Monday, October 6, 2008

Why Did Abraham Not Find Death Abhorrent and Life Meaningless?

10/6/2008--Garrison Keillor reviews Julian Barnes’ Nothing to be Frightened of in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Barnes is an atheist turned agnostic who “has decided at the age of 62 to address his fear of death."

It’s the usual story. Without God, there is no hope. Life is a tragedy that the Christian faith—“a beautiful lie”—gives a false happy ending. Science is no consolation because the brain is a lump of meat and the soul is merely “a story the brain tells itself.”

My question is, why didn’t Abraham feel this way? My readers may not remember, but Abraham in the Bible is not promised life after death. He just dies. But because he sees himself as part of something larger—all the people of the world will be blessed by his descendants—he can feel satisfaction with his life.

It’s not clear why Barnes lacks a sense of purpose. Partly it is because his frame of reference is too broad: the sun is dying and humanity will die out.

I think Keillor has the right response to these feelings: “All true so far as it goes, perhaps, but so what?” Abraham’s God amounts to a promise that Abraham trusts will unfold. Even without God, we can approach reality in precisely the same way Abraham did, as a promise that we trust. And what is the content of this promise? Well, it’s the same promise that Abraham was given. We can be a blessing to all the people of the world. Since you and I will not father a people, we’ll just have to do it retail, one act of lovingkindness at a time.


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