Happy Birthday, Immortal One

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Were we created to live forever, and can we discern that?  What I mean is: We can speak of the “intention of the Creator” in what we see.  All of us die.  “All men are mortal,” is the famous starting point of the most ironclad syllogism. We begin to die as soon as we are born, as St. Augustine observed.  Nonetheless, do we persist in sensing that, somehow, we were “not meant to die”?

To ask these questions is the same as to ask what status death holds with us.  Is death a tragedy, some kind of wreckage, “not the way things were meant to be”?  Or is death simply “a natural process”?  But if it’s a natural process, then why does it continue to shock us?

There’s a famous story about the distraught, grieving father who was consoled by the Stoic philosopher, “Did you suppose that your son was going to live forever?”  Maybe he half did, even though that’s not “reasonable.”

We aren’t shocked, it isn’t a tragedy, when someone drops a glass, and it breaks. But what’s more fragile than the life of any animal?

So many things flood in when I consider these thoughts. What is it to be youthful except to embrace a hope that life has no end? Don’t we see this clearly when we look, for instance, at The Diary of Anne Frank?  We feel tremendous pain and pity, not simply that evil men were about to bring an end to her ordinary dreams: of adulthood, romance, and marriage.

Or, when I look at my children now, I do not see beings “set to die,” but beings intended to live – without limit, I would say. And I would say this looking at them as living animals, not souls. It’s a bit too easy – and it always was a false form of Christianity – to say that death is not problematic because we have immortal souls.

It may seem easy to be reconciled to the death of, say, an old woman, who has lived, maybe, ninety years, and worked many years, and raised a family. Perhaps all of her friends and even her children are already dead. Perhaps she is struggling now under many bodily infirmities and sufferings.  Maybe she has even forgotten everyone around her.  Shouldn’t we think of her, then, as finding peace in death – death as something “natural” after a full span of years?

I would argue that to think this is to presuppose, wrongly, as established and “intended,” all of the steps of the decline. Think now of that same, wizened old woman as the youthful and beautiful girl she once was.  Take her to be that lovely daughter or daughter of a friend you will see today.  Or think of that lovely daughter as the wizened woman.  Don’t you feel now the injustice at. . .the wreckage of what was meant to be? Not that it was her claim by right, but as if a birthright that should have held good was somehow lost?

*

But suppose that we can after all “see,” although we find it typically much easier to deny, easier to want to deny, the “intention” in our creation that we were not meant to die. What then?

Then it seems that the fact that we exist already poses a certain choice for us between a kind of primitive faith in the Creator, call it “proto-faith,” and a contrary attitude of resignation.  In a world of “all men are mortal,” this proto-faith will look like an irrational dream. And yet to those who nourish it, it will look like the precious truth, or the only basis for hope.

And then those who nurture this proto-faith might ask themselves: Does the Creator too recognize that death is a wreckage?  Of course he does.  Is he content to see his intention for us frustrated through sickness and death?  Maybe he does not.  Has he provided a remedy, then, or will he provide it, some kind of second creation or pathway to the renewal of his creation, some way in which he can “save” that which he intended in creating us?

You might have thought, when I was describing the sense we may have that “we are not meant to die,” that I was appealing to some vestige of Christian culture that still survives within you and within others. Pope Benedict described very well the world without Christ at the beginning of Spe Salvi:

no hope emerged from their contradictory myths. Notwithstanding their gods, they were “without God” and consequently found themselves in a dark world, facing a dark future. In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus (How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing): so says an epitaph of that period (Corpus Inscriptionum LatinarumVI, no. 26003).

We may grant that such hopelessness was dominant. And yet, if it were the last and only word, then no one would have embraced Christianity.

Such is the lesson which I draw at any rate from studying the earlier Church Fathers, such as St. Irenaeus, or St. Athanasius in his short treatise on the reasons why God took on human nature, De Incarnatione (Available by clicking here. with an introduction by C.S. Lewis.)

Athanasius provides a good example for us.  Scholars now believe he wrote this famous defense of the faith after the eruption of the Arian controversy, surely a worse “crisis in the Church” than any we face today. And yet he addresses his Jewish and Gentile readers as if the division simply did not exist.

It is the message of the Gospel that preoccupies him. The intention of the good God in creating the “race of rational creatures” would have been frustrated had he permitted us so quickly to decline into nothingness, through our sin and deliberate ignorance.  Therefore, “God became man, so that man might become God,” restoring the immortality which was part of the original design.

Happy birthday, then – and I mean your baptism.

 

*Image: Bishop Athanasius by Jan Punt (after Jacob de Wit, after Peter Paul Rubens), 1753 [Rijks Museum, Amsterdam]. The inscription: Bishop Athanasius Subduing Arian.

You may also enjoy:

Robert Royal’s Did Jesus Conquer Death?

Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s We Know Not the Hour

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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