Soul, Death, & Grace Introduction
Various titles have presented themselves to our thinking as this work started. Formulas like The Meanings and Natures of Death, or, Soul, Death, and Grace Re-visited, or, Soul, Death, and Grace as Interactive Agents, all have an intrinsic value; they reflect the content of the study being undertaken.
It came to my attention, gradually, a few years ago that those who treat the subject of death as an academic study, were dissatisfied with the formulation – meanings coming to them from their ‘fathers’, and that they were dissatisfied with their own treatments of the same topic.
Whereas in my own studies an understanding of death and its meaning was formulating around concepts I was discovering while writing a series of loosely related papers for graduate credits on a variety of topics, a concept of death which was incomplete but satisfying in the parts then formulated, and whereas I later discovered that even the great works cataloguing historical theological positions, such as Heick’s A History of Christian thought, and Gonzales’ work by the same title, and including Text-book of the History of Doctrines by Reinhold Seeberg, 1961, English edition did not present missing parts or additional insights to the often-presented but lacking-in-satisfaction understanding of death’s function and significance I decided to aim my research time directly at concluding or filling in missing parts of the understanding of death and its meaning as it was generally presented.
Soul, Death, and Grace
the back story
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If I could through some means find an inspiration that would lead to a formulation which could take life’s darkest experience into the light, such research effort would be richly repaid by its intrinsic value; the ability to give peace.
This book is obviously about the results of that quest, a quest which has not only resulted a new understanding which brings great peace, but which also carries to me a fresh revelation of the gentleness of God. Of course, He has always been the same, it is understanding that grows.
My indebtedness I will save to express at the end of this work lest those not finding sufficient stimulation to finish reading this report transfer their lack of satisfaction with my work erroneously to those great sources which have been so rich a base to my thinking.
If this work fails to satisfy, the responsibility is mine – if it is fulfilling to the seeker who reads it the credit must go to that which inspired me; the acknowledgments will be appearing after the conclusion to this work.
If I might be allowed to repeat myself, the question directly put is, “Why this book?” Because the response to, “tell me in ten words or less what you’ve found,” has always failed – sadly.
When a friend of mine was dying from cancer I tried to relate to him summaries of my work – but they brought him no joy. My words portrayed only that which was inconceivable, unintelligible, the pieces needed more defining than a ten minute bedside chat could articulate.
So – let me save the conclusion for the conclusion. Prepare to be comforted. In no other doctrine or teaching does the gentle goodness of God become visible with more surprise.
Here’s the story, starting at the beginning.
Reinhold Niebuhr writes that “Man is and yet is not, involved in the flux of nature and time. He is creature, subject to nature’s necessities and limitations; but he is also a free spirit who knows of the brevity of his years and by this knowledge transcends the temporal by some capacity within himself. Man ‘brings his years to an end as a tale that is told,’ having an even shorter life span than some dumb creatures. But the sense of melancholy which the anticipation of death induces in the human spirit is not known in the animal world. To brood either anxiously or with studied and learned serenity upon the fact that man is as ‘the grass which flourisheth in the morning and in the evening is cut down and withereth’ is to reveal the whole dimension of existence which distinguishes man from the animal world.” The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, vol. 2 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), p. 1
Milton Mc. Gatch seems to take from man that which Niebuhr sees as distinguishing him from the animal world when he writes that “It is one of the ironies of our century that we have experienced death by violence of sorts and on a scale heretofore unknown but that men in this century have not been able to discuss or consider deeply the meaning of death.” Death: Meaning and Mortality in Christian Thought and Contemporary Culture (Seabury Press, 1969), p. 2.
Dr. Gatch then states that not only does modern man find himself incapable of articulating death’s significance, but that “On the whole, it can be said of the biblical writings that they have no theology of death or of an afterlife.” Ibid., p. 35
Again, Dr. Gatch writes of his own work, “This book began with an exploration of the manifestations of the helplessness and foolishness of modern man in the face of death. That essay was a picture of man without a rationale for death and, therefore, unable to face the fact of death. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that late modern man’s inability to cope with death is one more piece of evidence for the bankruptcy of ideology and the hard sell. We want an answer which is clear and simple – and which we simply cannot formulate.” Ibid., p. 187
J.R. Zurcher draws a verbal cartouoche which gives some direction and hope to Dr. Gatch’s search for an answer to the meaning of death which is clear and simple and “which we simply cannot formulate” when he reminds us, in his book The Nature and Destiny of Man, (New York: Philosophical Library 1969) that “ever since man began to ask himself questions about himself, about his nature and his destiny, his reflections have crystallized around the problem of the union of soul and body. This problem, therefore, together with that of being, from which it is inseparable, is the basic philosophical problem. Periodically, it demands attention in the field of philosophy, presenting itself anew as soon as it appears to have been solved, so that throughout all ages man remains for himself a sphinx, of all beings the most enigmatic.”
“This being the case, why come back to the problem? Would it not be wiser once and for all to consider the questions which constitute the problem of man as insolvable and simply recognize in their persistence a constant law of the intelligence? The answer must be negative, for to do this would be equivalent to renouncing philosophical reflection….” Ibid., p. xiii.
