God is Love! This is the most glorious and welcomed notion in all of Christian theology. Man must die! This is the most vexing and most unwelcomed realization in the domain of human existence. How can a loving God allow his beloved creature, made in his own image, to die? This is the central paradox of existential theology — and a philosophical riddle well worth considering during this month of the holy souls.
Genesis tells us that death was not in God’s original plan. Man freely chose the path of pride, thereby cutting himself away from his maker and falling back toward that sea of nothingness from which he came. Christ, the “second Adam,” tells us that death is not final and that the gates of Paradise will re-open for us.
“Death is not natural,” writes St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologiae. He reasons as follows: “God made in man whatever is natural to him. Now God made not death. Therefore death is not natural to man.” Furthermore, according to the Angelic Doctor, death is not compatible with man’s end, which is his happiness. “Death,” consequently, “is the punishment for sin.” Here, Aquinas is echoing the first chapter in the Book of Wisdom: “Death was not God’s doing… To be — for this, he created all.”
The opening of the Book of Wisdom provides an interesting contrast with that of Albert Camus’Myth of Sisyphus, in which the Nobel prize-winning author states that the primary philosophical question is whether or not to commit suicide. Camus concludes that life is radically absurd and without any transcendent meaning. Life is not authored by love, but is as meaningless as spending eternity rolling a rock up and down a hill.
We cling to life, yet recognize the inevitability of death. T.S. Eliot wrestled with this paradox in his monumental poem The Waste Land. Eliot, also a Nobel laureate, concluded that there were two types of characters who inhabit the Waste Land: the desperate kind who experience “death-in-life,” and their Christian counterparts who experience “life-in-death.” The two acknowledge the same elements of reality, but interpret their relationship to each other in ways that are diametrically opposed.
After his struggles with “death-in-life” vs. “life-in-death,” Eliot became an Anglo-Catholic. In his more mature poems, especially The Four Quartets, he offers deeper spiritual insights into the paradoxical relationship between life and love, suffering and salvation. In “Little Gidding” he writes: Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.
The Waste Land that Eliot painted in 1922 persists; it is now known as the “therapeutic society.” Our contemporary culture has difficulty finding any meaning in pain, let alone in death. A life of uninterrupted comfort, aided by a variety of pills to smooth out the rough spots and concluded with sudden death during sleep — that is the ideal. The fear of death rather than a love of life, remains a primary impulse. In trying to remove all pain, patients of the therapeutic culture flee from the very reality, that can give their life meaning. Their preoccupation with pain and death leaves them with the desperate and unsatisfactory experience of “death-in-life.” They embrace very thing they fear.
Suffering is purifying or self-destructive, redemptive or ruinous. In either case, it is inescapable. Because the Christian believes in life, death and resurrection, he lives with hope, ‘meaning and purpose. He enjoys the creative vibrancy of “life-in-death.” He can say, with Catholic poet Francis Thompson: “Fill Time, the hidden root of change updries/Are Birth and Death inseparable on earth;/For they are twain yet one, and Death is Birth.”
We can begin to understand how death is a doorway to a higher life when we experience how the “little deaths” we all pass through lead to a better appreciation of life. These little deaths — found in sickness, pain, suffering, inconvenience, struggle, disappointment and a thousand other frustrations of our will — should not occasion defeat. That would lead us to deeper forms of death. Rather, they should awaken powers within us that give us a more exhilarating sense of life. The oyster does not produce a pearl without the irritation of a grain of sand. The moth does not emerge without a struggle against the restrictions of its cocoon. Dostoevsky states that suffering is the only cause of consciousness. This is why getting vaccinations, exercising and confessing sins make us stronger.
Psychologist William Kirk Kilpatrick has made an important distinction between the “idyllic” and the “moral imagination.” The former invites dreaming about a world without struggle. The latter encourages the acceptance of struggle and imagining how it can contribute to a better world. The idyllic imagination all too often displaces the moral one, resulting in the suppression of personal authenticity and artistic creativity. Dreaming of a perfect world that cannot be cannot improve the one that is. There is no improvement without the pain of effort.
There is a rare condition known as congenital analgia. Children afflicted with this pathology feel no pain, so they constantly injure themselves without realizing what they are doing. They bite off the tips of their fingers and tongues, cut themselves, burn their hands severely, and fall and break their bones. Lacking the natural corrective that pain provides, they compound injury with more injury until their life is threatened. Their example shows how the absence of pain is not a blessing, but an absence of consciousness of what is transpiring. Being incapable of feeling bodily pain is hardly a cultural ideal, despite the persistence of the therapeutic society. It is a malady, one that directs its unfortunate victims toward death, not life. A society that views analgia as an ideal is, in Eliot’s phrasing, a Waste Land. To Pope John Paul II, it is a sign of a “culture of death.”
“Talent is nurtured in solitude,” said Goethe’ “character in the stormy billows of the world.” Without difficulties, we become complacent and spiritually flabby. The presence of little deaths arouses us and gets us going. Our infirmities can be vitalizing. Too much of a good thing puts us to and dulls our creative centers.
Death and love are the two most profound features of human existence. They appear to be antagonistic to each other, yet Christianity reconciles the tension. We do not want our loved ones to die; we want them to live vigorously and creatively. At the same time we do not want to deprive them of the discomforts that stimulate them to become fully conscious, more deeply aware of their own mortality and, thus, more alive.
We should want our neighbor to bear his cross, knowing that through the cross of Christ all evils are conquered. Yet we should also assist him in bearing his cross, offering him a light that helps him to understand the meaning of his suffering. We want to alleviate our neighbor’s pain, but also to help him realize that it is not without meaning.
It is a grave mistake to divide the world into two camps, the strong and the weak. The absence of a weakness can disable the strong; its presence can be a source of motivation in the weak. Divide the world into those who learn how to use their weaknesses to become stronger, and those who do not. St. Paul was wise; King Herod was foolish.
The poet John Keats talked about how we need a world like this one, with its discomforts and disquietude, to school a mere “intelligence” and make it a “soul,” that is, an authentic personality who, through struggle, has succeeded in forming his true identity. The path of least resistance is not the road to meaning. Indeed, the shortcut is the surest route to failure.
God is still a God of love. He is not the designer of death. Death flows from sin. But God sent his only begotten son to die on the cross to teach us that death is not final, but, instead, prefigures eternal glory.
This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register in November 2000 and appears here with permission of the author.
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