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A Religious Naturalist Looks at Death

by Doris Webster Havice

Dr. Havice is professor emeritus of religious studies at the University if Colorado, Boulder. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 19, 1975, pp. 1051-1054. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Apparently from the very beginning, death has presented a problem to humankind. It is likely also that of all animals only human beings have had the equipment with which to foresee death and to try to understand it. There have usually been two problems in understanding death: on the one hand, the belief that life is rendered meaningless if it is cut off in death and, on the other hand, the belief that human beings, unlike other animals, are too valuable to suffer the fate that awaits all other living forms.

Underlying both These beliefs is the assumption of a radical disjunction between humanity and the rest of nature with regard to value, being and destiny. I would challenge the assumption that human beings are in any way outside of, radically different from, or even more valuable than the total nexus of which we are a part. I call myself a naturalist because I cannot conceive of any useful theory that makes humankind unnatural. I call myself a religious naturalist because I am sure that the religious values of transcendence and ultimacy can best be preserved on the basis of this unitary assumption.

There are three responses which mortals can make in regard to death: to deny it, to accept it as an unpleasant but inevitable fact, or to affirm it not only as inevitable but also as a valid and joyous part of the natural process of which birth, living and death are equally important. I favor the third position. However, a brief review of the more orthodox positions, pointing out why from my viewpoint they fall short of validity, is in order.

I

One way of denying death stems from Plato. In The Republic he writes: "The wise man will not count this life of man a matter of much concern, so for such a man death will have no terrors." In this view, life becomes a poor adumbration of true life, which comes after death. This attitude found its way into Christianity via neo-Platonism and persists among many orthodox Christians today. The Buddhist position is that all life is suffering which one can overcome only by realizing that the suffering results from attachment to the ego; thus, ridding oneself of the illusion of self makes death an illusion.

The orthodox Christian and the orthodox Buddhist both regard this life as a preparation for another kind of life, although the Christian seeks to purify the self while the Buddhist carries the purification so far as to be rid of self altogether. In neither case is life, here and now, taken seriously enough. Both views seem to lead to a kind of covert escapism from what I would call the real business of living. From a metaphysical point of view these positions seem to create such a dichotomy between ordinary experience and "reality" that for many the only recourse is a kind of lobotomy which divorces reality from rationality. As to these doctrines’ religious value, it seems that human beings are enjoined not so much to have faith as to regard themselves, as they are here and now, as unworthy of having faith.

A more recent denial of death that has attracted some attention is the position taken by Alan Harrington in The Immortalist (Avon, 1970), which, appropriately enough, first appeared in Playboy. Harrington maintains that life could be made over to eliminate death altogether through human engineering (genetic and otherwise). Going even further, he says that "the primary source of our fears, and all evil and meanness afflicting the human spirit . . . was death all the time, and nothing else." This new version of the Fountain of Youth myth seems about as attractive as the prospect of sitting on a cloud playing a harp and consuming milk and honey throughout eternity.

One could raise an almost inexhaustible number of questions; at least a few of them should be noted. At what point in the life cycle (or death cycle) would one wish to be stabilized? Considering the problem of overpopulation it would seem necessary -- if human engineering did not alter the reproductive cycle -- to fix human life before puberty or after menopause. Can one imagine a valuable, or even interesting, existence if growth for everyone were halted at either of these two developmental levels? Who could really wish for the monotony that would be a necessary consequence of our being rendered immortal in this curiously naïve sense? Hans Jonas has pointed out (in The Phenomenon of Life [Dell, 1968]) that the very essence of what we mean by life is mortality: "Mortality is the very condition of separate self-hood which in the instinct of self-preservation shows itself so highly prized throughout the organic world." How can life be envisioned as lacking the complete process of birth, development and death? Whatever else we mean life, we mean change; without it, what remained would be a mere semblance. Ethically, we hope that lives will change for the better. But whether or not this is the case, the capacity to choose, to react to new conditions (both within the self and in the environment) , is the process of living that makes possible the worth of living.

