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   Chapter 10 IS DEATH THE END

The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 22433

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

We have been studying the ascent of the soul in the successive stages of its development, from the dawn of consciousness to the measure of progress which our race has now attained. But a dark shadow falls across that history. No one has yet lived who has reached what all have believed to be the fullness of his possible development. At a certain period in physical history what we call death intervenes, and we are left wondering as to whether that is the end of all, or whether the soul persists and continues its advance unhindered by bodily limitations. That death is the end of the body, in its present form, no one doubts; but whether the relations of the soul to the body are so intimate and enduring that what vitally affects one affects the other is a subject concerning which there has been eager and constant inquiry, and but little real knowledge. Job's question, "If a man die shall he live again?" is the common question of humanity. The importance of the subject is attested by the prominence which it has always had in human thought. Philosophers have given it foremost place in their speculations. Science, while seeking to explore every part of the physical universe, never escapes from the fascination of this question. Is the death of the body the end of the spirit? Or, if we have not sufficient material for a positive statement, is there enough to make a strong affirmation of probability? We are facing the deepest mystery which is ever presented to thinking men. Heretofore we have been trying to follow a history clearly marked in the progress of humanity; now we can only balance probabilities. But all that has been learned concerning the nature and development of the spirit of man not only warrants, but compels, the belief that death is not the end of the soul; and that to assert that it is, is to deny the revelations of the universe, and to insist that there is nothing but irony and mockery where there ought to be reason and wisdom. In treating this subject I can but repeat thoughts which have been emphasized again and again; but it is so vital, and so near to the welfare of all, that old arguments become new, and interest in them increases, the more frequently they are emphasized.

On what do we base our faith that the soul exists after death? That it does is clearly the faith not only of religious teachers but of many of the latest and most eminent scientists. Many expounders of evolutionary philosophy unite in telling us that "the cosmic process" having reached man, a spiritual being, can go no further in the physical order; that evolution will never produce a higher being than a spirit, but that the "cosmic" force will still persist and be utilized in the expansion and perfection of spirits.

In treating this subject little attention will be given to the scriptural argument, for there is little if any difference of opinion concerning the teaching of Jesus and that of the writers of the New Testament. They are united and consistent in assuming the persistence of being. That belief underlies all their appeals to the solemn sanctions of the moral law which they derived from the future life. Jesus himself said, "If it were not so, I would have told you;" and nearly, if not quite all the Apostles base their warnings and their invitations on motives which reach beyond the death of the body. The masters of other religions have been equally positive. In some form or other they have asserted the continued existence of the spiritual nature in man.

But we turn, for the moment, from these and consider such evidence as may be derived from the soul itself, and from what is known of its progress.

There is no evidence that when the body dies the soul dies with it. It may not be possible to prove the reverse; all that we know is that the vital functions cease, and that the body decays. No eye ever saw the soul, and no dissection ever discovered the place of its dwelling. Is that ethereal something which we call soul simply the result of the organization of atoms? Or is the body like a house in which a spiritual tenant dwells? At least this may be affirmed: No one has yet been able to prove that the soul and body die together. Then there is no reasonable presumption against the continuance of being. No spirit, so far as we know, has returned to the earth in visible form, and spoken its message; and yet, for aught we know, we may be surrounded every day by spiritual beings, moving unseen along the avenues upon which we walk, and entering without invitation the houses which we inhabit. At this point it is enough simply to grant that presumptions are, perhaps, evenly balanced. If one asks for proof that the spirit persists, the only reply must be a Socratic one-Can you prove that it is vitally connected with the body?

Belief in the existence of the soul after death seems to be an innate belief. It has been ascribed to the influence of the superstition about ghosts; but that superstition is only an unscientific form of the larger faith in the persistence of being. Where did this conviction originate? We think only of such things as have been experienced. No thought is ever entirely original. Even imagination cannot create anything absolutely unlike anything which ever existed. All the fabled beings who, according to the ancient mythology, filled the spaces and waters, were but human creatures adapted to imaginary environments. Faith in the existence of the soul after death could not have originated in the soul itself; to believe that would be to contradict the laws of thought. It seems to have been born with the soul, and yet not to be a part of it.

