Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dying with dignity

Dying with dignity does not mean a pain-free death, or a quick death, or a death that is not a burden on others.

First, though suffering is a result of a broken world and ought to be minimised where possible, nevertheless, in God's redemptive grace even the darkest experiences can become reflections of his faithfulness and manifestations of his love. That is one of the many lessons of the cross.

Second, if it is not about the pain, the anxiety many of us feel about a slow death arises from knowing that I am dying. But a slow death with one's eyes open need not be more terrifying than a sudden one; our fear of death and dying is met by the word of the risen Lord: "peace be with you".

And third, the process of dying will most likely be a burden carried not only by me, but also by those I love. But this is one of those points at which we are to bear one another burdens, to share the experience of ill-health and dying so that the load is lightened in being shared. Indeed, to withhold this from those around you is not a blessing, but a missed opportunity to allow others to participate in your dying. Death is the ultimate exile, the final isolation, the conclusion of all relationships. But by sharing even our dying with one another, we express our hope in the God whose love is stronger than death.

Dying with dignity means a death in which one's identity is not destroyed; it means a death in which one's humanity is not shattered; it means dying without losing your self. The martyr dies with dignity because she refuses to conform to the dehumanising powers that demand a divided self. Christ died with dignity because he trusted his Father, even when it appeared he was abandoned. "Into your hands I commit my spirit": a bloody, brutal, nasty death, yet one that utterly failed to degrade the dignity of the obedient Son.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Augustine on worship and love

"To this God we owe our service - what in Greek is called latreia - whether in the various sacraments or in our selves. For we are his temple, collectively, and as individuals. For he condescends to dwell in the union of all and in each person. He is as great in the individual as he is in the whole body of his worshippers, for he cannot be in creased in bulk or diminished by partition. When we lift up our hearts to him, our heart is his altar. We propitiate him by our priest, his only-begotten Son. We sacrifice blood-stained victims to him when we fight for truth 'as far as shedding our blood'. We burn the sweetest incense for him, when we are in his sight on fire with devout and holy love. We vow to him and offer to him the gifts he has given us, and the gift of ourselves. And we have annual festivals and fixed days appointed and consecrated for the remembrance of his benefits, lest ingratitude and forgetfulness should creep in as the years roll by. We offer to him, on the altar of the heart, the sacrifice of humility and praise, and the flame on the altar is the burning fire of charity. To see him as he can be seen and to cleave to him, we purify ourselves from every stain of sin and evil desire and we consecrate ourselves in his name. For he himself is the source of our bliss, he himself the goal of all our striving. By our election of his as our goal - or rather by our re-election (for we had lost him by our neglect); by our re-election (and we are told that the word 'religion' comes from relegere 'to re-elect'), we direct our course towards him with love (dilectio), so that in reaching him we may find our rest, and attain our happiness because we have achieved our fulfilment in him. For our Good, that Final Good about which the philosophers dispute, is nothing else but to cleave to him whose spiritual embrace, if one may so express it, fills the intellectual soul and makes it fertile with true virtues.

"We are commanded to love this Good with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength; and to this Good we must be led by those who love us, and to it we must lead those whom we love. Thus are fulfilled those two commands on which 'all the Law and the prophets depend': 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind', and, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.' For in order that a man may know how to love himself an end has been established for him to which he is to refer all his action, so that he may attain to bliss. For if a man loves himself, his one wish is to achieve blessedness. Now this end is 'to cling to God'. Thus, if a man knows how to love himself, the commandment to love his neighbour bids him to do all he can to bring his neighbour to love God. This is the worship of God; this is true religion; this is the right kind of devotion; this is the service which is owed to God alone."

- Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, X.3.

This passage is critical for all kinds of reasons. Notice how Augustine takes the regular elements associated with worship in the ancient world and shows how they are transformed in Christian worship. The temple is our body and the body politic of the Christian community. The altar is our heart. The sacrifice is humility. And so on. This is not, as is sometimes thought, merely a "spiritualisation" of outward religion, in which meaningless rituals are replaced with right motives. The difference between ancient religions and Christianity is not merely captured by the opposition between "outward" and "inward" piety. True worship is always both. The key difference for Augustine is captured better by the concept of "wholeheartedness". True worship is the wholehearted turning of the self to God, without reservation or any hedging of bets. It is to turn our entire orientation, to re-turn, to a God-ward direction in our life story.

