Adventus

"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

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

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

Saturday, March 26, 2005

X

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do goe,
Rest of their bones, and souls deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleep as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.--John Donne

We live in an age of miracles; and forget too easily that it was not always so. Hippocrates is often invoked in our discussions; but how many of us have read the Hippocratic Oath? We expect doctors to defeat death, over and over, and give us more life, and then quarrel over the quality of that experience, over the meaning of life abundantly, and act as if this discussion has been going on since time immemorial and, especially Americans, ahistorical people that we are, we forget that for centuries doctors offered few cures, and mostly palliatives.

John Donne was the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral, in London, in the last decades of his life, and was so popular a preacher that people came from miles around to hear him. He reportedly preached wrapped in his shroud; to remind himself, he said, of his own mortality. As if he needed reminding, we would say, looking back from our age of antibiotics and sulfa drugs and anesthetic medicinces and technology and methods of keeping people alive far beyond anything John Donne could ever have imagined. Sleep, he says, as if death were merely resting; "You can sleep when you're dead," we say now, and then postpone death as long and as vigorously as we can.

Perhaps because it is the sleep from which no one could possible awaken. "A demon haunted world" is what Carl Sagan called the era before the Enlightenment; but seeing events unfold today in Florida, one can only wonder how demon haunted our world is, a world that seems to promise and then withdraw the prospect of life into the ages (“dzoanae aionion” in the koine Greek of the New Testament), is any less beset than any other. Human beings have not changed, and neither has the fear of death. Reason has always been the means of overcoming fear, but reason is not a proof alone against the most fundamental of existential anxieties.

Existentialism, in fact, was supposed to solve this by making us face up to the most extreme boundaries of our experience, and face them, and accept them not as the end, but as the starting point for our existence, as the truth that would set us free. But existentialism also makes us responsible for our choices, by making our choices one made for all humanity. Can we be free, when everyone else is in chains?

Or can we only be selfish, and only free ourselves? “Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?” A justification; but that was said by believers, to believers. What do we say? And to whom?

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