II

At least since Epicurus some have viewed death as obviously the end, and the conviction that it is not as merely immature wishful thinking. To Freud, belief in immortality was part of what he called a socialized neurosis from which humanity would eventually recover. The existentialists make an ethical obligation of the notion that death is all and that "living in the face of death means living such fashion that life can be broken off at any moment and not be rendered meaningless by such an accident," to quote Glenn Gray’s "The Problem of Death in Modern Philosophy" (in The Modern Vision of Death, edited by Nathan A. Scott, Jr. [John Knox, 1967)).

There is something very attractive about the existentialist position. To face life naked of any solace seems brave and upstanding. Perhaps, better than almost anyone else, the existentialist expresses the individual’s responsibility to live well now. However, anyone who is aware of natural process will find that position unrealistic. Atheistic existentialism holds that there is no meaning in the universe apart from our obligation to create meaning in our own lives -- and somehow that seems very pretentious.

More reasonable is the Bantu concept of Muntu, "meaning-giver," a class to which people, spirits and God all belong. Thus, individuals are part of a continuity in spiritual as well’ as material aspects. Just as there are beings with less understanding and less capacity to ‘give meaning in the world, so there are likely to be those who have greater capacity to understand the totality of meaning into which their own meanings fit or do not fit -- a concept that seems reasonable, if not easily provable. Moreover, if our living is related to and dependent on other life of all sorts, as it certainly appears to be, to assume that this interrelation ends with what is called death seems preposterous.

Ethically, existentialism seems to foster arrogance in relation to the rest of nature. Metaphysically, it neglects people’s entire setting and’ creates an impassable chasm between them and all that they depend on to live. Nothing that we know of natural phenomena supports that position. Religiously, existentialism denies the possibility of awareness of that which transcends the "now" and without which the "now" cannot have significance.

III

Death and life are inexorably bound up with each other. If we deny one, we deny the other and will inevitably live poorly (in the sense of less than fully). Frances Wickes puts it well:

Life and death are concerned with the eternal process of becoming, the process of growth, transition, regression, transformation: a process where the unexpected is forever breaking through the pattern of the seemingly established, and at every turn of the river of life new vistas may be opened enabling the soul to glimpse the country where ultimate mysteries, unknown and unknowable, abide [The Inner World of Childhood (New American Library, 1968)].

We, know that, biologically, death begins in embryo. There is a constant sloughing off and generation of body tissues, a process that goes on throughout what we call life and continues after we die. Spiritually a similar process seems to be natural. We die to the old and are born to the new throughout life. Some of these deaths and births are more cataclysmic than others, but whether dramatic or gradual, the process of spiritual living is essentially the same as that of bodily living.

Moreover, as we know, that which went together to make us what we are biologically was a product of a long existence before we were born, and whatever we are. biologically will nourish and develop long after we die. But our influence on our world also goes on producing changes long after we are forgotten. As we live, we nourish or poison the lives around us, although to most of us it is not clear how or to what extent or in what ways. But each of us knows in his or her heart that this is so. In our most conscious moments we feel our responsibility to be aware of the meaning we have for others.

But many are unsatisfied with this description of meaning and value. Many want to persist as self-conscious selves. Why? The problem here ‘seems to be a profoundly ethical one. Jesus said that one must lose his life to find it. The Buddha said that one must outgrow attachment to the self. Many Christians seem to turn Jesus’ admonition around and seek so hard to find themselves that they never lose themselves. And, as many Buddhist writers warn, to strive for detachment is to fail to reach it.

There is a Taoist story that illustrates the ethical problem. Two men are walking together when they notice that a man ahead of them has dropped his umbrella. They pick it up and hand it to him. But, says the teacher, this act is not a good one if the men who pick up the umbrella are interested in gratitude from the umbrella-dropper, or if they feel satisfaction for the act. In other words, the only really good act is one in which the self has been forgotten. This tale, it seems to me, applies equally well to the desire for personal immortality. One who feels the need to be recognized, to be a self in the hereafter to watch what happens, is not really living fully. Just as it seemed to the Hindu that for the good life to eventuate, ambition and competition must be relinquished and inner knowledge sought, so it seems that the only person who has really learned enough to live well is the one who has in some sense surmounted self.

