DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Should we fear death?
Having been near death on three occasions in the past few years, I have a deep interest in the question, �Should we fear death?� 

Allow me to be a bit pedantic and parse the word, �Fear.� In a biblical sense it can mean reverence and awe such as the fear of God. In more common usage fear can mean fright and alarm anticipating danger. 

While in the embrace of retreating consciousness and the real possibility of imminent death I was truly frightened. There was no time to engage in philosophic reflection about fearing death in a biblical sense. It was in my face. I was alarmed and frightened. 

Yet I was able to muster my long-held faith and pray fervently for help, to ask for courage to withstand the assault on my physical and mental faculties. That did not fail me. The fact I am still alive and functioning well is a testament to the efficacy of my prayers. I don�t think the physical realities were necessarily changed in my favor but the psychological factors certainly were. 

During these ordeals my mind was filled with thoughts of my wife and family and what disruption and pain my death would cause them. Certainly it would be unthinkable to inflict pain on loved ones even though it could not be helped. I even had a sense of guilt for putting them through the moments of anxiety. 

Facing death even with the Christian hope of eternal life can still be frightening - rather like to going to a dentist. You may have the reassurance that all will turn out well but in the meantime you will have pain and your endurance will be tested. 

I know the concept of eternal life is ridiculed by many as hopelessly na�ve and Pollyanna-ish. For me it is an essential component of life. I have previously contended that human consciousness is composed of time past, time present and time future. When any of the three elements is absent there is discord and dysfunction. One might consider it similar to an unresolved musical cord. The concept of eternal life (time future) resolves the cord of human consciousness and life. 

It is our consciousness that enables our fright and fear of death. Were we not conscious during the ordeal of dying it would cause no alarm. In our dying we relinquish our consciousness, the very cipher of our humanity. Thus, we are destined to be frightened of death by our physical nature. The drive for self-preservation and avoidance of death must surely be written in the human genome as an evolutionary mechanism. Depriving life must be abhorrent to that mechanism and thus facilitates fright in the face of death. 

We can fear (stand in awe of) death for its necessity and inevitability by appealing to our spiritual resources for a sense of meaning at the end of life. We need a sense of time future to complete the harmony of the human cord. I recently attended a Russian Orthodox Church service during which the following bidding prayer struck me: 

A Christian ending to our life:
Painless, blameless, and peaceful;
let us ask of the Lord.

Grant it, O Lord.

 

May it be so for me and you.

 

_____________________________________________________________________

Death as a negative event has dominated Christian thought over the centuries. In contrast, the Hebrew Bible is quite clear that there is no �life after death�. Humans are like animals in the sense that their life or essence returns to the Creator when they die. Only later did a rather vague idea of a shadowy after-world called Sheol arise amongst the Hebrews - perhaps through contact with Greeks and Persians. Death for the Hebrew is natural and normal and does not usher in either heaven or hell. 

It is Paul in his letters who perceives death as a profoundly hostile force. This death, inherited willy-nilly by us all, derives from the primal sin of Adam and Eve. It is ultimately more than just physical death. It is utter separation from God, a separation which amounts to the death of the soul or self, for only in God do we live and move and have our being. Only wholehearted commitment to Jesus of Nazareth can save us from this terrible outcome. Perhaps it is this teaching which has often given Christians stubborn tenacity in the face of threats of suffering and death. Better to die a physical death true to Jesus, they have said, than to suffer an eternal spiritual death through denying him. Death by persecution is to be welcomed, not feared. 

In our times, many of us find ourselves harbouring a strange mixture of approaches to death. Always in the background are dreadful medieval images of eternal torments inflicted with pleasure on unrepentant sinners by a sadistic Satan and his cohorts. While we would not easily admit these persistent images to anyone ( perhaps not even to ourselves), they are often there. We can�t help wondering if we�re �Going to heaven� or �Going to hell� when we die - as though both are places in an afterlife of some sort. 

It would be wrong to assert that these medieval fears have lessened in the modern age. Christianity, while slowly diminishing in the secular West, is alive and growing fast in Africa, the south Americas and Asia. Many millions, no doubt, think of death in much the same terms as did Westerners some time ago. That is, they fear it both for its earthly finality and for the uncertain prospect of either joy or torment. 

In the secular West, however, it is only death in the former sense which is more usually the source of any fear. Not only is death the final unknown, but we also must still face the process of dying. That is, we tend to fear dying rather more than death itself. We know that we are part of a natural world in which death is the universal norm for living creatures. We are nevertheless acutely self-aware and able to reflect on death as the point at which our lives end. Fear of the unknowable is normal and natural. It is not easy for a self-aware being to fearlessly anticipate absolute termination of self. But we more and more tend to banish (or try to banish) thoughts of reward and punishment connected with �life after death�. 

Not only do we tend to see ourselves as part of nature, but we also look to hard evidence to provide us with good reason to draw conclusions about our world and about ourselves. Despite accounts of near-death experiences (note that these are near-death, not death experiences), there is no convincing evidence from beyond the grave. Nor, if a scientific view of the universe is correct, can there be. Death, the point at which all our cells stop functioning and then decay, is final. We can�t experience anything from that point onwards. 

And if that is correct, then dying has a sting - but not death itself.

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