Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return

Today many of us will have some ashes smudged on our heads, reminding us that we are going to die, and asking each one of us to turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. How should you react? How should you react if someone were to say to you that you’re going to be turned to ashes, that you’re all going to die? And why does thinking about your eventual death help you to turn away from sin? I mean, if you are going to die, perhaps you should get some serious sinning under your belt, or maybe even some serious sinning below your belt!

So why the stress on death? Why does the Church want to remind you that you’re going to die? Isn’t the Church supposed to be spreading good news, emphasising new life in Christ, emphasising eternal life? Why death?

The simple answer is that Jesus emphasised it again and again. You’ll remember the saying, ‘If anyone saves his life, he will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will save it’. Or again, ‘If people try to make their life secure, they will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’ Or, ‘Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ Our baptismal liturgy echoes much the same theme: in baptism we literally drown and are reborn — we die to sin and come to real life. And Jesus’ own life is very much the story of someone who had to let go of his own life for others. And for that reason, we are told, God raised him to new life. Had he clung to life, we wouldn’t be here today.

Given the radical centrality of this death-life connection, it’s a bit odd that Christians have kind of sidelined death — or at least they have sidelined it theologically — for several thousand years. Death, they said, was a result of sin, original sin. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, there apparently was no death. Prior to Adam’s and Eve’s sin, we’re told, no one died, no one had deadly diseases, no one hurt themselves when they fell off cliffs or high trees; no one was devoured by lions; deadly cancer didn’t exist; birth defects didn’t exist. Death only came into the world when sin entered the world — a teaching based not so much on Genesis, which is ambiguous on this point, but on Romans 5, which could (and probably should) be seen as St Paul’s using physical death as a symbol for spiritual, even eternal, death.

I must say that I took such an approach myself for quite a few years. I thought to myself that, if death were an evil (and it does seem pretty nasty), then God couldn’t be the cause of it. After all, God wouldn’t, God couldn’t, create anything that wasn’t good; therefore death couldn’t possibly be part of God’s original plan; it couldn’t be part of God’s original creation. Someone else must be to blame.

But that’s too easy. Human beings have always been finite, which is to say we are and never have been in-finite: we’re not and we’ve never been God. No doubt death has a lot to do with sin, with the evil we do to ourselves and to one another; and it is probably the perfect symbol for understanding what sin does to us; but death is an inherent part of our being finite creatures. Death is and always has been natural — as natural as living. If you’re biological, you will die. Physical death is not a punishment in and of itself. And our finitude, our being finite beings — this is a universal and good aspect of all of creation: it’s not an evil to be explained away. We don’t need to make excuses for God: God created a finite universe.

The thing is, because we wrote off death as something evil, we rarely bothered to ask whether there is anything good in death. We rarely asked why God made a universe where all living things inevitably die, where even non-living things — all of them — inevitably lose the battle against entropy and die out too. But what if death cannot be written off? If God created death, as it were, shouldn’t we be asking why? Could it be that, in being created in the image and likeness of God, our living and our dying are both — somehow — in the image and likeness of God? Could it be that there is something about our having to face death that reveals something about God?

If, like me, you’ve had family members who have died recently, then these questions are not just theoretical questions, but exquisitely painful questions, especially as you watch death slowly overtake the body of a loved one, as you wrestle with the God who created the universe, knowing full-well that people would invariably die — and die often in the most horrendous and painful circumstances, leaving the survivors to experience the soul-numbing pain of separation.

And yet Jesus realised that clinging on to life is futile: ‘If anyone tries to make his life secure, he will lose it; but those who lose their life will keep it.’

This is a huge paradox, but Jesus is surely right. If you consider your own death, as you are asked to do today, you can either descend into moroseness (or a whole range of neuroses) or you can discover an unusual kind of freedom. If we’re all going to die anyway, then perhaps nothing has any real meaning at all. That’s certainly one way of looking at things. But if we are going to die anyway, then we ultimately have nothing to lose: we can live life to the full, we can take real risks, we can live radically, love radically, risk courageously: you can even dare to love your enemy. And if that’s true for each of us, just imagine what a community of people who thought that way could accomplish.

All of this cuts to the very heart of Jesus’s teaching: God is so trustworthy that you can choose to do the right thing, you can dare to love sacrificially; because, in the end, you’re going to have to trust God anyway: death ensures that. And Jesus’s own death and resurrection — these are God’s way of assuring us that such trust is not in vain.

