Saturday, July 11, 2009

How Secularists Die

7/11/2009—There was a story in the most recent edition of World magazine about a woman dying from cancer. A staunch Christian, she reportedly said that the cancer was how God was bringing her to heaven.

I have always found this denial of death to be the least healthy aspect of Christian thought. And I am not alone in this. When his wife died, C.S. Lewis denigrated the idea that he and his wife would be reunited later in heaven. In fact, Jesus criticized this way of thinking when his opponents, the Sadducees, tried to trap him, asking whose wife the woman with seven husbands would be. Jesus said that at the time of the resurrection, people would not marry but would be like angels in heaven (Mt. 22, 23-33). This suggests first that there may not be any heaven at all, but only resurrection. Second, it suggests that you will not have the kind of existence that you have now.

On the other hand, when I am finally told I am going to die soon, I may leap to any comfort I can get. So, who am I to criticize?

But the story raises the question, what story or myth will hallowed secularists tell themselves to help come to terms with death? It seems to me that for the secularist, the understanding must center around the great circle of life. Yes, my life is at an end. But that must be so, or my grandchild could not be born. I have my time and all others have theirs.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, in analyzing the Anaximander fragment, suggested that the unwillingness to get off the stage of existence is the root of evil. If this is so, capitalism and Christianity, and Islam, for that matter, have contributed to evil by their cult of individualism. Maybe Hallowed Secularism will do better.


  1. First, let me say how much I enjoy reading your blog. Thank you.

    Second, while I appreciate you concluding point about the evil that arises because someone will not leave the stage (what does this say about academic tenure?) I would call exception to your comment about Christianity and the cult of individualism. Yes, certainly, there are Christians who are strident individualists, even as their are liberal secularists who are as well. But I think a closer reading of the Christian tradition would saw the tradition to be decidedly less individualistic, less death denying then you imply. To offer one example, monastic life (especially in Eastern Christianity) is specifically concerned with helping the person face death with peace and acceptance.

    The contemporary Greek Orthodox ethicist Christos Yannaras argues that the ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church is itself a preparation for death--a life long practice of self-denial and self-forgetfulness by which the person learns to give him or herself over to God. The last great ascetical act for the Christian. Yannaras writes in *The Freedom of Morality*, is to give his or her life over to Christ in death. Far from encouraging us to linger on the stage past our time, past natural death, the ascetical tradition in the Orthodox Church fosters in the person a willingness, and even when the time comes, an eagerness surrender his or her life to Christ through an acceptance of death of the body.

    Your thoughts?

    Again, thank you for your blog--it is always thought provoking.

  2. I had hoped that my reference to C.S. Lewis would make it clear that I did not mean to suggest that the cult of the individual reflects the main current of Christianity. On the other hand, the Church must be judged on the message it imparts to the people of God, not its teaching to a spiritual elite. The cult of heaven is undoubtedly a heresy, but it has become so widespread that the second coming, the last day and the resurrection have been largely eclipsed.