(Many of these essays here on this web-site are intended for our post_Christian agnostic, skeptical, humanitarian-believing brothers and sisters, who have had little knowledge, if any, of the fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church. Yet, much of the underpinning of these thoughts are just the common sense philosophical pretty-strong arguments of non-Christian, pre-Christian Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the widely-held beliefs of mankind over millennia.)
Covid-19 – we all are getting quite unsettled by it. Thoughts of one’s demise arise more frequently than in the past, even though we shrug off the prospect of Death and say: “Gotta go sometime,” the idea of Death stays just underneath our consciousness like a bad smell.
Well, Death is a horrible prospect no matter what way one looks at it! I do not, definitely not, want to die, and nobody else wants to die as well. Death is an awesome fact of life. It is the end of life, my life, my whole series of prospects, adventures, relationships, hobbies, everyday awareness of things as they are. Death is the end. The End.
Death is the most unnatural event, most ghastly thing that is going to happen to everyone born on earth. Yes, animals die, but they don’t know it. To us human beings, it is a confrontation of something not right. Death is not right. There is something wrong with life, existence, if we have to die! I mean, what is the meaning of life if we have to die. Eventually, there is nothing left of us in this world which will remain. Our works, our achievements, our families, even our grave stones will disappear eventually. Nothing remains. Death takes it all.
Or does it?
The fact of Death raises two possibilties: either we human beings are constituted of purely material objects, or we have a soul, an essential constituent, which exists after Death.
The first possibility, that we are purely material beings, is pretty stupid, really. Matter does not look at itself, chemicals don’t stand outside themselves and think. Pure materialism is just outrageously stupid. It is obvious that no matter how much we explain our functioning in material terms, it is the very fact of our standing outside ourselves explaining material causes which is contradictory. What is the thing which stands out, which sees the picture, the logic, the whole rather than the material parts? It ain’t matter!
Just suppose we are nothing but material processes, then there is no meaning to anything, there is no meaning to a bunch of protons and electrons, no matter how complex they are assembled. “Meaning” is something beyond the parts: and that is the constituent element of a human being which allows us to give meaning to anything and it can’t be material. So there is a constituent element of being a human being called the “soul” for want of a better word. I hate using the word “spiritual”. Too many silly connotations with that word. Even the word “soul” has too many silly connotations. But we have to use such words but try to be as accurate in our use of them as is possible.
So, to the second possibility: we have a soul, an essential part of being a human being. And when we die the soul continues to exist. This is not rocket science: for ever since man has been earth mankind has and will always believe in life after death, some kind of personal existence. That is just common sense. Almost all believe in life after death, one big reason being the need for justice after death, some kind of ordering of the good and the bad, some kind of punishment and reward. Otherwise, if there is no justice then there is no good or bad, no consequences for the evil man who may be full of hate and kill millions of people but is kind to dogs and small children, and dies peacefully in his bed.
However, there are many, many beliefs about what constitutes this kind of “soul” existence as there are cultures and individuals on earth: from the idea that this soul transmigrates to another plane of physical existence in another material being, to the idea of a “ghost-like” being that is just like a physical human being without the “physical” body.
So, let’s examine the idea of the “soul”. It is a principle of life which gives order and direction to the physical elements of a body. In a human being, this “soul” is self-aware to the point of being aware of its being self-aware – our soul looks onto itself’s own self-awareness, and one can conceptualise an infinite number of steps of being aware of self to aware of self on to infinity. So, the meaning of the soul is to end in some kind of being in touch with the infinite – a huge jump from being just a functioning material being, fulfilling its normal physical requirements. Whatever happens after Death, this “soul” is still aware. And therefore our life is not completed at death.
Sure, we can no longer call the soul a human being: it’s not, it is missing a body. What a huge wrench, a huge divorce of two elements which makes us human. That is what makes Death horrible, unnatural. It stops the fulfilment of being complete: of reaching the truth, of achieving the highest dreams we can think of, because without a body, the soul after death is not complete either. Mr John Doe is no longer, even though his soul lives on. His soul is not a human being!
What is worse is that this soul has no longer a body to inform it of the senses which it requires to operate: no touch, no sensation, no physical world to respond to, to interreact with. It lies open to whatever constitutes the non-material universe, of which we know very little. And since it is sense data which gives the soul options to choose one thing over another, the will is probably fixed after death. The will needs data to choose options. A mystery is that one cannot know whether the will or orientation of a person’s soul to reality after death can change. The same with understanding: does the soul understand the state it is in? Is it aware of things in the physical world? The soul will still be “individuated”, that is, it is different from anyone else’s soul, because it’s understanding and memory and habits of thought have been imprinted on it by it’s body all its existence.
