Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of October 30, 2006
Secular society avoids facing human mortality
Our primary human need is to tend to spiritual well-being
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Hedonistic materialism has made the theme of death as welcome release from the travails of this mortal coil almost incomprehensible to most.
By CHARLES MOORE
Special to the WCR
CTV's late night movie slot is pretty much a wasteland of third or fourth time around reruns, but occasional gems entice me to program the VCR.
On Oct. 6, CTV aired the little-known but wonderfully well acted and directed 1977 film, The Disappearance, whose central character, Jay Mallory, played by Donald Sutherland, delivers a short but eloquent philosophical commentary on death to a very young-looking John Hurt.
Mallory relates how a mentor once told him that before the age of 33, a man rarely thinks about his own death; after the age of 33 he thinks about it every day.
Sure enough, Mallory/Sutherland muses, since he turned 33 not a day has passed that he hasn't ruminated on his imminent mortality. He doesn't know for sure whether it was the older man's latent suggestion or something else, but the prediction proved true for him.
It's a great scene, masterfully played by Sutherland. Such forthright discussion of our common destiny is all too rare in post-Christian culture.
Two certainties in life, the aphorism goes, are death and taxes. We complain about one, but don't talk much about the other these days. To say our culture doesn't deal well with the problem of death is understatement.
Death has become a greater philosophical problem now that much fewer people possess firm conviction about an afterlife. Many still hope, but few believe strongly, that heaven is real.
Rituals accompanying death have been desacralized, with priests and ministers nowadays generally relegated to conducting perfunctory religious services, while doctors, undertakers, and lawyers perform most of the "pastoral" functions related to death.
Bereft of the "sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life," our post-Christian culture fears death, sentimentalizes it, romanticizes it, exploits it, and denies it, but for the most part doesn't deal with it. Serious discussion of death as everyone's inescapable destiny is shunned. Death is as taboo in our time as sex was for Victorians.
Life of soul trivialized
I'm persuaded that non-acknowledgment of death in our society largely derives from secularist desacralization. A culture that systematically trivializes the life of the soul cannot hope to cope adequately with death.
The Christian paradigm is that man's primary need is to tend to his spiritual well-being in preparation for immortality. But the ascendancy of hedonistic materialism has made the theme of death as welcome release from the travails of this mortal coil a remote and even incomprehensible consideration to most - including a substantial proportion of today's Christians.
Mortality still lurks in the basement of our psyches, becoming more difficult to repress as we age,
The notion that our education and efforts should be primarily oriented toward living successfully in this world has attained nearly unassailable dominance in the post-Christian ethos. The irony is that people nowadays seem far less satisfied and at peace existentially than their more devout forbears, despite a preoccupation with gratification in the here and now.
Mortality still lurks in the basement of our psyches, becoming more difficult to repress as we age, as Jay Mallory observed.
Traditional Christianity teaches that death is not part of originally created human experience, but rather an enemy - consequence and penalty of sin that gained power only after humanity's fall from grace. The Christian view holds that radical separation of soul from body is a terrible tragedy, and certainly nothing to be gladly embraced or celebrated.
Irish poet Dylan Thomas was wrong about many things, but on track with his famous lines: "Do not go gentle into that good night; . . . Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
But Christianity, with its doctrine of the resurrection of the body, maintains that we won't spend eternity floating ethereally about as disembodied spirits, but rather that the souls of believers 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."
It is also unsurprising that our post-Christian culture's repressed fear and dread of death often resurfaces in destructive and dysfunctional modalities, ironically a culture of death as the late Pope John Paul II called it.
Many contemporary sociocultural 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.