Thursday, September 18, 2008

Death As a Stranger

“Let us now descend into the terrible, faceless depths of death as a stranger,” writes Peter Kreeft in his book Love Is Stronger Than Death. This second of death's five faces is the darkest, “a dead relationship with death.” The reason for this is that this posture of death corresponds to the human emotion not of hate (like one would feel towards an enemy), but of indiff-erence (like one who feels nothing at all). After all, the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. To hate someone you must actually feel something towards him. Indifference is the absence of feeling: “Hate is like poison, but indifference is like starvation.”

Premodern man was fascinated with death, Kreeft argues, largely because it is the last true unknown. “A flat earth is more fascinating than a round earth because a flat earth has an edge, an end.” He points out that in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the world becomes round as the result of divine punishment:

“And those that sailed furthest set but a girdle about the Earth and returned weary at last to the place of their beginning; and they said, ‘All roads are now bent.’”
Modern man, unlike his premodern counterpart, ignores death the way he would a stranger on the street. One of the reasons for this is our worshiping at the shrine of technology. In previous cultures the problem was how to conform our lives to bigger things outside of ourselves (like truth or God) by means of virtue, wisdom, or religion. In our day, the challenge we face is how to gain conquest over nature by getting the world to conform to us.

How does this relate to our ignoring of death?

If modern man believes that there is no higher purpose in life than his own pleasure (which is achieved through technology and its conquest over nature), then suffering becomes unendurable. The flipside of Nietzsche’s statement that “he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how” is also true: he who has no why cannot endure any how.

“The fact of death is the failure of our dream of divinity. No wonder we turn our face from it. Death’s face grins at us, and we must frown. In order to put a smile on our face, we must put the mask of a stranger on the face of death.”
The most common defense against death, in other words, is not so much a good offense, but a yawn.

Kreeft concludes that if we do actually face death head on it would be like looking into the sun. Death, like God, says, “No man can see my face and live.” But if death only seems dark but is really light because it reveals the truth about ourselves, then death is neither an enemy nor a stranger, but a friend.

We’ll explore friendship with death in our next installment, so stay tuned....