Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Worse than death? IV

Death is not the focus of life
I asked recently how do you want to die? and received a large number of very interesting responses.

As Christopher pointed out, Stanley Hauerwas likes to ask this question in order to point out that our common answers as Westerners (quick, painless, sudden/in sleep) are basically the opposite of what Christians of an earlier age might have answered.* Indeed, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes a petition asking for deliverance from a sudden death. They feared what we crave, because they wanted time to prepare for death, to ensure they were reconciled with God and neighbour. While this might partially be attributed to a medieval Roman Catholic lack of assurance and the importance placed on the sacrament of Last Rites, the modern desire to avoid death - or rather dying - by all means possible reveals a deep fault line in our culture. We are petrified of death and either obsess over it, or (more commonly) simply avoid all mention and thought of it.
*For those interested in chasing up this thought from Hauerwas (and many others he offers on Western attitudes to illness, dying and medicine), check out this podcast. Skip the first five minutes of intro if you already know who he is. If you're new to his work, he can be difficult to listen to and moves around quickly, but there are many gems in this hour-long talk to make it worth the effort. Much of the rest of this post is indebted to thoughts from this talk.

We have medicalised death so that physical health becomes the primary paradigm through which we understand it; the hospital the primary location of death; the doctor takes the role of priest and research our hope in the face of death.

Fear of death dominates our culture, either explicitly, or implicitly. This is what drives the present fear of terrorism: the idea that dying at the hands of a suicide bomber is the worst possible outcome, justifying the erosion of well-established social institutions and freedoms.

But if Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, if Christians hope for life to come again to our mortal bodies by the Spirit, if death's sting is drawn, then it is possible to live and die without death dominating our existence. Life is a good gift and every breath is a reason to rejoice, but we are not to let the task of staying alive take centre stage. If there are things worse than death, there are things better than life:

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.

- Psalm 63.2

Series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI.


John P. said...

You said: "we are not to let the task of staying alive take centre stage."

I have been thinking alot about this lately, especially in response to last semester's course on Ecclesiastes. I hope to post more on this in the future.

For now, I am reminded of a quote (one GIANT sentence) from Augustine that i came across in De Trin. recently:

"Because [people] avoided the death of the flesh, which they could not avoid, more than the death of the spirit, that is to say, they avoided the punishment more than the cause of their punishment (for [people] are not concerned, or are very little concerned about not sinning, but seek with all their power not to die, even though this is unattainable), the Mediator of life shows us how little we need fear death, which can no longer be avoided, owing to the condition of human nature, but how very much we should fear godlessness, which can be kept away through faith..." (IV.12,15)

Even without the huge advances in science, throughout history cultures have consistently been concerned with their own "immortality projects." it seems that one of the things most incumbent upon the pilgrim in the Christian life (of any age) is to realize the stark difference between wanting to live forever and believing in the resurrection.

Drew said...

Great post Byron. Stirring, encouraging, emboldening.

the doctor takes the role of priest and research our hope in the face of death.

This is an important critique of technology - technology as a kind of repression of religion, that fails precisely at the points that it is most anxious to work it's magic, and yet engendering ever more effort in that direction.

::aaron g:: said...

There is a Wesleyian tradition of a "happy death." I've blogged a bit about it and the book Mrs. Hunter's Happy Death.

byron smith said...

John - thanks for the great Augustine quote. Very apt.

And I loved this: the stark difference between wanting to live forever and believing in the resurrection. It seems to me that it is death as defeated but not (yet) destroyed that makes the difference.

byron smith said...

Drew - if you liked that little paragraph, you should check out the Hauerwas podcast from which it was gleaned.

byron smith said...

Aaron - thanks. Here's a link for those interested.

peter j said...

For a good example of someone obsessed with death, watch any Woody Allen movie.

byron smith said...

Pete great point - Woody Allen expresses the obsession end of the spectrum, and his willingness to raise the issue (and lack of answer) are what makes his films both so attractive and so tragic. Here are some favourite quotes:

"I'm not afraid of death; I just don't want to be there when it happens"

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I have done my job."

"There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman? "

"To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But, then one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer, not to love is to suffer, to suffer is to suffer. To be happy is to love, to be happy, then, is to suffer, but suffering makes one unhappy, therefore, to be unhappy one must love, or love to suffer, or suffer from too much happiness — I hope you're getting this down."

"The key is, to not think of death as an end, but as more of a very effective way to cut down on your expenses."

"The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there may be no afterlife -- a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave. Also, there is the fear that there is an afterlife but no one will know where it's being held."

"The difference [between death and sleep] is that when you're dead and somebody yells, "Everybody up, it's morning," it's very hard to find your slippers."

peter j said...

Hey Byron,

I finally listen to this talk and enjoyed it. Once I got over his odd voice and laugh he was saying some cool things. Thanks again for recommending it to me.
I working through a series of church history lectures at the moment from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis by a guy named Dr. David Calhoun.
Hope you guys are well.


byron smith said...

Glad you liked it. There are many more good lectures to listen to here and here (down the bottom) and here.