Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming hither;
Ripeness is all.
For much of human history death was associated at least as much with infancy and youth as with old age. To live to be old was an achievement—a modest victory over death, and one often thought of in religious terms as a blessing.
In our time, however, when death and old age so often go hand in hand, to grow old becomes cause for fear and worry, not for rejoicing. But this suggests that our deepest problem is not that we grow old. It is, rather, that we die. In some ways we might even say that the preoccupation of our culture with the different stages of life and with growing old is simply one more mechanism for the “denial of death.” Harold Moody has written that the idea of life-span development, given us by psychology, is “the great and indispensable myth of our time.” Indispensable, because it gives us a way of trying to see our life whole and entire, as significant and meaningful. But also a great myth, needed to help us build a dike that holds back recognition of our mortality. It is not easy to say with the psalmist:
Lord, let me know my end,
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is!
Yet, acquiring such knowledge is the fundamental task of each of us.
To think about our death means also, of course, to think about our life—what it means to be a human being, what sort of nature and life we share. To be sure, these are large themes, and they have been treated by many authors in many books. By considering just three of the most profound of these books, we can begin to see the range of possible attitudes toward death.
In Charlotte’s Web, by E. B. White, we read of one who dies alone, but who also lives on in her offspring. Charlotte is an exceptional spider whose affection as a friend and talent as a writer have saved the pig Wilbur from becoming ham and pork chops. Wilbur has even been judged a prize pig at the Fair. But when the Fair is over and preparations are being made to return Wilbur to the Zuckerman’s farm, Charlotte tells him that she will not be returning with him. Having created her masterpiece, her egg sac with 514 eggs, she knows that her strength is spent and that she will soon die. Panic-stricken at the news, Wilbur manages at least to take the egg sac back with him, carrying it in his mouth on the journey home.
As Wilbur is loaded for the return trip, Charlotte whispers good-bye, content in the knowledge that her children are safe.
She never moved again. Next day, as the Ferris wheel was being taken apart and the race horses were being loaded into vans and the entertainers were packing up their belongings and driving away in their trailers, Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. The sheds and buildings were empty and forlorn . . . . No one was with her when she died.
In this description of Charlotte’s death, we do not fail to hear the loneliness, the sadness, and the drabness of death. What is there in the story for us to set against these terrors? Two things chiefly. First, there is friendship. When Wilbur wonders why Charlotte has done so much for him, spinning the webs whose messages garnered for him the reputation as a prize pig, Charlotte responds by pointing to the reciprocal benefits of their friendship.
“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle.”
If we read this as more than a book about spiders and pigs, we can detect here a vision that might be called Aristotelian. Caught up in the messiness of life, in search of a brief flourishing before we are replaced by others essentially like us, we are most ourselves when united in a bond of friendship. Together we take the measure of our days, and in so doing, we achieve a certain nobility.
More than that should not be asked, since the cycle of nature is greater than we are, and in its own way it offers us a chance of victory over mortality. Charlotte tells Wilbur:
“These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, then the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world . . . . Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days . . . . “
Wilbur has been saved from a premature death at the butcher’s hands—not that he may never die, but that he may live out his life in full as Charlotte has. And Charlotte, in turn, lives on in her children. Wilbur has taken the egg sac back with him, and one fine spring morning the little spiders begin to crawl out. In a few days there comes a “warm draft of rising air” that carries off one after another of the young spiders. In despair at losing Charlotte’s children, Wilbur cries himself to sleep. But when he wakes, he discovers that three of Charlotte’s daughters have stayed behind to live in the barn and be his friends. Although Wilbur always remembers Charlotte with special love, he is greatly pleased with his new companions. Charlotte has not herself survived, but her life has pointed beyond life itself through the continuation of the species. Her willingness to wither and die has given rise to the next generation.
There are, however, other ways to face death, and Charlotte’s Web is not the only child’s book that will bear many readings. Another is Felix Salten’s Bambi—translated into English by Whittaker Chambers and described in John Galsworthy’s Foreword as “a little masterpiece.” If E. B. White was our Aristotle, it would not be far from the mark to think of Salten as our Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.
