Bertrand Russell to table companion: “And what do you think will happen to you when you die?”
TC: “I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such unpleasant subjects.”
Here we have a taboo subject, one that’s unnerving and highly important in our minds, and what we “believe” about it is hard to say.
I think most of us have been in a church or two where someone was singing or talking about “Oh Death, where is thy sting?” (That’s not light, that’s rhetoric, bravado even. We aren’t expecting Death to come along and show us, not just now.) It is what we are supposed to believe, if we call ourselves Christians– that death can’t really harm us.
But when one of us loses someone to death, even someone quite old, we’re supposed to be sorry. Although the worst that can happen to an old person is not death, but the nursing home. (Even those “good” nursing homes, which do exist.) If we hear someone is dying, that’s bad news.
We’re not supposed to tell survivors that the deceased is doing just fine, because we aren’t supposed to really know that and they aren’t supposed to let themselves really believe that.
We are expected to have one belief for church-during-the-services and another for secular use–even church-during-the-refreshments.
The situation is a little different in liberal Friends meetings. I think the social expectation is that we will believe in one world (physical) and put no others before it–like proper middle-class academics. But one of us, Katherine Faulkener… She was dying unexpectedly, of cancer treatment. She’d been present when Bob Noble (another fine old Friend) died in committee. It had been quite peaceful (He made an appropriate remark, the other members nodded, and the next time they looked he was dead); she said the experience helped resolve her own fears and doubts. Anyway, her daughter was rushing to her deathbed, dozing on the plane, when Katherine appeared to her, apologized that she’d had to leave early, told her she was fine. Her daughter landed in San Diego a few minutes later and of course learned that Katherine had just died. These things happen often enough in people’s lives that we aren’t really surprised, but culturally, we aren’t supposed to recognize the truth of it.
(I do miss the two of them; the meeting has lost much of its juice since then!)
David said, recently, “I find the so-called ‘gospels’ remarkably ambiguous about just what this ‘Good News’ is.” Part of that is because gospels needed to be ambiguous, for a Roman readership, because “The Kingdom of God” was a political manifestation, among other things.
But that political gospel was rather quickly replaced by the explicit denial of death’s power. That too is implied, for if God reigns, then death is merely his servant, not the absolute power we imagine.
Culturally, we don’t really believe that. We just find it safer than expecting the political realm to conform to God’s rule. Culturally, we believe in Death. If people misbehave, we bomb them and consider the problem solved. We spend our whole lives avoiding death while being sure that it will get us eventually, and we call that “just being realistic.”
If the light we’ve been given shows us a significant truth about death–but all our lives we’ve learned to hide that part under a bushel–that’s one part of the Good News we unavoidably find puzzling. (I’m not altogether sure what to make of it myself. People are still dying. While I still sometimes experience their presence afterwards–and not as illusions, although I don’t seek to prove that.)
Can someone please add a little light to this?