Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Dying and Henry

A blog post about my old dog dying may seem inappropriate or irrelevant to some in this space, but not to me... and this is my blog, after all, and my dog, Henry.

My old chocolate lab has a severe kidney malfunction that is causing him to die, slowly.  He is ten years old and thus old in dog terms, but  as usually labrador retrievers live to 12 or so years, a bit early for this.  With all my other pets, I have taken them in to be euthanized when they were in evident distress.  Henry is not; he is just slowly shutting down.  I decided therefore to keep him at home either to die in peace in his own place, or if he does begin to experience severe discomfort, then to take him.  I went today and bought a sedative for him should I have to do so as I do not to want him to suffer the stress all animals do with visits to the Vet.

This has got me thinking about animals and the afterlife.  Some years ago I read a newspaper report of some theological opinion from a Jesuit theologian in Rome that animals do not have souls and will not be in Heaven.  Seems to me that for some, Heaven wouldn't be Heaven if there were any of those pesky animals in place - just people sitting around on clouds thinking deep thoughts.  For others, such as myself, this would be closer to Hell than Heaven.  None of us know, of course, if Heaven will be as described when we were young children, or if it will be some place of amorphous joy.  I rather hope some version of my childhood view is true than some place where nebulous souls float around meditating.

This too, reminds me of my grandfather's death.  He, unlike virtually everybody today in the West, died at home.  Not , alas, his home and indeed after a number of years of sad debility and thus in a very hard and unpleasant fashion.  But he did not die in a cold, efficient institution. He died in his own bed, while under the care of his wife and my mother - women then as now, shouldered the bulk of caregiving.  I was six years old, and I recall while the adults were buzzing and whispering, I slipped into his room because I was curious.  I had seen my grandfather in his bed, unable to move, or feed himself or talk, only able to make inarticulate roaring noises when he was frustrated.  I fear he was normal inside and going slowly mad within the prison of his stroke disabled body.  When I walked into the room this time,  it was utterly silent, unlike the subdued excitement in the rest of the house. Although only six, I knew instantly what death was.  There was a deep absence that I intuitively understood.  That wonderful old phrase I was yet to learn described the mood of that room perfectly:  'the peace which passeth all understanding".

I was taught as a Christian to see death as a passing to a better place.  Perhaps Heaven is peace.

An update:  Henry's distress became evident the day after I wrote this post.  RIP Henry the Dog

Sunday, August 10, 2014

My Definition of Religion (whatever that is)

A belief and hope that there is ultimate meaning.

I listened carefully to Richard Dawkins when he debated the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this debate,  to Prof. Dawkins, existence - the universe - was a giant accident initially, pure chance.   Development  has been a chain of accident combined with cause and effect since that beginning.  

Religion - any religion - all religions, on the other hand,  whether they are atheist like Buddhism, or philosophies like Confucianism, or monotheistic like the Abrahamic faiths, or polytheistic, all reject chaos and assert there is an essential order beyond any seeming chaos. They may disagree on the nature of this essential meaning; they may disagree on the proper behaviour of individual humans; they may disagree on the structural aspect,  but they all start with ultimate meaning. So, religion is also to put it in its negative sense, the rejection of a philosophy or a science that posits chaos as the foundational element of existence.

I would add to this that my wording 'ultimate meaning' is reminiscent of the theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich's definition from the middle of the 20th century which used the term:  'ultimate concern'.  My definition above was thought out over the vast period of time of six minutes, but was the culmination of 50 years of thinking about religion and probably Prof. Tillich's thoughts lurked somewhere in that hard drive I carry around on my shoulders. But I think it is different.  I will let those of you who read these words decide.  

A Postscript:

Intellectual ramblings about the nature of religion are what I call thinking about a Philosopher's God.  My thinking about religion as an academic has centred around the religion of ordinary people, believed and practiced in their daily lives, rather than high octane definitions of a purely intellectual sort.  Yet, I do  not at present see any conflict between my broad definition (now there's an oxymoron!) of religion.  One can believe and pray and function as a religious person while assenting to and enjoying an intellectual approach.