.

SIMON: So do you believe - after all of this, do you believe in that personal eternity...

Prof. EIRE: Well, I..

SIMON: ...as opposed to the eternity of the cosmos?

Prof. EIRE: I do. But I realize that it's just a belief, but - and having worked on religion all of my adult life as a professional, I've come to realize that belief and doubt are inseparable; they're two faces of the same coin.

SIMON: You quote Sir Tom Stoppard towards the end of the book, wonderful line, although you find it depressing�

Prof. EIRE: Yeah.

SIMON: ...from �Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.� Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?

Prof. EIRE: Well, this is it. If eternity is conceived of as being just a mere continuation of the kind of existence we now have�

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Prof. EIRE: �the only existence we know, it is a terrible thought, because you do need some rest. You also, after a while, grow very tired of certain things and you want to move on, and in fact if you can't move on and you're trapped in some kind of eternal temporality where you can't get away from, let's say, people you don't like - you have to deal with them forever? Well, that's a terrible thought.

SIMON: Yeah.

Prof. EIRE: So I think the problem for many people in our day and age and our secularized culture, is that conceiving of eternity as a mere extension of what we now experience is, in fact, a terrifying thought. In many respects, non-existence might seem preferable.

SIMON: Of course, the other side is: I can't conceive of nothing, I don't know what that is.

Prof. EIRE: You know, the pure materialists can argue that in fact, we can't conceive of nothing, or not being, because nature itself has wired us that way in order for us to survive and perhaps not feed our children to the wolves. But it still doesn't take away the fact that there is always a kind of emotional - and one might even say spiritual dimension to wrestling with this question. It's not a question that one can approach logically, 100 percent. At some point, when one begins to consider one's own end and one's own non-existence, there's an emotional or psychological or spiritual dimension that enters into one's thinking. And that's where things begin to get uncomfortable, I think, for all of us.

SIMON: Well - it's been great talking to you.

Prof. EIRE: Same here. Same here.

SIMON: Carlos Eire - his new book, �A Very Brief History of Eternity.�

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