Baring the Soul: A (Very) Provisional History of Death

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35)

When we became aware of ourselves, we were already here. We were already part of a picture which is larger than we know. We are inside the picture. To reflect upon life in any serious way is to seek to understand a bigger picture than we can know, or prove. Critical thinking has its place; it refines our intuitions, and helps us find our fallacies. But our critical faculties are themselves formed within a world-view or paradigm. Our critique of our reality is already framed by assumptions which limit our discernment. The best of our thinking always has blind spots. We are creatures who do not know what we are. (Alison) To live, we first of all faith. That is, we necessarily trust that our intuitions are somewhere near reality. Even the atheist lives by faith.

In all this, nothing is more certain, yet more uncertain, than death. From one perspective, we are each driven to be our own little, and equally futile, Ozymandias. Why do we bother to do anything when all will be undone? Given that all will be undone, why not just enjoy it while, or if, we can? My observation is that life has been better for facing that which confounds me, and for questioning that which seems to be obvious and settled, or even insoluble. It not only gives me a certain pleasure, and helps me enjoy my existence— this might be my personal 'ozymandying'— but seems also to make me less objectionable— and even helpful— to others. My intuition is that this matters. What makes "us" as a whole, "better" and "happier" seems to me to be more important than what merely serves me.

My basic philosophy of life, even before talking about religion, is that human life flourishes in community, and that what fulfilment we may find as persons comes as part of the fulfilment of community rather than looking after 'Number One.' This is of course, also a profoundly Christian understanding; our intuitions of life are unavoidably spiral in their development; there can be no bedrock, unassailable, and un-interpreted facts from which we can begin. We learn and revise as we go.

So, very provisionally, here is my history of death:

In the beginning, death was not talked about; there were whispers about some parents who died during primary school, but no public acknowledgement.   A school mate was killed in a Year 12 car crash, and two uni friends died in sporting accidents. Each of these events was full of grief, but did not translate into fear of my own mortality, or even any consideration of it that I can remember.  Any fear of death was thoroughly repressed. I remember, years later, being told very seriously by a six year old, that he was not going to die. I'm not sure that I had even reached that level of conscious denial!

This burial means a history of death is difficult to uncover. There is no clear learning curve, no logical progression of understanding. This is a history of shape shifting denials, and quickly covered moments of fear. No one can write about it with hindsight!

When I actually read one of the Gospels, in a last ditch desperation to find some meaning in life, death was still hidden because the problem, in my mind, was Hell. A pre-critical reading of The Gospel According to Matthew— the gospel which I first read— left no doubts:  eternal fire awaits those who are not on the right side. Death as an ending of all things is not even considered as a possibility!

Death began to enter my thoughts more often as I was required to lead funeral services, and as I spoke with older parishioners (who were extraordinarily gracious to a naïve young minister). Death remained, even then, a somewhat intellectual issue: What bothered me was the obvious contradiction between an all-powerful God of love, and a God who would condemn people to hell. Long before wondering if there were any justifiable reasons for God to condemn us, or if, in fact, God does condemn people, I began to ask, "If God can forgive all our sins, how come God cannot forgive us the sin of not believing? Are there some things greater even than God, so that even God cannot forgive them?"

The slow appreciation of being loved by God lead to a certain relaxation in my life. I became unexpectedly "at home" with life, finding a peace I had assumed would never be mine.  I think this freed me to see just how radical is the cultural break between our time and the texts' times. I sought some harmony by removing the obvious clashes— the miracles, resurrection, and so on, from any consideration as real physical events. I read them as exaggerated tellings which sought to communicate the deeper things of life. Hell and damnation were in such contradiction to the love of God that they ceased to be considerations in my thinking. They were gone almost before I realised.

I then grappled for years with the obvious problem with this strategy of removing the unbelievable: If the New Testament writers were not simply deluded, or were not flat out lying— and I had no intuition that either of those possibilities was the case— what led them to use metaphors which were so obviously not literally true, but clearly meant to carry a message of a startling reality or power which they had met? Could not that reality have been expressed in a less esoteric manner?

During these messy middle years of life, I accepted that biological death was the end of us. I could see no possibility of anything else; my primary education was in the biological sciences. My response to this insight varied. There were times when it was simply how things are; I could shrug my shoulders and get on with life. At other times it was a matter for great grief; I had finally begun to value and enjoy life, and now had to let it go. There were times I longed for the oblivion which death would at last give me. And, during this time, my own death finally became visible. Somewhere past 45 it became clear that no doctor's visit is ever routine. I was old enough to recognise that a prescribed diagnostic test was, although not described as such by my doctor, a cancer screen. I knew a new kind of fear. 

