Chapter 3: Death

The 'Last Things’ in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 3: Death

Many years ago a visiting preacher at the General Theological Seminary -- I think it was Allan Whittemore, then superior of the Order of the Holy Cross -- began his sermon with some words which startled the congregation into almost shocked attention. The words were these, as I remember them:‘Everyone of you within sound of my voice will, within not too many years, be a corpse’. The sermon which followed was the one sermon about death and its meaning that I have ever heard preached; I noted that one sermon earlier.

I confess that I have entirely forgotten what the preacher said after his striking first sentence. But that sentence I have never forgotten, nor can I; since it made me face, for the first time and with utter seriousness, the absolutely inescapable fact that I was going to die. Of course I had always known that men died, and in a sense I was well aware of my own death as one of those men. What that sentence did, however, was to make me starkly conscious of the fact that not only do men die but that I, in my concrete actual human existence, faced death too. In a way, it was a realization of what Martin Luther meant when he said that every man dies alone -- in his particularity, in what Whitehead called, in another connection, his ‘solitariness’. That is, it was I, Norman Pittenger, then a young man and a somewhat eager theological student, looking forward to a long and I hoped successful span of years, who was brought face to face with the inevitability of my own entirely personal death.

Now the fact that each of us dies alone, in his ‘solitariness’, as this or that particular person, does not for a moment signify that we do not belong to the human race, exist in relationship with our fellowmen, and find the meaning of our lives not in isolation but in solidarity with others. Far from doing that, it emphasizes our belonging, relationship, and solidarity, since it makes plain that in this mortal existence of ours, before that ‘moment of truth’ -- not the only such moment, but a determinative one in so many ways -- which is our own death, we can find our deepest satisfactions and our best fulfillment only in companionship and in the giving-and-receiving which is love. Once we know that we are to die, each for himself and each by himself, we are brought to value all the more highly and treasure all the more carefully that companionship and that giving-and-receiving which is life in loving. Every moment of our existence before death is now colored by the realization, however dim it may be at any given moment, that now is the time -- ‘the accepted time’, if I may use here St. Paul’s phrase in a very different context -- when we must find ourselves in others and become what nowadays we have learned to style a man ‘for others’.

Death is not simply a biological fact. Obviously it is that, since as a matter of human biology men do and must die. As Heidegger has said, death is indeed human life in its finality; and, in a very profound sense, all of our existence is ‘towards death’, precisely as a biological fact which we must accept. Yet it is not this sense, the straightforward biological reality, which gives to the fact of our dying both its high significance and its peculiar poignancy. What does that is the related and equally inescapable truth that death is also ‘the finality of human life’. By this I mean that it is the qualifying of human life in such a way that we know ourselves to be mortal men who have no claim to anything else and who must honestly and bravely face the truth of their mortality. If they do not do so, they are less than men. Someone has said that a distinguishing factor, as between human life and animal life, is that while the animals die, as do we, they do not know that they are going to die, whereas we die, as do they, but we know that we are going to do so.

Not only does each man die, and because he is going to die recognize himself as mortal, but all men, each for himself and as himself, are also to die. Thus it is not only I who know myself to be mortal; every other man, and all men together constituting the human race, are able only to understand himself and themselves, when the mortality which I am stressing is accepted for what it is.

If we agree, as surely we must, that the one inescapable and inevitable fact about every man and about the whole race of men is this death, we should also agree that it is in no sense morbid to face up to it and endeavor to come to terms with it. On the contrary, it is the measure of our humanity that we live daily as those who know that they are going to die, and hence are mortal, and that we can, as it were, adjust ourselves to that stupendous fact.