All the above discussion is pretty much basic Aristotlean philosophy. It is fairly minimalist. Aristotle worked with a scientific mind from first principles and made no assumptions beyond the limits of reasoning. The Catholic Church’s teaching about the soul are pretty much the same as Aristotle. The above fits with common sense reasoning without being sensationalist.
But where philosophy ends, religious beliefs begin.
The big questions are about the soul and God, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Since we live in a post-Christian world many people choose to minimise the role of all of these beliefs. They have heard about Jesus and love and mercy, about heaven being the reward for good people. They believe that most people are “good”. They are also infected with the Enlightenment belief that we are all born “good” and that good and evil actions are only really caused by social and economic factors. So, when we die we have this vague belief in some kind of justice for the really “bad” but the rest of us get to some happy place called “heaven”. Furthermore, many believe that the soul then flies around like a happy bird, somewhat similar to the beliefs of New Age spirituality: Eastern religious beliefs without the uncomfortable other beliefs of Hinduism or Buddhism. Those religions have their heavens and hells as well as Christians.
And the idea of “heaven” is quite vague in many minds. “Heaven” is where we have a good time, pursuing our pleasures, or being born higher up with the gods, or losing one’s self in the eternal Buddha of nothingness, or a place where one meets up with all those other “good” people – our family. In many ways, post-Christian belief in a heavenly life after death is similar to pagan beliefs: a place of comfort for the good, contentment, happiness. And so did the ancient Greeks and Romans and other cultures believe that the good rested well in Elysium wandering peacefully among the dead.
The Christian idea of Heaven is totally different from all of these. It is quite confrontational! Heaven is the one to one personal, ecstatic, vision of the very heart of God – the face to face loving relationship with Jesus, Creator of the Universe. Only those who are perfect in holiness are able to enter this state of being.
So, contemporary post-Christians are unsettled by the thought of Death, yet ignore the consequences of belief in the nature of the after-life of the soul. Well, it is very unsettling to realise that the soul after Death is open to the spiritual world, without the veil of the body. That means that the soul is open to the effects on it of all the spirits, good and bad. But more than that, the soul is open to the presence of God, and that means Judgment: is my soul “good” in God’s eyes? What we believe to be the average “good” person may well be not enough in God’s judgment. After all, the First Commandment is that one should have no other God’s than Me, in other words, the main goodness God is looking for is loving piety and humility. Does this soul have the habit and thought processes of piety, worship, and loving complete humble surrender to God, with no hint of that inner rebelliousness every human is born with. Didn’t Jesus say that the first commandment is to love God with all one’s might, strength, heart, soul, etc. Those are the qualities of a “good” person, nothing to do with being measured by what is meant by “good” in this world!
So, when a person dies, the soul is immediately judged according to the first commandment. Without love of God, the soul cannot enter heaven. It can’t change its mind.
I can imagine the kind of conversation a typical modern “good” person’s soul might have with God at Death: “I have done lots of good things in my life: looked after the sick, the poor and been kind to everyone.”
And God’s reply: “But I have called you to pray to Me, to lift up your heart to Me, to find Me in your local church, many times in your life, and you have rejected those calls in the hope that this shopping list of good works is a suitable substitution for loving Me. I am your Creator and you have consistently refused Me because in your heart of hearts you are a rebel saying ‘I will not serve’. And even those good works which you have done, were at My initiation and direction. It is the return of love in your heart for Me which I desire and died for on the Cross.”
However, many of us will die in that “grey” area of loving God but not wholeheartedly. Of dying in sorrow for one’s incomplete love of God, yet willingly surrendering oneself to God and joyful at seeing Him at last. And this kind of soul will fly towards Him in increasingly loving joy and sorrow, burning up with incomplete fulfillment of love, yet secure in knowing that soon it will possess the fullness of that union with Him.
Otherwise… Let us not contemplate the alternative possibility.
So, Death is indeed an awesome prospect and one’s life ought to be oriented to that fact, to be in a position of hope that one’s will is not so rebellious, that one’s life is directed to being open to God. That is why Catholics ceaselessly pray that Our Lady intercedes for us “now and at the moment of our Death”.
Why “at the moment”? Because that moment is when the soul comes under attack by the enemy, either by keeping it complacent in its self-sufficiency, or tempting it to hopelessness. All the wiles of the enemy are brought to bear at that moment of Death. Catholics are taught to pray for “final perseverance” and to have a “holy death”, and to receive the Last Rites by a priest, so as to dispel all and every attack by the enemy.
The finest final act is for one, at the moment of Death, to lovingly offer one’s death with God’s death on the Cross, as a loving, willing sacrifice for others, to the point that one willingly accepts even greater pains to unite oneself with Him.
So, Death loses its sting. It is defeated and becomes a source of victory. It is to be looked at as a final gateway of one’s life, the race which has been won for us. We cross the finishing line into the “humble triumph” of the Cross and the Resurrection of the Dead.
Covid-19 then is a call to prepare for and to welcome Death.