Death


This the script for this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme – the eve of the seventieth anniversary of D-Day:

A rabbi once spoke about how, when memory becomes history, the history becomes a commodity over which people can fight. Memory is held by those people who witnessed or participated in the events themselves. But, as the generations of those who fought in the world wars of the twentieth century now begin to die out, the need to remember well becomes acute.

Well, seventy years ago this morning thousands of soldiers were marching towards the South Coast of England. The plans for the invasion of France had been developed in secret and the time for action had arrived. It is evident from many of the stories told by people involved that the day before the invasion was tense.

Soldiers walking towards the coast knew that something big was about to happen and the locals along the way sensed that this wasn’t just yet another exercise. Clearly, some soldiers suspected that they were going to their death and emptied their pockets of money and cigarettes, handing them to civilians with words such as, “I won’t have any use for these in the future.”

This is where real courage lies. Not just in the fighting when you get there and there is nothing else to do but go for it. The day before, as you walk towards the coast, knowing you might be walking to your death, and your imagination is running riot – that is courage. Picturing the people you might be leaving behind, yet keeping on going – that is courage.

At the root of this is a confrontation with mortality. If ever there were a group of people who were – in the words of the German philosopher Heidegger – ‘beings towards death’ – it was surely these men. Heidegger was making the point that the way we face our dying shapes the way we live our lives – being confronted with our mortality is actually the key that unlocks our freedom to live.

I guess that the soldiers marching south seven decades ago today had mixed feelings. Some would be recklessly longing for action, others would be filled with fear. Some would be looking ahead to what might come, others looking back to what might be lost for ever. But, the common experience was clearly the awareness of mortality.

At the root of Christian faith is this – I would say counter-cultural – starting recognition that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Everything else springs from that. Whether in our bed or in battle – not the only options, clearly – we shall one day die, and we need to come to terms with that reality.

Today we could do worse than imagine ourselves in the shoes of those soldiers. Thousands died on D-Day. But, the dust to which they returned still speaks of the life they lived – and why it was worth losing it.

The first day of my sabbatical. Thirty books to start on – two months to read as much as possible. I am afraid there's going to be an awful lot of book stuff on this blog in the next few weeks. (Enjoying Lucy Hughes-Hallett's The Pike today.)

Then there's the closing of the January transfer window with Liverpool having bought nobody to strengthen an inadequately broad enough squad. Oh dear.

But, what has grabbed my attention is an article I picked up yesterday on the Die Zeit website. Written by Ulrich Greiner (publisher of Zeitliteratur magazine) and sparked by the announcement that novelist Henning Mankell has decided to record in print his 'journey with cancer', the piece is headed “Man sollte diskret sterben” – one should die discreetly. His point? This sort of description of suffering is essentially narcissistic.

Apparently, Mankell has decided to record his “fight against cancer” (a term commonly used, but essentially meaningless, and one that betrays a pile of assumptions) and to report on progress. He has said: “I want to describe exactly how it is,” and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has decided to publish it in instalments.

So what? After all, there are loads of examples of prominent people who feel the need to tell the world of their expereince of dying. Greiner argues that we live in an 'era of confessions' (im Zeitalter der Bekenntnisse) and that these are seen as a proof of courage.

However, Greiner thinks that filling bookcases with such stuff demonstrates the opposite of courage: courage would be evidenced by discretion. He goes on to assert that this pressure to confess is proof only that the once self-evident boundary between intimacy and publicity (privacy and openness) has now disappeared. If you must spill this stuff into the public sphere, then write a decent novel, he says. Otherwise, keep your sufferings to yourself – pouring it out in print is just narcissism and doesn't achieve anything useful.

Well, I sympathise with Greiner. The hungry media beast can't get enough of 'confessional' material. The publishing industry needs such stuff because people will buy it. Fair enough. But, Greiner has a point about self-referential narcissism: for whom is the account of one's own suffering or dying actually written? In order to help humanity address its mortality? Or as a form of fearful catharsis?

Clearly, the boundary between private and public, intimacy and publicity, has long since disappeared. Look at teenagers' outpourings on social media. Look at anyone's outpourings on social media, for that matter. Not everything should be open and public; some things in human lives and relationships should be kept private and intimate. To lose the distinction means losing something of human integrity. The mere fact that millions of people want to gorge on the self-disclosures (or snooped disclosures) of other people does not in and of itself justify it being done.

