Chapter 1: The Fact of Death

After Death: Life in God
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: The Fact of Death

In this book I shall try to present a way of understanding our human life ‘in God’, as I like to phrase it, which will avoid some of the difficulties that many of us find in the conventional talk about ‘life after death’. In a way this is an essay in ‘re-interpretation’, but much more than that it is an effort to engage in what seems to me the necessary task of ‘de-mythologizing.’ that position as it is commonly set forth.

But I wish to make clear at the outset that I do not see such ‘de-mythologizing’ as the entire negation of the perennially Christian conviction that human existence has significance here and now and also has significance beyond this mortal life. It matters to God; hence it is meaningful to speak of the way in which, once we have come to the end of our life in this world, something abides -- and that something is of enormous importance and gives dignity to our humanity, both for you and me as particular persons and also for human society in its total reality -- a society of which each of us is a member, by virtue of our belonging together in what an Old Testament text beautifully calls ‘a bundle of life’.

Before this more positive view can be presented, however, it is essential that we confront honestly and bravely the plain fact that we are going to die. As I shall say, confronting that plain fact does not suggest that we should spend our time in the not very profitable exercise of meditating every day on its reality. But it does require that we should reckon very seriously with our mortality and recognize that this mortality qualifies all that we do and say and think and are.

Perhaps our own age is the first in which much effort has been expended in seeking to avoid any such confrontation, so that it is now generally assumed that while death will inevitably come to each one, the question it poses can be put off to that distant tomorrow. Of course it is true that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’; nobody would dare to deny this. But do we really bother much about it?

There can be little doubt that our ancestors, not least in Victorian times, seemed often to be obsessed by the thought of death, both their own and that of other persons. Much fiction included a ‘deathbed scene’, presented with a sentimental attention to detail; many will remember such scenes in the novels of Charles Dickens, guaranteed to move the reader to tears as each circumstance was described. But quite apart from such exaggerated emphasis, there was certainly a keen awareness of human mortality. This is reflected in hymns written during the nineteenth century, so many of them filled with references to the brevity of life here and now, and usually presenting death as a relief from the pains, sorrows, and miseries of mundane existence. ‘Weary of self and laden with my sin, I look to heaven and long to enter in. . .’ So runs one of the most popular of those hymns; and there were many more which in one way or another focused on death as release from this life into one which was painted as inevitably a happier state. Of course the thought of hell, or the state opposite to heavenly bliss, was not forgotten either; but fear of such a hell seems to have been a less central note than expectation of ‘joy in heaven’.

My present concern, however, is not with an assessment of the significance of the calculus of reward and punishment, so often part of this general acceptance of the fact of death. Rather, it is with the acceptance of death itself. Whatever else may have been wrong about the attitude, at least this can be said: for centuries human beings have been ready to recognize that they were mortal. And to my mind this is a healthier state of mind than a too easy dismissal of the fact of human mortality. The failure of so many of our contemporaries to reckon sufficiently seriously with that mortality is largely responsible for the appalling shock that comes when someone does die. Doubtless this also helps to explain the funeral customs of our day, so cynically portrayed in books like The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh and The American Way of Death by Nancy Mitford.

Funeral directors, undertakers, ‘morticians’ (as they are called in the United States) may be responsible in large measure for this unrealistic state of affairs. Yet one may assume that such ‘professionals’ are not so much creating as confirming attitudes already pretty well established. Nor can the clergy of the various Christian and other religious groups be entirely exonerated, for frequently enough they are embarrassed by the fact of death and may even come to the point of saying, ‘There is no death’ -- as a certain minister known to me was in the habit of announcing when he entered the house of a family where death had occurred. An acquaintance of this clergyman remarked that the latter was lying, since plainly there was a corpse somewhere upstairs in the house! The good intention of that minister is not in doubt; but surely the way in which he carried out that intention was nothing more than a confirmation of the common unwillingness to accept honestly the facts of the case.

Contemporary uneasiness about talk of death and the frequent refusal to reckon with it can be interpreted as a welcome, perhaps a necessary, reaction from the morbidity of an earlier age. There is no need to dwell constantly on mortality; healthy recognition of the reality does not require us to spend much of our time in meditating on the subject. To that extent, then, we may well be glad that men and women nowadays are not so engrossed with, even obsessed by, the patent truth that all of us die. Yet this can lead, and in my view has led, to an entirely unrealistic attitude whose only result must be an aggravation of the shock when death does come, threatening each of us and refusing to go away just because we happen not to like facing up to it.