The common conviction of continuance of being can be explained only on the assumption that it is an innate idea. That this assumption starts, perhaps, quite as many questions as it settles may be granted. Nevertheless, it is the only way in which this fact in mental and spiritual history can be accounted for.

Not only is belief in persistence of being innate, but it is also universal. It has been found in every land, in every time, in every religion. Dr. Matthewson has finely argued that the savage worships a fetish because he is seeking something which does not change[8]. He knows that he dies; he worships that which he thinks does not die. A piece of wood or a stone, at first, seems to him more enduring than a man; therefore he worships the fetish. Gradually his eyes are opened and he realizes that the man is more enduring than the thing. Then the object of his worship is lifted from something material to a spiritual being. The belief in immortality is coterminous with belief in the Deity; the two forms of faith are always found together. The cultured Greek, the mystic Egyptian, the idealistic Indian, the savage who inhabits the forests of Africa, or who formerly dwelt in the forests of America, alike have believed in some land of spirits to which their loved ones have gone and to which they themselves, in turn, will also go. Every age and every time, alike, have borne witness to the strength and vitality of this faith.

But still more convincing to me than any of the suggestions which have gone before, is the fact that it is irrational to suppose that the soul dies with the body. If that were true, how could we account for the enormous waste in discipline and culture, in education and affection? What is the meaning of the love that binds human beings together, if after a short "three-score-and-ten career" it utterly ceases to be, and being and affection alike go into oblivion? How can our systems of education be justified, if the soul is perfected only to be destroyed? On everything else man spends time, labor, affection in proportion to the possibility of its endurance. He never seeks that which he knows will be taken from him and destroyed as soon as it is perfected. An artist would not spend a lifetime on a picture, or a sculptor in finishing a statue, if he knew that when his work was completed it would be instantly sunk in the depths of the sea. We devote a large part of our lives to education; we cultivate our minds; our affections are disciplined; we spend time, money, labor for years for the culture of our children; can it be that all this preparation is for something which never can be realized? In the midst of the loftiest manifestations of the soul's power the body ceases to be. With indescribable bravery a warrior lays down his life, a fireman rescues a child from a burning building, a life-boatman goes through the surf to a sinking ship, and, at that very moment when he proves himself best fitted to live, death comes and he is seen no more. It cannot be proven that this is not the end, but it is not reasonable to believe that this is the end. If it is, human life is utterly without significance, and he is most to be commended who quickest escapes from its misery and mockery.

Moreover the inequalities of the human condition are strangely prophetic. Much has been made of this argument in the past,-Job and Socrates both felt its force.

The value of it has often been discredited, but without reason. How shall the bitter injustice which is frequently found on the earth be explained? Some have an abundance of wealth, some have literally nothing. Some enjoy the best of health and strength all their days, while others pass their years in suffering and trial. Some are surrounded by families and fairly revel in love and friendship, and others lead lonely lives toward a welcome end. Some are strong and brave, and able to act a part in the drama of life; others are weak, obscure, unknown, and, for aught that they or we can see, might as well have never been. The law of heredity sweeps down from the past and brings a terrible legacy to many who spend all their days in trying to escape from what has been forced upon them. What shall we say concerning those who are born in lust and must live in the midst of the vice of a great city, and who, in turn, give birth to a lustful and vicious brood? Have they had a fair chance? Will their children have? Such questions have puzzled the most earnest thinkers of all time, and there has seemed to be but one explanation. Job seemed to be in darkness, until at last there flashed upon his mind this question, which is also a modified affirmation, "If a man die shall he live again?" If he live again, then it is possible that what seems to be unjust may be righted; and those who have known only suffering and pain during their dwelling in the flesh, may some time enter into the fruition of their discipline in the joy and victory of the endless life. The more this argument is pondered the stronger its force becomes. It carries conviction to all who are deeply sensitive to the common human experience, and who at all understand the misery and the suffering of human existence. One in the fullness of his physical strength may think little about it, but that deformed girl who asked her mother after service one Easter Day, "Mother, is it true that in heaven I shall be as straight as you and father?" is a type of millions of others. Some suffer in body and some in mind; some have a heredity of insanity or vice-they are

born with shackles on their faculties. If they ever have a fair chance to grow noble and beautiful, morally and spiritually, it must be after their bodies have been laid aside. It cannot be said that they do not now desire benefit and blessing, but it is evident that it is impossible for their longing to be gratified. The conviction that this is a moral and rational universe compels us to believe that some time and somewhere those who suffer will escape from their pain, that those who are burdened with the evil that has been inherited from past generations will rise above it, and that the soul will be given an unhindered opportunity for growth and advancement. The inequalities in the human condition almost compel us to believe that the death of the body cannot be the end of the spirit.

