I read, in the Weekend Australian, an article on James Baker who was influential during the Bush, Regan and Ford Administrations. The writer wrote of the death of Bush senior. Bush junior, at his side before the end, farewelled his father with the words "see you on the other side." Is this the very definition of "smug"? Its context, in American aristocracy, summons up the image of the lords of the universe having power over heaven and hell. Mind you, hell is far from their minds, as is judgment. Christianity has been distilled into one hope, the hope of heaven after death, as sure as seeing someone again in this world. See you next year, in the holidays, after work, on the weekend. Can this really by the only residue left of the passion of the Christ?
Such sentiment is common in both the churched and the unchurched; that death is not the extinction of the self but a transfer to another place in which we will meet all of those we love. A self that does not consider death to be the abolition of the self hedges the darkest reality of being a creature and is doomed to shallow thinking. In the last analysis, nothing really matters because we will all be right in the end. This is a perspective lamentable for all of us, but in a politician, who must make decisions that affect millions of lives, it is doubly ruinous.
There is something sleight of hand in this that denies what it means to be human, and it must lead to human triumphalism. Perhaps such a state of being is necessary in order to carry out the office of president of the United States. Surely any doubt about this would unman the incumbent. But, as surely, such a state must blind the incumbent to the real miseries of humanity. For if we all go to a better place, earthly misery, humiliation and poverty are not that serious. Surely, if that better place awaits us then we do not need to care so much about the lovely life that exists on this earth. This distortion of Christian belief takes away all the dread seriousness about life on earth.
The above attitude is contrasted by a Helen Garner in her second volume of diaries:
I took hold of V's upper arm and felt the skin, the roll of relaxed muscle, the bone. The horror of death came to me: one day he willdie. Is this why I suffer so stupidly when he is late? Because it's a rehearsal of his death? Is this what being and adult is? To grasp what death is? He will be put in a box, the box in a hole, dirt will be shovelled on him, and his body will become meat. Meanwhile I will be walking around in air, breathing it, moving in it, thinking of him in the dark rotting. Appalling horror of these thoughts, incoherence in the face of them. Dumb, stricken dazed.
Yes, this is what being an adult is. Death is real, a real end and absence that cannot be penetrated. When this is understood, the confidence of "a better place" after death is exposed as a attempt to soften the hard realities of life and therefore to remain a child in the world. Politicians, of all people, cannot afford childishness. The only way they can lead a nation is to have a firm grasp of the essentially human i.e., that we are all bound over to death and nonexistence. The existential philosophers would chime in at this point and indicate that authentic being is impossible when a cheap trick is used to paper over the void above which all humanity teeters. (Existential philosophy provides a powerful description of the human condition but leads nowhere.)
On the other hand, the confidence in heaven is leaching from our society. As the influence of the Church continues to decline more and more people, forsake the promise of heaven after death and find themselves in a hopelessness that consumption does not assuage. Popular belief in life after death is reaching its endpoint and we can only cheer its going for this will provide a new opportunity to think again about what Christian hope is.
As a good friend recently reminded me, the centre of Christianity is not life after death, it is life from death, the death of Christ. Popular Christianity does not recognise the judgment of God. Hence hell is omitted from the possible destiny of the dead. But judgment is at the centre of Christian hope, not at the pearly gates and the examination of a life well or badly lived, but on Golgotha. The crucifixion of Christ is God's judgment on all humanity and hence our salvation, our eternal life that is an ongoing reality in this life. Grace is centre stage here. The one we put to death, now, in the resurrection, becomes the way to the Father and hence the way to a life that can be lived free from the powers of death, even though we die. This is eternal life, a life not bound by time.
The Church is the place where all this takes place. It takes place year after year as we trace the calendar from Advent, to Christmas to Easter and back again. It takes place during the habit of worship and mostly without our knowing. Worship is a work that we do. Not as a quid pro quo of heaven but of growing delight. It is a work of the soul in grace in which the late commers are equal to those who were early.
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