In the course of a pretty long life, I have heard only one sermon which dealt with the subject. I shall never forget the astonishment, not to say horror, with which the congregation heard the preacher, a visiting monk as it happened, begin his sermon by these words: ‘Every one of you now sitting in front of me is going to be a corpse; and that, within not too many years.’ If the preacher hoped to shock his audience into attention, he certainly succeeded. They listened to what he said after those words; and I suspect that most of them were not able to get over being forced to endure what Henry James, in a very different connection, once styled ‘the shock of recognition’. It was good for them to be forced to do this.

Now the fact of our death is a writing of finis on this our mortal existence. To use an analogy suggested by Professor Charles Hartshorne, it constitutes the last page of our book of life. The story has come to an end; this is its conclusion. It is an inevitable finis; and no good purpose is served by denying that such is the case. I should put it in this fashion: not only do we all die, which is obvious enough, but all of us also dies, which to many may not appear so obvious. We die, body and mind, even ‘soul’ (if that word is right to use here); and all the talk in the world about ‘immortality of the soul’ will not deliver us from this kind of finality.

I am well aware of the hangover of vague religiosity which wants to maintain some such ‘immortality of the soul’, as if there were part of each of us, and the most important part, that did not undergo death. Origins of such a notion go far back in human history, to primitive days when our remote ancestors thought that some special anima indwelt human bodies; it was given additional support by the teaching of certain of the Greeks, with their insistence on the soul as entirely distinct from, yet temporarily the tenant of, the body -- at its most extreme this expressed itself in the saying soma sema, ‘the body is the prison-house of the soul’. At death, for those who took this view, the soul or ‘spirit’ would be released from its captivity in and its bondage to the physical integument which for a time had clothed it; then the soul, taken to be the genuine self, would continue for ever in a state of disembodied existence.

This doctrine is often enough taken to be the Christian way of seeing things. But it is not the biblical view, for what that is worth. In the early days of the Jewish people, death was not seen as such a release; it was taken to be quite definitely final. Some vague and ghostly continuation was granted, in at least some if not all biblical writers; but this continuation was an insignificant and senseless shadow of real life. ‘The dead praise not thee, O Lord, neither they that go down to Sheol’ -- not inappropriately translated in the Authorized Version of the Bible as ‘silence’, for in Sheol nothing transpires, nothing is heard, nothing is known.

In later years in Jewish history, especially with the Maccabean Wars, belief in a ‘resurrection’, rather than in natural immortality, began to make its appearance. With their strongly material stress, the Jews naturally thought of such a restoration in terms of a bodily or fleshly ‘rising’. Later this was given a more ‘spiritual’ interpretation, as in some Pharisaic thinking and in Christian times as in such a view as St. Paul’s in I Corinthians, where there is a ‘physical body’ and a ‘spiritual body’. The latter is not a matter of ‘flesh and blood’, which (he says) ‘cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven’. Rather, it is sort of existence continuous with our life in this world and in the physical body, but not identical with either of these -- it is a mode of existence appropriate to ‘the heavenly places’, although the level or degree of its continuation is to be determined by what has been done ‘in the flesh’.

Christian theologians in later ages engaged in the well-nigh impossible task of holding together the ‘immortality of the soul’ and the ‘resurrection of the body’. The synthesis was never worked out in a consistent and logically intelligible fashion, despite the various devices which were employed in the attempt to do this. Just what happened to the ‘body’ in the interval before the ‘end of the days’; just where and what the continuing ‘soul’ was when separated from that body; just how the two somehow were to be united once again, especially when quite plainly the body had decayed into its several ingredients: these and other questions were never satisfactorily resolved. Hence, as some of us think, the resultant doctrine found in theological text-books under the chapter-heading ‘The Last Things’ or ‘eschatology’ is confused and confusing. But there can be little question that over the years the ‘immortality’ position has been more and more given the primacy, while the ‘resurrection’ position has been explained away or so modified that its basic intention has been forgotten or lost. To that extent, and in that way, an essentially Greek philosophical, rather than a biblical, teaching has been communicated to the great majority of thoughtful believers.

