A twenty year old young man was killed in a car crash on Christmas Eve and buried from All Saints’ the following Saturday. I have two friends dealing with the reality that in all likelihood, the illness that each of them have will bring their life to an end long before they would have chosen for themselves. At the same time, when I think about people we have buried over the past year, many of them lived long and fruitful and happy lives and sadness in the face of their deaths was more about our loss than some sense of injustice.
As I have been thinking about death and our responses to it in a theological or philosophical sense, I have found that many people writing about death cannot but address the pastoral or existential reality along the way, Richard Harries, the now retired Bishop of Oxford published a collection of his writings in 1995 including a reflection on “Attitudes to Death in the Twentieth Century” (Questioning Belief, SPCK). He looks at death as judgment and the decision of heaven or hell for eternity and how that is not really a motivating reality for many people today. He saw that view giving way to the idea that death is really a doorway to a kinder world than the one we inhabit, exemplified by the writing of Henry Scott Holland that is still sometimes read at funerals: “Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room…I am but waiting for you for an interval somewhere very near just around the corner. All is well.” Harries goes on to look at a twentieth century move from a preoccupation with the next world to a concern focused more on this one. He explores the movement away from the notion of an ‘eternal soul’ to a more Hebraic sense of the whole person and Christian Hope based in an understanding of resurrection. (Giles Fraser is going to spend January seeing if he can separate Platonism from Christianity in the Church Times. See his column.) Harries looks at C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot and John A. T. Robinson among others and ends by affirming his own trust in God’s gracious love.
In contrast, Karl Rahner in”Ideas for a Theology of Death” (in Theological Investigations Vol. XIII New York: Crossroad, 1975) takes a dense theological and philosophical approach looking at the exercise of freedom in death and ‘freedom as the event of definitive finality’. (I’m looking forward to doing some chewing on that one). John Bowker, former Dean of Trinity, Cambridge has addressed The Meanings of Death (Cambridge university Press, 1991). I’m particularly intrigued by his comments on the Sadducees. He acknowledges that it is impossible to reconstruct their belief system, but points out that they seemed to consider taking anything other than life as it is presented to us as almost blasphemous. They saw death as a part of the created order and therefore ‘good’ in God’s eyes. This is quite a different reading of Genesis 3, which has often been the foundation for understanding death as a consequence of the fall and generally a bad thing.
As I continue to look at the theology of creation with my pastor-theologian (now known as the ‘cowbell theologians’ after the iconic SNL sketch with Will Ferrell –long story--) I believe I will be reading about death for awhile and would welcome hearing about additional theological or philosophical resources that address the subject.