I began to see myself as a biological creature with some ability to transcend the dictates of my evolutionary beginnings. I wondered if although being Homo sapiens meant I would always feel the biological urge to survive at any cost, I could also become Human, which meant to gain some transcendence over this. Perhaps even death could be faced with some equanimity. I had observed what looked like this equanimity in friends and parishioners close to death. It intrigued me that such a thing was possible.

At such times, I was relaxed, rather than resigned, about dying. I had begun to feel that whatever was needful in life would be given to me. Life was enough. Death was simply a part of it.

But I was also aware that I could come to this position because of an astonishingly privileged life, a life with just enough pain to wake me to reality. For many folk, it seemed to me that life offered no such privilege. Pastoral conversations witnessed to barbarity in our streets which we would prefer to think was restricted to distant places like Abu Ghraib. I could see little prospect for many folk I knew to look back at life with fondness or gratitude.

And of course, if there is no life beyond death, the New Testament, with its insistence of some sort of survival beyond death, is unavoidably deluded, or fundamentally dishonest, because resurrection is specifically literalised. "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." (1 Cor 15:12-19)  

This left me with another contradiction. The transformation which comes from living vulnerably and compassionately, which the entire Christian tradition points us toward, was now undeniably true in my own experience, and visible in the lives of folk around me. I had been given a new level of certainty that the Gospel is not a delusion or denial about life but, instead, profoundly true.

Why would God create me simply to allow me to be destroyed by death? What purpose was there in giving life and joy simply to take it away? Why bring a smart animal to something approaching humanity, simply to end it? All this seemed to contradict the sense of God which I had begun to meet, and which, finally, I had begun to trust enough that it had become my reality. I began to think that perhaps the gospel writers had an insight which I had not yet been given; that they were not in death denial at all. Indeed, "for thy sake we face death all day long." (Romans 8:36) No denial there.

The settled and easy answer here is that they were simply wrong. They were deluded or dishonest, depending on how charitable one feels. But the pleasure and triumph with which such diagnoses are proclaimed by some folk had begun to intrigue me. I wondered if such certain proclamations were themselves a denial of something. Perhaps I recognised a certain denial-covering arrogance I too have exhibited. Something altogether too convenient was going on.

Mixed in with this, was my long held suspicion that biological death being the end of us was itself a denial of our predicament as created, contingent, and lesser beings who do not own ourselves. I had long felt the "obvious" truth that "life after death" did not exist, was, as one of my philosophy lecturers used to say, "a bit quick." And now I was faced with the thought that "life after death" was, given my experience of God, more likely than not!

Which all suggested that death as oblivion was not going to happen. "There is no point in killing myself," a friend remarked, "because the things I need to sort out will still be there waiting for me in the next life!"

And that is its own problem. One could say that at this point, I am the one proclaiming an altogether too convenient idea, because I have just neatly avoided the problem of death. But such a convenience is true only for the briefest of moments, if at all, for I will still die.

There is something else: One of my issues in all this is that despite the fear, there is a large part of me which longs to die. I know from pastoral experience that I am not alone in this; indeed, I suspect it is quite common to long for death. Death solves all our problems. If we are god-avoiders, then death finally lets us have some peace. If we are god-desirers, then death finally lets us have some peace. We may call it heaven, bliss, eternity, or oblivion, but it all comes to the same thing: the burdens of life are over.

I come to this conclusion as a melancholic whose gift occasionally takes him into areas the clinicians call depression. A symptom of depression is said to be the repression of feelings. This is true enough, but the repression of feelings, oddly, also lets one think the unthinkable. As the repression of the death-fear feelings deepens, death looks oddly like a gift.

But here I was, deciding that possibly, even probably, death would not mean life was over. It is bizarre testament to our human complexity that, having come to a position where I suspected death was not the end, I resented the fact!

Indeed, the logic of what I have begun to experience suggests that biological death is not even, as one of the funeral liturgies says, "a new beginning in our life with God." (UIW 1 pp456) The logic of the Faith suggests to me that death is more likely life being taken through a corner which those of us still "here" cannot see around. If God has brought us so far, why would God stop work on us now?

From this perspective, it is not death which is the problem. Life is the problem. Life is what exhausts us. Life is what terrorises and brutalises us. Death would free us from life… only I am not sure that it will! It seems quite possible, even likely, that life will go on in some other way.

My daughter once remarked to me that life is about learning to die well.

A first level of 'wellness' might be to accept we are going to die, and to live this at some level beyond merely saying those words. Could we read one of those internet memes about the things that people wished they had done more of in life, and let go, now, of the things that don't really count? I mean, really, who needs a new iPhone?