Indeed, at no time in his history has man been content to consider death ‘a mere incident’, however much he has been tempted to do so and however many times he has sought to cover up the fact in one way or another. Or, if this statement seems too extreme, at least we can affirm confidently that those who have thought longest and deepest about human life have never been able to dismiss death in a cavalier manner. They have seen it, rather, as a tremendous event which is to be regarded seriously and respectfully, often fearfully; and, if they have been ‘religious’ in any sense, they would add that they must approach death and regard its importance faithfully, too. In recent years, more especially, we have learned to take death with high seriousness, not only because there has been so much of it through war and famine and other ills but also because our literature, whether in poetry or novel or drama, has been so conscious of the fact and so insistent on bringing it to our attention. In this there has been a return to the attitude of an earlier day, although with marked differences because of loss of faith or enfeebling of it. The easy dismissal of death, or the assertion that ‘for those who believe, there is no death’, is taken to be, what it often is, an easy evasion of the dread reality itself -- escapism, childish refusal to face facts, and above all (in our special interest) unwillingness to accept our human mortality.

Death is there, then. The question is, how can we come to terms with it?

Death is not there alone; it is there, as I have argued, with a finality about it. For if it is true, on the one hand, that death is the end of human existence for each and every one of us, it is on the other equally true (to repeat the words I have already used) that death is human life in its finality. That is, it is the distinctive event which colors, conditions, and qualifies every moment of our existence. And as I have also said a few moments ago, man is the only animal, so far as we know, who is aware of his mortality and who may therefore meditate on the fact that he dies. He who has never pondered this truth, and, in this sense, if in no other, ‘prepared for death’, is by that token less than a true man. His life is less than authentic; it is properly to be described, by the phrase that Heidegger uses, ‘inauthentic’ -- that is, false, based on wrong understanding, cheapened and superficial. Such a man is living under an illusion because he is out of touch with ‘things as they are’ in human existence.

One of the most familiar ways in which people seek to evade both death as finality and the finality of death is through the notion of the ‘immortal soul’ which ‘survives’ the fact of our biological death. The ideas associated with that notion are specifically Greek in origin, so far as our culture and our Christian theological development are concerned. We are well aware of this ancestry. The classical statement of the notion is to be found, of course, in the speeches which Plato records from Socrates, or which he has put into the mouth of Socrates, in the dialogues which tell of the last days and death of that great and noble man.

The rational principle in man is individuated; it inhabits a corporeal ‘house’ for this present time. But since it is one and simple it is indestructible. It participates, in some mode, in the eternal realm of forms, although it is not identified with that realm. When a man’s body dies and suffers corruption, the soul is not affected by this occurrence; it ‘escapes’ from the body which is dying and returns to its true abode. Thus no matter what may happen to the body, man’s soul is immortal and since it is this which constitutes his distinctive human quality, death is an important and tragic incident, certainly to those who loved and cared for the one who dies, but it is not a final incident -- there is more to come, so to say.

The old American song,

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

His soul
goes marching on . . .’

puts the idea succinctly and popularly.

A great many Christians have thought that this was the teaching of the Christian faith on the subject. They have confused ‘immortality of the soul’ with whatever may be intended by the biblical phrase ‘resurrection of the body’; while theologians have attempted, as we have already observed, when I described the older scheme which comprised the last things, to bring the two conceptions together in a fashion which will retain each of them and yet relate them so that a consistent pattern may be provided. But of course the two conceptions cannot be brought together in that way; and the internal conflicts, the lack of balance, and the arbitrary way in which the two have been associated, demonstrate this plainly enough. We shall have something to say about ‘the resurrection of the body’ at a later point. For the present, my argument is simply that the talk about ‘immortality of the soul’ has served to provide for a great many Christian people what they wrongly took to be the right and proper Christian way of escaping the stark reality of total death.

Years ago, in my course in Apologetics in the General Seminary, I put what I take to be the truth of the matter in the following words: ‘We all die; and all of us dies.’ Perhaps that was too glib a phrase; and I know that, when my students repeated it to their friends, and later in their ministry to their parishioners, my intention was misunderstood by the auditors. Yet I remain convinced that what I was seeking to say in that phrase is the truth. And it is the truth which traditional talk about the last things has served to emphasize, however uncomfortable it may be and however men may have sought to evade it. All of us do die; that we know. And all of us does die -- that is the point which I am now making.

