Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bound by Death


Death. Death is, of course, part of life on this blue sphere. Yet the existential reality of our own death is something most of us try to avoid thinking about. But sooner or later thinking about it cannot be avoided. Time does not allow that. At 70, believe me, you can't avoid thinking about the time you may have left on this earth. But long before now I thought about it, even as a child. And I imagine that many of you did too.

One thing I have learned over the decades God has given me to live is that throughout history humankind has been trapped in the inexorable march of time. Time becomes the ultimate thief as it carries its victims to meet their ultimate enemy: death. However much we try to ignore it or hide from it, cover it up or delay it, mock it or claim we don't think about it, death awaits.

Death awaits us because time truly waits for no one. We think about time as being the past, the present and the future. But when we think about time more deeply we realize that "the present" eludes us. While we march ever onward through time toward death, we live only in the fleeting present. Yet, "the present" is a most elusive concept to grasp. Even as you read these words they are past the moment you process them. The thought that you are having right now, having thought it, is past.

There is something inevitable, inexorable, and ultimately disconcerting, in that. The truth of the ever fleeting present is that we can't slow it down or speed it up and if we stop to think about it, it is already over. And, when we realize that truth, when we look at where we are "at present" in our individual life journeys, most of us have those times when we shudder and say, "My God, where has my life gone?" Or, "Is this all there is?"

In those dark moments of personal awareness of our own inevitable mortality, we can too often allow our present to be paralyzed by the remembrance of our frivolous use of time past, and of the inevitability of the death that awaits us in the future. In such times we are what I call "bound by death," paralyzed by the human condition itself.

In his 1933 masterpiece "Man's Fate," (La Condition Humaine), French novelist, Andre Malraux, wrote about the human condition from the point of view of a protagonist who was paralyzed in just that way. At the end of the book, having seen his friends, his loves, and his noble humanistic causes all wiped out, Malraux' hero speaks the bitter lament of a man without hope, hope in humanity, or in God.

"You know the phrase, 'It takes nine months to make a man, and a single day to kill him.' Listen: it does not take nine months, it takes fifty years of sacrifice, of will, of, of...many things! And when this man is complete, when there is nothing left in him of childhood, nor of adolescence, when he is really a man -- he is good for nothing but to die...."

Here is a man who has given his life to a cause he believed in, an important human vision, only to see those he loves blown into what he can only assume to be oblivion. His present is frozen; frozen by a past made meaningless by the reality of the present. The only future he can see is one that leads to death. In him there is no hope, nothing to cling to, nothing to motivate him to create a future for himself. He tried that once, and it destroyed him.

No one has written more profoundly about the reality of death and the relentless human desire to ignore, postpone, and deny death than the great Canadian cultural anthropologist and sociologist, Ernest Becker. He published his greatest book, "The Denial of Death" in 1973 when he, at age 49, was himself dying of cancer. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that work in 1974, two months after he died.

Becker argued that our entire outlook on life is tinted by our constant attempts to deny one inevitable fact of our existence: that we die. He came to believe that the human psyche needs a belief system in order to deal with the very idea of death. Otherwise, he argued, humans could not function in the world. However, he ultimately rejected the value of such belief systems because he said that reliance on a belief system makes it impossible to attain genuine self knowledge and awareness.

Having said that the reliance on belief systems to deal with death precludes true self awareness he strove to find meaning elsewhere. A strong ethical humanist, he felt that humanity must find the answer to the denial of death within the heroism of humans and thus free itself of the burden of the fear, and the denial, of death.

Yet, in the end, he could find nothing that even selfless heroism could do to alter the fear and denial of death other than to offer a final bow to the inevitable. He wrote, "The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something, an object of ourselves, and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force."

Many people then and now find that good enough. Some believe that we can pass the best of each of us, our knowledge, our writings, our ethics, our philosophies, our loves, on to our children, our wider families, and even the world. Some feel that, in doing that they have achieved true self knowledge. In other words, some variation of Becker's idea appeals to a lot of people.

Becker's ideas reflect the views on death of one influential ethical humanist. However, the vast majority of people on the planet have belief systems that allow them to face death with greater optimism than did Becker.

And those believers do not feel that they have forsaken self knowledge or self awareness by having faith. In fact, they would argue that their belief system is part and parcel of their self knowledge, and that true self discovery requires belief.

The vast majority of faith systems in the world today deal with death not by denying it but by asserting that death is not final, that there is some form of afterlife, offered to us by God, or gods, a life force, a higher power, or an ultimate source of life.

The shape of that afterlife and the nature of that higher power varies widely among religions. But all those who believe in an afterlife believe that death is not the end, but is a portal through which we pass.

