For the Life of the World 27

Posted: January 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 27

The series now moves onto section 1 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

We live today in a death-denying culture. This is clearly seen in the unobtrusive appearance of the ordinary funeral home, in its attempt to look like all other houses. Inside, the “funeral director” tries to take care of things in such a way that one will not notice that one is sad; and a parlor ritual is designed to transform a funeral into a semi-pleasant experience. There is a strange conspiracy of silence concerning the blunt fact of death, and the corpse itself is “beautified” so as to disguise its deadness.

That’s Fr. Schmemann’s opening to this chapter, Trampling Down Death by Death, and I think it remains a pretty accurate description of the American approach to death. We try to sterilize death and push it to arm’s length and beyond.

But there existed in the past and there still exist — even within our life-affirming modern world — “death-centered” cultures, in which death is the one great all-embracing preoccupation, and life itself is conceived as being mainly preparation for death.

Historically, of course, ancient Egypt provides an excellent illustration of such a culture. However, pockets of such a cultural formation permeate even our modern America. It’s one of the reasons we have our Jim Jones, David Koresh, and others. If the cultural soil did not exist their particular vision would have a harder time taking root. Moreover, Fr. Schmemann points out that Christianity became a religion (in the negative sense he explained earlier in the book) that explained death and tried to make it palatable.

Where is Christianity in all this? There can be no doubt, on the one hand, that the “problem of death” is central and essential in its message, which announces Christ’s victory over death, and that Christianity has its source in that victory. Yet, on the other hand, one has the strange feeling that although this message has certainly been heard, it has had no real impact on the basic human attitudes towards death. It is rather Christianity that has “adjusted” itself to these attitudes, accepted them as its own.

Fr. Schmemann points out that on the one hand Christianity dedicates to God all our frenetic, hectic, and life-centered activity, blessing skyscrapers and all the signs of “progress.” On the other hand, at funerals it can present life as suffering and death as a liberation. We jump back and forth between the two poles and neither is true. Christianity is not essentially life-affirming, at least not in the way we usually think and act. For at its center lies the crucified Christ. However, neither can we reconcile people to death, make it something natural. Doing so falsifies reality.

For Christianity proclaims that Christ died for the life of the world, and not for an “eternal rest” from it. This “falsification” makes the very success of Christianity (according to official data church building and per capita contributions to churches have reached an all time high!) into a profound tragedy. The worldly man wants the minister to be an optimistic fellow, sanctioning faith in an optimistic and progressive world. And the religious man sees him as an utterly serious, sadly solemn and dignified denouncer of the world’s vanity and futility. The world does not want religion and religion does not want Christianity. The one rejects death, the other, life. Hence the immense frustration either with the secularistic tendencies of the life-affirming world or with the morbid religiosity of those who oppose it.

While official data shows a Christianity that is no longer peaking today, but in decline, Fr. Schmemann’s point remains valid. And thus we have the Joel Osteens on the one hand and the Pat Robertsons on the other. And while most are probably not at the extremes, there does tend to be a strong tendency toward one direction or the other. Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that this will continue as long as Christians continue to maintain an utilitarian view of their faith, as long as they continue to perceive Christianity as something intended to help them. Most of all, we have to stop viewing death as something natural or even desirable.

For neither the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, based on the opposition between the spiritual and the material, nor that of death as liberation, nor of death as punishment, are, in fact, Christian doctrines. And their integration into the Christian world view vitiated rather than clarified Christian theology and piety.

As we maintained such beliefs in our formerly religious or “death-centered” culture, we actually paved the way for the growth of modern secularism. I’ll continue exploring Fr. Schmemann’s perspective on that idea tomorrow.