Spirit at the Solstice

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

His article is excerpted from his book A Cry of Absence, to be published in January by Harper & Row. Reprinted by permission. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 22-29, 1982, p. 1307. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Self-help philosophies not only fall silent in the face of white hot pain but refuse to hear the cries of pain uttered. On such terms, sunny styles of religion cannot serve as a basis for any solidarity of experience with those whose horizon excludes God. On that horizon, nevertheless, is a faithful reporting of the human condition.

A wintry heart: a “being toward death.” Winter, the season when a pole of the earth slants farthest from the sun, finds the shadows longest at noon. Somewhere around December 21 in the northern hemisphere, or June 21 in the southern the tilt is the greatest. The long chill begins. Before that time, in the moderate climates, some snow will have fallen to follow the dropping of leaves, but the illusions of postponement can be extended. The slant, the tilt, the time of solstice means the end of illusion: winter has arrived.

Winter is more than dormancy; it is a dying. Poets who have springtime in view make much of the way the earth needs annual sleep. Animals hibernate. Trees rest to draw strength for a new bursting of buds. Nature is quiet, but will become vital again. Poets are also beings who are aware of standing on a horizon that opens toward death. The leaves that have dropped from the living trees will never return. Though at first the smell of their decay was sweet, it turned acrid. In the dryness of late autumn, they disintegrated. The twigs are gone. No poetry or wishing will return them. Though some animals will revive from winter’s sleep, others have gone to their caves as to their graves. They disappear, and when spring comes the wanderer ponders: What happened to all the carcasses? Where are the dry bones?

A wintry sort of spirituality does not literally trace the cycles of the seasons and is not a weather report or an observation on the climate. This spirituality treats winter as a metaphor or an image of the heart and soul. The wintry image, because it represents more than dormancy -- death -- forces an urgent theme on the spiritual seeker. The search for a piety does not permit evasion of the central issue of life: its “being toward death.” Every Yes hereafter has to be made in the face of “ceasing to be,” as the world ordinarily knows being.

The wintry sort of spirituality, says Karl Rahner, promotes solidarity with those whose horizon excludes God. For those who are serious about this excluding, the mystery of death is the great determiner of their distance. Awareness of a probable “ceasing to be” and inability to say Yes in the face of it combine to lead them away from any desire to reckon with God. Whoever says God has chosen to imply goodness and power. If there is goodness and power, why is there death or the pain and suffering usually associated with it? Did God cause the death? If so, where is goodness and love? Did God have the power to abolish death and not use the power? That version advances nothing, for where, even then, are goodness and love? The third option seems hardly more attractive. It holds that God may be powerless to work life in the face of natural death. Why bother with a God too weak to create and sustain what matters most to every person? The questions will not be suppressed.

Committed Christians who fuse horizons with those of the godless know they cannot evade the questions. Attempts to smuggle the reverent unbeliever into the kingdom by calling her an “anonymous Christian,” as Karl Rahner would, meet with opposition. The resisters say, in effect, “Don’t baptize me with terminology where you cannot reach me with water.”

A classic illustration of this was when some French Dominicans came to admire the writings and character of the novelist Albert Camus. They wanted to find ways to include him anonymously in their camp but found him drawing back. Finally he addressed them, inviting dialogue. They should remain Catholic and he agnostic, he said, staying in their separate camps. If Camus could make sense of a God who permitted babies to die, he could find the Christian scheme attractive. Since he could not, their faith remained fundamentally unattractive, whatever lesser benefits it might bring.

Not often do believers have the opportunity to engage those beyond their own horizon that includes God, the way those Dominicans encountered Camus. In recent generations the nonbelieving community has tended serenely to ignore the claims of faith. When they see evidence in the media of a commercialized and trivial entertainment business in the name of faith, the creatively godless shrug their shoulders. They have better things to do than to pay heed to such voices and options. These mean no more to them than would popular astrology to most Christians. Entertaining Christianity, though it employs a language that includes death, is in a hurry to pass over the Good Friday story in order to reach Easter. Such a diversion does not allow the reality of death to loom.

