Sermon given at Matins on the Dedication of Westminster Abbey 2011
16 October 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
If there is one thing that is certain in life, it is that very little is certain. That’s what most scientists and philosophers tell us. As Benjamin Franklin wryly and famously commented, in a letter to a physicist. ‘Everything appears to promise that it will last; but in this world nothing is certain but death and taxes’. Perhaps not quite true - some people do manage to evade taxes, I’m told! But no-one evades death, that is true. We are part of a natural cycle of life and death. As human beings we are embedded in that natural cycle as surely as the grass that withers and the flower that fades. Even if our species lives on, as individuals we die. That is certain.
During October at Matins I am looking at some of the problems of faith, aspects of life which make belief hard. This morning it is this inescapable fact of our mortality I want to consider: death. Is death a problem for faith?
Well - it is an intellectual problem, for some. In this sense. We might worry that it’s precisely this universal reality of death which has produced religious belief in the first place – that is, it has made us invent a God in order to allay our fear of death and satisfy our desire for survival by giving us an afterlife. And that may make us worry that all belief in God is only a projection of our worries and desires. But that sort of doubt need not detain us. As a matter of empirical fact not all religions have an after-life as a central part of their belief anyway. Even the religion of early Israel, our ancestors in faith, had no firm belief in an after-life, certainly not for individuals. Yet they believed fervently in God. So it simply makes no sense to attribute all religious belief just to our fear of death and longing for survival. [In any case, as I have said in an earlier sermon in this series, our deep longings do not always mean we invent realities to feed them. Usually it is the reverse. Deep feelings are usually a pointer to the real existence of what we desire…].
In fact I suspect that the intellectual problems of death are not really the most pressing anyway. It’s much more likely that the problem of death is emotional and existential. It can undermine faith because it undermines our deepest selves. Death seems to threaten not just our existence but the very meaning of our existence. Perhaps especially when others die, and when it seems an untimely death. But not only then. All death can provoke a protest deep in the soul. We want to protest against extinction with every fibre of our being: it simply should not be that anyone should cease to be! ‘Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light’, railed the poet Dylan Thomas. Even the psalmist, with his faith, protests and complains to his God: ‘Come back Yahweh, rescue my soul from death, save me if you love me, for in death there is no remembrance of you…in death who can sing your praise?’. [Death so dismays him it is driving him to try emotional blackmail with God! ‘I won’t be able to praise you if I’m dead!’]. Even for the Christian, death can be an ‘enemy’, as St Paul insists. It can cast a terrible doubt on the love of God. How could God bring us into being only to snatch it away again, leaving an ache far worse than if we’d never known life in the first place?
I do need also to say that this is not the only human or Christian experience of death. The very naturalness and inevitability of death can make it seem more acceptable, even welcome. A natural sense of closure can come as a release, as Euripides noted long ago, to spare us the weariness or boredom or futilities of endless life. Some comfort can also be drawn from the biological discovery that the ageing processes which bring death are the very same which also bring maturity and the potential for child bearing. In other words, the processes which bring us death are bringing life for others. So our death literally ‘makes space’ for others: and we can then see death as a sort of sacrifice, an act of generosity, a culmination of the generosity which can grow with age as we increasingly take more interest in the next generation than in our ourselves. And when, by faith in Christ, we also believe that death can be gateway to our own further life in eternity, not just life for others on earth, then death can be welcomed in every way. That is why Paul was also able to write: ‘better by far to be with Christ’, in heaven.
Yet for all that, even with this sort of generosity and faith, honesty surely also requires us to real about death. It is still such a rupture with all that we have known and loved in this world. It creates such an aching gap between those who go and those who are left. Even with a christian promise that we will all have a new body and soul in a new heaven and earth (so important in our Judaeo-Christian tradition which values the body), even then this rupture which takes away our present bodies is still a fearful thing. Socrates, the Greek who believed the soul more real than the body, may not have trembled at death; but Jesus the Hebrew who valued the body, did tremble - and I suspect most of belong with Jesus on this. So let us be honest. Faith is not easy in the face of death…
But let us also belong to Jesus in every sense! Though he trembled, he did not evade death (just as he did not endorse evading taxes!): he entered it, as we all do. But then, having entered it, he did overcome it, and God’s power did remake him. It transformed him in ways we can barely imagine, but in a way that did not destroy the most real part of him - his relationship with his God, and with others. And that is the hope for us too.
I cannot pretend to understand or explain how such life beyond death can be conceived, and certainly not here in this short address (though I will try to explore just a little more of the mystery in a series of lectures next Spring for anyone who happens to be in London). But although a mystery, it is the unbudgeable conviction of christian faith. As Paul finally wrote: because of Christ, ‘I am convinced that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of God’.
The problem of death is very real. It is an enemy, the last and perhaps greatest enemy. But it is an enemy that will itself be destroyed. Thanks be to God.