2/14/2009--That is the question Erica Jong—remember Fear of Flying?—asks in her New York Times review of Diana Athill’s memoir, Somewhere Towards the End. As secularism grows, it is a question that more people will have to face.
Athill is described as facing death “gamely”. She knows she will not go on after death, but this is a “state of infinite possibility, stimulating and enjoyable—not exactly comforting, but acceptable because true.” In other words, one prepares for death by living life truthfully.
Actually, this answer to facing death turns out to be pretty much the same for both the nonbeliever and the believer. Aside from one petty gibe at religion: this “would never make me recruit anyone for slaughter”—as if the belief in a loving God would make the believer recruit someone for slaughter—this memoir seems to be filled with grace and wisdom, even with faith. After my own death, creativity and creation go on. The mystery of existence remains forever.
Atheists feel superior to believers but we are all mostly in the same boat. Abraham, a believer, simply dies in Genesis. There is no heaven and there is no resurrection promised to him. What is promised is faithfulness to the promise he was given in life—his descendants will be a blessing to the people of the world. Or, if you will, creativity and creation will go on. He and Athill have some things in common.
The real difference between the believer and the nonbeliever, including Erica Jong I suppose, is a lack of compassion and an amnesia about history in the nonbeliever. Diana Athill is one of these remarkable people who make me tired just hearing about them. What if my life has only been ordinary and not an adventure? What if I have betrayed all those who loved me for no particular reason? What if, in other words, I have been a human being? In that case, the Diana Athills and Erica Jongs of the world have no interest in me. But religion is different. Religion has a taste for ordinary human weakness. Secularism had better develop the same.
There is also nothing in the book, or at least in the review, about history. Athill’s life has all been about her interesting search for excellence. Her life has been all about her. But if life is not just one bit of creativity after another, if the universe has a moral order instead, then my life has to stack up in relation to something I do not choose or create. Reality, then, is not just something I contemplate, but something I serve.
As usual, the question is not secular or religious, but the kind of secularism that is developing. We need a new type of secularism to engage death fully.