IV

The essential philosophical problem concerns what we mean by meaning. Or, to put it another way, religious significance must be described in terms that do justice to our human response to the distinction between what is essential and what is ephemeral. Any adequate description of humanity must note our peculiar tendency to contrast what will pass away with what will not, especially with regard to value. As Whitehead puts it in Science and Philosophy, "The world which emphasizes Persistence is the World of Value. Value is in its nature timeless and immortal. . . . The value inherent in the Universe has an essential independence of any moment of time; and yet it loses its meaning apart from its necessary reference to the World of passing fact. Value refers to Fact and Fact refers to Value."

This view, as he points out, is the direct opposite of Plato’s and the theological tradition derived from him. If we neglect either side of the distinction, we lapse into unreality not only in our description of humanity but also in our description of reality. Humanity shares to some extent in the capacity to apprehend the transcendent in the now -- shares, as the Bantus believe, in the capacity to give meaning and to apprehend meaning. But where we err is in the assumption that the fact on which meaning is based is eternal. We do not live forever, nor does any part of us. Yet our acts may, or may not, have eternal significance.

To Hans Jonas the Book of Life is filled with deeds rather than names -- an observation that to me expresses a part of the truth. Although Jonas overemphasizes the contrast between life and death, I would not quarrel with the "submersion of discontinuity" he finds in Whitehead. The danger of forgetting the relation between the two seems as great as, if not greater than, the danger of overemphasis on the relation. One of the psychological concomitants of our capacity to grasp meanings is the tendency to overdramatize sudden awareness, as if suddenly understanding is the same as suddenly creating. This tendency is a residue of the instinct for self-preservation which carries with it an overemphasis on the importance of the individual. René Dubos ends his little book The Torch of Life (Simon & Schuster, 1962) with a magnificent statement of the importance of recognizing this continuity without ego investment. He speaks of the mysterious sense of responsibility toward the future which has made so many willing to work for causes that transcend their selfish interests:

Concern for the future is the mark and glory of the human condition. Men come and go, but however limited their individual strength, small their contribution, and short their life span, their efforts are never in vain because like runners in a race, they hand on the torch of life.

Nikos Kazantzakis in The Saviors of God (Simon & Schuster, 1960) states our ethical responsibility better than most when he describes the individual as seed. The seed has continuity with the past, but has one unique responsibility: to blossom as only that seed can and thus to "save God."

You are not a miserable and momentary body; behind your fleeting mask of clay, a thousand-year-old face lies in ambush. Your passions and your thoughts are older than your heart or brain. . . . Out of an ocean of nothingness with fearful struggle, the work of man rises slowly like a small island. . . . With his knees doubled up under his chin, with his hands toward the light, with the soles of his feet turned toward his back, God huddles in a knot in every cell of his flesh. . . . Within the province of our ephemeral flesh all of God is imperiled. He cannot be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless we save him with our own struggles; nor can we be saved unless he is saved. . . . It is not God who will save us -- it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating and by transmuting matter into spirit.

V

Metaphysically, there is no evidence for sharp discontinuities in reality. Religiously, the demand to know the future turns faith into a smirking mask. Ethically, to cling to identity destroys the value of any and every act.

It is essential that each of us be aware that we make -- or rather, contribute to -- what is eternal. We should not fear death, for then we cease to live fully now. Our desire not to die -- to live forever or live again -- must be put away lest we not live at all. Our need to be there in the future, to be "rewarded," vitiates our acts and turns them into ego trips instead of experiences of loving and living. We must return the umbrella without wanting to be noticed or we have done nothing for our neighbor, or our God.


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