LLB, of the Laughing Linden Branch, asks:
‘Why do you single out atheists (and pagans) as being fearful of death? I don’t really see the difference in practice between Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists or animists. Some fear death and others do not, all the while holding that their dogma allows the practitioner to live free from the fear of death. I liked your post excepting that final sentiment.’
My point was about the use of language. We may or may not consciously fear death at any moment, but when I hear all manner of folk saying of the dead that they have ‘passed’, then I know a pervasive inability to face reality has gripped the culture. Christians, I assert, have a particular responsibility here – whether we are brave or not, whether we at any moment notice our fear of death or not, we proclaim that the dead will be raised again, that death itself has lost its power, and that hell has been despoiled, all on account of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It’s not that animal fear in the face of the inevitable that bothers me, but our – that is Christians’ – capitulation to a culture that at once denies the reality of death (she ‘passed’), while erecting a whole structure of economic and political power on a cult of death.
Now, it is a Christian assertion that apart from Christ the most a person can hope for in the face of death is a sort of stoic grit and endurance that is rare. What’s more, we assert whether anyone likes it or not that, when we’re in our right minds (which happens on occasion), we alone are able to fully grasp the depth of death’s horror. That the soul is ripped from the body; that a human person formed in the image of God should lie dead and cold on a metal table; such a death is not just an occasion for sadness. It is an injustice on, yes, a cosmic scale. The death of one human person, even if one judges it necessary, is a monstrosity that must not be and yet is. There is no easy comfort, no quick consolation in the face of such a void of nothingness. Most anyone can feel this at some level, no matter who they are or where they come from – ask the father standing beside his dead child if there is any meaning to it. Yet Christians have, again whether anyone really likes this or not, or even really believes it or not on any given day, the burden of articulating in a broken yet substantial way, the full injustice, horror, and pointlessness of this death, for we know that it came into this world because of us. Human persons, in the image of God, die because at some point we cut ourselves off from communion, from life. Death is absurd because it is our doing – we got what we wanted, as we always do.
Of course, someone can always be offended because a Christian would assert that he knows anything simply because he is a Christian. I get that, really I do. It’s just too bad. Everything about the Christian Gospel is offensive in one way or another. Still, because the Gospel is true, because of who Jesus is and why, we know something the rest of the world can’t know. Even then, we only know it in fragments, ‘through a glass darkly’ is precisely the right phrase. Still, the knowledge is real. If it makes anyone feel any better, I for one find it a pain in the ass.
So I’m not really saying that no one should fear death. Again, we have that animal fear that shrinks back from death, and I assert that we have that because even fallen we know that we are not made for death. That is no reason to capitulate to a culturally mandated language that smooths the edge off the experience of death and loss. We do not ‘pass away’; the death of even my beloved cat is not a ‘passing’; we die. One can either face that with faith in the resurrection, or one can face it with grim determination. I don’t much care for the other evasions (the less said about ‘reincarnation’, the wheel of Samsara, and so forth, the better).
I’m not sure that makes things better. It’s all I’ve got, so it has to serve.