Thursday, August 30, 2007

Speaking of Harry Potter and the Gift of Death

We are slowly getting there. This, however, is not part of the circling for a landing, but more surveying the landscape, noting landmarks that should not be ignored. In line with that, this question just came up over at Eschaton, directed to yours truly:

From your spiritual perspective, where does Cheney end up when he dies?
I mean that, sincerely. Is there some special place of evil wherein Cheney's soul will reside? Cheney, Hitler, Atilla the Hun...folks like that.Vicki, Who ♥ Al Gore

And I responded along these lines:

No idea. Seriously.

I lean, at the moment, toward J.K. Rowling's description of Voldemort's soul. The use of the forbidden killing curse tears the user's soul, and the only repair possible is remorse. But that's an extremely painful process, so Voldemort especially (Harry offers him the chance, at the end) can't do it.
It seems a small, silly thing. But I like to consider an after-life not where Cheney is punished (what does that do for his victims?) but comes to realize his errors, and feels remorse for them.

It would be a start. And hell enough for anyone, IMHO.
That deserves a bit of elaboration. Rowling posits "unforgiveable curses" in the world of Harry Potter, but only one is unstoppable: the "Avadra Kedavra," not coincidentally the curse used on Harry that sets him on the path to being "the boy who lived." The "Unforgiveable Curses," like all the magic in Rowling's world, are an effort of will, but, as Bellatrix tells Harry, to use those curses "you have to mean it!" The killing curse, however, extracts a greater price: the price of murder (other curses kill, to, but in self-defense, not as an act of homicide) is that it tears one's soul. Voldemort, of course, has done this so often he has almost no soul left to tear. Indeed, he uses this aspect of his favorite curse to create his near-immortality (which also creates the plot of the last two books of the series).

A torn soul is a not inconsiderable consequence of using a curse, and as with all spells in Rowling's world, there is a counter, a remedy, if you will: remorse. If the one who cast the spell can feel remorse for the death, can really regret what happened and wish to undo it, the soul can be healed. This, of course, would be equivalent to repentance in Christianity. So while it isn't offered in a Christian context, the idea is clearly derived, at least, from Christian teachings.

There are more explicit Christian references in the books, which we'll come to later. This idea of remorse is not exclusively Christian, but given the context of the books, it clearly comes from such teachings.

Voldemort, of course, is incapable of the remorse necessary to heal his soul. As Hermione says in explaining the "cure" for using the killing curse, the pain of remorse is great, and so seldom used to heal a torn soul. The pain of remorse for many, many deaths, would be impossible to bear, she implies. Now, it is no coincidence that Harry offers Voldemort one last chance in his final duel with the wizard. It is also no surprise that Voldemort never even considers the opportunity. But Harry has seen what Voldemort will be, and Harry knows that no one is to blame for his "after-life" except Voldemort himself, and Harry also understands that even Voldemort deserves a last chance at redemption.

There's also the matter of Harry's spell in the duel, and of how Voldemort dies; but the issue of choices is another we need to look at, a bit later. As ProfWombat said in comments below: "My brain is on fire..." Mine, too.

Rowling offers, finally, not a vision of hell as a place of eternal punishment for misdeeds, not even a metaphor of poetic justice a la Dante. What she offers is the life you have made for yourself by the life you have lived here, which is perhaps a more ancient, and ultimately more just, vision. I look in vain for examples of the teachings of Jesus, or even Paul, which describe an afterlife of judgment and eternal punishment. The closest you get is the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, and there the punishment seems to be exclusion from the presence of God, and again, based wholly on how one lived, not what one believed. Christianity is rife with doctrines of hell as a place of eternal punishment for one's actions, and that is considered justice. I think, rather, justice involves the consideration of what we have done, and what it did to others. Placed in a condition where that was all we could regard, where our remorse was all the company we had and our knowledge that our remorse came too late and was now far too little; well, considering that our victims would now be far beyond the concerns of this earthly life, and probably unwilling to be tied to their persecutors even by punishment of the latter (the doctrine of forgiveness releases both parties, not just one), why would that not be hell enough?

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