As a Christian theologian I am somewhat versed in how death is viewed in other faiths. However I am no expert in that and will not write about it here.

What I can tell you is how orthodox Christianity views death and how that faith, my faith, deals with it. So what follows is a brief explanation of the Christian way of dealing with death.

If you are a Christian there are fundamental things that you believe about death and how it can be overcome, i.e., essential beliefs about life and death that distinguish a Christian faith perspective.

The Christian hope for eternal life is grounded in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, whom Christians confess as Lord and Savior. This belief is not based only upon the truth of his teachings or on his high ethical standards, as important as those are to other aspects of the faith. Rather it is based on the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, who, in total trust and obedience to the will of the Father, died upon the cross for the sins of all humanity.

And Christians believe that God raised him from the dead, in loving response to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Christians believe that in so doing God broke once and for all the bonds of death for all who believe in Jesus, the Christ.

Before Jesus was raised there was hope for a general resurrection of the dead. Martha reflected that hope after her brother, Lazarus, died. And Jesus told her "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" Martha replied, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God ...."

However, the raising of Lazarus was not a resurrection. It was a resuscitation. Lazarus was raised from his tomb, but he would one day die. Christians believe, therefore, that the raising of Jesus was the first resurrection. St. Paul confirms this by calling Jesus' resurrection the "first fruits" from the dead, and reiterates that those who believe in the Christ shall not die but shall be resurrected as he has been.

This is important to Christians because a lone resurrection would have little to no meaning for us. As Hans Kung has said, "An isolated resurrection in itself would have little point, unless it were a resurrection FOR US. Jesus' resurrection is the ground of hope in the resurrection for ALL who believe in him."

This, then, is what Christians call Resurrection Faith. It is this faith that we too shall be raised which grounds Christian hope.

Ultimately, belief that Jesus was raised is precisely that: Belief. And many good men and women, like Ernest Becker, do not make that "leap of faith" that defines a Christian.

Such a trust in God, cannot be found in books, in science, or in study. It comes from the heart. It is essentially intuitive. Once one has faith, of course, one can seek further understanding through study. As St. Anselm advised, religion is "Faith seeking Understanding."

One cannot study his or her way to faith in the Risen Christ. One can read about the Resurrection and decide whether one believes it to be true, but there will not be any "proof" of it.

The resurrection is not a "provable" event, notwithstanding the number of devout Christians who try, year after year, to "prove" the truth of the resurrection using various kinds of "arguments" which are not proofs at all, but are really only different ways of stating the faith.

Notwithstanding the lack of "scientific evidence," of which there is next to none about any event in ancient history which we nonetheless accept as "true," I, and other Christians, believe that the resurrection is true. I believe it because of the testimony of the Gospel writers, and of the other witnesses, such as St. Paul, who said that they saw the Risen Christ. In other words, I trust that testimony, that kerygma, (proclamation), of the faith.

Christians also believe it because we feel Christ is working in our lives today, and in the lives of those we trust and love. We believe it because the Church itself has been created as the Living Body of the Living Christ. And we continue to testify to the living presence of Christ in the Word and Sacraments of our worship, especially in the sharing of the bread and wine, the symbolic body and blood of our Savior.

We also believe that the resurrection of Jesus is the ultimate divine revelation of God to us. It is through this unique revelation of the power and glory of God that we are freed in the present to have the hope of eternal life, even in the face of the fact that we shall surely die, because we believe that death is not the end of our lives.

This hope is born out of our trust in God's righteousness, in God's goodness, and, most of all, in God's love for us. For believers death is but a narrow gate, a passageway through which we pass into the closer presence of Christ.

For those who trust that God raised Jesus, the fleeting present in which we all live can be a freeing moment. There is still the inevitability of death, but, as St. Paul says, "Death has lost its sting."

And, because of Christian hope, the present can take on new meaning, can become something more than a time for remembering the mistakes of the past, or living in paralyzing fear of the future. Instead it can become a time of worship, thanksgiving, praise and service in the name of the One who has overcome death for us.

When Thomas refused to believe that Christ was risen Jesus appeared before him and invited him to put out his hand and touch his wounded side, saying "Do not doubt, but believe." Thomas did not put his hand in Jesus' side. Instead Thomas believed and answered him saying simply, "My Lord and my God!"

More telling for Christians is what Jesus said next to Thomas, which is often overlooked, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

There are many ways in which people deal with the inevitability of death. Each person must decide just how they will face the reality of their own death. I have found a way of dealing with death that gives me hope. For me faith is the best of the alternatives. Through my faith I find hope, and the promise of eternal life.

God bless you all,