The story of Bambi is really about one thing: The young deer Bambi is gradually taught by the old stag how to live wisely, and much of what he learns has to do with death. Bambi and his mother take a walk, he sees the ferret kill a mouse, and his mother has no answer when he asks, “Why?” He learns that they can play in the meadow safely only after dark. And he learns from inanimate nature as the leaves begin slowly to fall from the trees.
Gradually, Bambi’s mother leaves him alone more and more. Missing her, he wanders through the forest calling her name. On one such occasion he encounters the old stag for the first time. “What are you crying about?” asks the old stag. “Can’t you stay by yourself?” And, indeed, this is the essence of the wisdom passed on to Bambi by the old stag: that he must “act bravely” and, still more, that he must live alone.
When he was still a child the old stag had taught him that you must live alone. Then and afterwards the old stag had revealed much wisdom and many secrets to him. But of all his teachings this had been the most important; you must live alone, if you wanted to preserve yourself, if you understood existence, if you wanted to attain wisdom, you had to live alone.
The ordinary emotional ties that bind one to another, however sweetly they may draw us, are dangerous. Drawn by them, we cease to live within ourselves and we become vulnerable. One day, Bambi thinks he hears his beloved Faline calling him, and, overcome with desire to be near her, he begins running toward the voice. Suddenly the old stag is there, barring his way. Frantic to see Faline, Bambi tries to persuade the old stag to let him go to her, but the old stag insists that “she isn’t calling” and “it isn’t she.” But Bambi must go, and so the old stag leads him cautiously by a roundabout way until, from the safety of cover, Bambi sees a hunter imitating Faline’s call. The lesson is a clear one, even if painful to learn: Bambi is most vulnerable when he does not live within himself.
The dangers and hardships of life become occasions for learning how to live. And only those who learn can flourish. When his friend Gobo thinks of winter and the difficulty of finding food, he says: “It must be dreadful.” To which Bambi responds: “It isn’t dreadful. It’s only hard.” But Gobo had for a time been cared for by a hunter—pampered like a domestic animal, fed, but made to wear a halter. After Gobo had returned to the forest animals, congratulating himself on his friendship with humans, it had been the old stag who had noticed the halter still around his neck and said, “You poor thing.” Gobo had not learned to live within himself, to use the hardships of life and the death to which life leads as training in virtue. Lacking such wisdom, he could not possess the inner freedom which can face with tranquility external hardship and, even, death. This is the wisdom of the old stag: that we must learn to live alone, and that in death “we are all alone.”
To live well, one must know how to die well. The old stag is like Seneca’s sage: he has such “confidence in himself” (fiducia sui!) that he does not retreat from whatever fortune may bring.
Nor has he any reason to fear her, for he counts not merely his chattels and his possessions and his position, but even his body and his eyes and his hands and all else that makes life very dear to a man, nay, even himself, among the things that are given on sufferance, and he lives as one who had been lent to himself and will return everything without sorrow when it is reclaimed.
The good man cannot be harmed by ill fortune, not even by death, for he has learned to live within himself and to think nothing good except virtue itself. Even death, finally, cannot touch him.
I do not know for certain how we weigh these matters or make these judgments, but, speaking only for myself, I must say that Bambi is a more profound book than Charlotte’s Web, probing more deeply the mystery of mortality. But still better is the third story I take up here: The Last Battle, by C. S. Lewis. Last of the seven Chronicles of Narnia, it recounts the end of Narnia and the entry into “Aslan’s country” of all loyal Narnians.
From the very outset of the story, readers know what is inevitably to come. Chapter 1 begins: “In the last days of Narnia . . . ” The first sentence of chapter 2 introduces Tirian, “last of the Kings of Narnia.” And the central characters know what Jewel the Unicorn puts succinctly: “All worlds draw to an end; except Aslan’s own country.” Hence, there is plenty of room in Narnia for a nobility which the old stag would understand well. When Calormene soldiers infiltrate the land through treachery, Tirian sends Roonwit the Centaur in search of help and reinforcements. But Roonwit finds the other Narnians already killed or captured and himself takes a fatal arrow in the side. Farsight the Eagle brings to Tirian Roonwit’s last message: “I was with him in his last hour and he gave me this message to your Majesty: to remember that all worlds draw to an end and that noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”
That all worlds end is not simply the result of a natural process. It is ultimately the will and work of Aslan. And, more particularly, when “night falls on Narnia,” it is because Aslan says: “Now make an end.” And against such an ending we are not to protect ourselves. The pain that emotional attachment brings must be risked out of love for the goodness of Narnia. When Narnia is no more, the children who had been sent to help faithful Narnians are called “further in and further up” into Aslan’s country.
