Friday, August 21, 2009

Another letter to an atheist

Commenting on the outcry from Christians over some recent end-of-life cases in which the question of euthanasia arose, my atheist friend puzzles at:

...this fervor com[ing] from one who professes to believe in life-after-death. If there really is life after death (eternal life, in fact), why is it important to prolong the suffering career of the cancer-ridden body in this fallen world? To put it another way: atheists, who believe that this earthly life is the only life there is, might be forgiven for clinging to it at all costs. Yet, oddly enough, atheists are generally OK with euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, while it's the supposedly religious people who are the clingers.

I think he asks a good question. At its most stark it is for Catholics (and any who believes in sacramental Baptism): why don't you just douse the forehead then slit the throat avoiding for him so fortunate a vale of tears in favor of immediate beatific bliss and everlasting. But this is to take the atheist's barren world view as our own—albeit with a little heaven tacked on the end—discounting, among many other blandishments of a life of grace, the uplifting dynamic of an ongoing community of man whence rises a Communion of Saints—the reason why any man's death diminished, say, Donne (as he seems to have thought).

To shed the light of a mere burning match on the Christian's strange position we look first at the atheist's, his perfectly reasonable attitude based on two conceits on his part. The first is the idea that he can at a moment in time effectively plot the arc of his future existence and determine whether its integral is positive or negative. It is highly questionable a notion at each step, not the least insoluble term being how to calibrate existential nothingness at our worldly zero. The second, implicit in the first, is the tenet that suffering is always of negative value and this second notion is simply—certainly in terms of the person whose God came to earth to suffer, but also empirically, if we are honest—an error.

Of course I'm talking about an idealized atheist, and when we turn back to the Christians in these news stories the problem of explaining their behavior when facing death is made many times more difficult by the fact that they (and we) are none of them (or us) ideal Christians but are by and large as infected as anyone by the spirit of the post-Christian age in which we are immersed; an age in which peculiarly the ontological if not the eschatological assumptions of the atheist hold sway, but animated by a spirit not at all unlike that which in all ages gains its purchase in original sin. In short, our motives are mixed and when any one does cling to life at all costs (especially at the cost of others’ lives), he does evil. But anyone may fear death as your less-than-ideal atheist also does along with the imperfect Christian, and it is only in folly that the pure and shining, the fearless atheist specimen looks down on such a ragged and craven Christian, scoffing that for the Christian death is—or need be—but a play-acting scene (say, I’ll just lie down here and close my eyes till the end of Act II, then we’ll all go to the wrap party and have a real good time).

This is false. Death, we know well, is the radical disintegration of the body and from it its form the soul. It entails real and utter surrender of oneself to a blackness, perhaps to forgetfulness, and no one knows, beyond an obscure and remote promise, what for himself lies beyond it—even more: what strange and fiery form the self itself may take—and that is a fearful thing. Indeed, the Christian must acknowledge that, again for him, it might be much worse than oblivion. But it must be just so else the Christian concede all love and sacrifice and all hope and thanksgiving are but play-acting exercises as well (say, I’ll just {wink} deposit my pocket change here with this beggar assured that later on I can withdraw it in golden flag—with interest).

Further, it must be remembered that for us death is the novelty, the unnatural thing we were not designed for but rather a punishment for our sins, itself symbolizing, even aping the end of our self willed separation from God. In that, but for Christ's sweet promise, death is an enemy forsooth to be hated and feared. But to unite ourselves truly to that promise and extract all its sweetness requires from us the real love that lies in self-sacrifice so profound that it is to our fallen natures like death before death, and so again, poor Christians, we poor Christians are afraid.

But Christian is the word not so much for what we are but for what we aspire to be, so while one may well fairly judge Christians harshly as lacking the courage of their convictions (though he must grant they are not easy convictions to live up to), better judge Christianity on its own terms. The true Christian view of death begins with Christ. The saints recall His seven last words with great reverence and close attention and are moved to face their own death with the equanimity of St Stephen who begged for the lives only of his executioners. In a modern hospital setting our example is St Gianna Molla. She was no clinger. If the difference between them and us is the Hope born of a plenitude of Grace—which Grace engenders also a more perfect Love—then surely these saints both of unconquerable courage and of a Love most potently expressed in mercy will be in favor of assisted suicide?

Of course the answer, finally, is no, for the saint rejects not only the first two assumptions of the suicide enthusiast, but also even more profoundly the third error of the atheist—the presumption that one can own a life (either ones own in the case of suicide or that of another in the case of euthanasia). To frame it thus is to recognize the hollowness of the question, If there really is life after death, why is it important to prolong the suffering career of the cancer-ridden body in this fallen world? for to equate on one hand doing all we can to alleviate the physical and psychological suffering of the dying—short of stealing something literally of inestimable value and disposing of it as literally worth less than nothing—with, on the other, purposely prolonging (what we arrogantly suppose to be: needless) suffering, is to embrace wholesale all three of the atheist’s errors—that he knows what life and death are (and they are reductive), that he understands suffering (and it is uniformly negative) and that it’s his choice to make (with or without good data). The first two are manifestly false to anyone on a moment’s reflection. While the error in the third may only be grasped by a certain type of theist, the ends of its implications in all facets of life will be dire. But that is a whole other discussion.


Thesauros said...

THAT was a fine post. Thank you. Like everything else to do with Jesus the Christ, atheist simply cannot get it. Because God is real, everything, right up to and including our last breath has meaning, context and purpose. To hasten its arrival is something only those who show distain for the gift of life would consider.

cricket said...

Thank you for your comment, Makarios. However, on atheists I'm finding the opposite. They do get it and spend a great deal of effort attempting to fend it off.

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