A little light on this subject comes from the faith of the world's greatest teachers. As there are, now and then, those who see farther than others with the physical eye, so there have been a few teachers who have been rightly called seers, because their eyes have penetrated farther into the mysteries of the universe than have those of their fellow-men. Among the seers of the ages, I think that the two whom all would recognize as being pre?minent are Socrates and Jesus-the one the finest flower of the intellectual development of Greece, and the other the consummation of the hopes and visions of the most spiritual people that the world has ever known. Both Socrates and Jesus believed in God, and both have taught the world, with no uncertain sound, of their faith in immortal life. The latter was clearly an axiom with Jesus, for He said to His disciples in effect, "If there had been any question about it I would have told you;" and almost with his last breath Socrates compelled his disciples to think of him as immortal, for he told them that, though his body might be buried anywhere, he defied both friend and foe to catch his soul. Socrates and Jesus represent the belief of the world's greatest seers.

The deep and abiding confidence of the teachers, who increasingly command our admiration as the years go by, is not to be entirely disregarded. We may care little what those tell us who walk by our sides in the dark valleys or on the dusty plains; but there are others who have climbed to the crests of the loftiest mountains, and who have looked into a world of which we have only dreamed. When they come down we listen because we know that they have had visions. Even so it is in our intellectual life. A few men have risen above the common levels of humanity, as the Alps above the plains of Lombardy. They have spoken concerning what they have seen. They have had glimpses of God-the soul of the universe, and of the persistence of individuals in the realm that lies beyond the grave. I might not let my faith be determined by their testimony alone, but when what they say is confirmed by many other voices speaking in the soul, and sounding through the history of the world, it is easy to believe that they have spoken of things which have been revealed to them.

Another confirmation of our conviction of the reality of life after death may be stated as follows: It is not possible for us to think of the heroes and singers of the ages as having less endurance than the words which they have uttered and the deeds which they have performed. Milton's and Shakespeare's bodies have long been dead. The great dramatist has recorded a dire curse on any one who should move his bones. In the chancel of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Stratford-on-Avon those bones are supposed to rest. But the plays that Shakespeare wrote are still the wonder of the world, and the glory of the English race. Is it possible to believe that the man was less enduring than his work? Is it possible to believe that Shakespeare's plays and Milton's epic will exist, perhaps, for a thousand years, while the dramatist himself has utterly ceased to be? You open a neglected drawer of your desk and come suddenly upon a letter written by a friend of half a century ago; the paper is a little soiled, but as firm as ever; the ink is hardly faded; the words are all clearly formed and full of inspiration; and you hold that letter in your hand and ask yourself, "Was the man who penned these lines less enduring than the paper on which he wrote, or than the ink with which he wrote?" Such questions are not arguments, and yet they have the force of arguments. It is not possible in our better moments to feel that the great and good, by whom this world has been lifted to its present condition, have gone entirely into nothingness.

It was said of our Lord, "It was not possible that such a man should be holden of death." And it is not possible for us to believe, in our inmost souls, that those who become a part of our being, whose love is of more value to us than our own lives, whose memory is the dearest treasure that we possess, by some accident, a taint in the food or the water, can utterly pass from existence. If it were possible to believe that, then the most miserable creature on the earth would be man, for he would know of his greatness, and know also that his greatness is a mockery and a sham. In hours of doubt, let us lean hard upon the question, "Is it possible that those with whom we have walked and worked, conversed and communed, and by whom we have been helped and blessed, should forever cease to be, while the houses in which they live, and the tools with which they labor, will endure for generations?"

