The diagnosis, mercifully, came in small portions. “Trouble urinating? You probably have an enlarged prostate; medication will help.” “Blood in the urine? You probably have prostate cancer, but prostate cancer can be managed.” Then, after a series of tests: “Sorry to report, but your cancer is a particularly aggressive form that has metastasized into your bones. Your life expectancy has been significantly shortened.”
Such a death sentence is devastating news. I am in my mid-seventies, accustomed to excellent health, and, before this news, expecting to enjoy an additional decade or more of productive life. Another fact, however, multiplies the tragedy. My wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis more than forty years ago. She has led, despite increasing disabilities, a surprisingly full and independent life. In the last few years, especially the last few months, her symptoms have grown worse. She needs me for transfers from wheelchair to toilet or bed. When I die she and her still active mind will be left to the uncertain mercies of a nursing home. In a sense, we face two deaths in one. Mine will be the easy one. Hers will be an ongoing death, extending perhaps into a long, lonely future.
So I am sad, frightened, and sometimes angry. I long to embrace the idea of a God who is in full control of existence, one I could call on to lift us out of this morass. Believing in such a deity could at least provide me with a target for my rage. Like Job, I want to demand an explanation for the suffering that falls unexpectedly and (I flatter myself) undeservedly upon some of God’s children.
However, believing, as do my more orthodox Christian friends, in an omnipotent God is, for me, impossible. Perhaps this is because I have shared often in the dark days of other families’ distressing situations, aware that prayers were being offered for a deliverance that never came. The God I find revealed in Jesus accomplished amazing deeds, but was never able to lift anyone, including Jesus himself, above the bruises and disappointments of human life.
I thus take a dim view of any supposedly loving deity with unlimited power. Real events seem to me to make a mockery of such beliefs. I am especially dismissive of those who speak of “God’s perfect plan.” Does God’s perfect plan include multiple sclerosis?
My friends of orthodox faith can claim another apparent advantage. They believe in a continued, personal existence beyond the grave, one that includes the ecstasy of close communion with God and a reunion with deceased family and friends. Yet, this possibility is not wholly welcome. I would be delighted to “see” again close friends and most of my family. However, having to reconnect with a few rogue family members would take the glow off paradise.
So I cannot share the traditional Christian vision. Unending ecstasy would be, like any consistent mood, ultimately boring. Plus, I cannot imagine any satisfying way in which I could, after death, relate to those I have left behind. Watching them grieve my loss would not make me happy. Then again, watching and realizing they were not grieving would be disconcerting!
Most of my preaching addressed issues of this world (a reflection of scripture: a tiny percentage of the Bible deals with an existence beyond this life). The one message on this subject I gave in my last parish was entitled “An Agnostic Looks at Life After Death.” An agnostic is precisely what I am in regard to an extended existence. I have no information or strong beliefs on the subject.
Like agnostics on any question, I wander from pole to pole on the subject of eternal life. The essence of being religious is to experience oneself as being part of Something grander and more enduring-an embrace of the idea that the materialistic assumptions of our science-oriented culture are incomplete. Religion forces us to ask the question: What, if anything, will be my relationship to this Something after death causes my body to decay?
Perhaps I (whatever “I” means when brain and body have ceased to function) will find myself involved in a life that has been lifted above the ambiguities of this earth, a perfection that my imagination cannot absorb. Perhaps my continued existence will be in some form of reincarnation-although if it does not include a memory of this life, this possibility seems mostly irrelevant. Perhaps, in Hindu style, my spirit will blend into some greater Spirit, my individuality lost in transition. One likely possibility is that death signals the end of my existence, an entrance into non-being. Mark Twain is credited with saying, “I have no fear of death. I was dead for millions of years before I was born, and it inconvenienced me not at all.” I find Twain’s concept more comforting than most of the other possibilities before me.
Nonetheless, my situation is not entirely bleak. I have several significant blessings to count.
First, life for more than seven decades has been good. I have suffered some bumps and bruises, but mostly my existence has been a stunning, wonderful gift. I have visited much of the globe, I have been associated with supportive friends, served as pastor of remarkable parishioners, been married to a wonderful woman, helped produce a loving daughter and grandson both of whom make me proud. If death brings all this to an end earlier than I expected, so be it. It has been a great ride. As another non-traditional Christian stated, “I feel no need for a tenth inning to tidy up the score.”
Second, I recognize that in wishing for additional years on earth, I am asking for something to which I have no innate claim. I have already outlived the average of my two parents’ life spans, and am very close to the average length of life for males in my society. Historically, I have far outlived most of my ancestors. Death is inevitable. I simply know now what will probably cause my demise. This truth, morbid as it is, can be freeing.
Third, medical advances give me opportunities that men with similar diagnoses lacked, even a decade ago. I am undergoing treatment that has lessened my symptoms and that might offer me several additional years of satisfying life. My initial depression and anger lessen with each day that I feel relatively normal.
