Death

To extend the roller-coaster analogy, I was thinking about death this morning in the shower and it struck me that life is like being on a train with no windows and an unknown destination. No one can remember getting on the train. Nor does anyone know where it is going, or why. All we know are the carriages we live in, so we occupy our time as best we can. Every now and then the train stops and someone is made to get off. This is a very unhappy time for that person and his friends. The friends feel abandoned and the person steps into the unknown. The friends will never see him, again, nor, as far as he knows, he them. Each person dreads the time when it will be his turn to get off. Life on the train may not be perfect, sometimes it is hellish, but it is all we know. So why are we made to get off? Why can we not stay on the train and enjoy life with our fiends forever? The analogy cannot be pushed too far, but it does help us to realise that life is not just our present experience. There is far more to life, depths, heights and broad expanses that we cannot even begin to imagine. Why insist on remaining within the narrow confines of the train when there is a beautiful world out there? How different everything would be if we all knew why we were on the train, if the train had windows and we could see the passing countryside and if we knew our destination.

But we don’t know our destination. We can no more imagine what that destination might be like than the child in the womb can imagine what it will be like to walk with his lover through beautiful countryside on a glorious summer day. Perhaps we should regard death as a metamorphosis, a second birth into a new stage of life, but we don’t. Among Christians there is a belief that death was not originally an inherent part of the human process and only became so as a result of the Fall.

 Consequently death has always been regarded as a shocking, often tragic, closure. There are a number of points that need to be cleared up. 

Is there any evidence that the ‘train’ is not all there is? There is no hard evidence, I suspect this is because it would be impossible to make such evidence available, just as it would be impossible to convey to a child in the womb information about life after birth. Even though there is some information available to the child in the form of external sounds it does not have the ability to evaluate these and distinguish them from internal sounds. Likewise with adults it is not at all uncommon for people to have glimpses of the transcendent. Statistical evidence suggests that perhaps more than 50% of people have such experiences. Those who have these experiences have no doubts that they are genuine. They have seen beyond the horizon of our physical limitations. However, these experiences are subjective and not available to objective scrutiny. Nevertheless, if mystical experience were seen as offering a real possibility of finding answers to the mysteries of our existence more people would be encouraged to pursue it. Unfortunately the Church has always been wary of mystical experience. Kolokowski* gives two main reasons for this.

THEOLOGICAL – In all monotheistic creeds the gap between God and his creatures has always been crucial.  The path to God is through humility, repentance, and recognition of sinfulness and impotence.  The distance can be bridged by love but never cancelled.  Therefore to speak, as Eckhart did, of being transformed totally in God without any distinction being left smacks of blasphemy and hubris. This is a good example of ideology imposing its criteria on experience and denying the validity of those experiences which do not fit.

INSTITUTIONAL – The charismatic concept of the Church implies that it is the irreplaceable mediator between God and his people.  This is expressed particularly through the sacraments.  Yet the mystic does not need human intermediaries.  His communication with God is direct and, therefore, he may imagine that he is free to dispense with ministers. The mystic sees and feels God in any stone, or any drop of water, and thus does not need a special piece of consecrated bread to gain access to Him.  Ecclesiastical suspicion of mysticism is quite understandable; anybody could claim to be anointed by God.  This is why the Church defines criteria by which the genuine can be distinguished from the false.

 The need of the institution to protect its power inhibits the exploration of our own nature and our connections with the Transcendent, hence the need to be protected from the misguided, or malicious, ‘anybodys’ and their false claims. Because mysticism is such an unknown area it is open to exploitation by charlatans. If there were a system within the Church similar to that which exists in Zen whereby the master validates the pupils experience we might make genuine progress.

 There has been too much emphasis on transcendence and not enough on immanence. We each need to discover for ourselves the  Spirit Paul talks about in Romans Chapter 8

Why death? If we are destined for an existence which transcends the physical limitations of the body then, why death? Why not a metamorphosis? I suspect there is much more to death than we are prepared to admit. We have a deeply ingrained longing for eternal life and for eternal youth. You only have to read the multitude of myths ranging from the Garden of Eden story to Tir na nOg. These advance the idea that an earthly paradise is possible. A paradise in terms of an idyllic life in beautiful surroundings is all that we can grasp. We cannot imagine any other kind of afterlife, except, perhaps, sitting on a cloud in a long white nightgown playing a harp.  We are living bodies. Our feelings and emotions determine what is meaningful and significant, not our abstract thoughts. Ideas and concepts may be beautiful. They may construct sublime mathematical or philosophical structures but nothing as meaningful as the feeling of loving and being loved. Death spells the end to all this. The decomposition of the body means the destruction of the amygdala and those parts of the brain where emotions and feelings are generated, it means the destruction of the senses which give pleasure. If a mind survives it will be a mind without sensations and feelings, truly an insubstantial wraith. This is why so much emphasis is placed on the resurr
ection of the body. Human life is bodily life.

The idea of the resurrection of the body has all sorts of problems associated with it. Not least of these is that of location. Where will all these billions and billions of bodies be? Will they require social and physical structures to cater to their physical needs? If the answer to these questions, as Paul seems to imply in I Corinthians, is that they will be spiritual bodies (a contradiction in terms?) and as such will have no physical needs, then what is the purpose of bodies. I suspect that the resurrection of the body is a metaphor for an utterly new kind of existence.

We cling to the idea of a bodily resurrection because we cannot imagine a form of existence that does not require a body. How shall we see, hear, feel and interact with others if we do not have a body? Therefore, we shall have to have a new body; different, yes; spiritual, yes, but a body nonetheless. From within the train we cannot resolve these paradoxes. All we have is faith – blind and dark, but that is all we have. That, and the glimpses of transcendence.

*[L. Kolokowski; Religion, Fontana, London 1993 p. 103-4]

Leave a Reply