Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
October 28, 2002
Rage against the dying of the light
Christian beliefs create a healthier attitude towards death
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
Two certainties in life, we're told, are death and taxes. We complain about one; don't talk much about the other. To say that our culture doesn't handle the issue of death gracefully is an understatement. We fear death, sentimentalize it, romanticize it, exploit it, and deny it, but for the most part we just don't deal with it until we have to.
Not so long ago, most people died at home - not out of sight in hospitals or nursing homes. Death and dying were witnessed first-hand by most people, even the very young. Remains were customarily laid out in the family home - not the remote institutional setting of a funeral parlour. It wasn't unheard of for relatives to participate in preparing a body for burial.
Death was dreaded, but faced matter-of-factly, rather than being isolated from normal life like it is today.
Another distinction between then and now is that more people used to harbour firm conviction of an after-life. Today many still hope, but fewer believe, that heaven is real.
Along with increased segregation of death from everyday life came a gradual desacralization of the rituals accompanying it. Priests and ministers used to be the central administrators of these rituals, with undertakers playing a supporting and essentially technical role.
Nowadays, clergymen (or clergywomen) are generally relegated to delivering homilies and conducting perfunctory religious services, with doctors, undertakers and lawyers performing most of the "pastoral" functions related to death.
A culture that systematically trivializes the life of the soul cannot hope to cope well with death. Secular science can't adequately explain death.
Material differences between a living person and a corpse are that the former has an electromagnetic field, movement, and blood pH maintained within a narrow range around 7.4 (near neutral), while the latter has no EM field, no movement and a highly acidic blood pH. The biochemical composition of a healthy young person is essentially the same as that of someone about to die of old age.
So what changes when a person dies? Christians and Jews believe that the living soul separates from the body. Oriental philosophers say that bioenergy or ch'i runs out. Modern Western science doesn't attempt to address the metaphysics of death, and merely describes measurable physical changes.
Prior to the Enlightenment, Western philosophy and science regarded human beings as a union of body and soul, but most moderns acknowledge only the physical and material as "real," with the soul a speculative hypothesis at best. This analysis is profoundly unsatisfying to soul and psyche, both of which must cope with death on a non-material and personal plane.
Some try to rationalize death from a naturalistic perspective, calling it "just the final phase in life's journey." Existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that human existence is a "being towards death," and that facing our impending non-being gives meaning to life.
However, that rather sentimental view isn't much comfort when one feels death's icy hand on their shoulder.
Christianity teaches that death is not part of original created human existence, but an enemy - the consequence and penalty of sin that gained power only after humanity's fall from grace. The Christian view holds that separation of soul from body is a terrible tragedy, certainly nothing to be gladly embraced or celebrated.
Dylan Thomas was on the right track with his famous lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night; . . . Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Happily, Christians aren't obliged to helplessly rage against death, possessing as they do more than a wistful hope that heaven does exist. Christianity also maintains that we won't spend eternity floating ethereally about as disembodied spirits, but rather that our souls will be re-united with resurrected, transformed and glorified bodies - changed from material mortality to eternal life.
That is the central point of the Christian Gospel. As St. Paul put it: "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable."
That conviction surely results in a more hopeful outlook than Heidegger's impending annihilation, regardless of one's personal opinions about Christianity. It follows that when the dominant cultural consensus reflected a Christian view of death and the after-life, a much more healthy attitude toward death obtained generally in our society.
It is also unsurprising that our culture's repressed fear and dread of death often resurfaces in destructive and dysfunctional modalities, ironically a culture of death as Pope John Paul has called it.
Many contemporary socio-cultural phenomena - abortion, euthanasia, teen suicide and violent entertainments - are essentially death-cults: attempts to facilitate an illusion of control over human destiny. But the more we deny our sinful and morally compromised human condition, the tighter a grip sin, evil and delusion exert on us.
Everyone still has to die.
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