Welcome to day 19 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
“Life and death have always lived side by side, in every aspect of life. We live with ghosts in our everyday.” — Steve McQueen
One of my favourite thinkers about theology, Richard Beck, psychology professor at Abilene Christian University (TX), writes today about a tendency he’s noticed lately among “progressive, liberal Christians” to grieve death as ones who have no hope: “[D]eath is increasingly triggering massive faith crises among believers. Especially the death of children, teenagers, young adults, and even those in middle age. When death comes to anyone who has not lived into old age trust and faith in God is increasingly shaken.”
Because I’ve noticed this myself, not necessarily among self-professed Christians but among people who participate in churches and would, if push came to shove, probably call themselves Christian rather than agnostic, atheist, or even humanist, and because I am thinking about “heaven” (very loosely defined) these days, Beck’s blog post on the topic caught my attention.
He reminds us that “death has always been a challenge to faith. But for most of Christian history, the faithful have turned toward God and the hope of the resurrection for solace in the face of grief. Today, many believers don’t turn toward God for comfort, we turn away from God with angry accusations.”
Apparently, some pastors (in progressive, liberal churches?) are being advised not to mention heaven when comforting the bereaved, because it’s seen increasingly as hurtful and insulting. That’s Beck assertion. In January I attended a (Catholic) funeral mass and then a quick burial for a youngish family member; I can’t recall what was said in the sermon, but I feel pretty sure there was the usual reassurance and comfort about the deceased now being “in heaven” or with God, or something similar, and I heard people at the visitation and at the reception talking and joking, as people do, about the deceased meeting up in some sort of pleasant afterlife with friends and family who died previously. I also know that some of the bereaved are very angry with God because of this death; words about heaven don’t seem to have brought comfort.
Beck examines why all-but-old-age death is triggering faith crises that can’t be consoled with talk of heaven. For one thing, with medical advances, better nutrition and access to food, lack of major wars for Westerners, etc., we now feel entitled to longer life spans, beyond 70, maybe beyond 80, such that “[t]o die ‘early’ or ‘prematurely’ is now an existential shock, a cosmic effrontery, God reneging on an agreement we felt we had. … [D]eath is no longer experienced as a regular feature of daily life. Death is now experienced as an intrusive, unexpected shock.”
So, Beck says, death prior to old age has become unacceptable, which I’ve noticed both spoken and unspoken among many friends and family. It’s another one of those things I don’t understand; my own feeling is that we’re not entitled to any number of years, death can come at any time, and it’s no shock, or intrusion, or failure — somehow living more years is considered a success? — when it does. (Check out The Baby Boomer Death Clock and watch them die, one every 19 seconds in America, which will only increase as the cohort ages. So far, about 22.5% of Baby Boomers have died).
I’ve noticed, concerning this recent post-death family scenario I’ve witnessed, that when someone did seem to accept the death of this family member and to maintain their equanimity, they were seen by some of the weeping mourners as abnormal and bereft of true emotion, or possibly too numb and too stunned to respond correctly. My feeling is that everyone handles sudden death (which this was) differently, but at bottom, how you view death, whether it’s seen as shocking or as part of the natural, normal cycle, is the basis for your response.
Beck goes on to try to pinpoint more why “progressive, liberal Christians” might particularly take no comfort in talk of heaven: he posits that it’s because they are disenchanted, or they struggle with disenchantment, or with enchantment, however you look at it. Their “doubts and skepticism about the supernatural, the miraculous, the spiritual, and the metaphysical aspects of the faith” make belief in heaven and in the resurrection of the dead questionable at best, a scientific impossibility at worst. For the “disenchanted Christian,” Beck says, the only comfort available in the midst of death is “therapeutic. We can listen to each other. Sit in silence with each other. Carry each other. Be there for each other. But we cannot offer hope.”
“I do not understand how anyone can live without one small place of enchantment to turn to.” — Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Sidebar: disenchant (v.) “free from enchantment, deliver from the power of charms or spells,” 1580s, from Middle French desenchanter (13c.), from des- (see dis-) + enchanter “to enchant,” from Latin incantare “to enchant, fix a spell upon.”
Beck’s posting brought up some good rebuttals and different experiences. Ron Wright’s comments in particular resonate for me:
1) Hasn’t death traditionally been a catalyst for crises of faith (at least in modern times)? It seems to have been, at least in my lifetime, a prominent challenge with people that I know. What is the evidence that this is increasingly becoming problematic? I do think that disenchantment with traditional notions of a supernatural afterlife makes this a more difficult question. Perhaps we are seeing a pendulum swing towards being emotionally with people in their loss and in the opposite direction of the clumsy and trite ways that heaven has been defensively asserted as a way to cut off feelings of grief and sadness as opposed to a real loss of hope?
2) Might there be a move towards hope as a type of transcendence through incarnation? Might progressives understand transcendence as a type of presence or solidarity … that is hopeful without having to resort to afterlife speculations? As always, your posts provoke me to think more deeply about these theological and psychological dynamics!
Both of these possibilities seem likely operational to me (as well as Beck’s), that it might be considered loving to sit with the bereaved, allowing any emotion — any grief, anger, relief, sadness, acceptance, ambivalence, any emotion — without trying to curtail it by saying that there’s no need to feel sad, because, ta-da!, heaven, or, in a different direction, if you really loved him, shouldn’t you be crying or exhibiting more signs of despair?; and that in fact just the authentic presence of other caring humans, who allowed such a space to grieve, might feel transcendent and hopeful for the bereaved on its own, without “afterlife speculations.”
When nothing is sure, everything is possible. — Margaret Drabble
No hope for the planet, for creation,
for my own violent nature,
for human progress,
for better living through science,
for community through technology,
for peace through meditation and prayer.
I pray, meditate, participate
When I notice, barely, my own violence
I offer it solace and wait in it, fidget,
pray for sustainable peace.
I am learning non-violence.
I am getting to know the Earth.
But: no hope.
Faith that love will always embrace,
disarm, and absorb the power of hate.
What that looks like,
is looking like,
will look like,
is beyond me. Or perhaps within me.
Whatever it is,
I rejoice with the stars
to flicker for a moment.
— me, from IX of “Some Seemingly Random Elements of a Metanarrative”
Featured image and image directly above are both from Ashes, a video installation by Steve McQueen (b.1969), about a young man who lived, died, and was buried in Grenada, Caribbean. The featured image is of men placing a wood mold (for a concrete tombstone) on Ashes’ gravesite.