“So,” said Peter. “Night falls on Narnia. What, Lucy! You’re not crying? With Aslan ahead, and all of us here?” “Don’t try to stop me, Peter,” said Lucy. “I am sure Aslan would not. I am sure it is not wrong to mourn for Narnia. Think of all that lies dead and frozen behind that door.” . . .
“Sirs,” said Tirian, “The ladies do well to weep. See I do so myself. I have seen my mother’s death. What world but Narnia have I ever known? It were no virtue, but great discourtesy if we did not mourn.”
Like Charlotte and Wilbur, Narnians have found much to delight in and much to cherish in their world. But knowing that all worlds except Aslan’s country come to an end, they cannot find sufficient meaning and purpose simply in the succession of Narnian generations—all of which, after all, lead toward a finis. Succession of time and generations, however long extended, does not itself offer a certain kind of present significance. It offers quantity and continuance—more of the same—when what we desire is something qualitatively different. Hence, even if we overcame aging and death, we would not have achieved the heart’s desire; for the desire for God is not a longing for more of this life. The old stag, of course, had seen this but was driven to conclude that we dare not therefore attach ourselves to the beauty of this world and the delights of companionship.
What The Last Battle offers is a story that legitimizes and invites our attachment to this world, accepts even the pain such attachment may bring, and does not pretend that the death which ends all such attachment is not dreadful. It pictures for us creatures whose hearts are quite rightly tied to particular places and persons, who are finite and who must reckon with the passing of time, but creatures who also are made to desire something more. Not just more of the same, but the qualitatively different country of Aslan. Such creatures—who belong both in Narnia and in Aslan’s country, and who must simply learn to live with such dual membership—are the object of Christian vision. They are dust of the ground and truly belong to this finite world. They are free spirits, made for God and transcending the finite realm. For them death itself must be ambivalent, as ambivalent as the stable door through which the last Narnians are driven by the Calormenes.
“I feel in my bones,” said Poggin, “that we shall all, one by one, pass through that dark door before morning. I can think of a hundred deaths I would rather have died.” “It is indeed a grim door,” said Tirian. “It is more like a mouth.”
“Oh, can’t we do anything to stop it?” said Jill in a shaken voice.
“Nay, fair friend,” said Jewel, nosing her gently. “It may be for us the door to Asian’s country and we shall sup at his table tonight.”
As the natural end of temporal existence in Narnia, death was always to be anticipated and accepted with as much nobility as one could muster. Like Jewel, Narnians can hope in Aslan, but such hope is not sight, and it would be presumptuous to think of the object of hope as if it were one’s present possession. Hence, death remains fearful. And for those who carry dual membership, it becomes doubly dreadful. It threatens the loss of Narnia. And it seems, at least, to bring to an end the quest for Aslan’s country, the deepest longing of the heart.
Integral to Christian vision is the idea of creatures who have such dual membership—who belong to a world of space, time, and bodies, and who are made for the God who creates but transcends this finite world. We can never, therefore, say only one thing about our aging and dying. These events will be as complex as our nature is, and they can always be described from the perspective either of our finitude or our God-directed freedom. The trick is to manage both perspectives simultaneously, distinguishing the two without separating them, holding them together without merging them. Perhaps we can never manage perfectly such a juggling act, but we need to try—to think of human beings both as bodies, for whom the relentless succession of hours and days leads surely to the grave, and as God-aimed spirits, whose every moment is lived in the presence of the Eternal. We are both “out of nature and hopelessly in it.” How shall we speak of the aging and dying of such creatures?
