Friday, June 20, 2008

Natural States

For my first question I am going to ask something that simply "bugs" me as it makes absolutely no sense to me every single time I hear it.

The question is...

Why do people think that death is not a natural state for mankind?

I hear this from time to time and even from me own wife that death is not a natural state for us.

Everything breaks down in our universe from cars, trees, buildings, candy bars, wombats, breakfast cereals to suns and now theorizing on time itself, it appears that the natural state of everything is to eventually break down. So how is death not a natural state when the entire universe itself appears to break down and die?

8 comments:

nightfly said...

Heh - one of my favorite artists. Good choice of illustration.

I think that what people mean by death being unnatural is that God is the creator of all life; that He intends each of us to exist forever. When mankind first sinned, they damaged their own natures, thus creating death - eventually this damage leads to the body's inability to sustain biological life, and the soul becomes unmoored from the physical world. All of creation now shares in this damaged state.

Death is "natural" now in the sense that all of nature is subject to the fallen order, but nature herself will be redeemed along with us - and then, presumably, death will not exist, or else will operate so differently as to merit a different name.

Flexo said...

So how is death not a natural state when the entire universe itself appears to break down and die?

Death of our current physical body IS a natural state.

What is meant in such statements is that the death of the person (which is not limited to the physical reality, together with it's time component, but is transcendent of both space and time) is not our natural state, but eternal life is. The human person is not limited to our biological bodies, created out of the matter of the earth; it also possesses a spiritual component. That is, the human person is both body and soul, and it is this non-corporeal aspect of our being that enables us to transcend this physical-temporal realm and enter into the non-physical-eternal realm. It IS natural for our current physical body to die (the whole issue of the resurrection of the body and glorified bodies we'll leave for another day).

This excerpt poses some vital questions and touches pretty squarely on the issue at hand (sorry for the extended length) --
But then the question arises: do we really want this—to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable. . . . it is true that to eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? . . . Inevitably [the term "eternal life"] is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt. It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.
--Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Saved by Hope) 10-12 (2007)

Gail F said...

I don't think anyone does think that death (physical death) is not natural. Except the Scientologists and assorted New Agers who say that we only die because we THINK we're going to die, and that if we only believed hard enough and clapped our hands for Tinkerbell... Well, you know. Most of the rest of the world knows and accepts that what has happened to the billions who lived before us is going to happen to us too.

But... We live as if we aren't going to die. We are continually surprised by death in general, by other people's deaths, by our own aging and illness. We all know, intellectually, that we are going to die. But actual death shocks us. It seems like such an outrage, like something that should not BE. And that instinct (it is an instinct -- no amount of knowing you are going to die overcomes it) is the basis of the idea that death is not natural to us. It is an outrage that came from somewhere else.

Proof? No. The truth that death really isn't natural to us comes from revelation. That our instinct upholds it isn't proof, but it is evidence. As Chesterton said, all you have to do is look around, and you quickly see that things are seriously WRONG. Things are broken. Things are not as they should be. And that instinct tells you that there is a way things should be. Our job is to find it. A great many 20th-century ideologies proposed that they had found it, and we can fix things ourselves. No one has ever managed, though.

Flexo said...

I should add that, although physical death is entirely natural and, indeed, although none of us knows when it will come calling for us (make sure you have enough oil for your lamps because you never know when the bridegroom will arrive), it will come a-calling someday for all of us. Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.

That said, it is also true that the body itself will fight and rebel and resist against death tooth and nail. The body is made for living, not for dying, and even when the body is sick or injured, the body will look for anyway possible to repair the damage or to continue nonetheless. Like Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, "Life will find a way." Indeed, even after you stop breathing, even after your heart stops beating, even after your brain stops all electrical activity, the rest of the body will switch over to the process of anaerobic respiration in a vain attempt to maintain life (the same process the body uses during exercise when the body cannot take in oxygen fast enough, resulting in cramps while alive and rigor mortis when dead, due to the build-up of lactic acid).

Even so, eventually the fight is lost. But no worry. It is not THE END. We are more than flesh, more than a collection of cells or molecules. We are more than a plant, which sprouts from the ground, blooms, and eventually wilts and turns to dirt. The truth of the human person is that, although created from dust, he is more than that. Spirit, the spirit of the True Life, has been blown into his nostrils, and so he truly does have the ability to live on.

Scott J said...

This is a very theological question.

My response has to be limited given the constraints of blogdom. And my answers,generally, will be from a Catholic point of view, and informed by the theological frame of mind of Thomas Aquinas.

First point, is to parse the meaning of "natural state" theologically.

There are two ways of thinking of nature--"nature" here meaning the state of mankind and creation as a whole before any consideration of supernatural grace (the grace of redemption; salvation)--in other words, I'm talking here about the state of man before the fall.

So, prescinding for the moment from consideration of special saving divine graces (i.e. supernaturally redemptive transformation of man and creation), there is 'nature,' plain and simple, and there is divinely augmented (assisted) nature (awkwardly sometimes referred to by an older theological term, "preternatural," as in the "preternatural gifts").

Referring to the former type of nature (sometimes also called "pure nature" in theological parlance), the sense that is behind your question--that the natural state of living creatures (and non-living) is that they are always moving on a path toward physical corruption, of breaking down, and in the case of living creatures, of proceeding towards an inevitable point of death and decay--is certainly correct. From the point of view of pure nature itself, without any consideration yet of any sort of assistance from God beyond simply the natural state of creation "out of the box" so to speak, then, yes, death is a natural state for mankind. Entropy. Science shows us this in many ways traced into the created realm.

However, (and this is a significant caveat) mankind has never actually existed in such a state (again, I am speaking from a Catholic and Thomistic framework here).