Summery-spirited Christians know that they will have to die along with everyone else. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, since it took the sting out of death, in their eyes. removes some of the seriousness of death. Mentions of rewards for the graced life after death are frequent, but seldom is there a walking through the stages that lead to death. Since much summery Christianity concentrates on healing, it must bring up the fact of disease. Here again, however, the theme can be trivialized, because in the popular books or on the television programs, one comes to meet only with the success stories. People throw their crutches away; the cancer cells miraculously disperse; life is prolonged. Well and good, think those of the wintry sort, but prolonging does not do away with it. Death remains. The leaves fall, decay and disappear. The heart knows, and demands a listening to its confusion.

Believers who find themselves at home with the wintry sort have been so voiceless that those who exclude God from their horizon are hardly aware of those who hold to faith. When the believing community begins to produce realists on the subject of death, people who take it seriously on their own terms, their act occasions surprise.

The theme of death reaches people differently in various phases of their lives. Young people given to wintry sorts of spirituality will not and should not find themselves focusing on it. Father John Dunne of the University of Notre Dame found this question to be a human constant: “Since I must die, how shall I satisfy my desire to live?” He noticed that the question comes in a new way to people around the fourth decade of their life. Young people have probably been close to someone who died. We are told that they will have seen  18,000 violent deaths on television before they reach college age. Such ritualizing of violence, however, screens real death from view and makes it easier to evade.

Death up close is not a present reality for most of the young in a modern society. The architecture of housing cooperates: there is no upstairs room for grandma in the ranch home, no corner for grandfather in the apartment or condominium. If a member of the senior generation dies, the grandchild is at a distance. After death, the body of the elder is usually disguised by the cosmetic aspects of the funeral parlor art. Only professionals are physically near the dying: the cleric, the medical staff, the funeral parlor director. Even they find safeguards against having to make death personal: they can pull screens and use sanitation and monitoring devices to keep the dirtiness of death distant. Busy calendars and schedules remove the opportunities for reflection, and there is even new terminology to shroud the realistic language about death. Once upon a time people died in the community, but now they die alone. All this has a bearing on death for the dying one, but it also changes the nature of the surviving community.

An author writes lines like these as if with a kind of automatic impulse. He fears that they will seem lifeless because they have been repeated so often. Yet he must move one step further and risk more repetition by entering into the present record the observation that death is supposed to have become a taboo subject. A yawn comes easily when one hears one more time that in the 19th century sex was taboo and death was a popular subject, whereas in the 20th everyone can talk about sex, and almost no one brings up death. Recently there has been some change in this context, and books on death have sometimes even become best-sellers. Seminars on the subject attract wide notice. Still, Christian parish leaders report that however voguish the topic may be, it does not attract audiences or readerships that have any staying power.

Even where the talk about death and dying comes with ease, a certain taming of the subject occurs. Many a therapist can rattle off the “stages of death and dying” as outlined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross or her competitors or successors. To put a name on stages, however, does something to make them more domestic and safe. Such naming is a part of therapy; why criticize the healing impulse? What a culture gains in therapy it may lose in its grasp of soul. Death has its own power. It also resists being graded, located between strata of life or seen following neat stages. Death comes with the brutal crash of steel as autos meet on freeways, through the quiet slit of steel with a razor at the wrist, with the thieving suddenness of a coronary occlusion, with the silent stealth of infant crib death, with the adding-machine efficiency of genocide, or with the plotlessness of invisible mass killings in Kampuchea. The naming of stages does little to prepare a person for the many ways that the last enemy uses to attack.

John Dunne found from reading spiritual biographies that somewhere around age 29 or 30, profound people pass to a new stage of awareness. They appropriate the horizon that death creates. People who have watched television death for entertainment or who have read objectively about dying begin seeing subtle changes in their own bearing. They have begun their new move toward autumn. Doors close, options narrow. By now they have been fated to follow one vocation instead of another. They have vowed to spend life with this mate and not that one. As they mature, they hear the commentators describe athletes or mathematicians of their age as being over the hill.” Through the centuries, cultures and the dictates of the body have worked similar effects on diverse people. They move from observing death at a distance to reckoning with its possibility close at hand. Some of the deep religious experiences of conversion occur at about that time. The journals of spirituality, especially those of a wintry sort, start to be written at that age.