We are made for the living God. As the hart longs for cooling streams, so, writes the psalmist, does our soul thirst for God. And, again, if even the sparrow finds a home and the swallow a nest for her young, shall we not long for the courts of the Lord? We are made in God’s image to respond to him with the God-breathed spirit that gives life to our finite bodies; and we are called by name in the waters of baptism, in which we are incorporated into the life of the One whom the Father calls his beloved Son.
This is the first and most lasting ground of our individuality and our equality. Before God, who calls us by name, we are singled out as individuals. And whatever the number of our days may thus far have been, we are equidistant from that eternal God. From this perspective death must be seen as profoundly unnatural. However common it is for human beings to age and die, however regular an occurrence in our experience, death remains an affront to our nature. To be sure, since finite bodies grow older and finally die as time passes, we may call such aging natural; certainly it recurs regularly in our experience. But the “natural” may also signify what is appropriate to a particular being, what constitutes that being’s fulfillment and flourishing. In this sense, death must be unnatural for those made for fellowship with the One Who Is, those whose full humanity has been revealed in Jesus of Nazareth—who shrank from death and is now the living One.
Death is not fearful only because it means an end to the many experiences we hold dear in this earthly life—though, to be sure, that loss is great. But the God-aimed eternal spirit that is a human being longs for more than a greater quantity of this life. We desire, as Leon Kass has said, something qualitatively different, “some state . . . toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained during earthly life.”
Because death threatens the loss of that end for which we are created, one of the standard ways of dealing with its terror does not finally persuade. Cicero, for example, in his De Senectute, offers this standard argument: If death is the way to a new existence, there is no need to worry. And if, on the other hand, death altogether destroys the soul, there is also no need to worry, since we will no longer exist. But we may want to question at least the second of these claims; for if we no longer exist, our deepest present desire—the longing for God—will have been vain and futile. Desiring such a fulfillment, we will even now be absurd indeed. The threat of death will not give way to such a theory or argument. It gives way, Christians believe, only to an event: the presence of God in the living Jesus.
Hence, it is precisely when we see how much we have to lose in death that we see the fullness of its dread and terror. If we were simply finite beings, interchangeable members of a species that perpetuated itself through our reproduction, death might simply be a component—even a necessary component—of life. But if God has called us by name and called us to himself, if that is our destiny, then in our dying someone unique passes from existence. Thus, Helmut Thielicke writes, “The unnaturalness of death becomes apparent only when we speak of it in connection with God.” Simply to describe death as natural, to try to rid it of its ultimate terror by seeing it as part of the rhythm of life, to view it only from the perspective of the finite—this is to risk losing the deepest ground of our individuality and equality.
Having said this, we must not forget, however, that it is also appropriate to think of ourselves as finite beings, limited by biological and historical constraints. As such, we do not live forever; at best, we live out what one might term a natural life span. This is not only a matter of years, not only growing old rather than dying while still relatively young. Rather, however difficult it may be to articulate, we tend to think that a “full” life has a certain kind of shape and direction, involves certain stages of development. Nor is this a peculiarly modern insight, for it is common wisdom that Cicero expresses:
Life’s race-course is fixed; Nature has only a single path and that path is run but once, and to each stage of existence has been allotted its own appropriate quality; so that the weakness of childhood, the impetuosity of youth, and the seriousness of middle life, the maturity of old age—each bears some of Nature’s fruit, which must be garnered in its own season.
Similarly, Isaiah’s vision of the day when the Lord would create new heavens and a new earth, the restoration of life as it should be, makes room for old age as the natural fulfillment of life.
No more shall there be in [Jerusalem]
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days.
What would it mean to have filled out one’s days, to have completed the race course of life? It turns out that a “natural” life span is not an easy thing to specify. Cicero suggests that “satiety” is the key. There comes a time when one is satiated with life, and at that point death is the natural culmination of life. Thus, Cicero says, little children enjoy certain activities; eventually, however, they have their fill of these pursuits and move on to youth. That stage, too, has its characteristic pursuits, and sooner or later we have enough of them and pass on to adulthood. Even there, however, satiety eventually occurs, and we move gradually into old age. It is not simply a time of quiescence; like every other stage of life, it has its characteristic activities and concerns. But eventually we become satiated with them, “and when that happens man has his fill of life and the time is ripe for him to go.”