In later chapters I shall attempt to say positively what, as it seems to me, the ‘resurrection’ can be taken to affirm. But for the moment I wish only to insist that one of the consequences of the ‘immortality’ position, for so long presented as essential to Christian belief, has been precisely the tendency to minimize the reality of death and to make it appear blasphemous for anyone to say, as I did in an earlier paragraph, that not only do we all die but that all of us also dies. Yet the evidence which we possess, from our much more complete scientific knowledge, would argue that such is indeed the truth.

In that sense, we may agree with Martin Heidegger’s oft-quoted talk about human death as being ‘the finality’ of our existence. We do ‘live towards death’, as he has noted; and our death marks the end of what we have been up until that moment. Even talk about a possible survival cannot deny that patent fact, once we have understood the total organic, psycho-somatic, nature of our human existence. And here biblical thought, despite its mythological idiom and its scientific inaccuracy, was much more in accordance with common sense, as well as with the actual situation at the time of death. The biblical material stresses the material world, the bodily condition, the time-and-space reality, which we all know and in terms of which we exist as men and women; it does not take flight into some supposedly more ‘spiritual’ realm where these things are of no importance and where presumably life is lived, at the creaturely level, without any genuinely created order at all.

Death, then, is indeed ‘the finality of life’; it is also, as Heidegger equally stressed, ‘the finality in life’, or (better) ‘life in its finality’. That is to say, the fact of our death provides us with something we can readily enough forget or neglect -- namely, the insistence that whatever we do, whatever we are, whatever we achieve, have about them the quality of finitude and mortality. Due recognition of our inescapable mortality makes us see also that we do not count for so much in the total cosmic picture as we might like to think. It establishes once and for all our ‘expendability’, and clearly asserts that, whatever the world as a whole may include or entail, it does not and cannot find its meaning in this mortal existence.

It is not easy for us men and women to accept this. Perhaps the difficulty in accepting it is related to the equal difficulty which is found in accepting the reality of death in its complete and final sense. We do not readily entertain the idea that in many senses we are relatively insignificant in the total scheme of things. Nor do we find attractive the thought that after our death we are likely to be forgotten, no matter how much we may have been valued by others during our lifetime. A few decades and it will be as if we had never been. What is more, the entire history of the human race has an equally limited character. There may be -- and one of the purposes of this book is to urge that there is -- an abiding significance in our human existence; and it may be that neither we nor anything else is to be utterly forgotten. But before we can come to any such assertion, we must first of all honestly face the mundane reality for what it is. Otherwise we can properly be charged with simply adopting some defense-mechanism which will enable us to evade precisely such uncomfortable truth.

Our ancestors could talk about life here as being greatly important. One Victorian poet wrote that ‘life is real, life is earnest’. Perhaps earnestness, in the sense of excessive concern for human rectitude, can be overdone. We ought to be serious about things, but not humorlessly earnest like those tedious characters who often appear in novels of that period. None the less, there is a seriousness about life which most of us acknowledge when we do not permit ourselves to become entirely devoted to the trivia which clutter our days. Their often too dreary attention to the reality of the death which awaited them and everybody else was for those ancestors of ours a way in which they made themselves come to grips with things that really matter. The way in which they did this may not appeal to us; but at least they did find a genuine purpose in their existence, which was made all the more vivid and exacting for them because they understood very well that they faced an end and that after that end had come they could not ‘pass this way again’.

When in an earlier book I spoke in this fashion, although concentrating attention on a different subject, and hence mentioned death as finality’ in Heidegger’s two senses, some critics urged that I was falling victim to the gloom associated with the writing and thinking of some of the more atheistic existentialists. But surely this was not true. My purpose then, and also in the present context, is only to stress the fact of mortality, its seriousness, and its capacity to illuminate something of the significance of our present human life in this world. If I had left it there, the criticism might have been valid. But I did not leave it there, since I went on to assert that in God human finality is in one sense not ‘the last word’. Later I shall show how it is possible for us to speak in that fashion. But the introduction of the word ‘God’ at this point makes it necessary for me to say something about what I take to be the Christian conception of deity, drawn from the biblical material as a whole, but above all from the New Testament presentation of what Alfred North Whitehead once called ‘the brief Galilean vision’. And mention of Whitehead at once indicates that the perspective or stance from which I approach this discussion of the Christian conception of deity is that of process thought whose ‘founding father’ Whitehead was.

