Death is an Affront
Today was an interesting day, characterized by a number of rewarding yet demanding conversations with passionate and intelligent people wrestling with some of the deepest and most painful questions of life. Among these questions, was the question of death—how we are to understand it, certainly, but, more importantly, how we are to live with and despite it, especially when faced with the loss of someone close to us. Words often seem like meagre tools indeed when faced with the monstrosity of death, but as I sit in a quiet house ushering another day out the door, reflecting upon what it held, and snooping around in some old books, these words about death from Peter Berger hit home:
A popular cliché, elevated into alleged wisdom by various schools of philosophy, proposes that suffering and death should be accepted because they are “natural.” This proposition must be emphatically rejected. On the contrary, it is “nature”—in the sense of the biological order of things—that is unacceptable. Death in particular is a brutal denial of the very essence of being human. Indeed, one could turn the proposition around and say that death denies the essential “nature” of man, which intends being and consciousness. Death is an affront, and to accept it is to participate in the affront. It is precisely the “naturalness” of death that must be refused.
Re: “it is “nature”—in the sense of the biological order of things—that is unacceptable.”
Berger is right.
This does complicate the love of nature. This tension, this complication, is one with which great nature writers have wrestled. Eiseley and Krutch are examples. Darwin is another. They don’t resolve the tension, they just name it beautifully.
Sometimes Christians say to one another when someone close dies, “Its okay, they are in heaven with God now.” True, but this does not stop the pain, overcome the unacceptableness of death. Or someone will say, “at least they are not suffering now.” True, but death is still the final enemy.
Beneath heaven, memory is the greatest defense, and where it can be found, love. In nature, the defense is fecundity. These are the natural enemies of death on earth. And where nature meets heaven, as in religion, death is defied.
For some people, life is an affront. Job’s lament has universal voice. God asks of us some constructive response to help ameliorate the suffering. God asks of the suffering to have faith, to have courage and to trust in His promise.
To die physically is to be once step closer to resurrection.
I’ve given this one some more thought. With typical equivocation, I say Berger couldn’t be more wrong. Those who view death with hostility are those who perpetuate it in all it’s senseless permutations. They are made angry and in their anger the many suffer.
Those who are at peace with death accepting it as a means to a greater end, a sacrifice of the temporal for the sake of the eternal, these people are true lovers.
It’s one of those areas where I think we have to recognize that Scripture gives us a both/and rather than an either/or picture. Paul describes death as an “enemy”; he also said that “to die is gain.” Both tell the truth about death and how it is experienced from the perspective of those in Christ.
This quote from Diogenes Allen has informed my understanding of death.
“Our present life is one where we begin to learn what it is to be limited, to be isolated, and yet yearn to be bound to others. This life is to be seen as in the process of transformation by another seeping in, a replacement that does not and cannot take place fully without a new heaven and a new earth and new minds and bodies. So Christianity does not promise life beyond death; this life is limited in extent and it will end permanently. Only what has entered this life from the heart of God — the life that he himself enjoys — which we see in Jesus and know now in self-forgetful perception and especially in mutual reception of one another will continue and be consummated. But for the rest, what it will be is a completely blank tablet, since we and our universe must be transformed for the consummation of love. Christianity does not solve the problem, but it offers a vision of what life is, and a taste of what true living is. That life, now only glimpsed, and in serious conflict with the present, is said to be incapable of destruction because it is the life of God and to live in it fully is a destiny given to us by God. (The Path of Perfect Love, Cowley 1992: 85-86)
Thanks for this, Chris. I like that image of the life of God “seeping in” and both transforming the present and pointing toward the life that is incapable of destruction.