Moreover, Dr. Zurcher continues, the problem of the union of soul and body has always been one of the fundamental problems of philosophical speculation and “has had absolutely fatal effects on the problem of knowledge. For, as M. Gonzague de Reynold so aptly observes: Louis Lavelle in Le problem de la vie by Dr. M. Vernet (Paris, 1947), preface, p. 7, quoted in Zurcher, Introduction, p. xviii. ‘To be mistaken about man, is by the way of inevitable consequences, to be mistaken about all.’ Such an error ‘and its consequences affirm themselves “in the body of man, then in his spirit….” It has affected contemporary man at the very roots of his personality.’ It is not his shadow that he has lost, but his soul.” G. de Reynold, in Le double, l’homme à la rencontre of soi-même, by Dr. A. Stocker (Geneva, 1946), preface, quoted in Zurcher, Introduction, p. xviii.
The above formulations are of great interest to us as we conceive of the research about to be undertaken, for on the one hand one has a proposition which presents man as distinguishable from the dumb animals, who often outlive him, only by his ability to conceive of his on-coming death, and, on the other hand, one has the proposition formula that the crisis of/in man is that he has lost his soul.
Perhaps, one could be allowed to conjecture that, given these two alternatives, the cause of the inability of man to find the solution to the meaning of death (the questions regarding the meaning of death appear repeatedly, though at irregular and apparently capricious moments throughout the movement of time), is to be found neither in man’s ability to conceive of and ponder about his death, nor in the loss of his soul, but that the cause of the inability of man to find the solution to the meaning of death is to be found in the absence of his recognition that the soul is ‘lost and found’ by the choices of man; and, that the philosophical concept of soul is, rather than an original concept, a borrowed one; which borrowing has resulted not in mans’ loss of soul but in man’s loss of the context which makes meaningful man’s soul’s relationship to the sticky question of death’s meaning. To put the question differently – does death in fact have any meaning? On the surface at least, is it not life that has meaning? If it is to be conceded at this point in our thinking that it is life that has meaning, is death to be seen as only having meaning because the occasion of one’s death is the marker designating the end of one’s perhaps otherwise brilliant functioning in the sphere of human existence? As such, would it not be immediately obvious that the meaning of death is that it makes “an end”? Would not such a conclusion be a promise of hope to contemplate? Would not all who had an existence marked with disappointed hopes have the joy of anticipation that one day death would come – a welcome friend heralding the cessation off the ‘others’ ability to cause them sorrow? In such an understanding would not one’s ability to end one’s own life be the great savior? Life would have meaning because death’s certainty, if not its proximity, would make each day a treasure to be used according to one’s understanding of how he or she wished to be remembered after the visit of the death?
If, in fact, the Hebrew Biblical concept ‘Sabbath’ has as a central significance the act of stopping, See **** (i.e., Ex 20:8-11), in a Hebrew dictionary, or in a word study, a stopping that is associated with rest, then could not Death be the greatest Sabbath to the living – to be anticipated as the Great Rest? Or does one need for rest to have its end for it to be meaningful?
Could it be that the Biblical Rest commandment found its meaning not alone in the prohibition to work but also in the command to work – six days of every week? Is not the significance of the Rest to be seen in the fact that the occurrences of the Rest period are to enable one to better use the post-rest period? The repetition of the Sabbath Rests would seem to indicate that not only did the Rest period give promise of the coming blessing to the tired laborer, but it was contingent in its terminus to the post-rest labor.
If, then, one is to take as a hypothesis that a significance and/or meaning of death is that it is to be seen as a promise of rest, one must wonder if, in fact, any rest is meaningful of promise if, in fact, it is not made, at least in part, contingent to some activity on both sides; a rest without ends would be life a bucket on a long rope at a well to a thirsty, tired man – if the bucket had no bottom in it.
What could one purpose as a labor at the terminus of death that would make Death a meaning rather than an end? If one were to find death’s end, would one, in fact, not need to worry as much about what Death’s contiguous end or ends was, as one would need to worry about whether or not Death had an end to its Rest?
If one were to seek to investigate the question of Death’s function, or the meaning of the passage of time and the relation it has to the non-passage of time, if one were to so describe Death’s effect, would one look for the meaning of death in the effects brought about by the absence of that which had undergone death’s experience, on the flux of nature, or the physical entities associated directly and/or indirectly with the Rester-in-Death, or would one see any such changes as part of the ongoing force-of-life movement that seems to be everywhere present, and seek for the Death-Rest meaning within the individualized entitles known to use as beings or things who were experiencing death as their present state?
It would seem a given to this researcher that the meaning of life must be found within, in the sphere of interaction, for a being is more than the sum total of those things with which it is surrounded or by which it is encountered. I think, therefore I am, is only a meaningful formula, as a proof of existence if we understand the formula to mean that the effects of my thinking are the proofs of my existence; for to suggest that one’s existence can be established by the fact one thinks, without insisting on a correlating objective effect somewhere, is to say that it is possible for one to have existence, that one ‘is’, even when one has no effect on anything of that with which one is surrounded – a very concise definition of death – perhaps.