If Dunne is reckoning correctly, the age when people take death seriously as a personal reality, a point that today occurs before midlife, was near the end of the average life span for people in the ancient world. If the Psalms are to serve as a text that discloses a creative way of being in the face of death, it is important for a reader to remember how close death was to everyone in the original context of the book. No actuaries kept statistics on the people of the era. Through complex means of calculation there can now be educated guesses. The young person of today can expect to reach Psalm 90’s minimum of “threescore years and ten.” When the Psalms were written, few could look ahead so far. In ancient Greece and Rome the average span was believed to be just over 20 years, in medieval England about 33. Two centuries ago it had risen only to 36.

In the Psalms; all views of death had to reflect its closeness. The earthy naturalness of Old Testament stories reveals the nearness of death through battles, floods, accidents, miraculous disasters, or any number of other causes. Death was both a part of nature taken for granted and a punishment for evil, the result of God’s activity. To make sense of the psalmic attitudes toward death, it is important to set a larger Old Testament context.

The writers of the Psalms confronted death but saw through it to life because in death they saw God. This notion seems startling because the Psalms have so little to say in general and nothing concrete to say about a positive mode of being in afterlife. Shed, the abode of the dead, was attractive neither to visit nor to take up residence in. Sheol allowed for no visitors, and none ever returned from it. This shadowy world was, and in retrospect is, a horror without mitigation. The language of winter is too serene for Sheol’s miry, murky landscape. And yet, one must say, despite the language of “ceasing to be” or going to Sheol, there is a Yes in the face of such language in the depth of Hebrew piety.

One angle of vision comes from subsequent styles of Judaism. Two lines from eastern European 18th century Hasidic Judaism reflect the long afterglow of this vision.

Rabbi Zalman, one of the great successors to Hasidism’s founder, Baal Shem Tov, was said to have interrupted his prayers to say of the Lord: “I do not want your paradise. I do not want your coming world. I want you, and you only.” This was in the spirit of his predecessor, who said, “If I love God, what need have I of a coming world?” Such language is not likely to satisfy moderns who wish a more open future. It is an important first word for those who have only utilitarian views of God. In the world of the practical, God is loved for the sake of one’s self, for the self’s purposes, and for the yield of this relation in the reward of eternal life. The ancient Hebrew loved God for the sake of a long life in which to enjoy creation, but she also was to love the Lord for the Lord’s sake.

The Christian tradition in its vital years picked up something of this sense of the love of God and of trust in the divine ways wherever they lead. From the tradition of Bernard of Clairvaux in the Middle Ages there survives the story of a woman seen in a vision. She was carrying a pitcher and a torch. Why these? With the pitcher she would quench the fires of hell, and with the torch she would burn the pleasures of heaven. After these were gone, people would be able to love God for God’s sake. Here, as so often in Hebrew thought, a regard for the intrinsic character of God and of divine trustworthiness shines through. A believer shifts away from a bartering concept in which one loves God for the sake of a transaction. Now there is a relation in which the trusting one is simply reposed in the divine will. The journey through the season after solstice in the heart will take on purpose and become beatable.

The Hebrew Scriptures from page one prepare the seeker for such an embodiment of God. Genesis asserts that God antedates the beginnings. The Scriptures have room for two different creation stories on the first two pages and for others in the Wisdom literature, in Job 38-39, and elsewhere. No one can collate these stories in order to deduce a scientific account of how the world began; the texts have a different purpose. While some religions have no interest in beginnings, faith within the Hebrew Scriptures insists that the Creator is the Lord of all that follows -- including death. Wonder over the universe of nature is a derived wonder. Such awe exists not for its own sake but because God is the agent. The world and the holy as such, the seasons of weather and the heart as such, are not of intrinsic but of derived value. Everything depends on trust in the Creator.