Considering the biblical notion of dying “full of years,” Stephen Sapp has made a rather similar suggestion. For a person to be full of years, he writes, is somewhat like a vessel being filled to capacity. “It can hold no more and has fulfilled its purpose by containing all that it was designed to hold.” To live beyond such fulfillment, beyond the time when one was “full of years,” would be pointless. This is not unlike one of the elements Daniel Callahan includes in the meaning of a “tolerable death”: that one’s life possibilities have on the whole been accomplished.
These rather similar suggestions are not free of problems. We might, in the first place, worry about the “flavor” of these proposals, their hint that the productive, independent life is the truly worthwhile one. While it is true that our actions over time tend to carve out for us a kind of individuality—an identity which makes us more than just interchangeable members of the species—we can see here the limits to such individuality. It does not reach quite deep enough to capture the individual worth of one who can do little or nothing, but whom God still knows by name.
We might also, in the second place, ponder the implications of the notion of satiety. The idea that life might at some point lose its ability to charm and interest us suggests that the natural world—which, theologically, we must call the creation—might finally fail us. In one sense—but in a sense that applies to every moment of life and not just to old age—this is clearly true. I noted above that for Christian vision this world cannot bear the whole weight of the heart’s longing, since in loving God we desire not simply more of this life, but something qualitatively different. Nevertheless, this world through which we make our way to God remains his good gift to us. And part of the meaning of the deadly sin of “sloth” is precisely that we might fail the creation—which is far more likely than that it should fail us. That we might one day fail to discern the beauty of the rising sun or the tranquility of twilight. That we might lose the capacity to delight in a child’s first steps or the passion and power of love. If I tire of reading Goodnight Moon to a child—as no child will tire of hearing it read—has something in the creation failed me, or have I failed it? It is true that we may, as we grow older, become satiated with life. But perhaps that can be failure—even moral and spiritual failure—on our part.
There remains still a third difficulty with the notion of satiety as an explanation of a full life. Whatever the precise details, versions of the satiety argument seek some kind of natural limit to life other than simply the wearing down of our finite body, our biological self. We can think of obvious candidates for such a natural limit: Time to see our children grown and our grandchildren born. Time to complete important projects in life, to fulfill the obligations and commitments to others that we have undertaken.
But Leon Kass is correct, I think, to argue that such approaches will not work. They suggest—and, indeed, are precisely intended to suggest—that we might have filled out our days and be ready to die even if we remained in the best of health. Kass notes quite rightly, however, that death might then seem even more objectionable—taking one still vigorous and still quite capable of the very activities that make life full. The concept of a natural life span needs, finally, a grounding in our biological nature, not just in our history. “Withering is nature’s preparation for death . . . .” We need withering and senescence lest we deceive ourselves into imagining that everything we desire could be given through more of the same kind of life. Otherwise we may seek “an endless present, isolated from anything truly eternal.” And, one might add, we need withering if we are to cultivate within ourselves the deepest rhythm of love—the mystery of self-giving and self-sacrifice that is God’s love. For in growing old we make place for those who come after us. That is biological fact, but we make of it an act of love when we understand and accept that, in Kass’s words, “If they are truly to flower, we must go to seed; we must wither and give ground” in which they can take root.
To discern the necessity of death in our finitude, in the simple biological truth that we wear out, has a great deal of appeal, and it helps us to understand why we react quite differently to the “premature” death of a young boy than to the death of an elderly man “full of years.” Cicero’s metaphor nicely captures at least something of what we feel.
Whatever befalls in accordance with Nature would be accounted good; and indeed, what is more consonant with Nature than for the old to die? But the same fate befalls the young, though Nature in their case struggles and rebels. Therefore, when the young die I am reminded of a strong flame extinguished by a torrent; but when old men die it is as if a fire had gone out without the use of force and of its own accord, after the fuel had been consumed . . . .