There is this strange sense that we do have to let go of life, let go of our fear of losing life, in order to live life. And that’s not just a nice, theoretical, paradoxical sort of maxim. No, we actually have to do it. We have to let go of life physically. I’m well in my fifties now, and I can already feel it happening bit by bit. We’re talking about real death here. We have to live life facing death. In the face of death, we discover that we can’t cause ourselves to continue to exist. We face the fact that we can’t save ourselves. We realise that we are creatures — finite creatures — not gods: we can’t even claim our own lives as our own. If we are to live again, as Christians hope and believe, then such a life is not something we can give to ourselves.

And what does this reveal about God? Well, it reveals that all love, even or especially divine love, involves a dying to self; it involves a giving of self. Love demands that we not cling to life and hoard it as some possession. In the Trinity, the Father gives of his very own life to the Son. The Father does not cling to life; instead he shares it completely. And the Son does not cling to his equality with God, but empties himself, as we can read in Philippians 2.5, and offers his life, his Spirit, back to the Father. And this shared Spirit is offered to us, not as something we can own, but only as something we can share. And that emptying, that embracing of death, even death on a cross, that sharing of life itself — that is the Christian image of the costliness of love: not just for Jesus, but for the Father as well … the Father who shares infinitely in the pain of his Son’s having to let go of life, and yet the Father who also knows that Jesus’s faith was well-placed, that God indeed is in fact ultimately trustworthy, that death is not the final word. Love is the final word.

As I alluded to earlier, I realise that some of us have faced and are facing the deaths of loved ones. No doubt you are already anticipating the pain of loss: Do you dare love him or her so much as she dies? Do you dare believe that love makes sense in the face of death? If not, then nothing would make any sense at all. Nothing would matter in the end. But we know that things matter, because we do love, and we choose love. That’s the choice. That’s what Jesus was asking us to do: choose life, choose love, choose God. And the power of that radical choice comes to the fore when we confront death, as we do symbolically in the ceremony of the sprinkling of ashes.

Posted by Joe Cassidy on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 7:07am GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: just thinking

Well I go along with that as the religious task: to come to terms with death and live life to the full, but not to have some other life as some salvation reward. Once gone I want to be gone.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 11:46am GMT

And then there is the possible cyclical nature of the Big Bang theory with the attendant death and then the rebirth of the created universe. Another reflection of God's nature - another part of the dark mirror we look into with hope and wonder. Enjoy the ashes!

Posted by: ettu on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 12:23pm GMT

"Well I go along with that as the religious task: to come to terms with death and live life to the full, but not to have some other life as some salvation reward. Once gone I want to be gone."

Do we have a choice in the matter? If there is nothing after we shuffle off this mortal coil, do I get to invent an afterlife because I don't like the idea of dying? Likewise, if there IS an afterlife, do I get some sort of an exemption because I don't want to live after I am lowered into the earth?

Posted by: Ford Elms on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 1:21pm GMT

Generally sensible piece. No truck with silly beliefs that death only came in post-'Fall'. What isn't clear to me is how far author is allowing belief in afterlife/resurrection (whatever). One or two phrases may allow this, but the general drift is emphatically away from it. But some such belief seems to me absolutely entailed by any claim for God's goodness/justice etc. (not that it is easy to believe in such a belief!), because of the countless hordes who die unjustly. Of course, that in turn requires quite a lot of 'tweaking' of traditional theology about the Resurrection (also hard to believe in, but a necessary beleif if the whole thing is to have any coherence/oersuasive power).

Posted by: john on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 2:00pm GMT

I agree that we cannot excuse God by saying that all death is a consequence of sin, but this article comes dangerously close to excusing him by suggesting that death isn’t that bad after all. The death of Ivan Cameron may be “natural”, but it is certainly not good.

We are to live self-sacrificially in the face of death, not because we’ve learned that its chaotic waters are actually part of the harmony of creation, but because we believe, paradoxically, that holding onto the self is part of the same chaos.

Posted by: MH on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 2:11pm GMT

"Once gone I want to be gone"

I agree with you that another life as a kind of salvation "reward" sounds ridiculous. And I don't take any of it literally.

