15 April 2010

Death as an Illusion?

The day before yesterday along with the pastor and pastoral associate from my parish I attended a workshop based on a relatively new book, The Hidden Power of the Gospels, by Alexander Shaia, PhD (clinical psychology). It was a good experience and the book is at once interesting and problematical. Some of the work was genuinely brilliant: historical accounts and details which contextualize the Gospels in ways which make them come alive with a fresh and compelling power, psycho-spiritual insights which illuminate the texts in new ways and lead to wonderful homiletic possibilities, the ability to address a wide audience despite a lack of theological training on their part, etc --- all of these are remarkable. However when the book had weaknesses (often rooted in these very same strengths!), they tended to be significant whether matters of flawed Scripture approaches, theological positions which were unnuanced or simply apparently unconsidered, or pastoral weaknesses stemming from these.

Several stood out, but one in particular raised questions, concerns and outright objections which were more profoundly affecting and emotional than the others. (For me this was underscored by finding out yesterday that a good friend of mine is dying!) Relatively fresh from a reportedly wonderful celebration of Easter, a celebration which included the chant: "Death is no more, Death is no more!" Dr Shaia looked at the Gospel of John (the only Gospel read during the early Church's Triduum) and reiterated several times, "Death is an illusion!" "Death is an illusion." And he continued, "How differently we would live if only we saw the real truth, that Death is no more, Death is an illusion." Shaia's unfortunately unqualified assertion did not go unchallenged, not only on the basis of the Gospel of John, but on the basis of Mark's and Paul's theologies as well as the pastoral experience of clergy and religious present. However, despite the proposal that this workshop was to allow for and be part of an ongoing discussion, it was not really the appropriate venue for someone from the audience outlining either the theological or the pastoral reasons such exaggerated claims were inappropriate --- even, or maybe especially for an Easter faith.

Of course neither is this the venue for doing that in any detailed way. A couple of weeks ago I reprised an article on Ministering to the Dying and Bereaved which was originally published in Review For Religious. That remains a good outline of the responsibility we have to be honest about both Jesus' victory over death, and the remaining victory which must still be achieved (by God) if God is to be all in all. As I wrote in that article, Godless death has been transformed through Jesus' obedient death and is now a more natural transitional event where we will meet God face to face. God has been victorious over sinful Godless death. He has actually taken that death into himself and not been destroyed in the process. However, death in this schema is not an illusion; it is both defeated and still with us. It is for this reason that Paul, who has noted the real "sting" of death is sin (that is, alienation from God), says exultantly, ". . .death where is thy sting?" --- an affirmation that in Christ Godless or sinful death is no more, but death as transition remains until God is "all in all".

Another point I made in that article was that death is not only something that overcomes us from without, but that it is also something that exists within us and has an affect on every dimension of our lives. As we ally and align ourselves with the powers of sin and death in this world we are changed, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically and even physically. In fact, sin and death gain more power, greater influence and malignancy in our world through these choices of ours. Despite Godless death being destroyed and a more natural or transitional death replacing it and still not having the last word, it remains a serious "dialogue partner" in our everyday lives. To treat death as an illusion neglects the very real dialogue which is still going on (and in fact SHOULD still be going on) in every human life.

This last is true because there is a positive dimension to this dialogue, a positive way of thinking about and treating with death which is especially important in rejecting the notion that death is an illusion. It involves the sense that death is an event in which we make a final decision for or against God, for or against our truest selves, for or against the Kingdom of God. Death involves a passive dimension and does indeed come upon us, often without warning, but even then we believe that death involves a final decision, that is, death is an event in which we are active participants in this positive sense as well. Death faces us with our finitude, as well as with our attachments to things which hold us here. It represents a liminal event, a boundary event which signals and illlumines the forms and various degrees of detachment we still must achieve.

The other side of detachment is attachment, and death serves to signal and illumine failures in attachment to the God who grounds and unifies all reality. It confronts us with our own lack of openness to complete dependence upon God and is the event in which obedience can be genuinely enlarged or deepened. In this sense death has a salutary role to play in our lives, and this is true whether we are speaking of the smaller deaths which mark each day or our final death this side of eternity. Beyond all this, death remains the event in which, meeting God face to face, we make a final decision and entrust ourselves to God --- or refuse to do so. Granted this dimension is ordinarily beyond anything people attending us actually can witness, but it remains a piece of the very definition of death as a human event.

We resist death. We think in terms of other people's death --- death is inevitable but not for me! One of the real lessons of Christianity and a life of prayer is the lesson of death's reality. We are Christians, not Christian Scientists or Platonists! In prayer we affirm life, but while we do that we also experience the process of dying to self and prepare for the final decisions of Death itself. We do not fear death in the way we might apart from what was achieved in the Christ Event, and we do not approach death as those for whom it has no meaning, but we do NOT treat it as an illusion --- precisely because we do believe in the resurrection! After all, it is bodily resurrection of the dead as well as a victory over Godless, sinful death.