I continue to reflect a bit on the subject of transience and mortality. It is by now an atheism truism that the absence of an afterlife, our finitude and transience, is precisely what gives meaning and significance to this life. Surely, this is all the inspiration we need, all the impetus necessary for us to go out and live well. Perhaps it is-it seems to be, at least for some. And yet, I am not quite convinced by it.
For one, the view seems to be a very recent one in history. I previously noted that for the Buddha, grasping at transience is the source of all misery, and true liberation only comes when we stop grasping. This isn’t-really-the same thing as the rather casual and blithe assertions we hear today. Other cultures-such as the Japanese-find sorrow upon reflecting on the transience of the world. Clearly, an awareness of transience does not inevitably affirm the bourgeois American understanding of the pursuit of happiness.
Reflecting on this subject, Fr. Ron Rolheiser wrote (The Restless Heart):
All of us experience within ourselves a certain restlessness and insatiability. Our hearts and minds are so fashioned that they are never satisfied, always restless; never quiet, always wanting more of everything. Throughout history various persons have given different names to this restlessness. Religious thinkers have often called it “the spark of the divine to us”; philosophers sometimes referred to it as “the desire of the part to return to the whole”; the Greeks had two names for it, Nostos, a certain homesickness within the human heart, and Eros, a relentless erotic pull toward whatever we perceive as good; the Vikings called it “wanderlust,” the constant urge to explore beyond all known horizons; the biblical writer Qoheleth called it “timelessness” (Ha olam), the congenital inability to bring ourselves into peaceful harmony with the world around us; St. Augustine called it “restlessness”: “You have made us for Yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” Most of us simply call it “loneliness.”
He quotes Ecclesiastes:
God has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put timelessness into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
One can dismiss this longing as an evolutionary hangover, but it does seem that the roiling, transient nature of the world isn’t enough to make us happy (neuroscience might just be confirming this unpleasant existential conundrum-namely that existence doesn’t seem to be enough).
Nor, of course, is it true that only those who do not believe in an afterlife have a monopoly on reflecting on death. This is a venerable Christian tradition as well. Frederica Mathewes-Green’s son has launched a Facebook community with the apt name of “Brother We are Going to Die“. St. Thomas a Kempis famously wrote:
If it is dreadful to die, it is perhaps more dangerous to live long. Blessed is the man who keeps the hour of his death always in mind and daily prepares himself to die. If you have ever seen anyone die, remember that you, too, must travel the same road. Each morning remember that you may not live until evening; and in the evening, do not presume to promise yourself another day. Be ready at all times, and so live that death may never find you unprepared. Happy and wise is he who endeavors to be during his life as he wishes to be found at his death.
Compline (Night Prayer) has long been regarded by the Christian Tradition as a “daily exercise in the art of dying.” The approach of Classical Christianity to the reality of death is not to use the afterlife to sweep away the importance of this life, nor does it minimize death. If anything, it heights it.
In the end, I do not know the correct answer to this apparent dilemma regarding transience. Different people seem to approach the question from vastly different angles (surprise, surprise). Too often, I think, Catholics and other Christians have tended to assume that others have the same expectations of life and death as they. Too often we assume that everyone conceives of-and more importantly desires-life after death as personal survival, complete with reunion with dead relatives. Yet, there are many who do not desire such things. I worked with a gentleman who told me eternity with his relatives would be hell-and that his real hope was to become “undifferentiated energy” after death. I do not say this to mock his view, if anything I greatly respect his honesty.
The truth of the matter is, we know very little about what awaits us after death. We greatly exaggerate the significance of our own innate immortality. The Church tells our souls are immortal, but Thomistic philosophy, the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks, and more than a few Native ‘religions’ all concur that, in the words of Olivier Clement that the human
soul, after death, survives in a phantom half-life, the Bible knows nothing of any poetry of the ‘immortality of the soul.’
Note carefully-I am not denying that the human soul is immortal in a sense. Too many Catholics have blithely denied the Church’s teaching on this subject. I agree that the philosophical case for the immortality of the soul, at least when set in Aristotelian-Thomist terms (c.f. Ed Feser) may not persuade everyone. Nonetheless, the Church affirms that our soul is immortal. What we need to understand is that this does not mean what we think it means. The soul’s “natural” survival after death is nothing to write home about, certainly nothing to yearn for or celebrate.
True eternal life requires union with God, and re-embodiment. Only this can save us from the bondage of transience and the half-life that follows. We know very little of what this entails. We know that theosis offers us release from the vagaries of time and space. In the words of Clement:
Thus will come about the completion of all things, when the Spirit of life, through the communion of saints, will manifest the whole universe as the glorified Body of Christ. Then each person, in giving his face to the transfigured universe, will rediscover his flesh; flesh vibrant with all its natural sensitivity, our earthly flesh, but bathed in the life and fullness of God, who will be ‘all in all’, abolishing the separations of time and space, making possible among the rise a communion beyond anything we can now imagine.
Christianity can only preach the message we have been given. We have been given the theological virtue of Hope. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”84 “The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”85
1818 The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.
This is the Gospel, our Good News. It is what we have to offer. I will give the final word to Clement:
Yet man at all times, of all races and ages, has rejected death with all his being. Through love and beauty, but also through eroticism and drugs, h seeks life. Searching for it, but not knowing where, seeking life but not finding it, he hates the very fact of existence, in himself and in others. Then comes the temptation to kill others, and self-suicide, the ultimate and absurd form of self-adoration! Yet it is precisely in the bitter heart of our nihilistic civilization that we must witness to the Resurrected One. To witness is to believe in life touched by eternity. Nicholas Fedorov, a 19th century Russian religious philosopher…said that there is only one crime: consenting to die. In the resurrected Christ, we no longer agree to die, we no longer agree to kill others and ourselves.
The anguish [of death] becomes the persuasion that we risk being swallowed up by “this world” in a web of illusions, platitudes, and emptiness. The anguish becomes a fear of God, preserving us from identifying with the deadly game of “this world.” And we discover, at a still deeper level, the presence of Christ. Despair no longer leads to nothingness; someone stands between us and the abyss.
Eternity has touched life, Timelesness has spoke to the transient. Together with our brethren who do not believe, we can celebrate and rejoice in life-and reject the allure of Death in all its forms. This is Hope.