After Life

Under the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas, I hold that a soul is a unifying formative source of any living being’s activities and purpose. Thus each individual plant or tree has a soul, a formative cause of its integrated development in its life-activities of growth, healing and reproduction. Of a different order than these vegetative souls, there are the sensitive souls that inform and integrate the lives of animals. In addition to exhibiting the activities of lowly plants, animals are endowed with powers of startling local motion and a splendid array of cognitive and conative activities in their external and internal sensations.

Among animals, however, there are personal animals (embodied persons, rational animals, human beings) that have endowments or capacities for an astounding range of action in the world, from the creation of cultural artifacts, to personal expression, to self-knowledge, self-ownership and the capacity to give oneself away in freedom. These capacities are astounding not only because we share 30 percent of our genome with many plants and up to 98 percent with some other animals but also because self-consciousness and the reflexive awareness that makes it all possible are inexplicable in materialistic accounts. That is why it is called the hard problem of consciousness. Some materialists deny even that we are self-conscious; the more honest acknowledge that we do indeed have self-consciousness, though we cannot yet adequately explain it.

Like Aquinas, I believe that reflexive consciousness, or the intellect that knows itself in knowing, will never be explained by material causality. It is an immaterial or spiritual power that enables us to perform all the spiritual acts of love, freedom, rights claims, autonomy commitment, faith, hope or love. (A full argument for this claim requires more than this column’s space.) The reflexive consciousness of the intellect is not reducible to the organism but, in humans, can be expressed only through the organism, with its splendid brain. The person John Kavanaugh is the unified being who acts. I am not a soul, but my soul is the informing and integrating source of all my actions.


The question has therefore been asked, by countless philosophers and sometimes even ordinary people: What happens to John’s soul when he dies? His soul’s distinctly personal endowments are not reduced to matter. The material organism dies and corrupts. What about his soul?

As it turns out, Aquinas offers an account of the afterlife that is quite different from those of other thinkers. Some philosophers opined that the separated soul somehow becomes part of the Absolute or God, losing its individuality. Other traditions proposed a theory of transmigration: that the soul might travel to some other, usually newly conceived body.

For Aquinas, these options were unsatisfactory. They might insure the immortality of the soul, but certainly not the immortality of the person John Kavanaugh. The human soul is uniquely related to the human person, a personal body. Without the body, the human soul is incomplete. If there is to be personal immortality, there must somehow be a personalized body. Do I not need my body to be who I am, to have my memories and relations, to express my unique personhood?

Thus St. Thomas saw the strategic opening of his philosophy to the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, a glorified body. Ultimately, if there is to be personal immortality, there must be a reunification of the human soul with the body it informed and energized. It cannot be the physical body in its transitional stages, but a fully realized body of that individual person. It might exhibit some properties of organic bodies but none of its limits. Like the risen Lord, who seemed to pass through doors, could be recognized and could even exert causality on the organic world, it might be a body like those experienced in out of body or near death experiences, in which the sense organs have shut down even though one can still see.

I have often, over the years, thought about these things, especially when confronted with the diminishments of mind and body in friends once bold and strong, or reminded of an infant dying at birth, or faced with my own mother, once a lovely flapper but after 93 years, not at all a flapper or physically lovely when she died. Do any of us want bodies like that? Eternally?

Well, this is Thomas’s conjecture in the Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 4, Ch. 86). The incorruptible soul, made for the lowly body, bestows on the body something glorious or luminous in its actions, passions and even sufferings. The raised body will be all it was meant to be.

All must rise, Thomas writes, in the age of Christ, which is that of youth, by reason of the full flourishing of that nature found at that age; for the age of childhood has not yet achieved the perfection of what it is, and old age has decreased its ideal perfection (Ch. 88).

Our bodies are in effect made glorious: my mother, not that frail filament of a woman, but in her prime; my friend’s infant girl-child, not unfinished but fully formed as a person. That child may have no moral wounds to heal, but she will be gloriously human nonetheless.

Older persons, having gone through the crucible of life and choice, joys and sorrows, achievements and diminishments, will re-embody not only all their glories, but all their wounds. These wounds, however, like the risen Lord’s, will be glorified.

You may think this column a little nutty. I find these thoughts consoling. They are very close to the promise of Easter.

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11 years 1 month ago
I am not of a deep philosophical persuasion. I try to fool myself into believing that I am somewhat spiritual, but I do know better. However, I found your article,Afterlife,quite moving. Not only because it was well written, to the point, and stayed on point, but because it was exactly what I was looking to find.

I have undergone a number "minor surgeries" in the recent past. My physician did tell me that one consequence of surgery is to begin to recognize your mortality. He was right. I have come to do so.

As I watch my own 94 year old mother finish her time on life, and reflect on my own life,I find your essay helpful. I cannot improve upon what you have written; I am not that gifted. However, I can thank you for having written it.

I will read it again, and share it.

10 years 11 months ago
Fr. Kavanaugh, Thank you for this article. It gives me great hope as I wander closer to my final days. It was a good Easter meditation. Rita Murphy
10 years 11 months ago
Fr. Kavanaugh, Thank you for this article. It gives me great hope as I wander closer to my final days. It was a good Easter meditation. Rita Murphy
10 years 10 months ago
Indeed, nowhere is the Christian genius more evident than in the resurrection. After all, as hard as I tried to conceive salvation as absorption in the Absolute, I ended up equating it with annihilation. And that seems to me more like bad news than anything else.


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