Immortality, death and desire (Part 2 of 2)

July 1st, 2014

In part 1 of this two part series, we looked at the way death is, in Christian thought, simultaneously vital friend and graven enemy. This Christian way of looking at death was contrasted with the immortalist aspirations of some in our culture.

Here in part 2, we get practical. Theologian Paul J. Griffiths has written some provocative thoughts on the affective attitude we should hope to cultivate towards death and some practices that might correspond to the Christian vision of death. The piece is called "Defending Life by Embracing Death." His insights are worth our attention.

First, Griffiths points out that “death’s inevitability and apparent imminence are always matters for simultaneous rejoicing and lament.” This corresponds to our observations in part 1. Notice that, for Christian thought, the bad of death and the good of death do not ‘average out’ into a reprehensible lukewarm neutral. Death is not merely a fact to be treated coolly, medically, and from a detatched distance, or with a simulacrum of control. Death is something about which the Christian ought to lament. And rejoice. The Christian affectively embodies, in this way, the full reality of the way things are, a reality bound to the twin realities of Jesus Christ’s own death and resurrection. Griffiths goes so far as to say that, “[t]he extent to which you lack one or other of these two fundamental responses [i.e. rejoicing and lament] is the extent to which you are not responding as a Christian.”

Second, Griffiths bids us consider

the gamut of possible responses to particular instances of the perceived imminence of your own death. At one extreme lies the response of doing everything within your power to stave it off, to delay it; at the other is doing what you can to help it along and bring it to consummation, delighting in its approach as you do so.

Within this wide gamut, Christians seek “the position of equipoise between death-seeking and death-avoidance.” For Griffiths, Christians should neither seek especially to die, nor to avoid death. For Christians see that "the length of [one's] life has no great or final significance." Rather, Christians should receive their lives as gifts from God, and so live until death by giving their lives to and for others – since our lives are, after all, and insofar as they are, only gifts from God, and should remain as such. It corresponds to the nature of life as divine gift that both suicide, on the one hand, and immortalist distraction, on the other, are unworthy paths.

Griffiths says this Christian view of life as divine gift has very practical implications. We should carry these implications out in practices that will grow in us the wisdom to live and die well. He thinks that death should be made more visible, even to children. Open caskets are vastly preferable to closed. Further, the Christian symbols of death should be brought back, like the skull on the desk with which St. Jerome is typically pictured. (A wooden skull perhaps – trying to acquire a human skull in the USA is probably illegal, outside the medical world anyway.) A friend recently told me that he met one of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal carrying a skull rosary.

Shaped in such ways, we start to prepare ourselves for a good death, “neither necrophiliac nor necrophobic.”

Further, Griffiths recommends that Christians learn

ascetical moderation with respect to the rhetoric of immortalism, and especially with respect to the language of battle against death-producing illness. Such talk is not Christian, being neither the language of celebration nor that of lament. And because it immediately stereotypes all illness as inimical and labels it as a foe, it prevents proper discernment.

Griffiths suggests that, were Christians to renew their minds with such practices, we might become “less likely to abide by what the current healthcare regime demands.” We would be gradually “marked off from the population at large by our less frequent adoption of standard recommendations as to diagnosis and treatment.”

While such words are so jarring to our ways of approaching health and healthcare as to seem nearly un-American, it seems to me that Griffiths is substantially right. Our disordered immortalist lusts tend to gravely stymie our ability to abide in Jesus Christ and his gifts, our ability to praise God, love God, and love others. Our desperately death-fearing minds lose the ability to ask the kinds of questions we ought to ask when faced with terminal, or potentially-terminal, illness. Answering those kinds of questions well would take prayer and unhurried wisdom shaped by through-the-years worship of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. It would take an ability to ask, in one’s concrete circumstances, questions like: How might I best offer my mortal life as a gift to God, and a gift and witness to these particular people with whom God has surrounded me?

One glorious and tangential side-benefit of embracing the kind of ethos Griffiths commends: we might even begin to understand, and enjoy, the Bone Church.

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