Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Contemplation: Death, Eternity, and the Human Soul

Today I had a very intriguing discussion with Kevin. Interestingly enough, the topics we talked about (and he blogged about) had been on my mind recently, but I hadn't gotten around to actually putting my thoughts into a somewhat-coherent written form. So, here's my attempt at doing that.

A few days ago, I visited my grandma for her 80th birthday. Such a visit, in itself, is enough to get my mind whirling. Eighty years. Such a huge expanse of time, yet so miniscule compared to the broad range of history.

I’m fascinated by the concept of “time.” I remember learning that God has no beginning and no end; he has always existed and always will. But how can that be?? Human minds need limits and boundaries, and to contemplate eternity is to undertake a task that’s as frustrating as it is impossible. That’s why, for all of recorded history, we have divided our lifetimes into measurable units that provide meaning, understanding, and a basis for comparison between humans of the past and present. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years… these are all comprehensible and accessible commodities. Civilization is structured around time, and without it, we would not be able to function as an organized society.

Eternity, on the other hand, is not comprehensible or accessible. What baffles my mind is this: how can finite beings become eternal? God is eternal because he has no beginning and no end. Humans, however, have a beginning; there is a very definite moment when we are biologically conceived. Some Christians believe that from the moment of conception, a soul exists. But where is the soul before that? How can a soul just suddenly spring into being? Have all human souls existed for eternity, with God, just waiting to be united with an embryo? If we are going to endure, spiritually, for all of eternity, then we must have endured before now, too, even though we were not consciously aware of it. Our souls must pre-date our physical bodies.

This leads me to wonder: are souls self-aware? By this I mean, after we die, will we still have a personal and exclusive identity? Or will the soul revert to its pre-physical state, without individual consciousness or awareness, without attachment to the physical embryo/baby/adult? Where does consciousness enter the picture anyway, and does it ever leave? Will we have any thoughts after we die, or will the light just go off permanently? The brain is physical, and thoughts are created by synapses, neuron connections, language knowledge, etc. Thinking is a physical act; is there a spiritual counterpart? After physical death, does the soul think? Can it communicate with other souls?

I’ve been thinking about all of this because while at my grandma’s, I felt the glaring absence of my grandfather. He died two summers ago, and his missing presence seemed especially overt this time. Perhaps it’s because I gave my grandma a copy of my book, which I dedicated in memory of my grandfathers, and I told her, “I wish Grandpa could see this.” My grandma, nearly in tears, reassured me, “He can see.”

Her faith was unflinching. I hated to acknowledge that perhaps for a moment, mine was not. If his physical body is no longer there, then can his soul still witness, observe, and contemplate? And can he actually see us, in the physical world, from wherever he is in the spiritual world?

It’s definitely comforting to think that he can. We want to know that our loved ones can see us; they still love us; they are watching over us. I’ve believed this all my life, and I never want to relinquish my faith in God. I would feel empty and without a purpose if I felt this was all an accident, a cosmic bump, an emotionless creation. But I keep grappling with the distinctions between the physical and the spiritual, and the finite and the infinite. And the most frustrating part is that in this life, we can NEVER, EVER KNOW. The only way to know is to die. And even then, it’s a 50/50 gamble. If the soul is self-aware, then we’ll think, “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be dead.” And we’ll think about our former physical life, and be able to construct a new sense of meaning in the eternal realm. But if the soul is not self-aware, then we will never have the chance to connect physical with spiritual. Our thoughts will end forever.

Notice, I didn’t even mention this option: we have no souls. Because I truly believe that we do. This existence of ours is not just physical. I can never prove it, but I will never deny it. I wish the “dead” really could come back to us and speak. Tell us some answers. Encourage us that physical death is only a gateway into another portion of existence. Turn our timorous faith into concrete truth. Tell us our hopeful beliefs are real. Maybe, just maybe, my grandfathers and everyone else I’ve lost can see me type this right now, and if only for that fantastic possibility, I’ll keep believing.

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