But I wonder if, at another level, death is not a problem to be accepted, but that death is in some way the key to life. Death is clearly the Gordian knot of life. It seems to snarl and tangle up everything about our existence and our highest ideals. But when Alexander slashed the knot to pieces he avoided the problem rather than engage with it. The easy denials of death which assume comforting oblivion or blissful life in heaven— whatever that means— do the same. They cannot, or will not, imagine that perhaps the struggle with the knot is the answer.

This is the knot which it appears we cannot untangle: Human society consists of coalitions which are essentially violent. The thing which allows us to exist is the thing which makes life a place of terror. The evolutionary psychologist John Tooby says we have

evolved neural programs specialized for navigating the world of coalitions—teams, not groups. ... These programs enable us and induce us to form, maintain, join, support, recognize, defend, defect from, factionalize, exploit, resist, subordinate, distrust, dislike, oppose, and attack coalitions. …

Coalitions are sets of individuals interpreted by their members and/or by others as sharing a common abstract identity (including propensities to act as a unit, to defend joint interests, and to have shared mental states and other properties of a single human agent, such as status and prerogatives)…  

Since coalitional programs evolved to promote the self-interest of the coalition’s membership (in dominance, status, legitimacy, resources, moral force, etc.), even coalitions whose organizing ideology originates (ostensibly) to promote human welfare often slide into the most extreme forms of oppression, in complete contradiction to the putative values of the group.  (John Tooby)

Tooby's use of the word coalitions is important. The fact of our coalitions exposes our self-deception about the word community. Indeed, our 'coalitional nature' illuminates our limitations upon love. Tooby's coalitions suggest to me that what we call community is not common good, it is the good of our local coalition over against other coalitions. Community is something to which we aspire, rather than a reality, and the ideal of community is constantly undermined by self-interest. This is because the coalition which is seeking to create community is our protection against death, and the coalition uses the threat of death to maintain its position comparative to other coalitions… so that we will not die.

Walter Wink showed this cycle of violence in his article the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The

Myth of Redemptive Violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos by means of violence. It is the ideology of conquest, the original religion of the status quo. The gods favour those who conquer. Conversely, whoever conquers must have the favour of the gods… [This] … myth is far from finished. It is as universally present and earnestly believed today as at any time in its long and bloody history. It is the dominant myth in contemporary America. It enshrines the ritual practice of violence at the very heart of public life, and even those who seek to oppose its oppressive violence do so violently. We have already seen how the myth of redemptive violence is played out in the structure of children’s cartoon shows (and is found as well in comics, video and computer games, and movies). But we also encounter it in the media, in sports, in nationalism, in militarism, in foreign policy, in televangelism, in the religious right, and in self-styled militia groups.

By naming this the Myth of Redemptive Violence, Wink makes clear that it is a story about life. A story may have alternatives; there may be other ways of telling and explaining the same experiences. The underlying assumption which leads us to accept violence, according to Wink's article, is that

Ours is neither a perfect nor perfectible world; it is theatre of perpetual conflict in which the prize goes to the strong. Peace through war, security through strength: these are the core convictions that arise from this ancient historical religion, and they form the solid bedrock on which the Domination System is founded in every society [because] violence is the story of the victory of order over chaos…

There is another story, I believe, but until we unravel the Gordian knot of death, we cannot tell that story. Denying death simply leaves us at its mercy. Even accepting it as inevitable does not challenge the myth; it actually justifies violence: after all, since death is inevitable, why not him instead of me, us instead of them?

In fear of chaos, which is ultimately the fear of death, we seek to use violence to remove violence and make safety. We therefore have a "tendency to hold on to life at the expense of victims, and think we are just to do so." (On Being Liked James Alison pp39) We may speak of us as a species, but we— the us disappear because we have constructed our reality so that there are others as opposed to us, and in this us and them, we scarcely notice that we have demonised the other. They are never our victim; they are simply wrong because we, by definition, are right. We are the just. There is always an enemy, an other, which wishes to destroy us. The other is always the source of chaos.

There seems to be something inevitable about this, which is why the Myth of Redemptive Violence is so potent. The good, that which seeks to "promote human welfare," can never win against violence in a society of coalitions, unless it uses violence. This is because coalitions are ultimately about death avoidance.  They cannot afford to lose.  If we refuse to be violent, then any who choose violence can do what they will to us. If we choose to be non violent, then ultimately, we will lose.

