Faith and experience bear witness to man's unity, but who can ignore the distinctions within this unity? Of utmost relevance to uncovering the truth about man are the ontological distinctions. In other words, the "levels of being", or the relative degrees of "realness" within the human person.
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The first distinction is extremely accessible to experience. I am speaking of the distinction between the physical, material body and the part of man that thinks, which we'll call his "mind".
This distinction is most apparent in the sleep-wake cycle, especially at its transitions. When I am asleep, my mind does not exist. As I progress into the dreaming and waking phases, my thinking self emerges out of nothingness into something having definite form. As I drift off to sleep, my mind disintegrates once again.
My physical, material body survives the death and rebirth of my mind, night after night, and even through the occaisional afternoon nap. There is clearly some distinction between the two.
But there is also a very close relationship between mind and body. We know that the brain is the organ of thought, and that there is a physicality to thought. Thought is an activity enabled by electro-chemical reactions in the brain. If anything unfortunate were to happen to my brain, my mind would suffer (to say the least).
In our culture, I think we are accustomed to thinking of the mind as superior to the body, but from the perspective of ontology it's quite easy to see the mind is actually dependent upon the physical body to the point of contingency.
If the body (especially the brain) is like a candle, the the mind is like a flame. This candle is lit and extinguished and re-lit for the duration of our lives on Earth. Which is "more real"? The candle or the flame?
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If my suggestion that the mind is less-real than the body disappoints, I think it is because we intuitively grasp the transcendence of man. We grasp there is something immaterial, spiritual, and mysterious about him. Many, including myself, believe the "soul" of man survives the death of his physical body.
The simplest solution that presents itself is to disentangle the soul from the mind, to recognize physical death as the experience that discerns soul from body, and to assign the soul to the highest ontological category (even higher than the body). I realize that's a mouthful, so let me break things down a little further.
When we "sleep" (which is a Biblical euphemism for death) the immobilization and degeneration of the body is very much like the disintegration of the mind that occurs when we fall asleep. The resurrection of the body is then very much like a reawakening not of mind-in-body, but mind-in-body-in-soul.
Just as mind is to body as flame is to candle, body is to soul as flame is to candle. Man exhibits three, distinct ontological categories within himself. Mind is contingent upon body. Body is contingent upon soul. The complex unity of all three (soul, body, and mind) are contingent upon God. The three-part temples the Jews constructed since the Exodus revelation appear to be patterned after the "temple of the body".
I don't think discernment of this second distinction absolutely requires the death of the body, (which is fortunate). I think there is plenty of "death" in the form of sin that will suffice!
The Word of the Cross is extremely rich and complex message and I think this is one of the things it is saying. It brings death into focus and gives us the opportunity (demands, really) to make a choice to set things into their proper order. Without some experience of "death" (in the broadest sense I used above), Fallen human beings seem incapable of doing this. Death, which is the punishment for the Fall, becomes the very instrument for lifting us out of the Fall.