The Word Embodied
“All who were destined for life everlasting believed in it.”
As lively and supple as our imaginations may be, some of us draw blanks when we entertain the possibility of heaven. We are so time- and matter-bound that all our visions of another world are necessarily chained to images of this one.
“Will there be ice cream in heaven?” Thus might gradeschoolers echo the question put to Jesus: “Will there be marriage in heaven?
In the Book of Revelation, the imagery is more grand and ambitious. Whether visionary or dreamer, the narrator awes us with a scale that embraces every nation, race, and tongue, arrayed in long white robes, bearing palms before the throne and the Lamb.
“These are the ones who have survived the great period of trial; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. ... Never again shall they know hunger or thirst. ... He will lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe every tear away from their eyes.”
But how can we adequately conceive of life everlasting, the destiny of those embraced by Christ’s life and death? The Acts of the Apostles announces the promise of an afterlife but does not give much description of what it might be like. And Jesus, in many passages in the fourth Gospel, reminds us: “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.”
We can only guess what such a life might be, and all our guesses will be freighted with limits of the life we now live. Moreover, the limits of earth-bound experience cannot help but foster skepticism about any future life.
In my philosophy classes, when the talk turns to our final fate and the immortality of the soul, a web of unbelief is quickly woven. “How can an ‘after’ life have any continuity with this life when all our experience is so brain-based? Our memories, our joys, the delights of every sense, the faces of our loved ones all seem so inseparable from this world and our bodies.” A telling point. Even mighty Aquinas mused that a soul, separated from the body after death, would somehow be radically incomplete, bereft of the body it informed. Surely, if we had no body, we could not speak of personal immortality. Billy and Mary are not “souls”; they are embodied souls. For Aquinas, happily, his Christian belief in the resurrection of the body answered the nagging questions of reason. Not just our souls, but our bodies are promised eternity.
This does not make things very much clearer. What on earth could such bodies be—supposedly outside of space and time? But that’s just it. They are not on earth. And the earth cannot adequately contain their reality.
To my students, then, I pose a thought experiment. Imagine us in a class-womb. We are a remarkable group of fetuses who are aware of and can talk about our condition. What troubles us is the regular and inevitable departure and disappearance of our brothers and sisters. It seems a dread experience, not only for the one who is untimely ripped from our comfortable state but for all of us. We never see them again. They’re gone. All that is left for us is mourning and memory.
The question is then posed. Could there be an afterlife, a form of existence beyond this womb, so familiar and secure? Could there be another world beyond the walls of our experience?
One budding philosopher-fetus, clearly on the route to skepticism, deems it impossible. How could there be life after womb-death? Every means of sustenance—oxygen, blood and nutriment—is gone. The cord is cut. How could there be an existence without it? Every piece of evidence we have indicates that we could have no life without it.
Unfortunately, the fetuses who have passed away, do not (maybe cannot) come back to tell us what happened when they died to us and our world. They cannot report what happens on the other side because of the limitations of our lifewomb, barring their direct entry to our lives.
But let’s pretend. One does return to give an account of the other side.
I know you have a wonderful life here, but this is only preparation. You say that life without a womb is impossible, but that is only because of the womb’s boundaries. You think that there could be no food or oxygen without the umbilical cord. Yet there is. Believe it or not, you will receive food, but it will be through your mouth. And your mouth is for much more than mere sucking, breathing, or eating. You will speak and sing, kiss and cry. And your arms and legs will do more things than you could ever imagine with your kicking and swimming around. The new world beyond your womb is connected to what you are right now, but it is wondrously different. All the gifts you have are only glimmers of what they will become.
Could it so be with us? Are we all aborning? And do those slight but awesome moments of ecstatic love and luminous insight only hint at what eyes have never seen and ears have never fully heard?
John Kavanaugh, SJ
Father Kavanaugh was a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis. He reached many people during his lifetime.
**From Saint Louis University