This image, of fuel having been consumed, is, for me at least, more attractive and less worrisome than the image of a container filled to capacity. In a finely wrought essay, Lewis Thomas has developed a rather similar image. Relying on a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes about a carriage made by a deacon, Thomas tries to distinguish between a life that breaks down and (what would be for him a truly natural culmination) a life that wears out. The deacon fashioned his carriage with such care that it was the “perfect organism”—each part as good as all the rest, with no weak link. Had there been a weak link, and had that link broken down, the carriage might have halted prematurely, before its time. But instead, since it never breaks down, the whole gradually wears out. As the poem puts it: “A general flavor of mild decay, / But nothing local, as one may say.” And finally, one day it simply goes to pieces: “All at once, and nothing first.” This is Thomas’ picture of a good natural death. When and if we reach the point where disease does not take us prematurely, when there is nothing that causes us to break down, our bodies can simply wear out. In Kass’s word, we “wither.”
How does Thomas respond to the thought of such a death? “No tears, no complaints, no listening closely for last words. No grief. Just, in the way of the world, total fulfillment.” Perhaps. But perhaps we ought to wonder just a bit. Total fulfillment? Thomas does add the qualifier, “in the way of the world.” Still, the way of our world, of creatures marked by the duality that marks us, cannot be captured solely in terms of our finitude. Such a death, and such an evaluation of it, suggests a vision that asks too little, that chokes off the heart’s longing for God. Much in it is appealing, but it cannot comprehend everything we need to say.
We are bodies, aging in time. We are spirits made for One who exists beyond time. And in thinking about our living and our dying, we must somehow see and think both truths about ourselves, we must distinguish but not separate these two perspectives on human nature. One way to avoid such separation is to note that each angle of vision may shed light upon the other. We may appreciate our world for what it is only when we also see—from the perspective of the Eternal—what it is not and cannot naturally become. And we may see better how to live before and toward God only as we remember that the way to God must be traversed, lived out in this world where, amidst much sorrow and suffering, there is also much in which to take joy.
Below I offer three brief illustrations of ways in which the two angles of vision can interact, enriching and qualifying one another in our thinking. The first is an example from the realm of medical care, an inquiry into the meaning of proper care for the dying. The second also deals with medical treatment, but takes up what is best described as a question of public policy, the issue of rationing care for the elderly. And the third turns away from larger questions about our obligations to others in order to think about how we ought to live toward death.
The task of caring for the dying has been greatly complicated by medical advances of recent decades; yet its deepest difficulties are more fundamental still. Chapter 3 of Paul Ramsey’s The Patient as Person—a chapter titled “On Only Caring for the Dying”—remains a classic Christian treatment of the meaning of care. Ramsey argues that we care properly for the dying when we acknowledge that at some point their death is irretrievably upon them and should no longer be resisted, but he also argues that “care” can never include actions intended to cause death. Put very simply: although we should never aim to kill, we can and should sometimes allow to die. We should “never abandon care”—and such abandonment can come either through hastening death, or through struggling daily against death when its time has come, a struggle that will deflect us from giving the care really needed at that point.
Ramsey recognizes, however, that from two different viewpoints—diametrically opposed, yet strangely similar—one might object to this distinction between killing and allowing to die. Some might claim that whether we kill or allow to die the result is the same: death. Hence, these opponents conclude, we should never give up the struggle against death. We should not intend to kill; neither should we allow to die. We should simply fight death until the matter is taken out of our hands. Other opponents begin from the same premise: that whether we aim to kill or allow to die, what counts morally is that the same result—death—follows. Hence, they conclude, we should not only allow to die but also, on some occasions, deliberately kill (in order, for example, to relieve suffering). The first of these opposing views sees human beings as all finitude, needing simply more days and hours, never free to determine that a greater length of days is not the fulfillment for which we are made. The second sees human beings as all freedom—creatures who may seek to master even death, since it does not confront us with the limit that is God.
