I think about death a lot. I contemplate my death intentionally pretty much every day. I drop what I’m doing, silence the clamor of responsibilities and the pressing demands of life, and stare at the inevitability of my own death square in its cold dead face. It’s an exercise with me. You’ll find me regularly, at some point in my day, sitting quietly and alone suspended over the Void.
The Void is our non-existence. It’s the thing we humans fear the most. Actually it’s our only fear, a fear implicit in every other fear, dressed now as anger, then as anxiety, now as some phobia or then as fear of failure or rejection. St. Paul and others zero in on this one fear as the root cause of humanity’s existential predicament, the despair implicit in every addiction and dysfunctional pattern of behavior stemming from our inability to make-meaning (I’m thinking of Marilyn McCord Adams) in the face of our mortality.
Stanford Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry Irvin Yalom has written on ‘Death Anxiety’ in Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death). He describes this anxiety as the underlying fear behind our psychoses. Some therapists don’t recognize this. They ignore the more fundamental problem (our inability to construct an enduring meaningful experience for ourselves in the face of our mortality) and end up treating symptoms. For the record, Yalom is an atheist, so we won’t agree on the remedy to the problem. But we agree that the fear of death is the root cause of our existential despair and other psychoses.
I’d like to contrast how atheists/materialists and Christian theists (but any theism that viewed divine reality in benevolent terms will do) employ their respective resources to address the problem of death anxiety. Part of my motivation for exploring this is my own interest in death and death rehearsal (as I’ve practiced it for years). Another part of my interest is an ongoing conversation I enjoy with my brilliant daughter who is both atheist existentialist, licensed therapist and Yalom fan.
What is the Christian theist’s answer to the problem of death anxiety? I can summarize it in a single phrase: Death is overcome in Christ’s resurrection and in unending life in him. Consider two brief biblical passages:
Hebrews 2.14-15: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”
1 Corinthians 15.51-54: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.”
In the end, the assurance of an enduring meaningful existence in the risen Christ is the Christian theist’s answer to death anxiety. St. Paul goes so far as to argue that if there is no resurrection, Christians are most grievously to be pitted. Why does death not enslave us in fear and empower all manner of psychoses? Because the power of death is just the threat it poses to our desire for enduring existence, and in Christ (for those who perceive it) this threat is disarmed. Hence, Christ grounds our confidence in our own enduring personal existence. What’s the logic of this consolation? Simply this—that who the risen Christ is is on the inside of who I am. And we can express the same reality conversely: Who I am is on the inside of who the risen Christ is. As St. Paul said, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2.20)
How might a materialist advise someone struggling with death anxiety? To begin with, materialism can offer no hope of enduring personal existence. When we die, we’re gone. We cease to ‘be’. That is the materialist eschatology. This fact gives rise to our death anxiety. What might the materialist offer to remedy this dread?
One possible approach would be to convince us to dismiss death anxiety as irrational, i.e., a fear not based in any real threat to our meaning or existence. But this is not possible on materialist grounds. Death is a real, not an imagined, threat to our meaning and existence. So there’s no dismissing death anxiety as irrational on materialist grounds.
But a materialist might suggest (as some have to me) that we reform desire, namely reform the desire that empowers death anxiety in the first place, viz., the desire for permanence. The answer to death anxiety is to teach ourselves not to desire more than this life can offer. On what basis would we accomplish this? It is accomplished by exposing the desire for permanence as a survival mechanism required by pre-modern, less evolved unenlightened minds. In our distant past, our survival depended upon crude technologies that exposed us to greater risks (say, when hunting), the desire for permanence grounded a fear of dying sufficient to motivate our taking the needed risks to survive. But this same desire today is irrational in light of the technological advances of modern, enlightened society. Death anxiety is the left over residue in our pre-modern, less evolved brains. But today we have it in our power to dispel the fear associated with our more animalistic selves and to not be threatened by the truth that this life is all we have.
A third materialist strategy recognizes something legitimate about the desire to endure beyond our own deaths, and so it offers (as Yalom does) the present consolation to be had from the knowledge that our lives will in fact endure in their effects, what Yolam calls ‘rippling’. Our contributions to the lives of those who survive us and their difference to the world (however large or small) is sufficient to assuage any anxiety we might feel over the inevitability of our non-existence. We may not personally endure in any subjective sense, but we shall endure objectively in the minds of loved ones and in the significance of the contributions which our having lived made to the world. On a materialist view, this is all we have, but it’s sufficient grounds upon which to live a fulfilled existence free from the fear of death as the experience of many a materialist testifies.
This may seem bold, but I think we must dismiss this third materialist strategy. Why? For the simple reason that cosmically speaking, the entire universe (all our enduring effects included) has a life expectancy as well. It all ends in a big freeze or heat death. But it ends all the same. To suggest that death anxiety can be alleviated by contemplating the abiding effects of our having lived in the lives of those who survive us is just to ignore the material (no pun intended) point. Those effects die just the same as we do. The consolation in this case is utterly vacuous. It does nothing to relieve our fear of death to know that our memory will endure for a few generations before eventually dying the same death we die.
This leaves us with what seems to me to be the only consistent materialist strategy for dealing with death anxiety—abandon the desire for permanence which is the root cause of death anxiety to begin with.
I’ll leave it there for now.