However, Greiner is perhaps missing one or two perspectives here. Perhaps the reason people want to read this stuff – and, therefore, sufferers want to write it – is simply that most of us do not find the mystery of mortality easy to live with. Coming to terms with suffering and dying – outside of the control we crave over our lives and resistant to our technological hubris – is not always easily handled in a culture that sees death as an enemy as opposed to a necessary part of life. How do we process this 'coming to terms with dying' in a culture that has lost its communal rituals and lacks a vocabulary for dealing with mortality? Perhaps we need stories and confessions and narratives that offer some incarnated processing of what internally we cannot shape.

Maybe I am missing the point too. I have never been afraid of death or dying and have never seen death as anything other than an integral part of what it means to live. I don't want to die, but I have no desire to 'fight' it. Christian faith is rooted in both the essential contingency of mortality – something God opts into at Christmas and does not exempt himself from – and the conviction that if God raised Christ from being truly dead, then there is hope.

I am really not bothered what happens to me after I die (there is possibly a PhD to be written in exploring the narcissism of individual conversion based on fear of hell). My hope is simply not in a formula or a guarantee, but in the person of the God who raised Christ. The rest is detail. And there is too much of life to enjoy and endure without being obsessed with the detail of personal interest.

Some will object to this. Fair enough – I can only tell it as it is. But, I can also say it is utterly liberating to be grasped by a gospel (good news) of life than one rooted in a fear of death. Christmas was about “God surprising earth with heaven”; Easter will demonstrate what it can mean to be drawn by hope and not driven by fear. The journey from one to the other puts flesh and blood and character and relationships and challenges and choices onto the theology. And that is what our churches are – or should be – working through in their preaching and liturgies and conversations.

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2's Chris Evans Show in the presence of Billie Piper, Lawrence Fox, David Dimbleby and the wonderful Nell Bryden:

I don't mean to sound trite, but it's quite important not to die on the wrong day, isn't it? I mean, no day is a good day, but it's a bit sad when the significance of your own demise gets lost because of some other news. Think of mother Teresa dying on the same day as Princess Diana… or the great Christian writer CS Lewis passing away on the same day as Aldous Huxley and … er … JFK.

Of course, Lewis and Huxley died of natural causes, whereas JFK died at the end of bullets fired by an assassin. And it is this brutality that has haunted us for the fifty years since that day when I was sent to bed early because the world had gone mad.

It must be hard for younger generations to imagine how it felt back in those days: the Cuban missile crisis convinced many that nuclear obliteration was coming. The world, less than two decades out of a shockingly destructive world war, seemed very fragile. And then the great American hope – the epitome of youthful vision and reforming energy – gets himself shot by an attention-seeker in Dallas.

Well, what do we do with this stuff half a century later?

I think one thing we can do is remember that an event of massive historical importance is coloured by small human details – a bit like the pixels on your computer screen. In the face of this human tragedy and the emotions it ignited, ordinary people did significant things. For example, Lieutenant Sam Bird, who was in charge of the honour guard for JFK, heard a woman in the crowd shout to the coffin “That's all right, you done your best; it's all over now.”

Simple and direct.

History is made of such stuff. When the varnish of routine and self-sufficiency is stripped away, exposing our fears and vulnerability, we say what we really mean. I don't know what JFK's last words were, but I do know the last words of another world-changer who cried out from the gallows: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Direct, but hardly simple.

 

I cannot read the haunting lament of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas without hearing his voice from an old recording:

Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A gorgeous, warm, bright spring day brought out the tourists in droves yesterday – baring substantial amounts of unsunned flesh. Driving through the Dales, it looked and felt like summer was on its way (so, it’ll probably snow next week). The beauty and the nascent new life bursting from trees, flowers and hedgerows seemed incongruous, however, with what I was going on to do later in the afternoon.

The excellent and wonderful Marie Curie Cancer Care trust has moved its annual bereavement service in Bradford from October to March. At least this aligns the appearance of real daffodils with the symbol of the Marie Curie charity. Everyone in the congregation of a couple of hundred had two things in common: (a) they were bereaved in the last eighteen months and (b) they are mortal. The service creates space and a vocabulary for loss and grieving and thinking about our mortality – in a place that gently reminds us of it anyway. For over 700 years people have worshipped, lived and died in this place. On the way in to begin the service I noticed a memorial plaque on the cathedral wall which poignantly recorded the deaths of the three infant children of a bereft couple in the early nineteenth century. This cathedral has witnessed the living, suffering, celebrating and dying of generations of people like us.