Now, from the POV of a Catholic (and many non-Catholic Christians as well) we need to step now into the realm of knowledge of things specially communicated to us by God--i.e, Revelation. This complements and fills in things not available to us simply from the "book of nature" alone. This sort of knowledge does not contradict knowledge gained from human reason alone, but in important ways it goes beyond what the unaided human mind could ever know. Indeed, there must be a few things God knows about His own creation that we don't know--and never could--unless He simply were to tell us. This is the case when we talk about the state of nature of man and woman when they were first created by God. We have science as one very significant source. But the Christian combines this together with a second source of knowledge: Revelation (which goes beyond--but not against--science).

A Catholic understanding (through a Thomistic theological lens) of the state of mankind as we were first created by God--before the Fall and the stain of original sin came upon us, is something like this. . .

Adam and Eve were created by God to be immortal (without death), and impassible (without suffering). However, this state into which Adam and Eve were initially created is a preternatural state of existence--a state whereby man exists with the state of pure nature itself, plus, special preternatural gifts added in, given by God as a special augmentation of pure nature alone. Immortality and impassibility are preternatural gifts. (And as an aside, the gift of immortality does not mean invincibility--which means killing the body would be impossible [such as by sticking a sword through the heart would cause]--but that death does not come as an inevitable end of a process of steady decline.)

So, with this in mind, mankind--and all living things--when considered simply as "pure nature" alone, has a natural prognosis of death. But, man was not actually created into a sate of "pure nature" plain and simply. He (and I am using a collective singular here, meaning men and women) had also the preternatural gifts of being without death and suffering. Man was created from the first into a state of pure nature, plus, preturnature. A very careful, close reading of Genesis one and two is entirely consistent with this.

What, you may be wondering, is the need for some such term as "preturnature" when we have a word like "supernature?" Why not just use that and have less confusion? The distinction is needed. Supernature (as in supernatural grace) involves graces given by God to a creature that pertain to eternal life--those qualities needed for life in heaven with Him for eternity. Supernatural gifts endow mankind with the character of soul necessary to live with God in heaven. This is a gift from God because man, unaided, is not capable of living in eternal life (i.e. in heaven).

Preturnatural gifts are a different category--even as they are also divine (given by God). The nub of their difference is that preturnatural gifts do not pertain to qualities necessary for life in heaven. Even with immortality and impassibility, man was not capable of living in heaven without additional (super-natural) gifts of divine grace.

So, to come back around to the original question. People think that death is not "natural" because they are appropriating in the background the Western Christian anthropology of man which our culture still comes out of, which takes for granted that the "first" state of mankind was man without suffering and death.

But, a more robust explanation of this coming out of the Catholic tradition, using reason and Revelation (Genesis here) in harmonious symbiosis, explains that by nature strictly speaking, as unaided by any additional special gifts of God pulling pure nature beyond itself, man indeed would die naturally--even in the time before the first sin took place. This is what science tells us (which investigates nature alone and cannot "see" the effects of divine assistance, whether preternatrual or supernatural--as these things are immaterial). But, as the Bible tells us, man was not created in a state of pure, unaided, unaugmented nature alone. He was created in a natural state, plus, special gifts that were beyond the inherent capability of nature alone--not to die or suffer--that only God could have given--although these gifts had effects that were relevant to this earthly realm and were not so great as to have an effect in eternity. For eternal life, man needed yet another sort of divine gift to enable his soul to live with God Himself. And these were the gifts (saving grace--supernatural life--the gift of redemption) that would not be given to mankind until Christ died and rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, releasing this new form of divine gift upon the world through his Church.

People think it is unnatural to die because they don't distinguish between what we know from reason alone (pure nature and its traits) from what we know from reason and Revelation together (that man was created not only in a natural state, but in a natural state, plus some special extras).

Sorry for the length. But, this seemingly simple question taps into a huge body of a fundamental Catholic understanding of creation, nature, and grace. Hope this helps!

capital-G-geek said...

When God created everything, it was perfect and designed to last forever.
Genesis 1:31 And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the evening and the morning were the sixth day.

But after the fall, everything changed (entropy began)
Romans 5:12 Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:

Since we are not just physical beings, part of us will continue after death:
Hebrews 9:27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

And we have a choice to make:
Hebrews 9:28 So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.

I've condensed the answer, if it is too condensed, let me know.

I was somewhat surprised at your first question. It looks like you've been looking for quite some time. So you have some idea of where I'm coming from, my background is mostly baptist.

Lydia McGrew said...

Even from the point of view of evidence, it is simply a fact that humans are unique on planet earth in the way that they react to death. Animals do not worry about death ahead of time or hold funerals, for example. Mankind fears death and memorializes it. This--like many other unique features of mankind--is simply a fact, and it is a fact that one might want to try to explain. Why does human death bother us, even subjectively and psychologically, in the way that it does? Why do we respond to it in the way that we do? One possible explanation is that, as others have implied above, man is not just another animal; man really is different in some crucial respect and was meant to be different from the outset.

Never think (this in response to what you say in a post later on) that there are no smart Christians left ready to defend their faith. There are lots. And even more, there are many Christians who have died but whose works are still available, so we can still in a sense "hear" what they had to say. And the faith is defensible to a reasonable mind, as so many have found it to be down through the ages.

(Since some people are labeling their own religious background, I'm from a Baptist background, still very much a Protestant, presently a member of a small Anglican denomination in the U.S.)

Damien said...

@lydia mcgrew - I really appreciate you coming on by. And as to smart Christians... I am learning this now thanks to everyone commenting. So it has been an awesome thing.

Thank you.