And this is why, Augustine explains, true worship is so closely tied to love in the biblical tradition. For wholehearted love is a motion of the entire life towards the object of our love. If we are to worship God, we must love him wholeheartedly.

And the command to love our neighbour must be understood, not in competition with this primary love, but as its horizontal expression. We love God by loving our neighbour. Yet this also means we love our neighbour by loving God, and inviting them to share that same passionate commitment to the origin of our bliss and goal of our striving.

Notice also that while the love of God is the source and destination of our love of neighbour, it is only through being loved that we learn how to love. Only as we are loved by our neighbour do we learn that God loves us, and only in the light of God's love are we able to love God and others for God's sake.

Finally, a word on Augustine's metaphors. Love is both resting in, and striving after; both choosing of a goal, and finding fulfilment; it is both active and passive. It is an embrace, where I am both taken and held, and also warmly grasp in return. But this is not merely the embrace of a friend, a comfort hug, a warm greeting or a fond farewell. It is the fertile cleaving of lovers, whose embrace produces the gift of new life.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Friday video: Edinburgh on a bike

Don't worry, this blog isn't about to degenerate into a compendium of YouTube greatest hits, but I thought I'd post this one because I am in it at 1:35.

Yes, I am one of those tiny blurs in the background. I remember seeing the guy perform that move, noticing the camera and thinking, "I bet I'll see that on YouTube soon". Sure enough...

All filmed in Edinburgh: at least enjoy the scenery if you are bored and feel you can do better yourself.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

God Almighty

“God cannot be termed ‘the almighty’ in an absolute sense and seen as the cause of everything that happens in this world. What is almighty is God’s essential love which ‘bears all things, endures all things, believes all things and hopes all things.’ (1 Corinthians 13.7)”

- Jürgen Moltmann, Creating a Just Future, 33.

The problem of evil raises the question: is God good but unable to do anything about evil? Or is God able to end all pain and suffering, but simply unwilling? Or are pain and suffering not actually that bad after all? All three options are theologically disastrous, hence the problem.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ecological vs nuclear threats

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the N-Bomb (and Start Worrying about the P-Bomb Instead)

"For many, the apocalyptic potential of our technology is concentrated in the atom bomb. I am sure that they do not exaggerate the peril. But it has one consolation: it lies in the realm of arbitrary choice. Certain acts of certain actors can bring about the catastrophe – but they can also remain undone. Nuclear weapons can be abolished without this requiring all of modern existence to change. (The prospect is admittedly small.) Anyway, decisions still play a role - and in these: fear. Not that this can be trusted; but we can, in principle, be lucky because the use is not necessary in principle, that is, not impelled by the production of the thing as such (which rather aims at obviating the necessity of its use).

"My main fear rather relates to the apocalypse threatening from the nature of the unintended dynamics of technical civilization as such, inherent in its structure, whereto it drifts willy-nilly and with exponential acceleration: the apocalypse of the 'too much', with exhaustion, pollution, desolation of the planet. Here the credible extrapolations are frightening and the calculable time spans shrink at a frenzied pace. Here averting the disaster asks for a revocation of a whole life-style, even of the very principle of the advanced industrial societies, and will hurt an endless number of interests (the habit interests of all!). It thus will be much more difficult than the prevention of nuclear destruction, which after all is possible without decisive interference with the general conditions of our technological existence. Most of all, the one apocalypse is almost bound to come by the logic of present trends that positively forge ahead toward it; the other is only a terrible contingency which may or may not happen.

"Therefore, with all respect for the threat of sudden destruction by the atom bomb, I put the threat of the slow incremental opposite, overpopulation and all the other 'too much', in the forefront of my fears. That time bomb, whose ticking so far cannot be checked, competes in destructive power, alas, with any amount of hydrogen bombs. The apocalypse which threatens here from a total development (not just a single act) seems to me not smaller than the sudden one of an atomic holocaust, its consequences possibly as irreversible, and to its coming every one of us contributes by mere membership in modern society. This apocalypse waits for our grandchildren, if we are lucky enough till then to have avoided the nuclear peril.