Ramsey’s approach, by contrast, grounded in the paradoxical duality of our nature as finite and free, must seek to balance the intricate simultaneities to which this duality gives rise. Hence, a policy of always caring, but only caring, for the dying. Grounded in an understanding of human beings in relation to God, this policy may turn out to contain a good bit of humane wisdom. Faith seeks understanding—and sometimes finds it. The true meaning of death appears when we see it as unnatural—not only the loss of all that we love in this earthly life, but also the apparent loss of the One for whom we are created and toward whom we live. Hence, death is an evil, not to be sought. And yet, more days and years, more of the same, is also not the good our hearts desire—and, hence, we need not cling to this life as if it were our god. Faith makes a double movement—treasuring life as good, but not the highest good; resisting death as evil, even though not the greatest evil. And still more, faith—looking at death through the prism of the crucified and risen Jesus—trusts that this evil can be used for good, that the boundary of death will prove to be not the negation but the fulfillment of our pilgrimage.
Hence, death should always be mourned; sorrow is always fitting even when death is acknowledged, even when faith describes it in the language of fulfillment. Whether death comes upon us in youth or old age, suddenly or after prolonged illness or decline, one whom God called by name is gone. From the vantage point of that relation to God, our true individuality appears and we see the loss death brings. Indeed, we may not cherish each other’s body and life as we ought unless we discern in one another the image of the God who calls us to himself. If I too readily accept your dying, if I think of it simply as part of the natural rhythm of life, I may value your person too little.
Not only our individuality but also our equality is most firmly grounded in the God-relation. We can see this if we turn from thinking about care for a particular person to a problem for public policy. Consider, for example, a choice between two kinds of rationing schemes described by Norman Daniels. Faced with limited medical resources, we might use an age criterion to distribute these resources. That is, we could say that those who had lived beyond a “normal life span” (perhaps age seventy-five) would not be eligible to receive a variety of life-extending but very costly medical treatments (for example, transplant surgery). These treatments could be developed and used, but their use would be restricted to those who had not yet lived out that normal span of life. An alternative scheme might be a kind of lottery—in which sophisticated and expensive technologies that could not be available for all were allocated by random. In this case, of course, a very old woman might receive the treatment—say, kidney dialysis—that could otherwise have saved a young child.
Daniels, whose aim is to develop a “prudential life span” theory of distributing medical resources, believes that the first approach—the age criterion—is preferable. Since all of us are first young and then older, he suggests that such an approach would treat no one unfairly. Therapies available to all of us when we were young would be available to none of us once we grew sufficiently old. This is a policy, we might say, that tries to take seriously the shape of our finite life. It reckons with the fact that there is a measure to our days and a patterned form to human life. And it seeks to treat us equally over the course of a whole life, even if not at every moment of that life.
Still, such an approach to distributive justice may trouble us. It does so in part because it grounds purpose and meaning—as well as fairness—in the shape of a whole life and not also in every moment of it. If this policy tries to treat us equally by remembering that we each live out the life span, it still invites us to treat some of our days and years as if they counted for less than others, as if each moment were not lived before God. And a society in which each of us is invited to treat our years of decline as less valuable than our more vigorous, productive years may find it difficult to get away from the comparative judgments between human beings that Daniels himself is eager to avoid. It may prove to be a society inhospitable to the nonproductive and the dependent. I do not argue that this must happen—only that we are not foolish to wonder if it might. A vision which sees every moment of life as equidistant from the Eternal may better preserve our equal worth.
Indeed, I am inclined to think that Daniels’ proposal would be safe only in a society that thought of human life not simply in terms of a normal life span but also as directed toward God. We can see how this might be true if we consider an argument about capital punishment made by Camus. He suggested that the justice or injustice of the death penalty depended on the ultimate frame of reference within which it was used and understood. And he argued that capital punishment could be justified only where there was a socially shared religious belief that the final verdict on any person’s life was not given in this world. In such a religious society, to condemn a fellow human being to death would not involve divine pretension. Those who issued and executed the verdict would know that, however necessary it seemed to be, it could still be overturned by the only perfectly competent judge, God himself. But what of a society that lacked such beliefs? In it, Camus thought, execution would mean elimination from the only human community that indisputably existed; and, hence, execution would be a godlike activity. Only in a society that believed in the Eternal could it be right to act as if this finite life were not everything.