Whereas this understanding was all very comforting to the Hebrew who had such a vivid sense of the Creator’s presence, it seems to do little to help believers and unbelievers comprehend each other’s horizons. It does little good to talk about those horizons until a reader has done more justice to what the psalmists thought were their own. Today the world is described as “desacralized.” For many this means that the universe has lost its innate sacredness. No longer has it a native capability to generate transcendence and inspire awe. Today humans set out to control the rivers and oceans, the resources under the earth, and the seasons themselves. The Hebrew’s world, however, was sacralized not because of its innate and native character but because it belonged to God.

God’s world included human mortality. According to the Eden stories, death came as a punishment for disobedience. More than disobedience was involved, nevertheless. Death was the marking line drawn between the divine and the human, between created people and the Creator God. Adam and Eve chose to strive to be immortal and to have knowledge. These both belonged only to God, who would have given creatures one but not both of them. People became mortal, but they had knowledge. This knowledge is what inspired the Hebrew drama and reflects itself in the Psalms. People now do not live to be immortal, but they have knowledge. Death, therefore, though a punishment, is also a simple fact that defines the creature over against the living God. The human now knows something of “good and evil,” life and death. Eden meant ignorant immortality. After Eden comes informed mortality.

The Psalms frequently remember that death is a punishment for disobedience, but more often they are matter-of-fact, and the punishment idea is lessened. Responsibility for living replaces the consciousness of punishment. Humans are not to be beasts, nor to live like beasts, for they are still in dumbness, in ignorance. The knowledge of death, for all the grimness of realism it introduces to life, is what gives daily and yearly existence meaning. Humans no longer have immortality, but they have history, memory and hope. Remembering is the root of trust, hoping is the center of faith.

Although Sheol is a threat with whose horrendousness we moderns cannot cope, death itself in the Psalms is not mere enemy. God does not act like an Oriental potentate who enjoys humans, like puppies, tumbling before his throne until it suits a divine whim to have them killed. Death, indeed, is not the result of a whim but is to define what is human. Astonishingly, then, in this concept, death is not simply evil any more than winter is evil in the passing of the year. Death is not a reality designed to call humans to refuse the enjoyment of living. Death, the definer, gives meaning to life and history. It is an instrument that helps provide meaning for daily existence.

Each believing Hebrew had to learn what their literature imparts to later readers. The texts teach the intrinsic value of each day. They turn mourning into a regard for the living, not for the dead, who are beyond reach. With this goes a reality that confirms our sense that a wintry sort of spirituality dominates these Scriptures. The living are all also beings who appear on a horizon toward death. No matter how righteous they may be, not everything turns out well for them in life. The Psalms often do focus on a “Why?” that is inspired by whatever it is that limits meaning in the life of the righteous who must die, before they are on the verge of dying. So limited and immediately confining seemed the language of response to the Why that some later rabbis came up with equivalents to the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. They needed “immortality” to compensate for what limited them in this life.

In the rabbinic versions of immortality, God finally evens accounts for the righteous. Among other things, they can resume relations that they had known on earth. The Scriptures are never very clear, however, about such reunions. Jacob does not expect to meet his missing and presumed-dead son, Joseph. Sheol is a zone of darkness and chaos in which such a meeting would be meaningless, indeed impossible. Sheol is thus no match for Greek or later rabbinic immortality or Christian resurrection. The Hebrew Scriptures have no language of bliss after life. They give no voice to a hope for a creation that is reflected back into the old world, thanks to the values of life after death. Sheol follows life but does not serve as an afterlife. It has been said that Sheol is better seen as an afterdeath Sheol never makes its appearance for comfort, to inspire a different mode of living now. Afterdeath is a winter from which no spring emerges, after which no summer invites.

Because the Hebrews of the type who wrote the Psalms concentrated on the trustworthiness of God and not on the gift of afterlife, they did not ask for more living after death. They pleaded with God as the giver of life to endow the meaning of their seasons with value. Seldom do they stand in the divine marketplace and bargain for a life to come, though some do haggle for more years. God as the Lord of life matters more than their ego and their survival.

