Peter Hitchens is one of my favorite right-wing political bloggers. His brother Christopher has also been mentioned here from time to time. Today, Peter Hitchens had the sad duty to write a post about his brother’s death. It’s an eloquent statement of a personal grief made public by the fame that each brother had attained in his life. I recommend it highly.
Peter Hitchens is a defender of a very conservative brand of Anglicanism; his brother was a celebrated atheist spokesman. I myself am not a believer, but I am deeply interested in the ways in which widely accepted religious doctrines can shape the thinking even of people who consciously reject them.
So, I often think about how we respond to death. It is convenient to be able to say to a bereaved person, “My prayers are with you”; if you share a common belief in an afterlife, it may be comforting to invoke that belief also. Yet it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to treat Christian language about death as if it were an attempt to comfort the grieving, since a great deal of the discomfort that a resident of a Christian land faces upon the death of a loved one stems from Christian doctrines and practices. If we affirm a doctrine of immortality, then we can never quite let go of the idea that we should be on contact with those whom we love, for we can never quite accept the idea that they have ceased to exist. If our loved ones are out there someplace, in some form, then it is an ever-renewed pain that we cannot see them or hear them or touch them.
Alexander Schmemann was a Russian Orthodox priest who emigrated to the USA during the Soviet era. Father Schmemann became one of the founders of the Orthodox Church in America. In his book For the Life of the World, Schmemann considered the fact that Christianity does not make it easier for the bereaved to accept the death of a loved one, but harder. This, he argued, was not a failing of Christianity, but one of its virtues. Here is a quote from that argument:
“Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it ‘works’ and it ‘helps.’ Quite frankly, if ‘help’ were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as ‘adjustment to life,’ ‘counseling,’ ‘enrichment,’ it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to ‘your friendly bank’ and all other ‘friendly dealers’: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to ‘give up’ the very category of ‘transcendence,’ or in much simpler words, the very idea of ‘God.’ This is the price we must pay if we want to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted’ by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.
But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer ‘insufficient help,’ but precisely because they ‘suffice,’ because they ‘satisfy’ the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die—and not just live—for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.
Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a ‘status,’ a rationale, make it ‘normal.’ Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, ‘he began to be sore amazed and very heavy.’ In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere ‘help,’ not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God’s world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced by an ‘other word’ which looks like a cemetery (‘eternal rest’) and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to ‘dispose’ every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a ‘just society’ and to be happy!—this is the fall of man. It is not the immorality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his ‘positive ideal’—religious or secular—and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes ‘awful,’ the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any ‘other world’), it is this life (and not some ‘other life’) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by ‘transforming’ them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the ‘end’ and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.”
— Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973), pages 94ff