Death and Love
WERNER G JEANROND.
As the church celebrates the feasts of all saints and all souls in the dying of the year, an eminent theologian finds new perspectives on death in today’s culture.
While the biological fact that all life must die has not changed over the centuries, human approaches to death have changed radically in more recent times. While our Christian forefathers and foremothers prayed to God to protect them from a sudden death, we are more likely to pray to God for a sudden death. While they were constantly and directly threatened by death in their day-to-day lives (in childbed, from epidemic diseases, from hunger etc.), we today are mostly confronted by death through the media: daily news of deaths as a result of airplane crashes, car accidents, war, terror, family drama, but also endless numbers of deaths staged in popular television series and films. Our experience of death is mostly mediated and hence less real. Elvis still sings on our screens. Alas, the King is alive!
Moreover, we rarely are present when our loved ones physically die, since their death very often occurs in medical institutions (care homes, hospices, hospitals etc.). In some western cultures, such as Sweden, death begins to be treated as basically a medical problem – hopefully overcome soon by scientific progress, death as a challenge not yet fully mastered by scientific evolution. Hence, a number of people desire to be frozen when dying in order to be revived later when science will have conquered death once and for all. In a way death has lost quite a bit of its reality impact for our generation and for our children whose computer games provide them no longer only with one but with numerous lives to play with. Strange as it may sound, today we have to convince ourselves of the actual fact that we are all going to die and that death remains the physical limit to our existence and power.
Ever increasing numbers of people wish to decide for themselves when their death is to occur, to plan their death, or at least to decide how their death ought to be experienced by their loved (and hated) ones. Thus, they leave minute instructions as to which hymns to sing and which tunes to play at their funeral services, where and how they wish to be buried, and how their death should be announced or not.
Not only the perception of the reality of death has changed in our western cultures, also our interest in an afterlife has cooled off. We consider our present life here and now as our only opportunity to do something meaningful. What comes thereafter, if at all, is of no concern to us right now.
Obviously, many aspects of traditional Christian proclamation and faith praxis do not make sense any longer against this changed approach to death and dying. While the church promises eternal life, we are keener on immortal existence. Instead of longing for heaven in the insecure environment which our ancestors faced, we enjoy life and therefore want a longer life and, if death is genuinely unavoidable, a quick and painless passing. Rather than praying for the dead and their transmortal migration from purgatory to heaven, we pray for a fulfilled existence on this side of death. While our life is exciting, their heaven seems boring.
A proclamation of the gospel that starts with references to our physical death seems doomed today. Rather than longing to be prepared for the next world, people seem more committed to this world. Salvation from death is no longer a burning issue. What might move us to listen to and reflect on the Christian gospel of life?
Medieval Christians were predominantly concerned with how to reach salvation from sin and damnation, modern men and women asked questions of existential meaning. However, postmodern men and women today are chiefly concerned with relationships – not just on Facebook, but also in everyday life. Am I loved? Do I have enough friends and supporters? Am I suitably known if not famous? Does one recognise my potential? How can I increase my health, my beauty, my profile, my lovability? Which products should I buy to raise my relational stakes? Which networks may I enter to be properly and promisingly connected? What do I do when I fail in my relational pursuits? Where should I turn when I am kicked out of X Factor or sacked by Lord Sugar? Social death is a much more threatening reality to many today than physical death. We want to be part, to belong, to be seen and recognised, to be loved. Who can save me from social death, from exclusion, from loneliness here and now?
There is no point in moralising and complaining over the fact that people today no longer feel like previous generations of Christians when reflecting upon death. Cultures change and expectations vary. However, the fear of social death opens new perspectives for us even with regard to approaching the gospel. Looking through a perspective of social death on the accounts of the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus in the New Testament we may see afresh that Jesus was in fact less concerned with what comes after this life than how we could live this life in love with each other, with God, with God’s creation and with our own emerging selves. This dynamic network of loving relationships is the place where God’s transforming presence is at work. Love, not as romantic sentiment, but as attention, respect and care for the other was promoted by Jesus as key to participating in God’s creative and reconciling project here and now. The Parables of the Kingdom illustrate God’s universal invitation to all men, women and children to take part in this transformative movement of creation and reconciliation. Jesus confronts people with the option for new life, not with a plan for a proper death. He urges liberation from all sorts of oppression – all forms of external and internal bondage are to be resisted and overcome. He invites us to share in the abundance of God’s grace and care for each one of us. Jesus preaches the gospel of life; he invites us to choose between the path of life and the path of death.
That Jesus ultimately accepts his own violent death on the cross does not imply a divine option for death; rather God accepted Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice for the sake of eternal life. However, God did not desire the death of Jesus; rather God accepted it and manifested his divine affirmation of life in the resurrection of the so violently murdered Jesus.
The resurrection of Jesus represents God’s ultimate victory over the power and terror of death, though not God’s undoing of death as a mark of the life of all creatures. The resurrection does not establish an after-life for us, but it opens the horizon of eternal life – a divine quality that wishes to transform all human beings already here and now into a community of love.
We are still facing physical death. As human beings we remain limited by time, space, and language. However, our human limitations are no longer our enemy but the graced matrix in which we can live a life of eternal transformation in love. In God’s community of love eternity is present already in time. As reliable fact and boundary, our death opens time for us and thus makes our acts of love possible in the first place. Death, thus understood, could be welcomed as a gift to love. ‘Love is strong as death’ (Song of Solomon 8:6). Death opens a framework for our love and frees us from the destructive power game of controlling, instrumentalising and dominating others – fellow humans, God, God’s creation and our own selves. The mystery of human mortality might lie in the encouragement to love.
The recent concentration on social death in western culture may thus be welcomed as a timely reminder of what we can reasonably expect from God’s salvation in Christ: not one more world after this, not liberation from physical death and hence from our creatureliness, not immortality, not liberation from this world which is God’s loved creation and the place for human love, not a heaven in terms of an anti-world. But we can expect to participate in God’s eternal community to which Jesus Christ has invited us – a community characterised by dynamic and mutual love relationships. In this human-divine community eternity has already broken in, has interrupted the normal course of things: of never ending power games, oppression and exploitation. Surely, such a community of liberation could become the salt of creation as the gospels illustrate so powerfully. Such a community will enjoy openness to God’s transforming presence, trust in God’s forgiveness and healing of the wounds we have inflicted on one another and on our own selves, and hope for the fulfilment of God’s eternal gathering of his loved ones in the transformation afoot here and now. This community already enjoys ‘heaven’ though not yet in its fullness. Much more is to come. Welcome to Advent. Heaven is open.
Werner G Jeanrond is Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and former Professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow.