Essay / Culture

O Death

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

I never liked going to funerals. In my childhood, they were sad affairs and fairly formal. Later they became full of false cheerfulness and endless speeches about the departed. Secular funerals were the worst of all. Such events are full of courage, but not much else. Death is a bad thing for a secularist, or at least the decline that leads to death is, and no amount of stiff upper lips can deal with it.

No one likes thinking about death. Life insurance is a good idea, but few people buy it. Why? They have to admit that someone will eventually use it. Death is the one thing no person can escape. Science will never deliver us from it. For if old age were defeated and death postponed until the sun died and all the other stars died in the cold death or in the great fiery crunch of matter that are the tales that secularism gives us for the End of All Things, it would still be an end in death for individual persons. Science itself cannot help us survive the End.

Secularism must either avoid the truth of death or pretend to be brave. Most secularists don’t think about death very much. They create their own meaning in life. The difficulty is that their life has no higher meaning however much meaning they create for themselves. A meaning I create is a meaning that falls apart as I do. Even a love that moves my own personal cosmos cannot defeat death. I might be able to create some meaning for my own story, but I cannot create it for the one I love and as she slips away in death, my own personal meaning will seem the cruel, hollow thing it is.

Every secularist is isolated since if secularism is true, then every man dies alone. Secularism avoids death, but it cannot give it meaning. In the end, it must face the fact that every individual life does not matter. There is no Grand Scheme of things. This is simply not good news. Hope is no virtue since death cannot be cheated. The boys who die to defend us from terrorism are simply dead. There is no eternal reward and no possible meaning to their sacrifice other than the one we assign to it for ourselves. However, that personal assigned meaning does not help them. It is hard to see why any atheist would wish to be in a fox hole. Some do go, but it is not clear that they are being wise. In the end, there is no hope. Every secularist believes he will lose.

Hope is a Christian virtue. Only the great monotheistic religions can believe in the face of death. Christianity does not avoid death for it contains a God who dies. Instead, Christianity recognizes that death is part of a larger pattern that gives meaning to death and to life. If this meaning can be rationally sustained, and it can, then such meaning is to be preferred. Now and at the hour of their death, the Christian is surrounded by a great cloud of angels, saints, and a loving God. Death is a journey.

This is why, though we do not view it as a good, a Christian need not fear death. I once did, I do much less now. Death is the last lesson in a hard school, never to be repeated, graduation from which will lead to life forever. Or perhaps this earthly death is just the first of many greater deaths we will experience in paradise as we grow from life to life in the presence of God. No man can say. But divine revelation tells us that the sorrow of death will be no more on the other side. Bad pain will pass away. Life, more fundamental than death, will be forever.

All the losses will be made whole. All the pain made meaningful. Mercy will govern with justice. We will live in Light with a God who loves us.

At this point, the mocking begins. Isn’t that sweet? Well, yes, it is. It is a sweet tale that can be rationally defended by philosophers. Why not adopt it? Courage practiced that is not needed is wasted. Let’s save our courage for the hard moral decisions of this life that prepare us for the life to come. I don’t want to believe a comfortable falsehood instead of the truth, but most of our intelligentsia look like they are willing to believe a comfortable truth in the face of an uncomfortable idea.

You are going to die. I am going to die. What will we make of it? Will I try to give meaning to my life myself? Or shall I find a higher meaning that makes sense of both our deaths and so allows for a true community?

When I die, I plan not to die alone. I will close my eyes and see Jesus Christ. What a noble tale! All things being equal, I choose to believe it for my experience and reason say that Beauty is deeper and more true than the ugly, Truth than error, and Life than death.

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