In the Old Testament we find that even the Jews could not quite easily find their way to accept this. Sheol was certainly not much of an existence; in that dim realm, ‘the dead praise not thee, O Lord’, we read. And for a Jew a ‘state’ in which God could not be praised was hardly a condition of genuine life. But apart from the teaching about sheol, borrowed or inherited from more primitive modes of religious thought, the Jew at least was prepared to recognize the full reality of death. Until the time of the Maccabees, Jewish faith was not dependent upon nor did it presuppose a kind of ‘immortality’ or ‘resurrection’, call it what you will, which alone made it possible to commit oneself wholly to Jahweh and to the doing of his holy will. And I should say that this plain fact of Old Testament faith stands as a judgement upon any effort in more recent times to insist that unless ‘immortality’ or ‘resurrection’ -- again call it what you will -- is in the picture, there can be no deep and genuine faith at all. Christians may wish to say some- thing more, but they simply must not suppose that God, faith in Him, commitment to Him, service of Him, and a denial of the reality and inescapability of death go together. Above all, they must not suppose that it is integral to faith in God, with its consequences, to believe that all of us (in the special sense I have given that phrase) does not die.

While this is the fact, the very reality of our mortality has emphasized our responsibility for what we do and thus what we are during the time which we have. ‘We shall not pass this way again’; yet while we are in via, as St. Augustine puts it, we have both our duty to fulfill and our contribution, such as it may be, to make to the ongoing creative advance of the cosmos. That contribution may be very slight, to all appearances, but it is ours to make-and unless we make it, it will not be made. This statement introduces us to other ideas, about which something must be said in another context. Among these is the point that with the ‘perishing of occasions’, as Whitehead has described one side of the process, there is also the reception into God and hence both the preservation and use, of whatever good has been achieved within the process itself, to the end that the advance may continue, that further good may be actualized, and that the purpose of God (which is just that actualization of good, through love which is shared in the widest conceivable degree) may be realized in more places and times and in more ways. That is the other side of the ‘perishing of occasions’ which includes our own perishing through the inevitability of the death which awaits us.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans there is a celebrated and much discussed passage: I quote it in the version found in the New English Bible: ‘It was through one man that sin entered the world, and through sin death, and thus death pervaded the whole human race, inasmuch as all men have sinned.’ Or, in the Revised Standard Version: ‘Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned’ (Romans 5:12). The meaning of this passage has been a matter of dispute among New Testament experts, although it is quite obvious that if it does nothing more it asserts that the Apostle believed that there was some connection between the fact of death and the reality of human sin. But whether he intended to tell his readers that death, as a biological fact, is the consequence of one man’s sin (namely, Adam’s) becoming contagious and hence affecting all men, is by no means entirely certain. Some think he intended to say just this; others seem to believe that St. Paul is working up towards his plainly stated conviction that sin in itself is death -- shall we say, death as loss of God whose service is not only, as the collect tells us, ‘perfect freedom’, but also true life as men are intended by God to live it. If the latter be the correct interpretation, then ‘the sting’ in death, as a biological happening which all of us must experience, is to be found in man’s sin which is his alienation or separation from God. It is not that because Adam, or anybody else, or the whole race of men, have sinned that they come to die; rather, it is that in facing death, as they must, they know themselves to be in a fashion already dead, because to live as ‘the enemy of God’ is really to be a dead man, however ‘alive’ one’s physical body might be.

Whatever St. Paul was trying to communicate about his own belief, there has been a strain in the Christian tradition which has taken the first of the two meanings and has talked as if death were the punishment inflicted on man for his failure to obey God’s commands. Had Adam not sinned, it has been said, man would have been immortal, although what this might entail has not been worked out in any great detail. The second of the two possible meanings has been stressed by another strain in the Christian tradition, with more probability so far as our human experience can guide us. And it is this aspect which seems to me to be of significance for us as we see what the scheme which included death among the last things has to say to us.

