Dialogue

For some years I have wanted to write a kind of Socratic dialogue. A classic Socratic dialogue is the record of a conversation between two or more people. Though it is a more difficult way for me to write, I think it is a more natural way to explore issues. Most people don’t think in fully formed arguments. Instead, they use questions, imagination, and intuition to explore ideas. Furthermore, our opinions and beliefs are never formed in isolation. More often they are formed through interactions in community. This is the kind of learning that a Socratic dialogue imitates.

At coffee shops one can hear some fascinating conversations. One day I watched a chance meeting between two middle-aged adults. One brought up the death of an older teen/young adult in a family that was known to both of them. They expressed many of the socially expected comments, but then lingered on the subject. Their distance from the event allowed a sort of abstraction in their discussion. This is the situation which suggested my dialogue. It is not intended to be a comfort to someone who is grieving a loss. In that case it is the opposite of what is needed. Rather this dialogue seeks to explore what is usually an uncomfortable subject from a semi-comfortable distance.

“Good afternoon, Tibs.”
“Afternoon.”
“Come for a pint of stout?”
“Aye. Same as you?”
“Why not?”
[After sitting down with their drinks.]
“Did you hear that W––’s son passed away?”
“No, he was quite young wasn’t he? Twenty-three I think.”
“Twenty-four.”
“It is always harder when they die so young.”
“True, but dying old is never easy either.”
“You’re getting up there in years Tibs. You must think about it.”
“Occasionally, though it’s not something I like to dwell on. It is not so much death that bothers me as the dying. That I don’t like.”
“Well tell me then, you believe in life after death?”
“Aye, and ‘the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.’”
“Then why the fear?”
“As I said, there is death and then there’s dying.”
“Then let’s take death first.”
“What do you mean by death? Are we to discuss physical death or death in the way the old poets would have recognized, as the soul leaving the body?”
“I would rather leave medicine to the physicians.”
“Then we have in death a division or separation. The physical body is left behind and the soul or spirit goes to is proper resting place.”
“I suppose that is chiefly what we morn in death. In many cases the body remains with those who are still alive, but the person as we knew them is no longer present.”
“I think you have touched on the head of it. What we morn in death is not the end of existence.”
“Right, the soul of the person is not extinguished. It is simply no longer present with us, no longer animating the physical person. We are no longer able to enjoy the person’s presence or company.”
“Then when people speak of losing a loved one, they are not speaking euphemistically.”
“Exactly, death is a separation, a lost of relationship with someone.”
“Unless one accepts prayer for the dead?”
“Better to take that up with M―. However, as we have looked at death in terms of the whole person, body and spirit, it is worthwhile to consider whether a soul can die?
“Well, death as we have defined, it is not a loss of existence. But can a soul be separated from itself?”
“In my opinion such a soul would cease to exist. Who gives the soul live or existence?”
“God. Then you define spiritual death as the separation of the soul from its source.”
“Correct. As Augustine says, because you made us for yourself and our hearts find no rest until they rest in you.
“But don’t you hold that God is not confined by physical location. How can a soul be separate from a God who can be everywhere at once?”
“This means that the separation is other than one of location.”
“We have come back to relationship again. Spiritual death is a relational separation from God.”
“That is what I would think. Many are the degrees of separation that can exist between God and a soul. Firstly there is the…”
“I suppose there are many, but methinks Tibs that you would rather go in that direction than the one we agreed to pursue. I think we have put it off long enough. What about dying?”
“I suppose I will have to get about dying sometime. Would you be content if we defined it, for the moment, as the process leading up to death?
“If that is what you wish.”
“Good. Now, as we have defined dying as a process, would you describe it as occurring fast or slow.”
“It may be either one, or anything in between. Dying, for someone with a terminal illness, is stretched out in time. Faculties slowly fade until the point of death. Then again, death may happen suddenly and unexpectedly, like the case of W––’s son.”
“Yes, it may be anywhere along the spectrum of fast and slow.”
“So what frightens you in either case?”
“With the former it is the unexpectedness. Someone I care about may go out and be hit by a car or I may be the one struck and leave those I love to grieve. The separation is so sudden. We humans like to know what is coming, or at least believe we do.”
“And slow?”
