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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The “Immortality” of the soul (part 2)

Man is Mortal.

In current thinking nowadays, the "immortality of the soul" is usually overemphasized to such an extent that the basic "mortality of man" is almost overlooked. Only in the recent "existentialist" philosophies are we again strongly reminded that man's existence stands intrinsically sub specie mortis. Death is a catastrophe for man. It is his "last (or rather, ultimate) enemy," eshatos ehthros (1 Cor. 15:26). "Immortality" is obviously a negative term; it is correlative with the term "death." And here again we find Christianity in an open and radical conflict with "Hellenism," with Platonism first of all. W. H. V. Reade, in his recent book, The Christian Challenge to Philosophy, very aptly confronts two quotations: "And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14) and "Plotinus, the philosopher of our time, was like one ashamed of being in the flesh" (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus, I). Reade then proceeds: "When the message of Christmas Day and Porphyry's brief summary of his master's creed are thus brought into direct comparison, it should be plain enough that they are totally incompatible: that no Christian can possibly be a Platonist, nor any Platonist a Christian; and of this elementary fact the Platonists, to do them justice, were perfectly aware." I would only add that, unfortunately, Christians did not seem to be aware "of this elementary fact."

Through centuries, down to our own age, Platonism has been the favorite philosophy of Christian wise men. It is not our purpose now to explain how it could and did happen. But this unfortunate misunderstanding (not to say more) has resulted in an utter confusion in modern thinking about death and immortality. We may still use the old definition of death: it is a separation of soul from body, psyhi horismos apo thomatos (Nemesius, De natura hominis, 2; he quotes Chrysippus). For a Greek it was a liberation, a "return" to the native sphere of spirits. For a Christian it was the catastrophe, a frustration of human existence. The Greek doctrine of Immortality could never solve the Christian problem. The only adequate solution has been offered by the message of Christ's Resurrection and by the promise of the General Resurrection of the dead. If we turn again to Christian antiquity, we find this point clearly made at an early date. St. Justin was quite emphatic on the point. People "who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven are not Christian at all" (Dial. 80).

The unknown author of the treatise On Resurrection (traditionally ascribed to St. Justin) states the problem very accurately. "For what is man but a reasonable animal composed of body and soul? Is the soul by itself man? No, but the soul of man. Would the body be called man? No, but it is called the body of man. If neither of these is by itself man, but that which is made up of the two together is called man, and God has called man to life and resurrection, He has called not a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body" (De resurr. 8). Athenagoras of Athens develops the same argument in his admirable treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead. Man was created by God for a definite purpose, for perpetual existence. Now, "God gave independent being and life neither to the nature of the soul by itself, nor to the nature of the body separately, but rather to men, composed of soul and body, so that with these same parts of which they are composed, when they are born and live, they should attain after the termination of this life their common end; soul and body compose in man one living entity." There would no longer be a man, Athenagoras argues, if the completeness of this structure were broken, for then the identity of the individual would be broken also. The stability of the body, its continuity in its proper nature, must correspond to the immortality of the soul. "The entity which receives intellect and reason is man, and not the soul alone. Consequently man must for ever remain composed of soul and body." Otherwise there would be no man, but only parts of man. "And this is impossible, if there is no resurrection. For if there is no resurrection, the nature of men as men would not continue" (15).

The basic presupposition of the whole argument is that the body intrinsically belongs to the fullness of human existence. And therefore man, as man, would cease to exist, if the soul had to remain for ever "disembodied." It is precisely the opposite of what the Platonists contended. The Greeks dreamt rather of a complete and ultimate disincarnation. An embodiment was just the bondage of the soul. For Christians, on the other hand, death was not a normal end of human existence. Man's death is abnormal, is a failure. The death of man is "the wages of sin" (Rom. 6:23). It is a loss and corruption. And since the Fall the mystery of life is displaced by the mystery of death. Mysterious as the "union" of soul and body indeed is, the immediate consciousness of man witnesses to the organic wholeness of his psycho-physical structure. Anima autem et spiritus pars hominis esse possunt, homo autem nequaquam, said St. Irenaeus (Adv. haereses V, 6.1). A body without a soul is but a corpse, and a soul without body is a ghost. Man is not a ghost without body, and corpse is not a part of man. Man is not a "bodiless demon," simply confined in the prison of the body. That is why the "separation" of soul and body is the death of man himself, the discontinuation of his existence, of his existence as a man. Consequently death and the corruption of the body are a sort of fading away of the "image of God" in man. A dead man is not fully human.