"Darkest of all is, of course, the possibility that one will lead to the other; that in the global mass misery of a failing biosphere where 'to have or to not have' turns into 'to be or not to be' for whole populations and 'everyone for himself' becomes the common battle cry, one or the other desperate side will, in the fight for dwindling resources, resort to the ultima ratio of atomic war - that is, will be driven to it."

-Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility:
In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age

(Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984), 202.

I think I agree with Jonas' basic differentiation between nuclear and ecological/resource threats. The former (should it occur) would be the result of a limited series of acts made by a small number of highly powerful individuals under great pressure in extreme circumstances. The latter, the result of billions of habitual actions by a huge proportion of the human population continuing business as usual. The former, even if pursued in the belief that it would somehow preserve some good, would have as an immediate aim the destruction of millions. The latter, however, would be the unintended by-product of millions pursuing the flourishing and improvement of their own lives and perhaps also even of their neighbour.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Moltmann on creating the future

"We tend to think that the future comes with time. That is how it used to be. But if humanity's threat to itself by atomic, chemical and biological means of mass destruction and by the rapidly developing destruction of nature becomes a total threat, then the future is no longer a matter of course, but must be deliberately 'created'. Its own life-span is within human power, and we must keep creating new respites for life if we want the life of coming generations and the life of the beings which live with us on this earth. The human race has become mortal. Our time has had a limit put on it. That is a new situation in human history, in which Christian faith and Christian theology must also find a place. As a result of this possibility of annihilation, the time in which the end of humankind and all higher living beings on this earth has become possible has taken on the character of an end-time in a banal sense which is not at all apocalyptic. In this situation it is more important to learn the new questions of life and death to which we still have no saving answers than to repeat the old answers to the questions of former generations."

- Jürgen Moltmann, Creating a Just Future
(trans. John Bowden; London: SCM, 1989), vii.

How new are the threats that face humanity? Does the rise of nuclear weapons or the scale of ecological destruction raise a novel situation for us? In the past, this or that society could face catastrophe or decline due to their own actions, hostile forces or natural disasters, but some of the threats of today are potentially global in scope in a way not previously imaginable. Is there are qualitative, not simply quantitive difference here? Has humanity itself become mortal?

Personally, I think that while we would have to try very hard to erase ourselves entirely from existence, I don't believe it is beyond our power to cause ourselves massive damage. Indeed, this is patently the case with total nuclear war, which, despite the end of the cold war, still remains only minutes away should certain key individuals so decide. However, the threat from ecological and resource degradation is of a differ order. It is to this difference that I will turn in my next post.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The cost of dying

From the SMH:

In terms of health costs, our final year of life is our most expensive. Almost all of this expense is in the last few weeks. Dying in an ICU costs more than most of us have ever paid in contributions to the Medicare levy. Nor is it a particularly pleasant experience. Evidence suggests that as many as half the people admitted to an ICU at the end of life would have chosen otherwise had they been given the choice.

I will kick off the discussion. The use of financial resources in medical care is a thorny issue and becoming all the more difficult as our ability to use ever more expensive treatments increases faster than our ability to purchase them. Personally, I know that I have already used more hospital resources than I have paid into the system (and would likely be dead already without that treatment).

Life is a good gift, to be carefully nurtured and guarded. The pointless squandering of life and the nonsensical cutting short of life are tragedies to be mourned. Yet the gift of life is not an absolute good (or, to put this another way: there are things worse than death). And so I do think that there is a form of raging against "the dying of the light" that fails to recognise our creaturely status as recipients of a gift. The unqualified refusal to ever depart in peace can also signify a lack of trust in the God who can raise the dead. In Christ all things are ours and so we need not grasp after what is not ours to secure. Death is a defeated enemy and can be "accepted" in hope of its finally being swallowed in life.

At the same time, it is important to resist the calculative rationality that tends to assign a financial cost to everything and desires to judge all actions on the basis of this figure as though merely demonstrating the more economic option resolved all moral dilemmas. Living and dying are far more than simply lines in an account book.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Awake, O sleeper

"Awake, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you."

- Ephesians 5.14

"For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ."

- 1 Corinthians 15.21-22

Image by CAC.