Is speculation about "the afterlife" or what happens to us when we're dead making a comeback as a topic of public interest and intellectual endeavour? It seems that it is. Quite a brief - and totally orthodox - comment by Pope John Paul II in the course of a recent sermon, to the effect that we should not over-materialise heaven and hell, has provoked extraordinary attention. This is fairly astonishing in a society which likes to think that it is "growing out of " primitive religion.
If language is really all-constructing, it would be plausible to argue that the world to come had never gone away. At moments of heightened emotion we use the discourse of salvation - "go to hell", "this is heavenly" or, more simply, just "damn" (though "to-die-for" seems to have been replaced by "must-have") - even more readily than the discourses of sexuality.
While the Pope was saying we shouldn't be so literal about the afterlife, most commentators seemed to know that he was really just giving us some soft soap (not the usual complaint about him) and that he ought to be more specific, concrete, actual.
This feels odd to me. We are living in a social and intellectual climate that prides itself on being non-judgemental. Guilt is bad for you, and you should seek a therapist if you experience it; it has nothing to do with acts you commit that might provoke it. In all its traditional expressions, the afterlife was about judgement - you got what you deserved. And a belief that everyone, whatever they do, will be saved - even Slobodan Milosevic -and taken up into glory is an unappealing and very dull conviction. You would have thought that in a society that prides itself on being non-judgemental and in which religious observance continues to decline, the opinions of an elderly, reactionary Pole on heaven and hell would be of no interest to anyone at all.
Indeed, a few years ago it looked as though that was the case. The "me decade" never seemed to put the life everlasting on its endless wish-list. Even formal religion rather gave up on it: struggles for justice were prioritised over jam-tomorrow promises. The afterlife was reduced to a faintly neurotic private belief, or to a reactionary ploy to keep the oppressed under control.
Yet now, although surveys indicate a marked decline in the numbers who believe in religion and a smaller but still significant decline in those who believe in "God", there is an increase of interest in an afterlife. As a Christian who hangs out in predominantly secular circles, I am frequently asked for "the Church's opinion" on this or that - a bit like a doctor at a party. I used to be asked about sex and Catholicism; now I am far more often asked about heaven and hell.
So what has changed? Why do chic dinner parties suddenly go jangly at the edges because the subject has come up? Why do the likes of Richard Dawkins become livid with fury (instead of indulgently amused) if anyone expresses any doubts at all about their materialistic descriptions of the self ? Why do educated, caring professionals queue up to join "shaman" courses or groups that will help them get in touch with their, or other people's, previous lives? Why is everyone so fascinated by the remarkably boring heavens revealed to people in "near-death" experiences?
Well, first, there's the millennium. Don't be too dismissive about this: even the mighty new gods of technology and the World Wide Web quake before this cosmic event. It is too late to do anything about it now; the end is very nigh. Millennia make people think about the future and the scale is peculiar; one's mind slips too fast from "next year" to "for ever".
But we also face the end of a century. There were three large projects in 1900 that were understood, at least in Europe and the US, to be the tasks of the 20th century: the abolition of poverty; the end of war; and the development of science and technology so that nature would finally be under control. Here we are at the end of the century, and we have dismally failed in two of these projects and been rather too successful in the third.
We have not abolished poverty or constructed world peace. On the contrary, we seem to have achieved exactly the opposite. It is not as though we haven't tried. We have tried everything from communism to the pure market; from the League of Nations to nuclear deterrence. We have fought too many "wars to end war" to believe that we know how to end war, and our inner cities look as though there was a continuing blitzkrieg.
We do not know how to create justice and peace: we do not even seem to have any ideas worth trying out just now. The only people who do are the religious, and they seem powerful in their conviction that the afterlife will sort it all out - which, in a time of uncertainty, is sort of attractive. Especially as we won't personally be damned. One thing we have learnt through the century is that we as individuals are lovely and loveable, and that anything we do is their fault - parents, governments, society.
The third project for the century - the growth of science and technology, the defeat of nature - has been gloriously achieved. So successful has technology been that it feels as though it has run amok and we are terrified. We began the century enthusiastically believing that the scientists would save us and we end it not believing a single word they say.
We can't sustain personal relationships; we can't sustain biodiversity; we aren't sure we can sustain life on Earth. We feel powerless. We are the victims of our own brilliance, exactly as Mary Shelley warned us in Frankenstein.
We have developed a mathematics of infinity, we have been to the Moon and we have (probably) explained the origins of the universe: it has cost a fortune and we have got virtually nothing out of it. (Actually we have got an enormous amount out of it, but it does not feel like that just now.) We still devour science fiction and detective or crime-thriller novels, but there has been a notable shift even within these once intellectual genres towards fantasy. The X Files and the two new series of Star Trek mark that cultural shift with precision.
Science has failed in one very important sense: we still have no "good enough story", no adequate account, of the "self". The brain/mind questions and the related issues regarding memory and identity have not been answered. At a serious level we do not know who we are. Are we neural networks; genetically or linguistically determined bioentities; animated memory banks; bipedal primates; or immortal souls? None of these narratives of identity "fits" our experience in an affective way. If the only thing that gives the universe meaning is a subjective "me", a package of inexplicable individual experiences, then of course I will want to know I have an afterlife. Otherwise, what is it all for? The world will end if I end.
The discourses of modernity and materialism have actually won a great deal of ground: the old Aristotelian self - a mortal body and an immortal soul - is not good enough any more. But without that fabulous hybrid it is a little hard to see how the afterlife can actually work. This is a genuinely interesting topic for speculation. No wonder there is a renewed interest in the subject. There is a new question. Not is there an afterlife, but how can there be an afterlife? It has intellectual meat, but it presupposes a possibility.
Such a set of circumstances makes a revival of interest in the afterlife inevitable. It makes people interested in extremely abstract mathematics and in extremely naive theology. It makes us want to know what the Pope thinks and encourages us to disagree with him if his concepts don't meet our desires. In a society suffering from political pessimism, rampant individualism, an overvaluing of emotion and an undervaluing of disciplined thought, this is fairly frightening. It is also frightening that, when the Pope suggests it may all be a bit more complex and subtle (something that St Paul proclaimed in the opening decades of the first millennium), he is both mocked and accused of failing us.
In such a climate, judgemental fundamentalism, hysterical cults, violent terror, mental instability and extreme reactionary responses might be predicted. However, it must also be acknowledged that through most of history, most people have lived with some narrative of eternity and an afterlife - and its abandonment in the developed west in the 20th century does not seem to have made things much better. Don't panic, I say.