Friday, December 05, 2008

Bonhoeffer on the idolization of death

"The miracle of Christ's resurrection makes nonsense of that idolization of death which is prevalent among us today. Where death is the last thing, fear of death is combined with defiance. Where death is the last thing, earthly life is all or nothing. Boastful reliance on earthly eternities goes side by side with a frivolous playing with life. A convulsive acceptance and seizing hold of life stands cheek by jowl with indifference and contempt for life. There is no clearer indication of the idolization of death than when a period claims to be building for eternity and yet life has no value in this period, or when big words are spoken of a new man, of a new world and of a new society which is to be ushered in, and yet all that is new is the destruction of life as we have it. The drastic acceptance or rejection of earthly life reveals that only death has any value here. To clutch at everything or to cast away everything is the reaction of one who believes fanatically in death.

"But wherever it is recognised that the power of death has been broken, wherever the world of death is illumined by the miracle of the resurrection and of the new life, there no eternities are demanded of life but one takes of life what it offers, not all or nothing but good and evil, the important and the unimportant, joy and sorrow; one neither clings convulsively to life nor casts it frivolously away. One is content with the allotted span and one does not invest earthly things with the title of eternity; one allows to death the limited rights which it still possesses. It is from beyond death that one expects the coming of the new man and of the new world, from the power by which death has been vanquished."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 16.

Our society is obsessed with death, as can be seen in our frantic suppression of it. Graveyards are too disturbing for the centre of town; old people are hidden in "homes"; hospitals will save us. Nazi Germany was not the only society to make an idol of death. The resurrection relativises death, revealing it as humanity's unnatural enemy, but a defeated enemy.

11 comments:

Matthew Moffitt said...

Great quote - thanks! Where does euthanasia fit in with modern societies idolization of death?

Anonymous said...

Fountains Abbey perchance?
JRS

Drew said...

Thanks - this is really helpful.

mike said...

Yes thankyou. I'm stocktaking all thebooks in the college library at the moment, and this is one of the ones that caught my eye.

Name[d] said...

Death scares me and i know that is wrong as a professing christian but . . . there it is.

Andrew said...

That's a great quote, although is the idolization of death something that is restricted to modern times?

byron smith said...

Moffitt - good question. Could it sometimes be related to a desire to control death? ("I will choose when and how I die")

JRS - Nope, and I haven't offered any points yet.

Andrew - I don't think it is confined to modernity (it's pretty clear that the NT was written in a culture where people feared death), though I do think it has taken on a new force in a post-Christian society that has forgotten the good news of the risen Jesus. For Bonhoeffer, obviously Nazi Germany was the epitome of both aspects of this idolatry: earthly life being both all and nothing.

Brent - Thanks for your honesty. Mark Twain once wrote, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave." I think we all find death scary. The question is whether our lives are shaped more by that fear than by hope in the God who raises the dead.

Name[d] said...

You are welcome, and thanks for the comforting words.

Name[d] said...

. . . and challenging.

Christopher said...

Interesting quote - it has got me thinking. There are some convergences with Foucault's work on biopolitics (the administration of life) where he discusses Nazi biopolitics (though not excluded to them).

On the euthanasia thing - I agree with Byron that it is a symptom of the desire to control death - and would add that with technology the moment of death is brought further into life - likewise through technology the moment of life is pushed back into "non-life".

So death has become life that we no longer have power over or the ability to control - you maybe living but you are dead.

I think I will think about this more...

Jason Goroncy said...

Great stuff Byron.