What's Next?: Contemporary thinkers tackle life's big question
What one believes about God bears directly on what one believes about the future of the human person—like whether, for example, this world is the last stop and death the final ending. Divinity and the future of humanity go together. That relationship, and its importance, have been evident since the time of Aristotle.
What the great Greek philosopher thought about God is related to his thoughts about human persons and life beyond the grave. While Aristotle thought he could prove the existence of God (and his argument was good enough for St. Thomas Aquinas to adopt and adapt), he affirmed a God who did not love human persons and who did not even know they existed. For Aristotle thought it would lessen the divine majesty if God were involved with humanity in any way, even through knowledge. It is no wonder that St. Paul found the Greeks unreceptive to his preaching of the Incarnation. To them and to other Gentiles, the idea of God condescending to become human seemed like foolishness, even madness. It is understandable that Aristotle, who believed God had no involvement with humanity, would deny personal survival after death.
The linking of God’s existence to the possibility of life beyond the grave runs like a thread through Western thought. In the medieval period one sees it in the work of Anselm, Bonaventure and Aquinas.
But in the 19th and 20th centuries, we find a militant atheism, much of which Henri de Lubac, S.J., rightly described as an “anti-theism,” a rejection of God for the sake of human persons’ dignity and development. The God rejected by several influential thinkers—Feuerbach, Marx, Nietz-sche, Freud, Camus, Sartre and Bloch—was a God whose existence was thought to greatly hinder human growth. This explains, in part, the militancy of such atheists: they were killing the divine for the sake of human dignity.
To some extent that “murder” was moral, because the God they rejected should have been rejected. It was not the God preached by Jesus, the loving Father calling persons to a new freedom. Believing they were releasing human beings from an impossible burden, and denying any personal immortality, none of these atheists, with the exception of Sartre and Camus, mourned the finality of death. They were, they believed, paving the way for a heaven on earth.
Those two 20th-century existentialists, however, realized that the finality of death made human existence absurd. Still, they believed that by facing the absurdity, new meanings might be created. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus wrote of Sisyphus, eternally engaged in the pointless task of pushing a rock up a hill only to watch it roll down again: “He is stronger than his rock…. The struggle toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
We can admire Camus for his courage, because he takes death seriously, even if we find his response to death inadequate and neglectful of the implications of a deep experience of interpersonal love. Reflecting on his own mortality and the mortality of everyone he loved, he opted for absurdity. But can that be the final word?
The philosopher Charles Taylor has a more inclusive view of human life and death. He sees that both are illuminated by the experience of interpersonal love. Taylor has written: “For death is one of the things that make it very difficult to sustain a higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular love relationships. It’s not just that these relationships matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It’s also that, because these relationships are significant, they seem to demand eternity…. That’s why the greatest crisis around comes from the death of a loved one…all joy strives for eternity, because it loses some of its sense if it doesn’t last.”
Walker Percy, the novelist, made a similar point in response to an interview question about why he did not accept scientific humanism as an interpretation of human existence. “It’s not good enough,” Percy said.
Today, however, many not only deny the existence of God and personal life beyond the grave but also think that the lack of both enhances and enriches life on earth.
Recently, while reading Kerry Kennedy’s Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, I noticed that the comments of interviewees who are critical of the church and who no longer attend the Eucharist make no mention of Jesus’ resurrection or his promise of our resurrection. They seem to have missed the central truth of Catholicism. Reflecting on the mystery of risen life and our sharing in it even before our death, Iwas reminded of the scene in Thornton Wilder’s classic, “Our Town,” in which Emily is so overwhelmed by the beauty of human life that she asks the Stage Manager, who is a kind of quasi-divine narrator, whether anyone realizes how wonderful human life is while they live it, “every, every minute.” He replies, “The saints and the poets, maybe—they do a little.”
Is there any mystery that reveals God’s love for us and our significance as does the mystery of risen life? As people of faith in a secular culture, we know that the saints and the poets shed light on it. St. Paul expressed the mystery beautifully in his Letter to the Philippians: “For to me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” And Gerard Manley Hopkins stirringly described the resurrection in “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.” After several verses about the changes and deaths in nature, the Jesuit poet writes:
Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s-clarion! Away grief’s gasping,
joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade,
and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wild
fire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he
was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch,
matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.