St. John of Damascus, in one of his glorious anthems in the Burial Service, says of this: "I weep and I lament, when I contemplate death, and see our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the grave disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form." St. John speaks not of man's body, but of man himself. "Our beauty in the image of God" is not the body, but man. He is indeed an "image of the unfathomable glory of God," even when "wounded by sin." And in death it is disclosed that man, this "reasonable statue" fashioned by God, to use the phrase of St. Methodius (De resurrectione I, 34.4: to agalma to logikon), is but a corpse. "Man is but dry bones, a stench and the food of worms." One may speak of man as being "one hypostasis in two natures," and not only of, but precisely in two natures. And in death this one human hypostasis is broken up. And there is no man any more. And therefore man longs for "the redemption of his body" (Rom. 8:23; tin apolitrosin tu somatos imon). As St. Paul says elsewhere, "not for that we would be unclothed, but that we would be clothed, that what is mortal may be swallowed up of life" (2 Cor. 5:4). The sting of death is precisely in that it is "the wages of sin," i.e., the consequence of a distorted relationship with God. It is not only a natural imperfection, nor is it just a metaphysical deadlock. Man's mortality reflects man's estrangement from God, Who is the only Giver of Life. And, in this estrangement from God, Man simply cannot "endure" as man, cannot stay fully human.

The status of mortality is essentially "subhuman." To stress human mortality does not mean to offer a "naturalistic" interpretation of human tragedy, but, on the contrary, it means to trace the human predicament to its ultimate religious root. The strength of Patristic theology was precisely in its interest in human mortality, and accordingly in the message of the Resurrection. The misery of sinful existence was by no means underestimated, but it was interpreted not only in ethical or moralistic categories, but in theological ones. The burden of sin consisted not only in self-accusations of human conscience, not only in the consciousness of guilt, but in an utter disintegration of the whole fabric of human nature. The fallen man was no man any more, he was existentially "degraded." And the sign of this "degradation" was Man's mortality, Man's death. In separation from God human nature becomes unsettled, goes out of tune, as it were. The very structure of man becomes unstable. The "union" of the soul and the body becomes insecure. The soul loses its vital power, is no more able to quicken the body. The body is turned into the tomb and prison of the soul. And physical death becomes inevitable. The body and the soul are no longer, as it were, secured or adjusted to each other.

The transgression of the Divine commandment "reinstated man in the state of nature," as St. Athanasius puts it, — is to kata fysin epestrepsen. "That as he was made out of nothing, so also in his very existence he suffered in due time corruption, according to all justice." For, being made out of nothing, the creature also exists over an abyss of nothingness, ever ready to fall into it (De incarnatione, 4 and 5). "For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again" (2 Samuel 14:14). "The state of nature," of which St. Athanasius speaks, is the cyclical motion of Cosmos, in which fallen man is hopelessly entangled, and this entanglement signifies man's degradation. He loses his privileged position in the order of Creation. But this metaphysical catastrophe is just a manifestation of the broken relationship with God.

- Archpriest G. Florovsky


Seraph said...

While Fr. Florovsky is correct in emphasizing the contingency of the soul, and its only conditional immortality, I would be careful in the use of this terminology. To many people, this would imply that there is no "life after death". However, the Christian tradition from the beginning is that after death we are "at home with the Lord" as St. Paul says. Remember Stephen the protomartyr, crying out in Acts 7 as he died, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" St. John the Evangelist was attested to have said the same at his death. St. Clement of Rome in his epistle to Corinth (first century) says that Ss. Peter and Paul "went to the places of glory prepared for them". And of course we ask saints in heaven for their prayers, and pray for those who have died. Hence I would say that there is spiritual life and growth beyond bodily death. However, it is true that such life is itself a gift of God, and that our soul is not simply "immortal" mechanically or because of its own divinity. We must be humble before the One who alone gives life.

Vasileios said...

As regards the stage between death and resurrection, I would like to ask Seraph how he understands Ap. Paul's comments: 1 Corinthians 15:13-22: "But if there be no resurrection of the dead... then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain... Then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ, are perished. If in this life [before physical death] only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, the firstfruits of them that sleep: For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." (Duay-Reimhs) If Stephen went to heaven immediately after his physical death, would he be considered "perished" in case there was no a future resurrection? In other words, why Paul stressed "resurrection" as the only hope of God's servants, as the victory over death, as the reward of Christians and, finally, as a future event, if Stephen—and every other Christian of the 1st century that died in faith—was already in heaven enjoying communion with God in His heavenly paradise?