At this point it would be desirable to spend considerable time in discussing the meaning of the word ‘sin’ itself, but we shall not do that. I take it that we shall agree that ‘sin’ does not denote the various particular acts of this or that man which in some ways contravene God’s purpose -- the sort of acts with which codes and commandments and sets of rules or laws concern themselves. These are manifestations of something more basic -- and that more basic ‘something’ is what we are getting at when we speak about ‘sin’. I should define this in two ways; or rather, in one definition with two aspects.

First, sin is a condition or state or situation in human existence in which men find themselves impotent before the requirements which they see, however dimly, are laid upon them simply by virtue of their being men. It is a ‘grace-less’ state, as one might put it; because it is a state in which there is failure in harmonizing the ideal and the actual, failure in integration of the self -- always, mind you, the self in its relation with others, for we know of no other human selfhood -- and failure to move towards the actualization of the possibilities which are present as the ‘initial aim’ of our lives is made into the ‘subjective aim (in Whiteheadian language) whose realization constitutes our ‘becoming’ in manhood.

That is one aspect of the meaning of sin -- it is the humanly understood side. The other aspect is introduced when we are aware, as we ought to be, that God’s purpose for man, as Paul Lehmann has so admirably told us, is ‘to make and keep us human’. That condition or state or situation in which we are not realizing our subjective aim and find ourselves impotent in the face of the requirements which it makes upon us may be summed up simply by saying that although we are made to become men, we do not actually get very far along the path, knowing ourselves to be both incompetent and impotent, however grand may be our projects and however optimistic may be our hopes. God’s purpose for us, his will, is nothing other than that we should become ourselves as he initially aims us to become -- and I have put it in this somewhat clumsy way because I wish to stress the aim which is integral to human nature.

Sin, the noun in the singular, is a religiously freighted term whose purpose is to point to that state: our failure to become what we are created to become and hence our failure to ‘obey’ God’s command which is precisely that we shall become what we are created to become. With that definition in mind, we may (if we wish -- and moral theologians have wished) go on to speak of the particular acts, in thought or word or deed, in which this situation manifests itself. But as every sensitive person ought to know and as every councilor (and every priest who has ‘heard confessions’) does know, man’s root problem is not in these particular acts. They are symptomatic of something much more serious and those who think that by dealing with symptoms they have cured a disease are only deluding themselves and harming the patient. The disease, if the word may be permitted, is the situation or state or condition which I have described and it is that which requires attention. One central element in the Christian gospel is the affirmation that in a very real way God deals with that situation -- this is the meaning of what we call redemption or salvation or atonement.

For the moment, however, that is not our concern. Our concern is that the fact of human death, as an inescapable biological event which is also the qualification of our humanity as mortal, brings vividly before us something else. It makes us realize, with a startling clarity and with sometimes terrible anguish, that at our best we are mortal failures. I quite realize that this may seem an exaggerated, even an emotive, way of stating it; but I am quite sure that any honest man or woman, conscious of his mortality, is also conscious of the fact that he is not what he might have been, that he cannot shift the blame to somebody else’s shoulders (however many extenuating circumstances he may feel justified in adducing), and that, in at least one sense, the sense I have indicated above, he is a mortal failure. ‘I am an unprofitable servant, for I have done only what was commanded of me’ -- yes, but more than that, ‘I am a very unprofitable servant, for I have not even done, nor been competent and willing to do, that which was commanded of me.’