The soul is full of prophecies. Only as there may be continuance of being can these prophecies have fulfillment. The feeling of dependence, the desires for friendship which are never satisfied, the powers of body and of mind which are capable of a development which they never receive on earth, are prophecies of a life beyond death. Not the least among the reasons for our belief that death is not the end of the soul is the fact that the soul itself is a prophecy of its own immortality.

It is always best to believe the best. This world and human life may be interpreted on the materialistic hypothesis; then matter is all and death is the gloomy finale to the tragedy of existence. Or they may be interpreted according to the spiritual hypothesis; then within the body dwells the spirit; then the latter is but a tenant of the former. If the house is destroyed the tenant goes elsewhere. If we interpret the world, and human life, according to the materialistic theory all the beauty and joy of existence on the earth will disappear. We will then live for a little time; and our loves, our disciplines, and our victories alike will be only delusions soon to be mercifully ended by death. Possibly that is true; but, if it is true, then this universe is the embodiment of the most dismal, desolate, and diabolical thought that it is possible for a human being to conceive. On the spiritual hypothesis all experiences are intended for the perfection of the soul. Bodily limitations, physical sufferings, animal solicitations, may all be used so as to promote the development and perfection of the spirit. When the body can do no more the soul will emerge purified and strengthened by contact with that which is physical. It will then move from the narrow quarters in which it has dwelt into some larger and fairer room in the great palace of God. Once more, I confess, we cannot demonstrate the truth of this faith, but it is always best for ourselves and for the world to believe the best. With this faith human life is nobler, and human effort more persistent and enduring than it would be without it. At the end "the finished product" will be larger, and more perfect, if there is something to strive for than if hope is destroyed the moment that aspiration is born. I should be willing to rest my faith in immortality upon this one argument. A rational being should be satisfied only with a rational answer to his questions; a moral being should be satisfied only with a moral solution of his problems. This universe is neither rational nor moral if the soul ceases to be at the death of the body. On the other hand, if the soul passes into another and ampler sphere all the mysteries are explained, and there is meaning even in the darkest passages of human experience. All things work together for good to those who are willing to be led toward the higher things.

These are some of the reasons, with which all thinking persons are familiar, for believing that the soul continues its growth after the body has been laid aside. Evolution has opened a new vista in human thought. There had been vague suggestions of it before, but evolution has done much to confirm faith by its clear and strong testimony. It prophesies the eternal growth of the spirit. These prophecies are harmonious with those of the soul, and with the positive teachings of the Christian revelation. This then is our conclusion:-in the process of time, in accordance with natural law, our bodies will be laid aside, some in one way and some in another, but the soul that has dwelt in these bodies will become free. In ways of which we know not, and of which it would be presumption to speak, its perfecting will be continued. What teachers will take it in hand then is beyond our knowledge; but we are confident that its individual existence will continue, that its perfection will be along moral and spiritual lines, that it will grow forever and forever in intelligence, in love, in the power of rational choice, and into harmony with Him from whom it has come and whose glory will be its perfection. To believe less would be to refuse to listen to the voices which speak within and the voices which speak without,-it would be to believe in an irrational and immoral universe rather than a rational and moral one.

Our souls have a right to be heard, and their prophecies have in them an element of certainty. He who listens to the voices which speak within will never believe that the death of the body is the end of his personal being. The suggestion of a state of existence from which sin, sorrow, and death shall be forever absent, into which there shall enter nothing that maketh a lie, and where sacrificial love is the everlasting light, is the highest and most satisfying ideal for human life that has ever been spoken or imagined; and that which completely satisfies the heart cannot at the same time be repudiated by the intellect.

Let us, therefore, reverently confess that we believe in "the life everlasting."

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Thy voice is on the rolling air;

I hear thee where the waters run;

Thou standest in the rising sun,

And in the setting thou art fair.

What art thou then? I cannot guess;

But tho' I seem in star and flower

To feel thee some diffusive power,

I do not therefore love thee less:

My love involves the love before;

My love is vaster passion now;

Tho' mixed with God and Nature thou,

I seem to love thee more and more.

Far off thou art, but ever nigh;

I have thee still, and I rejoice;

I prosper, circled with thy voice;

I shall not lose thee tho' I die.

-In Memoriam. Tennyson.

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