“With slow dying it is the whole drawn out process. It is like a novel you have enjoyed. Once you reach the climax you know it must end soon, whether you will or not. I already feel it. My energy is not what it was when I was thirty. I fear the slow slipping away of my body and mind. It is the sadness of loss. And then there is the terminal line drawing closer.
“It is like when I was a boy and went to a water park. At the park there was a enormously tall slide. As much as it terrified me, there was a girl present whom I wanted to impress. All the older boys were going down the slide. Each step up the stairs made my heart beat faster. It couldn’t have taken long for me to reach the top, but it felt like eternity. Terrified I waited, considering what might go wrong. What if the slide broke and I flew of into the air and was lost?
“Of course, the moment finally came to let go. Once you push yourself off there is no going back. The whole thing lasted a few seconds and then I was splashing in the pool at the bottom. It was the expectation which produced so much terror, the expectation that I would reach a point where I would lose all control. Once it arrived, there was no time to be afraid.”
“I see, kind of like a final exam. You may study all you like and fill out the answers to the best of your ability, but once it crosses the professor’s desk, there is nothing one can do except await the outcome.
“Yet this brings up a further question. We only interact with the soul through the physical faculties. What happens to the soul of a person who has dementia, for example?”
“You have hit upon a subject which attracts all true metaphysics, the nature of the soul’s relationship to the body. How does spirit interface with matter? We can’t explore the question now, but we will have to dip into it. We have already agreed that the destruction of the physical body does not result in the destruction of the soul.”
“Correct.”
“Then the state of the physical body does not by necessity dictate the state of the soul.”
“Agreed, but the state of the two must be related in some way.”
“How does the relationship of the soul with the body change when the body dies?”
“The soul leaves the body. Separation occurs, which we have concluded is the definition of death.”
“Precisely, the condition of the soul does not change, but its relationship to the body does change. Now extend this to a person with dementia.”
“Dementia does not cause the corruption of the soul, but changes the soul’s connection to the physical mind. Perhaps a partial separation or tearing of the soul from the body.”
“That would seem like a logical conclusion. The soul wants to express itself and receive impressions, but finds its ability to do so restricted, like a face wearing a poor fitting mask. Our soul remains whole, yet consciousness as a physical thing is impaired.”
“Let me turn the question around for you.”
“By all means.”
“You have asked about what happens when the body decays. Yet might the soul also become corrupt.”
“True, if the state of the physical body does not dictate the state of the soul, so the state of the soul may not be reflected in the body. A fair face may hide a foul soul, while a fair soul may hide behind a foul face.”
“Not all that glitters is gold.”
“I seem to remember a figure in Dante’s Inferno. He had become so evil that his soul came to hell before he died. In its place a demon had taken up residence. The separation, which we define as death in the metaphysical sense, took place before the medical death.”
“Yes
“However, we must not stop here.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, are we Christians or pagans?”
“Christians.”
“Then we mustn’t grieve as those do who have no hope.’ For the old pagans, death was the end. Some philosophies allowed for reincarnation, but in a new body with the soul returned to a tabla rasa. It was for the resurrection that Paul was rejected at Mars Hill. So if we treat on death we must treat on the resurrection.”
“I see some of the sticking point. For the old Greco-Roman pagans, the physical body was a sort of prison for the soul. To think that we would be returned to our bodies was somewhat distasteful.”
“Not to mention the difficulty of returning to a body one has been absent from for a thousand years. Bones may be left, but even those are likely to have decayed. As Hamlet says, ‘A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.’ I may be made of the same atoms that once belonged to some other poor fellow. How are we to be resurrected if we both lay claim to the same bodily substance?”
“I believe Paul touches on that in his first letter to the Corinthians. He suggests that we will have a different kind of body.”
“But bodies none the less. To speculate beyond that becomes difficult. Bodies are very important to Christianity. We must wear them with pride. We will only be complete when the soul is reunited with the body.”
“Well that is a very un-neoplatonic turn.”
“Indeed, which is why I take such pleasure in this stout. We are practicing for when we shall enjoy our bodies forever. I don’t want to come to the banquet unprepared.”
“Unfortunately, we have drunk all our stout, and I must return to work soon.”
“Tis true. I must go over and see W–– sometime. One can reason about death all one wants, but the thing itself is never without sorrow. Good-afternoon.”
“Afternoon Tibs.”

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