Sunday, May 22, 2011

Reflections on death

For the last several months, I've spent some time reflecting on the reality of death. I suppose this is part of the "growing up" thing, but it has been a humbling and sometimes terrifying process. For more of my life I've believed a few basic things about death: that death isn't the end (we have eternal souls), that after death we spend eternity with God or without God, and depending on this outcome, life after death can be far better of an experience.

I haven't really been challenging these beliefs, but for a number of reasons my reflection on death has been more to understand how other's think of death: especially those who don't believe in the soul.

This has been hard because it requires "setting aside" my reasons for believing what I believe, but it has been a rewarding "exercise". It's interesting how often we experience death. Obviously death is a constant in the universe, all of us have friends or family that either have died or will die. More than that, death is something we read about daily, watch on the news or the latest prime time show, and one is hard pressed to find video games that don't include death in some fashion. The tragedy and pain of death is too potent to escape (maybe there are some powerful drugs to do that?). It's rather disappointing that we consume death in so many forms that we can be a bit numb to it's reality. Maybe this is part of why when it happens to someone we are close to, it blind sides us and brings our world to a crashing halt. Or maybe we like to consume it because it's easier to consume the fiction of death rather than the reality.

Over the last few months, I've had a few moments of near terror when I was able to wrap my mind around the notion of death without an afterlife. It seems rather foolish, but to imagine the entire cessation of one's existence is impossible to comprehend (obviously because comprehending usually involves some relationship to myself, and so comprehending not-me is rather contradictory). It's very empty to think of everyone else having their stories continue and mine not only stopping, but my awareness of their stories ceasing as well. The end of life being a hard termination really provides little to live for. I suppose for such a person all that is really life is one's legacy and children. Some might add "live life to the fullest", but no one experience really lasts so this seems rather pointless.

Really, this perspective seems like such a hopeless cycle: my purpose in life is to provide the best for my children, so they can provide the best for their children, and so on. This really sounds like evolutionary naturalism at it's cruelest: the purpose for life is to continue life. This seems a rather poor purpose. Certainly we could do better, right? Notions such as beauty, joy, creativity, friendship, hope, justice, charity, and love demand more, because otherwise they are just pale distractions instead of the spice of life that they rightly ought to be. More than this, parenting for legacy seems more destructive and self serving (thankfully this was not my experience!). It would be interesting to read an anthropological study on telos through history and culture. I suspect everyone has always sought one, and many have included the afterlife in the equation of life. It's hard to reduce this whole mess of humanity to just procreation, and it makes sense why despair is the result if this is our only purpose.

But as with all things, this is the point where I'm inevitably and rightly drawn back to the cross. I don't want to hold on to a child's dream of an afterlife just because the reality of death is too dark or terrifying to hold on to, I'd rather live in that despair than buy into a lie. But as I've been reflecting, I cannot help but be reminded of all of the reasons for why I believe in God. I cannot watch a sunset, listen to a beautiful song, or see a beautiful vista without praising God. I cannot escape the order and harmony in a universe, the rational structure that our mind's desire, nor the reality that the statement "I exist" must be more than the computation of a complex biological computer. (At this point I want to read more, the notion of consciousness as nothing more than neurons and brain chemistry seems like very poor philosophy). I am drawn to the long list of reasons that I think most rationally argue that God exists, the Bible reliably and faithfully reveals him, and Jesus was who he said he was. Like a child rescued from a well, I've felt the despair melt and hope return as the light returns. What began as an intellectual "game" actually took me to a bit of a dark place, but the truth of Jesus rescued me once again from the darkness.

Death is still a tragic loss, but in Christ it is not the end. This life is just the beginning of our story. I do reject the notion that we are souls "driving" bodies, I believe the two are profoundly intertwined and connected than we always realize, (e.g. Phil 3:20-21; 1 Cor 15:36-38), so this life isn't just a waiting room. I think this is part of the genuine real joy and hope that Christians have: today we not only have a connection with our creator and high priest, but we have a deeper connection with one another and a real purpose to life: to know God, to experience real fellowship in community, and to love other's with God's love.

I have to be honest, I still have doubt, but honestly I doubt just about everything to some degree. Certainty doesn't mean 0% doubt though, certainty means reasonable confidence, and I feel reasonably certain about my current stance. I still have a lot of processing to do on the notion of my own mortality, I'm guessing that's something that will never change. But over the last few months, I've at least found confidence and hope in this process. I think this is an intellectually satisfying conclusion, but more than that, it is an emotionally satisfying perspective. It's nice when things are a double win like that!


Annalisa Ure said...

thanks for writing about your trip. i really appreciate what you shared.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your writing in this post. A couple of thoughts.

1. What is life has no purpose in the existential sense beyond that which we create for it? What if purpose is not so simple as evolution and not so complex as religion? What if purpose is rather the individual's create enterprise?

2. In Buddhist practice, there is a great deal of focus on meditating and working toward a self-silence. In this practice, a great peace is commonly found in this silence. This is what I imagine death to be like. There is something beautiful in this view of self-silence. But this beauty is found through regular reflection and processing of that angst universally attached to death.