Cutting through the potential verbiage to the heart of the matter, I tried to account for Christian hope in a way anyone could understand it. Based on Revelation 21 three things seemed pertinent:

1. Christian hope is rooted in the God who comes to us. We talk about us ‘going to heaven’, but it is the other way round. In the Genesis 3 narrative it is God who goes walking in the garden in the cool of the day asking ‘Adam, where are you?’ – the same searching question that confronts every human being. Adam and Eve do not seek him out; he seeks them out. God makes the first move. In the Incarnation it is the same – God comes among us. And the imagery of Revelation 21 tells the same story: the heavenly city comes down from heaven to earth, not vice versa.

2. The resurrection is key to Christian hope. Jesus did not spontaneously come back to life in some great act of resuscitation: as Paul notes, ‘God raised Christ from the dead’. And this points to…

3. … Christian hope is not located in a scenario or a formula or schedule of what happens when the body closes down. Christian hope is rooted in the person of God. That’s all. I turst and hope in God, not heaven or some expectation of what happens after death. I trust in the God who raised Christ from the dead – and the rest is detail that doesn’t need to bother us very much.

The old Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, put it like this:

God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope.

The great German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, put it like this:

God is our happiness. God is our torment. God is the wide space of our hope.

Which, of course, is the beginning of a conversation and not the final word.

So, Christopher Hitchens has died. I, for one, am sad to hear this.

Any death ends a world for those who are bereaved. And the brutality of this rupture has been brought home recently in the premature deaths – by various means – of people like Gary Speed, the young family in Pudsey, the victims of Liege. Death strips from our ‘normal’ life the veneer of self-sufficiency and confronts us with the pain of our mortality.

The odd thing about the death of Christopher Hitchens, however, is the repeated suggestion that he was in some way (and incontrovertibly) a ‘scourge’ of religious believers, trouncing by sheer intellectual sharpness the nonsense of religious belief. He wasn’t and isn’t a scourge in any sense at all. The difficulty for Christians like me (and theists in general) was that that he wasn’t ‘scourge’ enough. I don’t need to repeat the response he got from Professor Terry Eagleton (among others). Along with Richard Dawkins, Hitchens set up aunt sallies which are not only easy to knock down, but which theists might also wish to knock down. Caricatures of faith might be convenient, but they are not thereby credible.

But, that said, there was always something admirable about Hitchens’ willingness to provoke. Polemic – whether entirely rational or not – is at least interesting. It is a pity that such material will no longer come from his pen.

However, his death provokes thought not only about the impact of lifestyle choices on long-term health, but about mortality itself. We shall all die – that is the fundamental fact of life. Heidegger described human beings as ‘beings towards death’ – and he wasn’t really being miserable. Hitchens went along (as far as we can know) with Bertrand Russell’s conclusion that ‘We die, then we rot’. But, is that all there is to say?

Faith is often dismissed as a crutch on which those who cannot cope with life as it is can lean for emotional support. Apart from the fact that this (lazy) assumption rests on a further and un-argued for assumption that the non-faith world view is somehow neutral, it also fails to understand what faith is. Faith, for the Christian at least, is not some sort of credulous and escapist wishful thinking about a ‘system’ derived from fairies; rather, it is rooted in a person, a judgement and an experience. Put very briefly, a Christian is one who believes there is more to life than death, sees God in the face of Jesus of Nazareth whom death did not contain, commits himself or herself to living a life that transcends the mere satisfaction of personal needs or fulfilment, and, in the company of others who have had a similar experience of being grasped by God (including intellectually – see people like CS Lewis and GK Chesterton among others), live life to the full.

The beginning of being a Christian is coming to terms with – by facing and naming – death. We are mortal. We shall die. But, the sting of death is drawn by the conviction that death neither ends nor ridicules all that has gone before it. No escapism here.

The end is in the beginning. At Christmas we celebrate God coming among us as one of us. In being born, death became inevitable – and, with it, grief, loss, fear, and everything else that makes us alive. But, as the great Bruce Cockburn put it:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river, driving the ripples on for ever, redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.

Sad news that Apple founder and inspiration Steve Jobs has died. It will also be interesting to see how Apple adapts to a world without him.