In this place I need not outline the general position taken by process thought. I have already done this in a number of books, perhaps most plainly in Process Thought and Christian Faith (Nisbet and Macmillan 1969) and The Lure of Divine Love (T. & T. Clark and Pilgrim Press 1979). Suffice it to say that the conceptuality which I accept -- and accept because it seems to do justice to deep analysis of human experience and observation, as well as to the knowledge we now have of the way ‘things go’ in the world -- lays stress on the dynamic ‘event’ character of that world; on the inter-relationships which exist in what is a societal universe, on the inadequacy of ‘substance’ thinking to describe such a universe of ‘becoming’ and ‘belonging’, on the place of decisions in freedom by the creatures with the consequences which such decisions bring about, and on the central importance of persuasion rather than coercive force as a clue to the ‘going’ of things in that universe. The conception of deity which I shall now briefly present is not based only on that process conceptuality but on the total impression given by the material contained in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. But I find that what is there communicated is illuminated by, and gives more profound meaning to, the process conceptuality. And I also find that this conceptuality offers a possibility of saying something positive and enriching about the whole business of human existence both in its finitude and in its abiding significance -- and this is the case because one of the further emphases in process thought is its recognition of a divine and unsurpassable reality (call this ‘God’, for that is the traditional term for the supremely worshipful one) which is not only the chief (although not the sole) causative agency in the creation but also the chief receptive and responsive agency in that creation. We shall see presently how helpful this conception, can be to us in our consideration of human existence and its worth.

I take it that the Christian conception of God is built upon the prior Jewish understanding of the ‘living God’ who is active in the creation, who is self-identified with that creation, who shares in its joys and in its anguish, and whose basic intention throughout the creative process is the emergence of finite responsive created agents who with God will work for greater justice, truth, sympathy, righteousness, and goodness. In so doing, these agents will not only fulfil their own possibility; they will also bring enrichment to the divine life -- not that God will become any more God than before, but that by virtue of the divine receptivity of what is accomplished in the creation there will be further opportunities for more adequate and complete expression of the divine intention or purpose which is at work in the whole enterprise.

To this earlier Jewish awareness there was given, as a climactic and focal moment in that strand of history, an enactment or expression of the divine Love-in-act; this is what the event we indicate when we say Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of continuing faith makes available to us. Not that this event is (to use words I have employed in other books) ‘the supreme anomaly’, as if it contradicted and cancelled what had gone before and what goes on elsewhere. Rather, this event is what I have also styled elsewhere ‘the classical instance’, in which there is provided a vivid and vitalizing disclosure of the divine Love-in-act and, in consequence of that ‘eventful’ disclosure, an empowering or enabling of human response which in a very particular way is a re-enactment of the human side in the total event Jesus Christ. The ancient theologians of the Christian tradition had their own idiom for this: they spoke of our becoming filii in Filio, ‘sons in the Son’. For exactly because in that Christ-event there was a climactic and focal expression, the One who is the center of the event, Jesus himself, was called the Son -- not to exclude all others from sonship but to interpret their sonship in terms of him. And of course ‘sonship’ is not, in this connection, a male notion; it is inclusive of the human race, male and female, and it is regrettable that we do not seem to have any single word which will put this male-female reality in to decently ‘non-sexist’ phrasing.

In the light of such a ‘model of God’, as theologians would put it today, there is a possibility of speaking significantly of the enormous value or worth of human existence. This can be done without for a moment negating what I have styled the two ‘finalities’ about that existence. But it will do one thing which is of very great importance. It will make clear that whatever value or worth our existence may have, it does not reside in ourselves -- for we are finite creatures, destined to die, and in that sense expendable. Rather, it resides in the relationship with God which such existence may and does enjoy, whether this is realized or actualized in a vivid manner or is present only as a kind of Leitmotif which runs through the whole history of the human race and the personal history of each and every human person as a member of the society of men and women.

For ultimately it is God who matters. As I shall try to say in the conclusion and summary of this book, all is for God’s ‘greater glory’. And that glory is no majestic enthronement as almighty ruler and self-exalted monarch, but is the sheer Love-in-act which generously gives, graciously receives, and gladly employs whatever of worth or value has been accomplished in a world where God is faithfully active to create more occasions for more good at more times and in more places.