And yet, there is something touching about "once gone I want to be gone". If the God we believe in is real, although you may not believe in him, this may be beyond your ability to choose. Whatever it might mean.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 2:57pm GMT

But it isn't about eternal life as some sort of reward or something. It is about what life actually is. The Fall resulted in our enslavement to sin and death. It is patently ridiculous to say there was no death before the Fall, but is it so ridiculous to say that the consequences of the physical cessation of bodily function were changed as a result? So, as result of the Fall, we are subject to a whole lot of nasty stuff, like guilt, sin, death, etc. God intervenes, in His own good time. He becomes part of His Creation so that He can restore it to what it had been before the Fall. He raises us back, so that whatever the consequences that became attached to death as a result of the Fall, they no longer apply. The natural rules no longer apply. Nature has been changed. The day of the Resurrection is The Eighth Day of Creation, the day creation was finally perfected. We are regenerate, made new, a new creation, one that is not enslaved to sin and death. Redemption is not, never was, never will be, some legal transaction whereby we bribe God to let us get away with it. It is entrance into a new state of being, one we can only barely begin even to perceive even though we live in it. That's why the invocation of saints, the veneration of icons, God becoming a piece of Bread, and on and on, all these things are so important. If you don't understand the Incarnation, then you are guaranteed to see them as idolatry and sacrilege. But, the Christ event was a Creation changing event, and utterly materialistic in that sense, and the Catholic Faith is about putting that into practice. The grandeur of this mythology just makes all that Evangelical Penal Substitutionary Atonemet stuff look so, well, small minded and petty. The miracles of the Gospels were also about this, Jesus showing us what the life of the Kingdom is and that we can do the same thing too if only our faith is able to see that while we seem to be waiting for the Kingdom,we are already in it by virtue of our baptisms. My faith isn't of the quality of St. Martin de Porres, for instance, which is why I can't talk to mice and be in two places at once like he could.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 3:37pm GMT

Thanks for the comments on my sermon for this evening. I hadn't anticipated the death of Ivan, but I had written it in the context of the death of my mother. I certainly didn't want to give the impression that death is wonderful (Jesus, after all, wasn't crazy about it one bit), but I did want to suggest that it's not necessarily an evil in itself, or even an ontic or pre-moral evil (to use the formal language). God was expressing God's self in creating a finite universe (or a cyclical one, if the universe does collapse in on itself, as one of three chief models suggests). What I did want to hold out for is the revelatory possibilities of our having to die, whether death is potentially sacramental, I suppose.

Re resurrection, I'd be tempted to start with the incarnation to understand resurrection. If the Divine Second Person has both an infinite and a finite nature, and if that finite human nature has been fully embraced by the Trinity, then resurrection flows naturally. Without resurrection, the Second Person of the Trinity no longer has two natures, and in effect becomes a different person. For much the same reason, traditional christology affirms that the incarnation was not an afterthought.

That puts 'resurrection' in a properly theological category: it first says something about God, and it only secondarily says something about us.

Bottom-line, I guess, is that the letting go is not in order to live (as may be implied by a reward approach) but it is living itself. I anticipate that the resurrected life will somehow be an eternal process of letting go, of sharing in the divine cycle of eternal begetting, and so on.


Posted by: Joe Cassidy on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 6:53pm GMT

Interesting the reaction to this piece (I didn't care much for it at first---in its first paragraphs---but it grew on me, as it grew ;-/).

"What isn't clear to me is how far author is allowing belief in afterlife/resurrection (whatever). One or two phrases may allow this, but the general drift is emphatically away from it."

I just didn't get that at all, John. OCICBW!

A blessed Lent to one and all...

Posted by: JCF on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 6:54pm GMT

Tell you what, Ford: if there is an afterlife, I shall commit suicide. I'll stick this miserable one out, but that's it. Notice sent.

Posted by: Pluralist on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 7:03pm GMT

The notion that because -- in the beginning -- one man and one woman disobeyed God, and therefore caused a Fall, they are to blame for the fact that all human beings commit evil acts or are disobedient to divine decrees has always been preposterous to me, a cop out -- "Adam and Eve made me do it!" We sin, we mess up, we commit bad or evil acts because we can, because we ourselves choose to do so. If I commit an act harmful to myself, my loved ones, my society, or God, it's not because of the malfeasance of 2 people either 6,013 or 5,769 years ago. It's because I committed those acts, whether it was consciously or through blind anger or rage or avarice, I committed the acts.
God gave us absolute free will. Period. I commit wrong things, because I am imperfect, like all other people. The story of Adam and Eve is merely a metaphor for human beings' fallibility.
Life is a journey, birth is the beginning, and death is a destination. I am unsettled by this, but it makes no difference, I'm going to die anyway. So I myself am going to live the best I can and try to be good to others., knowing I'm going to stumble along the way. I'll pick myself up, try to remember to make amends to any I have harmed along the way, and I will achieve a form of immortality by knowing that one measure of my words and my deeds is the love I leave behind when I am gone, to paraphrase a refrain from a song by the Flirtations. We can achieve immortality through other people's memories. And that will have to suffice.

