Christian Orientations toward Death

Because the dominant religious influence in this history of the Western world has been that of Christianity, it is appropriate to outline the main Christian patterns of orientation toward death.

There is no doubt of the predominance of a duality of levels in the Christian paradigm of the human condition, the levels of the spiritual and the material, the eternal and the temporal. On the one hand, there is the material-temporal world, of which one religious symbol is the "dust" to which humankind is said to return at death. On the other hand, there is the spiritual world of "eternal life," which is the location of things divine, not human. The human person stands at the meeting of the two worlds, for he or she is, like the animals, made of "dust," but is also, unlike the animals, made in the image of God. This biblical notion of humanity, when linked to Greek philosophical thought, gave rise to the idea in Catholic Christianity that the divine image was centered in the human soul, which was conceived as in some sense an emanation from the spiritual world of eternal life. Thus arose the notion of the "immortal soul," which could survive the death of the organism, to be rejoined to a resurrected body. The hope of the resurrection, rooted in the Easter faith of the Christian community, was from the beginning a part of the Christian faith and provided another dimension behind the teaching on the immortality of the soul.

The Christian understanding of death as an event in which "life is changed, not taken away," in the words of the traditional requiem hymn, Dies irae, can be interpreted in terms of Marcel Mauss's paradigm of the gift and its reciprocation (Parsons, Fox, and Lidz). Seen in this way, the life of the individual is a gift from God, and like other gifts it creates expectations of reciprocation. Living "in the faith" is part of the reciprocation, but, more important to us, dying in the faith completes the cycle. The language of giving also permeates the transcendental level of symbolism in the Christian context. Thus, Mary, like any other woman, gave birth to Jesus, God also gave his only begotten Son for the redemption of humankind. Finally, Jesus, in the Crucifixion and thus the Eucharist, gave his blood for the same purpose. By the doctrine of reciprocation humankind assumes, it may be said, three principal obligations: to accept the human condition as ordained by the Divine Will, to live in the faith, and to die in the faith (with the hope of resurrection). If these conditions are fulfilled, "salvation," life eternal with God, will come about.

This basically was the paradigm of death in Catholic Christianity. Although the Reformation did collapse some elements in the Catholic paradigm of dualism between the eternal and the temporal, it did not fundamentally alter the meaning of death in societies shaped by the Christian faith. Still, the collapse of the Catholic paradigm did put great pressures on the received doctrine of salvation. The promise of a personal afterlife in heaven, especially if this were conceived to be eternal—which must be taken to mean altogether outside the framework of time—became increasingly difficult to accept. The doctrine of eternal punishment in some kind of hell has proved even more difficult to uphold.

The primary consequence of this collapsing was not, as it has often been interpreted, so much the secularization of the religious component of society as it was the sacralization of secular society, making it the forum for the religious life— notably, though by no means exclusively, through work in a "calling" (as Max Weber held).

Though John Calvin, in his doctrine of predestination, attempted to remove salvation from human control, his doctrine could not survive the cooling of the effervescence of the Reformation. Thus, all later versions of Protestantism accepted some version of the bearing of the individual's moral or attitudinal (faith) merit on salvation. Such control as there was, however, was no longer vested in an ecclesiastical organization but was left to the individual, thus immensely increasing religious and moral responsibility.

The concept of a higher level of reality, a supernatural world in which human persons survived after death, did not give way but became more and more difficult to visualize by simple extrapolation from this-worldly experience; the same problem occurred with the meaning of death as an event in which one gave life back to its Giver and in return was initiated into a new and eternal life. In addition to the changes in conceptualization set in motion by the Reformation, the rise of modern science, which by the eighteenth century had produced a philosophy of scientific materialism, posed an additional challenge to the Christian paradigm of death, manifesting itself primarily in a monism of the physical world. There was at that time little scientific analysis of the world of action, and there was accordingly a tendency to regard the physical universe as unchanging and hence eternal. Death, then, was simply the return to the inorganic state, which implied a complete negation of the conception of eternal life, since the physical, inorganic world was by definition the antithesis of life in any sense.

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