Embracing Death

Death is an unpopular topic in the blogosphere, in politics, and in church. We are as a society consumed with life and with youth. Death is only discussed as a bludgeon to frighten or to cajole others into action, as in politics (John McCain will die at any minute!!!) or in churches (if you die today do you know where you will spend eternity?). Other than that, we don’t think about death and we do all we can to push the reality of our own mortality out of our minds and away from our conversation. Death is something we whisper about, lie to our children about, and hedge about with euphemisms designed to “soften the blow” that that which is will no longer be.

This tendency to avoid death is obvious in how we go about church and about theological reflection; indeed it is obvious in everything we do, and for good reason. Death is singularly unpleasant, yet it is also universal. It is one of two universal human experiences: birth and death. Everything else is, well… everything else. And we spend most of our time on the everything else, pausing only when forced by the intrusion of death into our lives to deal with mortality. Otherwise we go on our way, and new emerging theologians go on about how the church has focused too much on the life to come and not enough on the here and now. Denominations split over questions of ordination, marriage and divorce but all agree that death is a bad thing and we shouldn’t talk about it too much less we drive people away.

It is a singularly modern thing that we can so easily avoid talking about or dealing with death, or that our theologians and pastors get away with unsatisfying answers and flat avoidance of the issue. Our children can easily be shielded from the reality of death. When I ask my age peers how many funerals they have attended in their lives, they can usually count them on one hand. I’ve lost track of how many funerals I’ve attended through the years. So few of us ever see death up close and personal. Death is something that happens to the old and to the distant — almost always away from home, in hospitals, in nursing homes, and in tragedies half the world away.

This is all new. For most of human history, death was something with which people, even children, were intimately familiar. Mothers died in childbirth, grandfathers keeled over while chopping wood, and playmates drowned in creeks and rivers with alarming regularity. No one was pleased to have death visit them, but we were better equipped to deal with it when it came. Not only that, but the closeness of death meant that we were better able to deal with life.

In a world where death was not invisible, age was more respected. The absence of grandfathers wisdom around the dinner table was felt as an actual loss, and the foolishness of the young is much more evident when the consequences of their foolishness was more immediate and less theoretical. Likewise the present theological (and political) obsession with youth and with changing the world NOW would be tempered by a more visceral understanding that NOW is not all there is; that death comes to us all and that in death there is a reckoning more final than any other. Death makes life more dear and precious, and makes choices more stark. Our forefathers didn’t have time for the navel gazing adulthood delaying indecision that marks the current generation.

And this last piece is really the point of this post. All of life really is a negotiation with death. The brevity of our life is belied by the expansiveness of our choices in a post modern world. My students, fifteen years my junior, do not realize that those fifteen years senior to me are staring down the last twenty five to thirty years of life. Nor do they recognize that every choice they now make is a decision to let some other option die. As much as the current “yes we can” mantra of preachers and politicians resounds to the contrary, the reality is “no we can’t.” No, we can’t be both fireman and lawyers, and doctors and astronauts as we imagined when we were in elementary school. No we can’t eliminate poverty and injustice as many in college and beyond believe. No we can’t defy without consequences the biological restraints that constrain the vocational and familial choices of men and women. No we can’t reverse the fundamental reality of human depravity by changing the social structures that surround us.

Growing to maturity in faith as in everything else is a process of embracing death; the death of foolish dreams and good dreams alike, the death of choices, the death of opportunity, the death of friendships, of careers, of ideas we have about ourselves, of hopes we have for our families, and the death of those most close to us. This embrace of death gives us a certain sobriety about life, and wisdom. It is the wisdom of those who know that they alone will not change the world, and that society will not be healed by virtue of voting for the right candidate or planting the right church or having the right ideas. It is an embrace of death that frees us from the tyranny of relevancy, because we know that what is most important is always relevant and that presentation is much less important than substance. In short, embracing death gives us the freedom to be human and delivers us from our pretensions of god-hood. It reminds us that being human is quite good enough, thank you very much, and is really all that is expected of us.

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