This last paragraph may seem unduly cynical, but Terror Management Theory teaches me that the fear of death permeates everything we do. Life is a project, a vanity (cf Ecclesiastes 6:1-6 etc) to in some way outlive death. Richard Beck describes the work of Ernst Becker in The Denial of Death:

How do we make life “count” in the face of death? Here is where cultural hero systems step in to provide paths toward death transcendence—a means toward a symbolic (or literal) immortality…

[Becker suggests] that “our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic.” This heroism—a feeling of significance—is achieved by following cultural pathways that mark a life, within any given culture, as both admirable and well lived. More, this heroism is found in a life that “makes a difference” by creating or being a part of something that “lasts” … Becker argues that the quest for self-esteem is fundamentally an attempt to cope with the terror of death: “heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.” He implies that culture itself, which determines the routes toward heroism, is massively engaged in the repression of death awareness. As Becker notes, “cultures are fundamentally and basically styles of heroic death denial.” (Richard Beck The Slavery of Death pp36,7 Cascade Books Kindle Edition.)

Once we imbue life with cultural "significance" we are able to calm (or repress) our existential fears. (Beck)

While we are afraid of death, while we must stay alive, while we are driven, there cannot be community. There can only be coalition which wins or loses. Life must be violent because life is "circumscribed by death." Indeed, James Alison says we often define life as "not being dead.” (Raising Abel pp35)

We do cooperate with those who are other. Yet this cooperation is seeking a mutual benefit against a greater or more dangerous other, a common enemy, which threatens our life project. Which might be another coalition, or might be the risk of all losing our project to famine, or losing too much to a pyrrhic victory. The "common good" is more likely a provisional truce until we can gain the ascendency.

There is a sharp question about church here. The Greek word for church is ecclesia, a gathering. The ecclesia was "the principal assembly of the democracy of ancient Athens." How is it that a church can be anything more than one more coalition, and therefore based in violence?

Until we— as ecclesia, and as individuals— are prepared to die, death, or those wielding it, has us at its mercy, for nonviolence is to choose, ultimately, to die, if our death should be seen as advantageous to someone else.

The one who fears death is a slave and subjects themself to everything in order to avoid dying... But the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a person should decide to disregard this, whose slave are they then? The person who fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For the one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to the one 'who counteth not even their life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. John Chrysostom, quoted here, but with the language made gender neutral.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is true until we choose to die. I find it suggestive that already in Luke's Gospel (I am writing in the week after Christmas) Symeon says to the infant Jesus' mother,

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too. (Luke 2:34-35)

This statement reminds us that the story ends with Jesus' death. But it means for Mary, that until she takes the same death for herself, she cannot avail herself of the alternative Myth which the Gospel of Luke tells. My problem in life has been that I have sought some way to persuade others to the good. I have sought to tell, and to live, the story of the Christ so that somehow others might be converted to a better way of living. But always with the assumption that I could win; that I could retain the privilege of life "here." All I am offered… is life.

Life loses its absurdity and pointlessness when I practice the compassion of the Christ; that is, when I live alongside— with— those who are vulnerable, and when I let go of my protective privilege. Not when I state this as a theory, or accept it as a proposition to signal my Christian adherence, but when I live it.

Life also loses its absurdity and pointlessness when I live alongside— with—  those who are other. Ultimately this means "dealing with dangerous people" from a position of vulnerability rather than power or privilege. It means they are "more than likely to be deeply destabilised by your innocence and because of that seek to lynch you." In other words, life also means to live alongside those who are not vulnerable, and to choose not to win, not to use violence, or the threat of it— which is violence— to keep myself safe. I have provoked very little "deep destabilisation" as Alison (On Being Liked pp 43) calls it, but enough to sense that he is correct.

This experience teaches me that to have life is to have a sword pierce my soul. Life means death. To seek safety, to ensure life "here," is always to hang back, to refuse riches. Life is to risk the sword, to practice small deaths, always at the risk of the dying where "someone fastens a belt around me and takes me where I do not wish to go." (John 21:18) Yet it is around this last corner that the Faith understands we find that death was indeed empty; that it does not exist for God; that it was... a faulty intuition on our part.

There is one last datum for this provisional history. The whole retelling of life which I have been seeking to learn, has flickered in and out of view. I finally understand that I am not learning a proposition which can be believed or rejected. I am experiencing a discipline which, slowly, I am able to describe. Its reality is not the description; its reality is experienced in the doing. It is the doing, the practicing, which begins to bare the soul. This is my conversion.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

The Denial of Death, Richard Beck (Available as an eBook)
Raising Abel, and On Being Liked, James Alison
The Myth of Redemptive Violence, Walter Wink
Meaning, Freedom, Death, Andrew Prior

Wes Penney 05-01-2018
A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe'; a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely but striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security. Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate

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