the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

the death puzzlement - vale poppy

this particular dog isn't dead, yet

Recently Sarah's much beloved little dog, Poppy, was killed, apparently while trying to cross the impossible Port Road, apparently while trying to get back to my place, for the second time in a couple of months. We buried her here in the back garden, under a willowy gum.

It was an absurd death. There was no need for her to put herself in such danger. Of course she didn't realise the risk she was running. There was no need to try to get back here, when there was plenty of food and love and comfort in her new home. She didn't understand any of that, she was just a dog, a slightly confused, nervous, excitable dog.

We had a little ceremony, and each of us said a few words, each of us being myself, Sarah, her daughter Catherine, and two of Sarah's grand-daughters, Isabelle and Courtney. We were all upset of course, and we spoke sadly and fondly of our memories of Poppy. But little 4-year-old Courtney took a different tack, saying that she shouldn't have gone off on the road like that, where it wasn't safe, like a poor little lamb to be hit by a car, why did she do that? And when we'd all said our piece, Courtney piped up again, saying she shouldn't have runned away like that, making Nanny all sad, we didn't want that to happen...

It’s a fairly basic question – why should Poppy have to die like that, when everything was all hunky dory? Why? Adults tend not to ask those questions, or just grow tired of them, perhaps because the puzzle of death has become familiar to them, even monotonous, though of course they’re no closer to solving it. Children can refresh our sense of wonder at this as with so much else. At the same time, we can feel the pain of the question in a way that a four-year-old can’t, because they haven’t yet understood its unanswerability, and all that this implies.


And so to religion. It seems to me that one of the primary purposes of religion is to provide an answer to the death question, though the religious solution always teeters on the brink of being more absurd than the dilemma it intends to solve. In Eugene Peterson’s chatty and cheery version of the New Testament, The Message, Paul writes somewhere of the temporary nature of the body, such an insignificant thing in comparison to the eternal soul. It’s hard to know whether he or someone else got the ball rolling on this, but the battle over the soul became an obsession with the catholic church for many centuries. It’s a compelling idea, even today. I’ve just listened to killers describing how they watched their victims die, how they felt they actually saw the soul leaving the body. Even seeing the body of a dog, as I have recently, especially a dog that remains undamaged, utterly intact, but lifeless, tempts a person to think along those well-worn tracks. The body really does suddenly look like nothing more than a casing for a ‘spirit’, now fled.

It’s an understandable but essentially naïve view. In order to render it coherent, we have to come up with answers to all sorts of questions that impose themselves. What is this ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ made of? Where does it go? If it is ‘insubstantial’, and thus has essence or existence without substance, what could this possibly mean? Do all living creatures have souls that survive their bodily life? Dogs and cats? Crustaceans? Ants? Unicellular organisms? If only humans have souls, how does that fit with the evidence from evolutionary biology, which classes us as a higher primate, sharing most of our DNA with chimpanzees? If the soul does exist, how do we know that it ascends to heaven or descends to hell, and doesn’t inhabit a succession of bodies as the reincarnationists believe? Whose theory of the soul is correct?

The soul, it seems to me, was put forward as a way of accounting for an observable phenomenon, and more importantly, as an attempt to cheat death of its finality, but I’m afraid I’m with Steven Pinker – the soul has become a casualty of our more sophisticated understanding of human nature. Of course, die-hards will continue to believe in it, and they’ll probably always be in the majority, but they can be discounted as irrelevant by smug secularists like me.

This still, of course, leaves the puzzlement, and the sense of extreme disquiet that the notion of the soul was intended to assuage. That’s the bitter pill of secularism, you might say. And there’s no relief from it. It’s hard, but we might take comfort from Paul’s words as translated in the KJV: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’ Coming to a real understanding of death - and maybe this is impossible, but surely we can improve on fantasies of a dubiously blissful eternal life - coming to a real understanding of death, especially an understanding of what really does live on, is perhaps an unending process, a process that grows as we grow, matures as we mature. Perhaps we might end up coming to terms at least with the fact that we'll never come to terms with death, our own or those around us, making some sort of peace with that.

Or maybe it's something simpler than that, a matter of letting go, and being grateful.


PS - I had many religious conversations with Poppy before her sudden death, and I have to say she was pretty savage, as only Poppy could be, on Judaeo-Christianity. She was particularly incensed at the way old Yahweh ethnically cleansed her ancestors, the Caninites. Onya, Pop.

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