Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The soul of a controversy

By Aussiegirl

I think we are all finding it hard to move on from the Terri Schiavo tragedy. It not only highlighted important splits in our country and dangers of an overreaching judiciary. It not only raised the specter of a well-organized and financed right-to-die movement which seized on this case to its advantage -- with the help of the complicit media which failed miserably in its role of telling the truth. But it exposed all of us to some of the most fundamental problems each of us faces in the wee hours of the morning. We confronted death, dying, illness, suffering -- we examined in our own minds the questions raised -- of the suffering of the body and the destination of the soul.

Now David Hart, writing in the
Wall Street Journal, addresses these issues from a theological point of view -- and he has some fascinating things to say. The fact that he is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, and the author of The Beauty of the Infinite, only added to my interest, although what he says is appropriate to every Christian, regardless of denomination.

I know I will be buying his book after reading this article. I hope that Mr. Hart will forgive me for reprinting his article here, but I felt it was so important, and as an Eastern Orthodox Christian myself, I found it so revealing and thought provoking that I just had to share it with my readers who might have missed it -- and might explain to some of my readers who do not believe as we do, why Christians, who believe in an afterlife, nevertheless fight so hard for life in this world, and the dignity which each life, no matter how helpless, possesses in the eye of God:

The Soul of a Controversy
After Terri Schiavo's death, questions remain.

Terri Schiavo has now died, but of course the controversy surrounding her last days will persist indefinitely. Most of the issues raised as she was dying were legal and moral; but at the margins of the storm, questions of a more "metaphysical" nature were occasionally raised in public. For instance, I heard three people on the radio last week speculating on the whereabouts of her "soul."

One opined that where consciousness has sunk below a certain minimally responsive level, the soul has already departed the body; the other two thought that the soul remains, but as a dormant prisoner of the ruined flesh, awaiting release. Their arguments, being intuitive, were of little interest. What caught my attention was the unreflective dualism to which all three clearly subscribed: The soul, they assumed, is a kind of magical essence haunting the body, a ghost in a machine.

This is in fact a peculiarly modern view of the matter, not much older than the 17th-century philosophy of Descartes. While it is now the model to which most of us habitually revert when talking about the soul--whether we believe in such things or not--it has scant basis in either Christian or Jewish tradition.

The "living soul" of Scripture is the whole corporeal and spiritual totality of a person whom the breath of God has wakened to life. Thomas Aquinas, interpreting centuries of Christian and pagan metaphysics, defined the immortal soul as the "form of the body," the vital power animating, pervading, shaping an individual from the moment of conception, drawing all the energies of life into a unity.

This is not to deny that, for Christian tradition, the soul transcends and survives the earthly life of the body. It is only to say that the soul, rather than being a kind of "guest" within the self, is instead the underlying mystery of a life in its fullness. In it the multiplicity of experience is knit into a single continuous and developing identity. It encompasses all the dimensions of human existence: animal functions and abstract intellect, sensation and reason, emotion and reflection, flesh and spirit, natural aptitude and supernatural longing. As such, it grants us an openness to the world of which no other creature is capable, allowing us to take in reality through feeling and thought, recognition and surprise, will and desire, memory and anticipation, imagination and curiosity, delight and sorrow, invention and art.

The fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa calls the soul a "living mirror" in which all things shine, so immense in its capacity that it can, when turned toward the light of God, grow eternally in an ever greater embrace of divine beauty. For the seventh-century theologian Maximus the Confessor, the human soul is the "boundary" between material and spiritual reality--heaven and earth--and so constitutes a microcosm that joins together, in itself, all the spheres of being.

I doubt even the dogmatic materialists among us are wholly insensible to the miraculous oddity that in the midst of organic nature there exists a creature so exorbitantly in excess of what material causality could possibly adumbrate, a living mirror where all splendors gather, an animal who is also a creative and interpretive being with a longing for eternity. Whether one is willing to speak of a "rational soul" or not, there is obviously an irreducible mystery here, one that commands our reverence.

Granted, it is easiest to sense this mystery when gazing at the Sistine Chapel's ceiling or listening to Bach. But it should be evident--for Christians at least--even when everything glorious and prodigious in our nature has been stripped away and all that remains is frailty, brokenness and dependency, or when a person we love has been largely lost to us in the labyrinth of a damaged brain. Even among such ravages--for those with the eyes to see it--a terrible dignity still shines out.

I do not understand exactly why those who wanted Terri Schiavo to die had become so resolute in their purposes by the end. If she was as "vegetative" as they believed, what harm would it have done, I wonder, to surrender her to the charity (however fruitless) of her parents? Of this I am certain, though: Christians who understand their faith are obliged to believe that she was, to the last, a living soul. It is true that, in some real sense, it was her soul that those who loved her could no longer reach, but it was also her soul that they touched with their hands and spoke to and grieved over and adored. And this also means that it was a living soul that we as a society chose to abandon to starvation and thirst--which should, at the very least, give us cause to consider what else we may have abandoned along the way.


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