"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Sunday, March 27, 2005

"To conquer death, you only have to die...."--Tim Rice

The "Terri Schiavo problem" is not over. It will merely go back to being private, to being personal; it will move out of the public eye again, and the ethics of the issue will fade. Or they will be debated in the simplistic terms of "Individual Right to life" v. "Individual Quality of life." Which isn't the debate at all; the debate is not about life, or when it begins. It is about death, and when death begins.

"Life," the sage told the king, is a mystery. It is like a bird that flies into your hall out of the storm, and flies across the room, through the noise and the lights and the gaiety and above the crowd, and then flies out again, through the opposite window, back into the storm. And where it came from, and where it went, we do not know. Until the years after World War II, and the discovery of antibiotics, we accepted life and death on those terms. Now we demand life, and we deny death. We insist that death be hindered, blocked, obstructed, and postponed, as long as possible. We have become as gods, with a power of life no generation has ever known before. But we still are not good at it. We still cannot make the decisions in foresight, only in hindsight. Would it have been better if Terri Schiavo had never been revived? This much we know about brain injuries: a loss of oxygen is not one the brain recovers from. But how much loss, and how much damage? We only know in hindsight. So how do we decide?

“ ‘Curse the day someone said ‘A child is born!’ ” That has long been our standard, in the negative: Job’s cri de coeur from the midst of his pain and horror; a wish to never have been born, rather than to suffer such anguish. But “man is born to suffer as surely as sparks shoot.” If eliminating suffering were indeed the highest purpose of life, the country would be chock-a-block with suicide clubs and euthanasia centers. It is not that simple. It is never that plain.

The questions here are the most fundamental possible: what is life? What is death? When does one, turn into the other? It used to be easy to tell. And then a wave of stories of premature burials swept 19th century America (at least); brought on no doubt by infections and diseases that reduced people to death-like states, but did not take them quite yet away. And now we have technology: respirators, feeding tubes; dialysis machines: all manner of replacing the ordinary functions with extraordinary functions; and we don’t know what to do with our new toys. The medical term “persistent vegetative state” only entered the medical vocabulary 30 years ago. Before that, there was no need to define it, because people in such a state died too quickly. Now we find it easy to keep the body alive; but the mind? Is there are mind at all is a fundamental question of materialist philosophy. Is it merely neurons and synapses and a rapid spray of impressions so complex and compelling it “seems” to be consciousness, the way the screen in front of me, and you, both of us reading these words, seems to be stable. Materialism may give us the ability to postpone the final breath almost to infinity, but can it give us “life into the ages”? That has been the promise made to Western culture for two millennia now, and we are anxious for its fulfillment.

Anxious, but uncertain about what we face. Sleep, a little rest, and then awake refreshed for eternity? Is death even a power, a thing, a “part of life”? Or is it just the end of the body? If the latter, then surely the longer we keep the body alive, the more good we produce. Yet clearly that is not so. What, then, is death? A crossing? A doorway, a passage, a bridge between life and….? We don’t know. And that is why we stay afraid, and uncertain, and beat drums and cry tears and howl rages and sometimes refuse to go gentle, sometimes refuse to go at all.

The irony is, this was not possible until medical technology and materialism made it possible. And the very philosophy that makes it so, denies that there is a problem to be concerned about. “My death; is it possible?” (Jacques Derrida) To the materialist, the empiricist, the positivist, the question is absurd. Of course “your” death is possible; it is even inevitable. But what does it mean to say “mine,” or “yours.” Is death something I can possess? Let me give it away then, and own it no more! Is death mine alone, personal, wholly existential and unknown to anyone else? Funerals and the circus surrounding Terri Schiavo’s existence prove that wrong. If death can be said to be “yours” as well as “mine,” what are we talking about? A thing, an object, an idea? All can be subject to possession, materially or at law. But is that what we mean by death?

The resurrection brings these questions into focus, too; but it doesn’t answer them, either. It, too, is personal, we say. Certainly belief in it is personal; understanding of it is personal; acceptance of it, is personal. At the end of Mark’s gospel, the earliest in the canon, Mary of Magdala, and Mary mother of James (and Jesus), and Salome, come to the tomb, and find it empty, and the angel tells them they will see Jesus in Galilee. But they run away, scared almost literally to death. By Luke’s gospel, Jesus appears in a different guise, and is only recognized when he wants to be, and seems to appear and vanish at will. John’s gospel is at great pains to make Jesus whole, not a ghost: he cooks and eats fish; Thomas touches his wounds. But Jesus appears in a locked room, and vanishes, and is clearly no longer wholly human. What mystery is this? How do we accept this, possess it, grasp it with out understanding? At least three ways are offered, and none of them exclusive.

Is death the end of physical activity? Is that all we are, the sum of our actions, and so long as some activity can be maintained, we are alive? To end that, surely, is to perform an execution. To remove wind, or food, or water; those things we can supply, can do for a body that finds any one, or all of them, no longer possible. Is this the promised “life into the ages”? And if it is not, how do we know when that life comes?

I have turned these matters over in my mind, and, in the words of the narrator of the novel The Good Soldier, it is all a darkness. It is all a darkness because too much is taken for granted, too little explained, and appearance determines all. Terri Schiavo cannot communicate. Is she dead, or alive? She can feel pain, respond to “noxious stimuli.” Animal reflex; or consciousness of agony? Is that consciousness momentary, perpetual, or non-existent. Is she, like the Sybil hanging in the cage, trying to tell us: “I want to die”? It is all a darkness. These are things we cannot know. But we have to decide; and we have to have a basis, on which to decide.

Tomorrow I will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, the man of Nazareth. I do not quite know what these things mean, but I know they are true, and they can be trusted. I do not quite know what life means, either; or if death is a thing, or simply the end of activities we call functions necessary to sustain life. If the latter, then death is almost wholly in our control, and while we cannot create life, we can create and control death; and we are as god, or at least demi-gods. So I think death is more than that, because if our control has extended that far, then it has extended too far, indeed. It is extended not only into things we do not understand, but has completely exceeded our grasp. Browning said that’s what heaven is for. But I think heaven is for those who die, and experience the resurrection.

Addendum: this morning, I came across this, which only underscores my point: we need an ethic of death. Not of euthanasia, or suicide, but of death.


Blogger Unknown said...

Beautiful, tjm

11:42 PM  

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