Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Death As An Enemy

“Death wears five faces,” writes Peter Kreeft, “and the only way to see each of them is to have seen the others first. Each face is a password to the next.”

Death’s first face, argues Kreeft, is that of an enemy. Its subsequent faces are that of a stranger, a friend, a mother, and finally, a lover.

“If death does not first appear to us as an enemy, then it cannot appear truly as a friend, or as anything greater than a friend. Death cannot immediately appear as a friend. Death cannot be a friend; it can only become a friend, after first being an enemy. Otherwise, it is not death that is a friend, but something else we confuse with death, such as sleep, or rest, or peace.”
Death’s initial posture as an enemy flies in the face of the American fairy tale that “death is a natural part of life.” All the great myths throughout history argue against such euphemism, seeing death as disastrous and catastrophic. Stoicism, Kreeft insists, is not courageous but cowardly, for it refuses to face what we inwardly know to be true because death screams it at us: something has gone horribly wrong.

There is a puzzle here, Kreeft writes, because death, which on one level is most natural, feels to us to be most unnatural.

“We are shocked at the irreversibility of death although it is utterly familiar, utterly universal, utterly natural. We find the natural unnatural. Why? Let us be shocked at our shock. It is shocking that we are shocked at the inevitable, the familiar, the expected.”
The naturalness of death is seen in the cycle of biology. Death, in this sense, is the fertilizer of life. Yet we still rebel against nature, we have “a lover’s quarrel with the world” at this very point. The reason for this, Kreeft argues (quoting the Preacher), is that “God has put eternity in man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11).

Furthermore, death is inextricably connected with sin and guilt. At this point Kreeft suggests a “thought experiment” in which the reader supposes for a moment that there is a God. This supposition serves to make some sense out of the strong intuition we have that connects death with sin and guilt.

“If death is indeed the consequence, symptom, and sign of sin, we are even worse off than we thought. We see in every death not only our defeat but our guilt. This is worse even than defeat.”
But there is light even in this cave. Kreeft quotes George MacDonald: “Ah, I would not lose my blame! In my blame is my hope.” As Celia says in T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party:

“I should really like to think there’s something wrong with me—because, if there isn’t, then there’s something wrong with the world itself—and that’s much more frightening!”
Thus ironically, “there is hope: we are guilty of death.” To blame ourselves is to vindicate reality, and ultimately, to vindicate God in the process.

Sounds a bit like good ol’ fashioned law/gospel preaching, innit?