Posted by: peterpi on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 7:51pm GMT

A very good and thoughtful article by Joe Cassidy.
I happen to be a bit older than Joe, so that the prospect of death is all that much nearer. I think I have come to terms now with the certainty that I will one day die. What I find difficult is to imagine the actual process. I have a close priest friend with terminal cancer, and I hardly know how to converse with him - because of the obvious pain and siffering he is presently encountering - partly exacerbated by the aggressive radiation treatment he is having to undergo.

The prospect of grievous suffering is, I think, for most of us older people, tougher than the actual fact that we must die one day. This may be a reason for Pluralist's desire for oblivion - perhaps out of a need to escape suffering rather than the prospect of total non-being? I don't want to malign you, Pluralist. But I think that many non-believers think in this way. I wish it could be otherwise.

I suppose one can hardly escape the prospect of suffering at some point in our human existence. The power to bear that suffering, I believe, can be traced to some faith in a God who understands what it means to suffer. Death, being inevitable, can either be the cause of hope of resurrection, or, indeed a cause for worry about what might be experienced afterwards.

For me, the example of Christ's resurrection has also become my hope. In the Eucharistic Offering, I believe we are already experiencing the life, death, and resurrection life of Christ, in a way that is both symbolic and a mystical reality. Of course, the gift of faith is necessary to be able to go along with such a possibility. But is that not what Ash Wednesday, and the events leading up to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are reall all about?

Oblivion after death? Not my choice! I look forward to the joy of what the Creator might have in store for all of us, in Christ our Redeemer.

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 9:23pm GMT

We desperately need a rediscovery of theology which takes pain seriously, and a theology which takes current science into some kind of account. I loved this. It is thoughtful, true and courageous.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Wednesday, 25 February 2009 at 10:31pm GMT

Brilliant and very thought-provoking as usual, Joe.

I recall a conversation with my father a few years ago. He is in the midst of a very slow-moving but inexorable terminal illness. He said to me that I need not worry as he had already come to grips with his mortality. I replied that glad as I was to hear that, I had not yet come to grips with his mortality. I have since, and can now look with equanimity toward my father's death. It is clearly not a question of "if" (if it ever was) but "when" and "how." I don't know if I have fully come to grips with my own mortality, but perhaps I have taken a first step.

Incidentally, to move from the sublime to the ridiculous, one definition of life I rather enjoy:

"Life is a terminal condition, transmitted sexually."

Posted by: Nom de Plume on Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 3:10am GMT

"God gave us absolute free will. Period."

I doubt that. It would make for terribly black-and-white human beings, when in reality, we're shades of grey and life is full of shades of grey.

At a moral level, we often have to make decisions that are so complex that few of us, if any, fully understand all the intricacies, far less all the rights and wrongs. You only have to look at those on this forum who flatten every nuanced conversation with their absolute certainties.

Most of our economic and political choices are too complex for us to understand them fully in all their consequences.

I often feel that whatever I choose in life is likely to be wrong, and all I can do is choose between degrees of.... shall we say, risk?

And yes, you could say that being a violent alcoholic is simply morally wrong and that anyone can choose not to be one. But we also know that for some, addiction is genetically a greater possibility than for others.
We know that highly disadvantaged and abused and unloved children are likely to have lower chances of being well rounded, well adjusted adults who find it easy to discern and live out morally "right" behaviour.
We know that some people seem to be drawn towards self harm and self destruction.

To have a concept of moral accountability is absolutely right, and at a macro-level it tends to work.

But when you deal with individuals, the whole muddle of the human condition becomes startlingly obvious and the matter of "free will" is no longer so clear cut.

The story of Adam and Eve is therefore really helpful, when we despair, yet again, that we got it wrong although we tried so hard to get it right this time.

Oh, it's a myth alright, but deep down a very psychologically sound one.

It becomes destructive only if you don't understand it right, and if you have absolute moral certainties and believe that God punished Adam and Eve for messing up and that he has punished us ever since.

It's a myth that is meant to free us: "Keep on trying, you can't get it absolutely right, you know that. It's ok, it IS actually not all your fault, it's within you. Don't despair, don't go round blaming everyone. Get up, dust yourself down and start again." Combined with the forgiveness of sin, it is the most freeing and liberating story there is.

Posted by: Erika Baker on Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 6:12am GMT


I meant I wasn't clear how far the writer was allowing our afterlife/resurrection (however phrased/conceptualised). His response to our comments clarified this.

'We desperately need ... a theology which takes current science into some kind of account.'

I so agree. But there are Christians who do this, and many are Anglicans (of course). For me, as I've boringly said many times, Keith Ward is the leader of the pack. He's absolutely fearless and tackles everything - and maintains his Christian faith (liberal form).