Similarly, one might decide that an account of justice grounded in a notion of a normal life span—grounded, that is, in the developed form of a life that includes infancy, youth, adulthood, and old age—might be safest in a society of people who did not believe that this was the only truth about our nature. It is one thing to put forward a vision of the limits of this finite life if we believe that our lives are also touched by and directed toward the infinite God. It is quite another to claim a comprehensive vision and mastery of this life—our own and that of others—when we acknowledge nothing more. We know best how to oppose and how to acknowledge death when we do not think of it simply as natural.
Finally, it may be useful to ponder whether thinking about death from the perspective of our nature as finite and free can give us guidance about how we ought to live as we grow older. Suppose we envision two retirement dinners, honoring two men who have been productive and successful in their work, whose careers have been marked by considerable achievement.
At the dinner in honor of the first, the retiree is asked to say a few words near the end of the festivities. He does so with the grace one might have expected and speaks of his hopes and plans for the coming years. He hopes, he says, to keep his hand in with the company, doing some consulting on a limited basis. But he intends also to attempt a little independent entrepreneurial activity, since he has always wanted to publish a newsletter aimed at those who can profit from his experience. He plans some traveling but has in mind also new activities. For example, he has always wanted to learn scuba diving, and now he will have time for it. Finally, he never felt he had sufficient time for community affairs; now, though, he hopes to become active in local politics, perhaps even to run for office.
At the dinner honoring the second retiree, he too is invited to say a few words to those present. He does so, telling his friends and acquaintances how he plans to alter abruptly his life’s course. He has one simple plan for the coming years: he wants to learn how to die. To that end, he wants fewer possessions; for, as Cicero put it, “can anything be more absurd in the traveler than to increase his luggage as he nears his journey’s end?” He has, he says, much reading that he needs to do. He hopes to write some reminiscences for his children. And he wants to learn the art of contemplative and intercessory prayer. He intends to begin every day with these words from a prayer by John Baillie:
Forbid, O Lord God, that my thoughts today should be wholly occupied with the world’s passing show. Seeing that in Thy lovingkindness Thou hast given me the power to lift my mind to the contemplation of things unseen and eternal, forbid that I should remain content with the things of sense and time. Grant rather that each day may do something so to strengthen my hold upon the unseen world, so to increase my sense of its reality, and so to attach my heart to its holy interests that, as the end of my earthly life draws ever nearer, I may not grow to be a part of these fleeting earthly surroundings, but rather grow more and more conformed to the life of the world to come.
If we were present at these dinners, how would we react? Probably the second talk would be more likely to disconcert the crowd; certainly many would be baffled by it. I confess, however, to finding it more satisfying. Were I in need of important advice, I would sooner approach the second man than the first. Yet, perhaps neither plan for retirement is completely adequate. A kind of fear is concealed in the first man’s planned frenzy of activity—fear that he might die with some desire unsatisfied. And so he grabs for as much finitude as he can get. That rush of activity chokes off—or perhaps conceals and pacifies—the restless heart that wants something quite different from “more of the same.”
But even though I have confessed my admiration for the second man, perhaps he too has not managed perfectly the simultaneities required by the duality of our nature. His plans may call to mind the “satiety” image of a full life; for we are not certain how best to describe his intentions. Is he turning from a life of which he has had his fill and is now tired? Or is he, noting that he is wearing out, simply gazing more steadfastly at the One from whom the delights of this life come? Is he tired of drinking from the waters that have sustained his life? Or is he seeking the underground source of those refreshing waters?
Whatever we say in answer to such questions, this man’s fundamental task in life has not really abruptly changed: he must still live within the finite world before the eternal God. And he takes the measure of his days best when he uses a significant turning point simply as an occasion to rethink now in the present the significance of what has always been true: That we live every moment of life equidistant from eternity. That, nonetheless, we must walk—moment by moment—the pilgrim’s way toward God. And that, always, we must struggle to find a way to do both.
Gilbert Meilaender is Professor of Religion at Oberlin College and most recently he has edited (together with William Werpehowski) The Oxford Handbook of Theological Ethics (2005).