This at once introduces us to the responsibility which is ours, as men, to become what we are intended to become. Such responsibility is not imposed upon us from without, by some alien agent or a deus ex machina; it is the law of our being or, in much better language, the law for our becoming. If it were thrust on us from outside, it might be only a threat with penalty attached. Because it is integral to our very ‘routing’, to ourselves as a series of occasions constituting our personality-in-the-making, it is a lure or an enticement or solicitation. But our failure involves penalties, none the less. The penalties are not imposed from outside, either, as if by an alien agent or a deus ex machina. They are the ineluctable working-out, in our own existence, of decisions which have been made by us in whatever freedom we possessed. And those decisions, as Robert Frost once wrote of ‘The Road Not Taken’, ‘have made the difference’.

God is love: every Christian would agree with that Johannine affirmation, based as it is on the certainty that God acts lovingly: ‘Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son that we might live through him.’ I wish to gather together what so far has been said and relate it to this basic Christian affirmation of God as love, ‘pure unbounded love’, and nothing but that sheer love-in-action.

We die, physically. All of us dies. Death, as giving our existence its specific quality, shows us to be mortal, along with all our fellow-men. This mortality includes the responsibility that we shall become what we were created to be, which is authentic or true men, fully and completely human. Our failure to become what is initially our aim, and subjectively our intentional aim as well, means that we are, in at least one sense, precisely that -- viz., ‘failures’ -- although God may, and Christians at least believe that He does, deal with that situation if we permit Him to do so. These things the fact of death makes clear.

This is what we have been saying so far in this chapter. But now, as I have said, we turn to what I might call, as I heard a young man put it, ‘this love business which Christians talk about’. How, it must be asked, does that come into the picture? My own reply would be that it comes in at every point and in every way. Far from being an addition, it is the very heart of the matter. For as God is love, so that the affirmation of His love is no afterthought or addendum to a series of propositions about His omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, transcendence, etc.; in similar manner in respect to human nature and activity, to human becoming, to human existence as such, love is no addendum, no afterthought, no extra, but the central reality itself. This needs development, however. The mere statement of it will not suffice.

Man is intended to be a lover. It is for this purpose that he comes into existence and it is for this purpose that he lives. This may seem to be sheer sentimentality; but it can only seem so when we do not properly understand the nature of love. In another place I have attempted to provide what might be styled a phenomenology of love (Love Looks Deep, Mowbrays, 1969). In that book, written for the general public and not for scholars, I suggested that love includes the following elements or aspects: commitment, mutuality, fidelity, hopefulness, union -- and that its goal is fulfillment in and with another or with others. It is obvious that none of us is a ‘perfect lover’, for none of us achieves anything like perfection in these several ways in which love is and in which love expresses itself. But the question to be asked is not whether we are thus ‘perfect’. The answer to that question is plain enough. The question which ought to be faced is whether we are moving towards fulfillment, with our fellows, in the several ways which love includes in itself. In other words, are we becoming lovers? Is our actualization of the potentialities within us in the direction of our becoming more committed, more open to giving-and-receiving, more faithful, more hopeful in relation with others, more in union with them? And we have only this mortal span in which to become in this way, for death always stands as the end, the terminus, of our loving and of our mortal learning to love.

Our human responsibility is to become what we are intended to become. Thus that responsibility is that we shall become the lovers we were meant to be. Our tragic situation is that we fail, at so many places, in so many times, and in so many ways. It is not only that we are frustrated in this. The frustration may be due to the concrete conditions in which our existence is set; about that we can often do little or nothing. Nor is it found in the fact that within the space of years which is ours we are frustrated in another sense, the sense (namely) that we do not have time, as we say, to bring to fruition that which we would wish to accomplish. The frustrations such as I have just mentioned, and other frustrations like them, are inhibiting factors but they are not the decisive factors. What is decisive is whether we are or are not open, within the imposed limits, to the loving, the receiving love, the life in love, which will make us into authentic men whose very authenticity is in their ‘becoming in love’.