The Guardian has published an address Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005. At one point he says this about the ‘mercy’ of being fired from the company he had founded:

Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have the luxury of doing what they would like to do in life and the need to do work, earn some money and keep the family together and the kids fed and clothed drives them from one day to the next. Those facing the uncertainty of job insecurity, financial embarrassment and relationship breakdown might envy Steve Jobs’ optimistic sense of adventure. I guess his departure from Apple didn’t leave him destitute.

It’s a bit like millionaire politicians claiming to know what it is like for ordinary people facing the threats of recession.

But, Steve Jobs went on to speak about death. And that’s where the earlier comments find a coherent context.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

Heidegger called us ‘beings towards death’ and he wasn’t being miserable either. The fundamental truth of human life is that we shall one day die. Mortality lies at the heart of who we are, how we are and why we are. Coming to terms with our mortality is the beginning of human freedom – the knowledge that we shall one day die sets us free to live. Which, of course, is why Jesus said that “the truth shall set you free”. And, of course, the truth he would go on to demonstrate is that death is not the ultimate threat – not the end of life.

There is a claim that Christian faith is a form of escapism for people who are emotionally incapable of living in the real world. In fact, the opposite is true. In his death Jesus looked the awful and glorious reality of life in the eye and hung on to and through dying and death. Being raised shone a new light on human experience and damned the claim that violence, destruction and death have the final word: God does… and that word is ‘resurrection’.

Steve Jobs clearly made the most of the creative gifts and opportunities he had. He brought beauty and style to the functional. He changed the world with products that have made computing and communication not only efficient, but pleasurable. He learned that life becomes worth living only when we have known loss and confronted the imminent reality of death. He hit on something powerful here – I’d love to know what he made of it spiritually.

I have just scanned the news and four things jump out as having something significant in common: David and Samantha Cameron’s son Ivan died last night at the age of 6; the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have published a superb and strongly-worded condemnation of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe and announced a day of prayer and fasting (as well as giving cash); a plane has crashed in Amsterdam; Obama has addressed his people with a strong encouragement that America will emerge from its problems eventually.

The thing that links these four ‘items’ is the fact that whether we are talking about a single family or a whole nation, a community of travellers or a starving and oppressed people, every individual counts. Millions of people die every day – most of them too young and most of them utterably avoidably. Over four million people have died in the Congo. Zimbabwe, with which I mostdeeply connected, is suffering terribly both from its own internal problems of misrule and corruption, but also from the neglect from elsewhere in Africa to do anything about Mugabe. But, when millions die unnecessarily every day, why does the death of one person hit the main headline?

Anyone who has done pastoral work – especially in contexts of bereavement – knows that the death of someone close makes the rest of the world disappear. A million may die, but each individual has a network of family and friends that is unique and irreplaceable. One death changes the whole world for a load of other people. Zimbabwe rightly disappears from view when your own child dies. When I read about the suffering in Zimbabwe, I don’t think of an amorphous mass of people who look the same; rather, I see the faces and hear the voices of particular people in particular contexts with particular challenges.

Obama is rightly telling people the truth: there is no quick fix and some people are going to suffer before things get better. There can be no hiding from that truth. But, we need to recover our ability to take a long-term view and re-shape the world slowly, step by step, at every level from the macro (government, banking, fiscal systems, etc) to the micro (looking after my neighbour who is suffering or in need). Obama sounds increasingly like one of the perceptive and brave Old Testament prophets.

The Cameron family will, I hope, withdraw from the world and grieve fully and properly for the loss of their son who was profoundly vulnerable during his short life. I hope they will be given the space to come to terms with the fact that the whole world has changed and other people can handle the Party and our economic challenges while they take the space to love and be loved.

Zimbabwe needs our love and anger and action. I hope many will give to the Archbishops’ Appeal – not because this is a tidy way of salving the post-colonialist conscience, but because the need is immediate and great and bigger than the niceties of my particular feelings about how they have got into this mess and who is responsible for it. My conscience or analysis does not matter a great deal to the parents of the child in Gweru who is not eating, not going to school and in danger of suffering from Cholera.

Every human being is made in the image of God and is infinitely valuable. Some of us have to hold the tension between the macro and the micro, but the shock of the macro (Zimbabwe) should never minimise the trauma of the micro (the death of one person such as Ivan Cameron-  RIP).

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