Thought for the Week 22 May 2011
The Mystery of Death
If you ask a question and the answer sounds silly, you will lose your respect for the answerer. Bad explanations to difficult questions cause harm to the cause. Apparently this is one of the reasons why some Christians ‘deconvert’, in other words, lose their faith.
One of the central areas of controversy is life after death. Funerals themselves are not occasions for theological disputes. There, people want to believe. This sometimes means that they themselves offer incredible explanations as to where mummy has gone ‘she’s a new star in the sky’; but because they themselves don’t really believe the story it has no traction. And when they are told incredible stories their faith is eroded. One story, apparently for adults, runs like this. A sailing ship sails off to the horizon getting smaller and smaller until it disappears. Meanwhile it is travelling to another shore whose inhabitants see it getting bigger and bigger. The ship itself remains constant, only moving through the water. Dying is a horizon. Really?
Death itself is a mystery; like looking at the sun, no one, said Montaigne, can look at it with a steady eye. None of our explanations will quite do. However we must start with realities. The dead have, as the new atheists will tell us, ceased to exist. Their bodies, no longer animated, will decay. So far Scripture tells the same story, whether it be of the death of Lazarus whose body had begun to smell, and of our Lord whose limp corpse was lovingly buried in the rock tomb. We are not, on any evidence, immortal. The attempt to find the soul in any organ of the body is futile.
Those for whom physical explanations are the only ones that count will not be convinced by anything else. However, the relationship between consciousness and the changing physical components of our bodies remains mysterious and is surely crucial. St. Paul writes of continuity and discontinuity: we are sown a corruptible body, we are raised a incorruptible body; we are sown a physical body, we are raised a spiritual body. The person must still be the same person however changed. Thus, one could imagine that those memory traces, experiences and attitudes which make us the people we are, may be relocated, a little bit like digital files, in ‘a spiritual body’, God’s remaking of us.
Such speculation is arguably coherent; it does however seem a bit dry. Whatever the mechanics, it is clear from Scripture as from science that the life hereafter is not a natural function; if it is true it is a new free creative act of God. We are to be raised from death not raise ourselves. Moreover, St. John tells the disciples that he goes on ahead of them and will return to take them with him. Our eternal salvation is a matter of personal encounter, not effort. Our concern should not be with saving our own skins but with the love that we first receive and then give.