It is this very threatening lack of interaction that poses the problem here being considered – the meaning of death; the meaning of a state in which one possibly has no perceivable interaction with anything. To say that the meaning of ‘no perceivable interaction’, or death, is to be found in the termination of death, or in non-thinking somehow being reversed to a state of thinking while maintaining that in the state of post-death thinking one has no interactivity but with one’s self – I think therefore I am – is to offer a hope that is not the concern of any gravestone inscription, nor is it the hope of those who mourn the loss of someone – someone with whom they have interacted. The proposal for a concept which would be seen as a philosophical reversal of death must include a post-death interaction with something other than the self.
It seems quite obvious to this researcher that if death is to have a meaning, death must first serve the result of attaching the experiencing of life – prior to death – to an experiencing of live-after death.
One also feels it is necessary to insist that the two experiences of life, separated, or connected, by death, must be experienced by the same being, that is to say there must be continuity of being between the pre-death and post-death experiences of life which are contiguous to the death-rest experience.
The memories and affections must have the cohesiveness that bridges the death-rest or there will be obvious concern regarding the credibility of the post-rest being continuity to the affections given due to pre-rest experiences.
At this point one is tempted to recall all the declarations that one has heard which tell us that after death life naturally goes on – that someone, somewhere, is still functioning – you know – “God took them” and declare that solves our issue; research ended. But the observation presses itself on this researcher as it apparently does on the writers reviewed so far, that such assurances and declarations leave the graveyard full of tombstones and memories, and the homes and families of the “departed” empty of interactivity with the departed.
Therefore, we will continue our quest for an understanding of the meaning, or meanings of death.
If one could take the liberty to set forth a proposal-formula to express hope connected to death, concatenated to death it might be expressed as simply as being, death, being.
In such a formula one might question if one did not in fact have a proposal that postulated continuity of being that bridged the death rest; in such an equation would death have any significance other than as a temporary disruptor? Could one, for example, propose a continuity of interactive being, non-interacting being, interacting being, and not of necessity allow that the same potential was available in the two phases of interacting being? Or, could the future life be altered by the present activities?
Would one not need to hypothesize that death’s non-interaction not only separated two experiences of interaction but that it also marked the end of a quality of activity without causing permanent disruption of continuity, for that hypothesis to resolve our problem?
A greeting card on my desk, for example, proclaims, “Every new day opens a bright chapter of hope, and brings another chance for happiness, laughter, faith, and love.” Famous Artists Studios, Valley Forge, PA. © 100E 731-7.
The clear implication of such a proclamation is that there is a continuity of being to experience the bright new chapters presented by a new day, a new friend, or by a ‘new’ investigation of the problem of death’s meaning!
Tomorrow and yesterday must converge in today. If death is to have any meaning other than being a marker of the end, tomorrow must be inherent in it.
Without continuity of ‘self’ the individualized actions which make up daily life would be nothing but individual acts without synchronization or cohesiveness. They could not reach into death to give it meaning.
Berkley’s to-be-is-to-be-perceived is obviously unsound if pressed to extremes, but at the point of struggling to satisfy a quest for significance something must be perceived to be meaningfully existing. Death, if it is to have a meaning, must have an interaction with something.
It is the concept which portrays to us the possibility of the absence of meaningful perception, the portraying of a future without a designated minimum subliminal threshold of continued interactive-exchange with the former state of being or beings, that is the base of the terror of death. Hence, Gatch’s ‘blessed are the animals above man’ formula.
It is my observation that the acceptance of a non-interactive perception formula is an ever-present pre-supposition of the studies on the problem of death, when death’s meaning is agelessly pondered and reevaluated only to find no solution.
It appears clear to this researcher, in the light of other people’s observations and reflections, that not only to find death’s meaning but for death to have a meaning the pre-death life into death, must be not only not an end, but must have a cause and effect relationship to whatever follows death’s sting, for death to serve a function and hence have meaning – other than “the end.”
If everyone’s post-death experience is to be conceived of as being the same, there is genuine grounds for being concerned about the validity of the post-death experience being a continuation of the pre-death life where one’s acts brought results which served several functions, one of which being the distinguishing of one being from another.
The concepts this study is proposing to investigate are suggestive of a potential existence which has in itself the potential to resolve the cycles reviewed and questioned above, by means of restudying and reevaluating the content to be borne by those ageless concepts, soul, death, and grace.
The proposed study seeks to examine the communicable traits these concepts bear when viewed as interactive agents.
In light of the quest for a meaningful formula we have postulated and concluded to be a requirement for death’s meaning to be decipherable, as a result of the positions reviewed by ourselves and others appearing above, it appears fairly clearly that if soul, death, and grace are found to indeed be interactive agents, then their relation-formula when these terms are properly understood, is the key to answering the question of the meaning of both death and life.
With this idea in mind we turn now to an investigation of what appears to be ideas so developed and interrelated that they are capable of displaying death’s role and significance, and defining its function and/or meaning.