thinking death

This links in with the post the other day on Near Death Experiences.  I’ve been reading Anthony Thiselton’s book Life After Death: a new approach to last things.

Thiselton refers to Moltmann who said

“To push away every thought of death, and to live as if we had an infinite amount of time ahead of us, makes us superficial and indifferent … to live as if there were no death is to live an illusion”

And Thiselton says

“To be reprieved from serious illness, or to have experienced near death, far from deflecting us from this life, can give our present life a new depth. It is those who repress the thought of death, who turn life into an idol, who perhaps have also deeply repressed anxieties about death.”

And that repression is a symptom of Western life’s avoidance of death. Some interesting contrasts to consider:

In Victorian times, death was a central concern – and still is for 2/3 of the world. Death is near and is witnessed, experienced and familiar. Children are not protected from seeing the dead and dying.

In our culture a quick and painless death is a blessing. In the medieval and Renaissance times it was viewed with horror because there was no time to prepare for the afterlife.

Thiselton argues the self-love of modern life makes an idol out of life itself.  This life is all there is and this means that death is marginalised, avoided, meaningless and absurd – the end of everything good.

The idolisation of life leads to full-on living – fast food, fast cars, fast relationships, fast meetings …

Modern fear of death means that death is “no longer the public solemn event it used to be.” Dying and death are now personal and private affairs.

I’d be interested in your thoughts here – how has being confronted by death changed the way you look at life?

I’m not sure I agree with Thiselton on the last point. Seems to me that death is becoming more openly incorporated in public secular remembrance services celebrating someone’s life. Christians may say this is one way the ‘idol of life itself’ is worshipped. Atheists have the opposite take; here Christian postmortal hope is seen as narcissistic.

A personal note here: having spent quite a while in hospital visits over the last few weeks and in some meetings with (excellent) doctors talking about odds of life/death survival rates and so on, never has it been more clear to me that modern science and medicine is wonderful and resourceful and remarkable, but it has nothing at all to say about the most inevitable part of life – death.

Discussion of death was studiously avoided. It was a taboo subject because it was outside the parameters of science and medicine. Pastoral care and support was therefore all focused on practical issues of life.  Important of course, but ultimately superficial. Meaning, significance and hope beyond death were off limits because there was no framework for them to exist.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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6 thoughts on “thinking death

  1. Thank you for posting this. I am preparing something similar that talks about this avoidance of death. John Paul II talked about this problem in the “Gospel of Life” letter that he wrote. He said we need to be educated about the reality. I had to read it a couple of times before it made sense, and I think it is much like what you are talking about here.
    And as far as when I first became acquainted with death: my grandma died, my husband’s dad died, then 9/11 occurred all within a year. It definitely cause me to take at look at my life more seriously and all the implications of what I was doing at that time because the reality that I wouldn’t be here forever really made start to think seriously about God, too. I had a conversion a few months later….It was one of the nudges I needed to start seeking the Truth.

  2. I’m not a morbid person at all, but I think that it is vital for the human psyche to live with an awareness of its own mortality. It’s not just that our own lives are finite; it’s also that our own lives don’t define existance. I remember as a child finding the idea that the world and all that was in it existed before I was born. And being a bit frightened at the idea that it wouldn’t end with me either. I used to sometimes think while in a natural setting about the fact that trees grew and birds flew around and the sun rose and set long before there were any people present to observe it. Being present to see it was a gift to me, but all of creation had its own existance whether I or any human being was there to see or enjoy it. But facing these facts and wrestling with them was a necessary part of putting my own place in this world into a more proper perspective. I’m not the be-all and end-all of creation which is how it seems when we are children. Unfortunately, I suspect that a lot of full grown adults in our culture still harbor – unconciously – this view of themselves as the center of existance.

    BTW, the Templeton Foundation just announced a 5 million dollar grant to study NDEs, so I happened to be involved in a discussion of them tonight. In the process of said discussion, I found a review of a PhD dissertation that has been published as an academic book reviewing a 5 year study on NDEs in which 300 people in ICU who had experienced life-threatening medical emergencies were interviewed. The results are not conclusive by any means, but very interesting nonetheless. Since you’re still thinking about it, I thought I’d pass it on:
    http://www.systemsphilosophy.org/publications/Rousseau_Journal_of_the_Society_for_Psychical_Research_75.1_902_47-49.pdf

  3. It is a profound subject, one that I am thinking more about it these days. Having lost friends who were the same age as me and heard of people of my age who died suddenly, it has made me more aware that I am not going to be here forever.
    As you said, in our western world we treat life as a right. I attend a church in the city centre where the majority of people come from developing countries. I have never been in a place where almost every other week somebody loses a relative back in their home country, but even in those circumstances a couple of them stood up and led worship. I realized that for me life is a right, for them, it is a gift.
    I have also thought about the fact that when somebody dies we feel sad, we cry. As a Christian this made me see that death is abnormal, we grieve because we have been created for eternity and we miss it. I don’t miss something that I never experienced, because I never managed to taste it, to enjoy it, but when death comes we know that this is not the way it was intended to be, we long for eternity because we tasted once.
    I like Dallas Willard interpretation of who we are as human beings: We are, all of us, never-ceasing spiritual beings with a unique eternal calling to count for good in God’s great universe.
    What I am living now is only the rehearsal for the future big play.

  4. The only new years resolution ive ever kept was one i made 2 years ago which was that as often as i could, hopefully at least once a day i would subtract my current age from 78 which is the average life expectancy of an irish male (or at least it was) this would give me a an answer of 45. So i was faced regularly with the idea that i would be soon dead and also that my life was -on average at least- nearly half over.

    The result was that i held my days a bit closer to my heart. I might not see my kids grow up, i might not have a long career in ministry. I might not have a long marriage. etc etc
    I started to think less of really long term projects or at least if i did, i did so with the proviso that i dont know how today will end not to mind the future.

    It definitely revealed some of the things that i look to for meaning and hope because i would realise that at best i have only so many years to do x y or z and i would feel depressed when i realise that some of those things are not realistic given the amount of time i have left.

    It also made me speak alot looser than those around me about death. The reactions i got where always negative.

    I still do it. I feel free-er in general because (i think) i see now more areas of my life that were actually governed by fear of death. Having admitted these fears, or more properly- given a name to something that i did not understand previously- i can apply truths like the reality of heaven, eternity with God to them and the result is freedom.

    As of last june 27th i have on average 44 years left of life. But you know- I could be gone before the end of the day:)

  5. also i realised that if i am to be a preacher starting in 4 years and retiring in 29 which is 1300 sundays (but that includes summer break) there’s no way that i will preach the whole bible.. So what passages should i aim to get done?

    • Ha! Don’t want to do the maths for myself! Sounds like you don’t have time for summer breaks. If you don’t know how much time left, maybe start at the end and work backwards

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