Death

Somewhere out past the Victorian border a bloke had delivered a load of superphosphate to a farm. He had a boy with him, five or six, and they sat in the paddock gateway for a minute or so, watching me ride towards them. When I was a hundred metres or so away, the semi turned on to the road and slowly began to build up speed and pull away.  Perhaps that's why I didn't hear the other semi-trailer, the one behind me.  It rocketed past, well over any speed limit, and barely a foot away from me.

They say time slows down when something like this happens. Perhaps it's that so much happens in a second or two that it takes much longer to replay it in the mind, let alone write it down. A few hundred metres ahead of me, the second semi's driver suddenly realised he was about to drive up the back of a much slower truck. He jammed on the brakes and began to slide on the bitumen.

Perhaps the first driver had seen him coming, but misjudged how fast he was travelling; I could understand how that could happen. Or perhaps he'd not even seen him in the setting sun, and was looking in his mirrors to see where I was. Either way, he managed to get his rig off the road with all the speed and agility of a trail bike, which meant the offending driver skidded past, straightened up, and roared off. The second semi pulled back onto the road and followed him as I breathed in burning rubber, and heard my tyres swish in the still-molten skid marks.

I thought the second driver must have fallen asleep. Or perhaps he was sending a text. Then I realised that, if he hadn't seen that big semi until those last seconds, he probably hadn't seen me at all.

A lot of life is blind luck. The Psalmist said

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you (Psalm 91)

He was wrong. My friend Chris told me how his mate looked at him and said, "That was close!" when a bullet passed between them. And seconds later, was killed as another one passed through his neck. "He was a good Roman Catholic boy, too."

Indeed, if we live life well and true, the following text is more appropriate:

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed... (Mark 8:31a)

We might note here that although Son of Man was a title Jesus used of himself, a son of man can just mean a mortal being like any one of us.

The verse continues beyond death with the words

and after three days rise again. (8:31b)

It is part of the Christian witness that death does not circumscribe life. Death is a way to something more. It is not the end. I wonder, sometimes, if it might not be a beginning.

People will claim that this is a death denial. That it is magical thinking designed to avoid dealing with our fear of death. It's on a level with a six year old who, hearing of the death of someone we both knew, gravely told me, "I'm not going to die." Problem solved.

I have three things to say about this claim. The first is that it is very often correct. I came to faith partly because of my fear of what would happen when I died; I was in denial. But I would also point out that such folk are at least letting themselves see they will die.  Many of us seem to live with less self-awareness than that six year old.

As the 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin wrote, “We undertake all things as if we were establishing immortality for ourselves on earth. If we see a dead body, we may philosophize briefly about the fleeting nature of life, but the moment we turn away from the sight the thought of our own perpetuity remains fixed in our minds.” Death is an abstraction to us, something technically true but unimaginable as a personal reality. (Timothy Keller)

My second response is that many of the "non-religious" responses to death are also a denial. "Death is simply that we no longer exist, so why worry?" Such a statement may be a considered stoicism, but can also be a refusal to contemplate the painful absurdity that the glory which is human life apparently just ceases to exist. I'd call that a denial.

All humans deny death at some level. It is a biological inheritance and imperative. "Survival of the fittest" is how we got here. Our basic biology often keeps pumping blood when most of us is dead. "We" inherit that instinct for survival in our willingness to do almost anything to avoid death, even when everything seems lost, or is lost.   Otherwise we would not be here as a species. But are we merely a death denying, death defying machine which still always loses the battle in the end?

This brings me to the third thing I would say. "Religious faith" is not fundamentally death denying.  It is death defying. And it trusts—trust is essentially the verb of the noun faith— it trusts that in that defiance, death does not win. I placed religious faith in inverted commas because I am not talking only about Christianity here. I am speaking of anyone who trusts that life is so profound and valuable, so glorious and beautiful, and dare I say, "holy," that it is worth living differently. It is worth living for a kind of justice and love that would mean all people have the same opportunity for a rich life as we do, rather than leaving them in poverty or disadvantage for the benefit of the rich and powerful.

This is not death denial because it trusts that life—people—has value and meaning despite death. Rather, it is death defying because, if we live such a life well, it begins to cost us. Even to the point of death, as the lives of Sophie Scholl, Oscar Romero and Steve Biko, and countless others show us.

The sticking point for many of us, of course, is the Christian assertion that the alleged resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in some way "proves" that we too will be raised from death. From inside the "Theological Circle," as Paul Tillich called it, this story is part of a much greater paradigm which, frankly, makes a lot more sense to me than the proclamations of the so called New Atheists.* But I seem to be fated to live in the borderlands and make frequent interstate trips out of the theological circle. From what I can see, and feel in myself, that giving of ourselves which serious Christians model upon the life of Jesus, still works "across the border." To give, rather than simply take of life, and to give so that it costs, (which is love rather than an easy charity,) is to partake in a series of "little deaths" of the stay-alive-and-on-top inheritance from our biology. Over time, these little deaths seem to lessen the fear of biological death.

My friend Gavin, another cyclist who knows the dangers of distracted drivers, once told me this theory of life and death:

When we are born we are given a ticket in a lottery. They draw tickets every day. We can buy extra tickets if we want, by smoking, running red lights, or not looking when we cross the road. And then it will be more likely that our number comes up sooner than later. But we have no control over the process. We can do all the right things to avoid getting an extra ticket: eat well, drive safely, and exercise. But one day, tomorrow perhaps, our ticket may come up, sparing the wife beating drunkard next to us.

There is undeniable truth in this. The question is how we will respond; with faith, or with the ultimate death denial, which is to live only for ourselves, perhaps with a few favours for those closest to us. This is also a denial of our humanity because, in the end, it is the existence of the least of the animals, self-focussed, and barely aware of death at all.

(Dec 30 2021)

 

* Sometimes the unfairness of life, such as when a child is killed, appears to make religious faith ridiculous. Or perhaps we read some Dawkinsesque dismantling of a foolish theology. It often seems to me that people give up too soon, and would be better served seeking a deeper theology. Having said that, I'm not at all sure what it is that enabled me to continue searching, rather than just walking away from the faith!


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