Even to record such conclusions of biblical scholars may contribute to the wintry chill that reaches many corners of the texts, God simply keeps asking creatures questions that admit of no easy answer. These impel them into full and busy lives in the light of a divine purpose whose extent remains finally unknowable. Unknowability does not in the end mean silence. God, who is personal, addresses humans and expects response. The drama of daily living results from that conversation.

Later Judaism could not leave things so wintry. The Talmud quotes a rabbi: “The end purpose of everything our Mishna has described is the life of the world to come.” The motive of the rabbis was less to elaborate on the sketchy traces of belief in afterlife within the Bible than to make sense of their faith in the justice of God. God, they thought, had to do more than the Scriptures revealed, in order to even out the injustices of this world.

Such rabbinic notions introduce a springtime. The Psalms leave those who pray them with a winter radiated by awareness of the divine power over both death and life. The rabbinic teaching on immortality that tempered the psalmic faith began to offer an escape from death by an escape after death. Jewish messianism, because it proposed a purpose to future history, also qualified the old faith of psalmists in the trustworthiness of a God who made each day meaningful on its own terms.

After centuries of rabbinic teaching on immortality, Jewish faith in messianism, and Christian witness to the resurrection, it is hard to pull the screen back down to cloud the future as the Psalms did. Moderns reflect on the past as if all people in it faced death with equanimity because they believed in recompense in a life to come. That belief appeared in the interval between the era of the Psalms and our own. Faith in a life to come has by now disappeared from the consciousness of many. They live under the confining canopy of their unguided years. Novelist John Updike (in the New, Yorker of January 11, 1982, p. 95) refers to this interval “when death was assumed to be a gateway to the afterlife and therefore not qualitatively different from the other adventures and rites of passage that befall a soul. . . . Most men until modem times prepared for and enacted their own dying” with a sense of calm, even matter-of-factness. Somehow Updike implies an affirmation in writing that at best says, “Blackness is not all.”

Blackness of winter night dominates modern literature and consciousness. Lacking both faith in an afterlife and trust in a Lord of life, those who exclude God from their temporal horizon are left then only with the pain, never with value or meaning. Updike cites an example from a diarylike novel by Lars Gustafsson, The Death of a Beekeeper, to suggest the measure of pain. This Journal records the last days of a Swedish beekeeper who, as he is dying of cancer in 1974, isolates himself in his beloved cottage. The novel is at home with wintriness:

It was gray, pleasant February weather, fairly cold and hence not too damp, and the whole landscape looked like a pencil sketch. I don’t know why I like it so much. It is pretty barren and yet I never get tired of moving about in it.

Such prose could be translated back into the language of Psalms, which also allow for at-homeness in a bleak landscape. The diary, however, records the winter night, the pain without relief. One can only enter the novel by reading into it a prolongation of the brief stabs and piercings that almost everyone has had momentarily in, say, the dentist’s chair. Can we find a God worthy of trust on this horizon?

What I have experienced today during the late night and in the early hours of the morning, I simply could not have considered possible. It was absolutely foreign, white hot and totally overpowering. I am trying to breathe very slowly, but as long as it continues, even this breathing, which at least in some very abstract fashion is supposed to help me distinguish between the physical pain and the panic, is an almost overpowering exertion. . . .

The reader imagines herself in such a winter night, without promise of relief, without a responsive God to break the silence:

This white hot pain, naturally, is basically nothing but a precise measure of the forces which hold this body together. It is a precise measure of the force which has made my existence possible. Death and life are actually MONSTROUS things.

Death and life become monstrous because dying is monstrous. Death is no longer the divider from God that defines humanness, life, and thus the good. A sufferer is left with mere breathing to divide and define pain and panic.

A summery faith of the exuberant sort moves rapidly past such pages. Self-help philosophies address other aspects of life. They not only fall silent in the face of such pain but refuse to hear the cries of pain uttered. On such terms, sunny styles of religion cannot serve as a basis for any solidarity of experience with those whose horizon excludes God. On that horizon, nevertheless, is a faithful reporting of the human condition.