Fourth, and possibly most important, I will not face the future alone. I cannot believe in an omnipotent deity. I can and do, however, believe in and see evidence of a numinous Presence that supports and inspires people in their battle with disease. I believe firmly in, and have often experienced, the strength that emanates from this anti-entropic Deity. The ever-present Numen helps me (and all other living beings) push back against the chaos that constantly threatens to overwhelm existence. The power of this Presence, though limited. is magnified by the prayers and concern of family members and friends.
The word “inspire” is a concept that has been corrupted by over-eager persons of faith. “Inspired by God” seems to imply that the Deity has taken over some process, especially the writing of scripture, and becomes responsible for the outcome. “Inspire” has a quite different meaning in every other context. The sight of oceans and the smell of seawater inspired Ernest Hemingway. None of this, however, implies that salt air wrote his novels. He was inspired in the sense of being able to reach deep inside himself and perform to the extent of his potential.
Thus, to say that God inspires us in our struggle with disease means that we are helped to find within ourselves the full extent of the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself. The anti-entropic power is, however, only one of the forces that I encounter. The forces of chaos, including multiple sclerosis and cancer, are powerful. I am under no illusions about the ultimate end of my struggle against an incurable illness. The inspiration of the Divine means I will be able to harness all my inner resources in the effort to extend and enrich my remaining life.
Nonetheless, when one is told by a member of the medical profession to “go home and write your will” the issue of death becomes immediate. The depth of my religious commitment becomes existential in a weightier manner than before.
Without an omnipotent God, and without a clear vision of an afterlife, what do I, as a progressive Christian, have for support when death draws near? The answer is simple: I find support in the same realities that have sustained me through life.
The life of faith has become associated with acceptance of particular dogma; this is an enormous tragedy. The question, “Are you a person of faith” ordinarily means, “Do you believe in the traditional understanding of God?” Or, “Do you believe that Jesus’ death released Christian believers from the prison of sin?”
When I speak of faith I am referring to the basic meaning of the Greek word “pistos.” Pistos-usually translated “faith”- refers not so much to acceptance of particular beliefs as to an embrace of trust. Faith can be nothing more than a cold list of dogmas. Trust is a warm stance for living-an unproven acceptance of the possibility that alongside the messy material world with its random distribution of pleasure and pain is a spiritual dimension that offers support to all people who struggle with the challenging realities of existence.
Physicists who deal with the string theory of the material world think there may be many dimensions of our universe, some entirely unexplored. Thus, seeing the possibility that spiritual and material dimensions exist alongside one another does not involve a great leap. Marcus Borg writes of “thin places” and “spirit persons” that allow the two dimensions to flow into one another. The spiritual world cannot overcome the material. Neither can (in an interpretation of the Resurrection that I fully accept) the material world overcome the spiritual.
To live in trust is to believe that the spiritual dimension consists of a compassionate, healing (but not omnipotent) Ground of Being that I call either God or the Numen. As already suggested, this numinous, unseen Spirit is one of many forces that influence us as we move through life. It is friendly to our existence. It lends courage and strength to those who struggle against chaos in its many forms: injustice, exploitation, violence, and disease.
As death approaches and the material supports on which I have leaned fall away, I turn more and more to the expression of trust offered by the Psalmist: “And underneath are the everlasting arms.”
What does all this mean as I am brought face to face with death? It means I approach death as I have approached life: sustained by trust.
An incident that occurred early in my ministry was, for me, transforming. I was in the home of a man and wife who had been, for several decades, beloved members of their congregation. Sadly, he belonged to a generation and to a vocation that encouraged smoking. His lungs were closing down, and he was struggling for his final breaths. I was a recent graduate of seminary, the only ordained person in the room, and felt a crushing pressure to say something comforting if not profound. This, however, was my first close encounter with death, and it was more than I could absorb. I was speechless. Quietly the wife, an impressive lady of modest education, took her husband’s hand and whispered: “It’s OK. God will take care of you.”
Hers was a statement of trust, not dogma. Her words defined the Deity as a caring and sustaining reality-not as an all-powerful force whose breath could blow away the stench of death. She offered no visions of pearly gates or divine radiance. “Take care of you” could mean the Divine might allow her husband to continue in some new form, or, gently, to release him from existence. Since then, whenever I have ministered to dying parishioners I have thought about and sometimes used her simple words.
I hope I can approach my own death with a similar stance. I must learn to hand my wife’s care to the love of our daughter, other relatives, and a remarkable array of friends. For myself, I have no inkling of what, if anything, follows my demise. I do not need to know. I need only to trust.
(Jack Good is a long-time member of The Center for Progressive Christianiy, and author of The Dishonest Church, and Emotions and Values: Exploring the Source of Jesus’ Strength and Influence, both published by St. Johann Press.)