It is astounding to notice that popular songs, so often contemptuously dismissed by the sophisticated and so frequently condemned as cheap or vulgar or sentimental or lustful by those who think of themselves as ‘religious’, have got hold of the truth which I have been suggesting, while the sophisticated and the self-consciously ‘religious’ fail to see what this is all about. It is so easy to dismiss this sort of lyric because it is usually replete with sexual allusions. Yet this may be the importance of the popular song -- and that for the reason that human sexuality and the capacity to love (in all the aspects which I have listed) are closely associated. Repression of sexuality can produce precisely the lovelessness which is man’s chief trouble, while the expression of sexuality, under the control of love in its aim to be related in mutuality to another or to others, can be a way for realizing love -- and realizing it both as a matter of consciously grasped experience and also as a concrete movement towards the fulfillment of self in association with others of our race.

I may refer here, perhaps immodestly, to the book which I just mentioned, where I have sought to show how this comes to be, while in still another book, The Christian Understanding of Human Nature (Westminster, Philadelphia, and Nisbet, London, 1964), I tried to relate the theme to Christian theology in a wider sense. Daniel Day Williams, too, in his The Spirit and the Forms of Love (Harper and Row, New York, and Nisbet, London, 1968) has worked on the same lines. With these books, and especially Dr Williams’s, in mind, I shall not pursue this subject here.

I must make one further point, however. We are thinking about the traditional scheme of the last things and we are doing this as those who in some fashion would wish to confess ourselves as Christians. For us, then, the faith in God enters the picture in a special way. God is love, we have said; He has declared this love in His loving action in the total event of Jesus Christ. Let us not forget that this love, declared in action, went to the limit of identification with humanity. Not only is God present in and with men, through his activity in the man Jesus -- and elsewhere too, in varying degree and mode. God is also participant in the death which every man must die. To put it mythologically, as nowadays many would phrase it, God in Christ experiences everything in human existence including the death which puts an end to it. ‘He learned by the things which he suffered’ -- and the Greek of that text suggests that what is meant by ‘suffered’ is what we should call ‘experienced’ or ‘underwent’.

So the love which was worked out in human terms in the life of the Man of Nazareth was a love which knew mortality in its fullness, of body and of soul. It knew the responsibility of becoming itself, completely authentic and therefore entirely free, under those conditions and in that fashion. It is our faith that in that Man it did not ‘fail’, not because it had peculiar privileges or unique divine prerogatives, but because it held fast to its ‘initial aim’, making that its own ‘subjective aim’ and thus through ‘the travail’ which mortal existence imposed upon it finding the ‘satisfaction’ or fulfilment which was its destiny. To participate in that love which is humanly worked out in Jesus is truly to live in authenticity. Christian life, I should urge upon you, is just that authentic life in love. Because it is ‘life in love’, shared with Jesus Christ as the One who did thus realize and actualize love-in-action, it is also ‘life in Christ’. And since life in Christ, shared with His human brethren, is both the reflection of and participation in the life which is truly divine -- God’s life -- such ‘life in love’ is ‘life in God’, for God is love.

But none of this is possible without our facing the reality of our dying, any more than it was possible for Him whom we call our Lord and Master. To put it figuratively, the triumph of Easter Day is achieved in and on the Cross of Good Friday -- it is not some ‘happy ending’ which cancels out the suffering that preceded it. Easter triumph in love is God’s writing his ‘O.K. That’s the way things are and that’s the way I am’ -- writing it across the tree on which Jesus hung on that fateful day.

For us this means that we must undertake the responsibility of loving, for that and that only makes possible the authenticity of living. In some lines that W. H. Auden once wrote, in Letters from Iceland, there is a compelling statement of this responsibility as it reflects itself in the call, so well known to us today, to social action in the world where we live out our days.

And to the good, who know how wide the gulf, how deep

Between ideal and real, who being good have felt

The final temptation to withdraw, sit down, and weep,

We pray the power to take upon themselves the guilt

Of human action, though still as ready to confess

The imperfection of what can and must be built --

The wish and power to act, forgive, and bless.