I. A song for my father. My father died on a 30th March twelve years ago. As it always happens with the death of our beloved ones, I’ve been compelled to learn how to deal with his absence from the initial unconscious impulse to dial his phone number when cooking his best risotto recipe to the current resigned tendency towards his memory when I’m listening to brazilian music or traveling the North of Italy. All these years, I have felt, analysed and deconstructed the sudden arrival of sadness and nostalgia, the surprise of finding myself thinking “I wish he could see this” or, even more strinkingly, “I hope he’s seeing this”.
Non decessit sed antecessit. That’s the formula I found in Ernst Jünger diaries many years ago and it is still the formula I have to relate with the death of friends and relatives. “He didn’t passed away, but passed ahead” could be an improvised translation. But since I’ve spent a good part of these twelve years as an atheist and a materialist, where did he exactly passed to? And even nowadays, as a Christian, what does have the article of the Creed regarding this matter -“(Credo) carnis ressurrectionem” we say in the Apostles’ Creed, “the resurrection of the flesh” or “of the body”. “Προσδοκῶ ἀνάστασιν νεκρῶν”, “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum”, varies the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead”-, what does all these flesh and body and dead have to do with missing my father or talking to him or imagining him somewhere watching over his sons?
II. The immortality of the soul. I cannot go on without making clear something: I am structurally unable to understand the expression “has a soul” as any other thing than “is alive.” I cannot imagine what Hinduists, Buddhists or Platonists mean when they say our soul pre-exists our body and survives it. I haven’t found any single operation of what-we-call soul that doesn’t heavily rely in our body. So in what sense can we say that something pre-exists if it’s unable to do anything except an “empty” existing?
I totally agree with Aristotle and Aquinas that there isn’t a thing called “the soul” attached to another thing called “the body.” Just in the same way we cannot say that “the body needs the brain to be alive” because there is no such thing as a body without a brain (a body without a brain is an amount of human rests), we cannot affirm the “the body needs the soul to be alive” because there is no such thing as a soulless body, that’s a corpse. The soul, if there is something, is the way the body is structured to be alive, is the sum of the activities that make the body a living thing.
So when my father died, my father died. It is no that he was freed from his body and is now somewhere else. If something survived my father’s dead -and desperate as I am to find a prove that it is like this, I haven’t found a single argument or experience that comforts me in that sense-, that thing is not my father. Just exactly as he couldn’t answer the phone when I called him while cooking to ask him when should I pour the grated parmiggiano to my risotto, he cannot see me or hear me when I still talk to him. He doesn’t have any opinion about how shitty the new Caetano Veloso album is and cannot feel proud of the way his son replicates the emilian accent of his ancestors while traveling the Emilia-Romagna.
III. Jesus and Socrates. Deeply saddening as this certainty is, it wasn’t a problem during the years I declared myself an atheist. But now that I try to be a Christian, I have to ask if it is compatible with my faith and my hope. And -I’m really sorry if this sounds disturbing or unsettling- my only answer to this question is that it’s not only compatible but that it’s precisely the hypothesis of the immortality of the soul that sounds very at odds with the New Testament and the faith of the early Church.
Finding perfectly and precisely expressed what your mind has been clumsily struggling to form is a rare pleasure and that is exactly what happened to me when I found Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Body, a short book published in 1956 as an hommage to Karl Barth in his 60th birthday. (It can be read online.) Cullmann, an excellent but rather forgotten Lutheran theologian, argues in his brief treatise that there is no biblical link between resurrection of the body and the soul’s immortality. Even if common opinion tends to consider both concepts as synonyms, Cullmann sees them as deeply incompatible. The link created between them “is not in fact a link at all but a renunciation of one in favor of the other”, a renunciation that happened during a period of Hellenization of the early Christian beliefs.
Nothing can show more clearly the difference of both concepts than the contrast between the death of Socrates and that of Jesus, and Cullmann dedicates to it most of the first chapter of his treatise. Plato’s depiction of Socrates death is an illustration of his theory of the immortality of the soul. In several moments of his work Plato puts in Socrates mouth the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul, of its temporary confinement in the body and in a realm that its not truly his and of death as the great liberator of the body.
And when the great Socrates traced the arguments for immortality in his address to his disciples on the day of his death, he did not merely teach this doctrine: at that moment he lived his doctrine. He showed how we serve the freedom of the soul, even in this present life, when we occupy ourselves with the eternal truths of philosophy. For through philosophy we penetrate into that eternal world of ideas to which the soul belongs, and we free the soul from the prison of the body. Death does no more than complete this liberation. Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure. The death of Socrates is a beautiful death.
Let’s compare this with Jesus last hours. We read in the Gospel how Our Lord begins to “tremble and be distressed”. “My soul is troubled, even to death”, He says to His friends. And his words to God in Gethsemane doesn’t show death as a liberation, but as a horror he submits if this is the will of God. He asks to His friends to be with Him in that sour moment. He needs the help not only of God, but even of them. Jesus doesn’t sermon His disciples on immortality but shakes them asking them no to leave Him alone.
And, of course, we have the dead-scene itself. While a serene Socrates drink the cup of hemlock, Jesus cries: “My God, my God, what hast thou forsaken me?” All this horror show us there is nothing beautiful or natural in death. Cullmann cannot agree with Kark Barth’s idea that death is natural. Death is an enemy of God and of God’s creation and, as we read in I Corinthians 15:26, it is “the last enemy to be destroyed”.
Because Jesus underwent death in all its horror, not only in His body, but also in His soul (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me’), and as He is regarded by the first Christians as the Mediator of salvation, He must indeed be the very one who in His death conquers death itself. He cannot obtain this victory by simply living on as an immortal soul, thus fundamentally not dying. He can conquer death only by actually dying, by betaking Himself to the sphere of death, the destroyer of life, to the sphere of ‘nothingness’, of abandonment by God. When one wishes to overcome someone else, one must enter his territory. Whoever wants to conquer death must die; he must really cease to live – not simply live on as an immortal soul, but die in body and soul, lose life itself, the most precious good which God has given us.
Death is therefore not only the destruction of the body, but of life itself, God-created life. And “only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community.”
IV. The resurrection of the dead. So that’s the real meaning of the formula I learned as a child: “Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.” It doesn’t mean that my father didn’t really died, that his sickness and death wasn’t a real and horrible thing. It means that if there is a miracle in history, it is the resurrection of a tortured and executed Man and that His resurrection defeated the “last enemy”. Of course, I don’t understand a thing about this resurrection, I cannot imagine how the thousand of millions of bodys destroyed will rise up again to the glory, but that’s precisely the reason why every Sunday I keep repeating et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
Olivier Meassiaen’s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum