We need help understanding death's inevitability
April 04, 2020
As the list of people dying of COVID-19 grows and grows, it's time to pay attention again to death-denial in America and to how some faith communities have been adding to that ridiculous attitude.
The author of this First Things column, Carl R. Trueman, professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, says it well: In this time of pandemic, "it is the task of the church to mug people with reality before reality itself comes calling. Yet that note seems to have been signally absent from the public profile of the church in recent weeks. Efforts to fight the virus are important; but so is the church’s task of preparing us for death."
For Christians, Trueman's primary audience, this Lenten season and this weekend's Palm Sunday heading toward Easter, is an especially good time for the church to be speaking plainly about death and reminding congregants that, no matter what lots of Americans think, death is not optional.
One problem in the church, however, is that across much of its history it has allowed old Greek thinking about immortality to influence church doctrine. The old Greek idea that humans have immortal souls has infected the church like a virus despite the fact that such thinking stands in contrast to Christian (or at least Protestant, though even the famous Westminster Confession of Faith reflects Greek thinking on this) teaching about the resurrection of the body, which asserts that there is nothing in humans that is immortal. Rather, only God is immortal, and if we humans are to be in an eternal relationship with God it will be because that eternal life is a gift from God, not because something within each of us is immortal.
Because the idea of an immortal soul permeates a lot of contemporary Christian thinking, Christians, in my experience, don't take death seriously enough. (By the way, Catholic and Protestant doctrine differ on this matter. The Catholic catechism teaches that the soul "is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death.")
We followers of the risen Christ would do well to pay attention to such theologians as Thomas G. Long, who writes this in his book Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral: "Christians. . .do not believe that human beings are only bodies, nor do they believe that they are souls who, for the time being, have bodies; Christians affirm, rather, that human beings are embodied. . .Take away the breath of God, and there is no immortal soul left over to make a break for it to freedom; there is just dust."
Given that reality, Trueman says this: "The church is certainly to help people to live, but to live in the shadow of mortality."
I have said this before, but I think it bears repeating: You'll never understand your own life if you don't understand your own death. In many ways, it seems to me, some of our faith communities aren't helping us enough with that. One proof of it is that lots of Americans battle with each other not over what's eternally important but over toilet paper. Sigh.
(The photo here today is one I took a few years ago at Forest Hill Cemetery in Kansas City.)
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LEARNING FROM JEWISH HISTORY
Did you know, as this RNS column explains, that "dealing with contagious disease has been a Jewish preoccupation since ancient times"? The column is an intriguing look at how Jewish leaders across history have handled the kind of pandemic we're in right now. Let's hope all religious leaders are paying attention to the directives of health departments.
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P.S.: Molly T. Marshall has resigned abruptly as president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in suburban Shawnee, Kan., because of some unstated "ethical lapse." Here is the Baptist News story about it. (It contains a link to a statement from Marshall.) And here is the RNS story about it. And here is a Flatland column I did about her and the seminary last summer. At the moment, I don't know much more than that, except that campus sources tell me the staff feels shocked, angry and betrayed and hopes Marshall takes some time to withdraw, repent and figure out what went wrong and why. She is a wonderfully talented woman whom I admired. I'm sort of speechless.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest book review for The National Catholic Reporter -- about Unbelievers, by Alec Ryrie -- now is online here.