Posted by: john on Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 1:39pm GMT

"if there is an afterlife, I shall commit suicide. I'll stick this miserable one out, but that's it. Notice sent."

Pardon a banal response, Pluralist, but you seem to approach "afterlife" ala the children's doggerel: "Second verse, same as the first: a little bit louder and a little bit worse!"

Perhaps the term "afterlife" just isn't appealing enough? How 'bout "beyondlife", or "beyondexistence"?

I would agree, that a notion of reincarnation---merely slightly above or slightly below Life As I Know It---is a buzzkill (as is---need I mention it?---wings, haloes, street-of-gold, lyres, or even some city w/ a lamb at its center! ;-p).

I take comfort in Einstein: "the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we CAN suppose". And if that's true of the universe, how much MORESO is it true---BEYOND wonderfully queer!---of "Heaven"? :-D

Posted by: JCF on Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 7:36pm GMT

'The death of Ivan Cameron may be “natural”, but it is certainly not good.'

I think that this is an extraordinary statement. Surely death is neither good or bad. It just is. Of course some ways of dying are more horrible than others (which is why I think that one ought to have a say in how to end it where appropriate, but that's another argument altogether). And of course it is perfectly natural to be sad, angry or outraged in the presence of the death of a loved one, especially if sudden or 'unnatural'.

As for the fall, I'm with the writer of the Easter proclamation - 'felix culpa' O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam'. It seems to me that the myth of the eating of the apple is absolutely necessary for the making human of humankind, otherwise we are just playthings of a capricious deity.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Thursday, 26 February 2009 at 7:45pm GMT

Erika Baker, by saying God gave us absolute free will, I wasn't implying that we choose to be alcoholic, for exmple. I wasn't implying that there aren't emotional/psychological forces that we can't always control or are even aware of. I was meaning there wasn't some kind of anti-God (the Devil if you prefer) making us do evil against our will. In some cases, humans do evil acts because they can. In others, we do evil acts through emotions or aspects of the psyche. To put it bluntly, we are the Devil.
And I agree with everything you wrote starting with "Oh, it's a myth alright."

Posted by: peterpi on Friday, 27 February 2009 at 12:12am GMT

John, indeed here are those working on the interface of science and theology and one of them happens to be a personal friend of mine - that does not mean we not not need more - and more popularisation, and, most especially, more and better theologies which take account of the pain which is there throughout creation from its beginning.

Posted by: Rosemary Hannah on Friday, 27 February 2009 at 10:40am GMT

"Tell you what, Ford: if there is an afterlife, I shall commit suicide. I'll stick this miserable one out, but that's it. Notice sent."

Pluralist, I have always been fascinated by why you bother with religion at all. I don't mean to sound snotty here, but from my camp, you seem to reject or have huge difficulty with most of what makes religion attractive to me: the mystical, the supernatural, all of it. Not that because I find it of value, it must have some intrinsic value, all the same. I admit I haven't read your blog all that much, maybe you lay it out there, but honestly, if I felt as you do, I really wouldn't bother. Why worship a God you don't believe exists (or maybe that's unfair?), Who promises eternal life you don't believe in? Why follow a mythology that sees death, at least an unending state of death, as an aberration caused by those who suffer it and fixed by God who did not want them to suffer any more? It can't be the "Christian moral code", since without the Incarnate God, Christianity's moral code is essentially "be nice to one another" and you don't need to practice a religion to follow that. "Be nice" certainly doesn't offer any insight into human nature or our mutual interactions. It can't be the social justice, we Christians have an abysmal record of living up to the justice teachings of our faith, and secular groups do social justice much better than we do. I've asked before, I think, why not Buddhism? I ask that question a lot to people who have difficulty with concrete ideas of God and the supernatural. It would seem the best place to explore your spiritual side without the burden of supernatural things you can't believe. If the answers are on your blog, tell me and I'll look far more closely there. Again, this isn't some toss of the head "get out of my Church" thing, I really don't understand what the attraction is.

Posted by: Ford Elms on Friday, 27 February 2009 at 1:28pm GMT

'John, indeed here are those working on the interface of science and theology and one of them happens to be a personal friend of mine - that does not mean we not not need more - and more popularisation, and, most especially, more and better theologies which take account of the pain which is there throughout creation from its beginning.'

Rosemary, here too I absolutely agree with you. Again, there's plenty on this in the writings of K. Ward, including his most recent 'The Big Questions ..'. Traditional Christian formulations on these matters are so inadequate and so wilfully blinkered. Many present-day Christian theologians (such as the Pope or the Bishop of Durham) seem to me altogether unworthy of the name.

Posted by: john on Friday, 27 February 2009 at 1:51pm GMT
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