The Elusory Breath of Life
by Christian Y. Cardall
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust (Psalms 104:29).
On one hand, the nature of the "breath of life" has been clarified: it is a man or woman's spirit, whose existence both antecedes and outlasts mortality. On the other hand, the lack of revealed specificity regarding the breath of life's arrival and departure constitutes a distressing doctrinal lacuna---distressing, not for the sake of mere unslaked curiosity, or an unsatiated taste for arcane mysteries, but because of a failure to illuminate ethical dilemmas ranging from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to the Passion of Terry Schiavo (for whom unslaked thirst and unsatiated hunger are literally matters of life and death).
Life's universally ambiguous beginning: We have been counseled (for example, here, and particularly here) that life must be protected from the moment of conception. Yet for at least several days after conception---something like 10 or 14 days, I seem to recall reading in Science---the embryo cannot be considered an individual, because the possibility remains that it may divide into twins. One wonders if such considerations play into Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch's support for embryonic stem cell research, which raises eyebrows among some Church members. Moreover, the ambiguity of life's beginning is sometimes tragic. Many (perhaps most) of us have faced either miscarriage or stillbirth, or know someone who has. Some find comfort in doctrinal interpolations, but the official bottom line is that unborn children---while individual enough to protect from conception---are not individual enough for temple work to be performed for them. Such matters will be worked out by the Lord later, we are told, due to a present paucity of revelation on the subject.
Life's sometimes ambiguous end: My understanding, based on ground as firm (or not) as an NPR story, is that the medical condition of "persistent vegetative state" involves wakefulness without awareness, a counterintuitive combination to say the least. Provided a feeding tube, basic autonomic functionality---metabolism, homeostasis, reflexes---can continue indefinitely. But higher cortical functions required for life as we know it---consciousness, thought, purposeful response to external stimuli---are entirely lost. Less extreme, but more familiar, are the likes of senility, dementia, Alzheimer's.
When does the spirit enter the body? Is it responsible for all functionality of life, both "low" and "high"? Has Terry Shiavo's spirit perhaps already departed---and if not, should it be allowed to?
Such questions seem ripe for revelatory answers. We know enough to ask specifics; the need-to-know seems obvious, given current technological capabilities; and just a little bit of knowledge could reconcile honest people of goodwill who find themselves bitterly divided, not because some are good and some are evil, but simply because the nature of the cosmic realities in play have not been adequately revealed.
Or, perhaps, have they?
Life's rarely ambiguous middle: Consider movies as stunning and wrenching as Awakenings, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I confess, this last I've not actually seen), and even as puerile as 50 First Dates. Consider also books by such authors as Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio. Such depictions challenge us to think hard about what "human life" is, and what it means to be a "person." On exhibit are drastic loss or alteration of such human features as awareness, responsiveness, personality, and memory, that constitute the bread and butter of the "breath of life"---but that in these cases are associated with physically identifiable brain disorders. I get the sense that most (though I imagine not all) specialists who study these afflictions are convinced of a conclusion that in some ways seems to cut Gordian knots: There is no spirit, it's all the body and its brain. Whether this is a trustworthy hunch justifiably based on long and intimate experience, or simply the proverbial nail perceived as such by specialists having particular hammers at their disposal, I cannot say.
What I can say is something about my struggle, in composing a title for this post, to choose an appropriate adjective to describe the spirit, the breath of life. In order, as I see it, of increasing severity: elusive, elusory, illusory (yes, elusory really is a word, not just an idiosyncratic compromise of mine between the other two). I don't want to be dogmatic about unbelief, but I struggle with outright belief in the reality of spirits. Corrosive is not so much the second part of Psalms 104:29 quoted above. Death's decay is a known and observed certainty, and being known, perhaps can be faced head-on. (I may feel differently when it seems more real to me personally!) More acidic, at least for now, is the seemingly unnecessary uncertainty evoked by the first phrase. We claim the mantle of Continuing Revelation, but when it appears that it could help calm our collective paroxysm over the fate of Terry Schiavo (and other issues of similar magnitude, if not urgency), it seems not to be forthcoming. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled.