Sunday, May 17, 2015

Terminal Illnesses: A Sunday Rumination

     Relax! I don’t have one. That I know of, anyway. The subject is on my mind for another reason.

     The current social milieu presents us with quite a lot of reasons for Christians to think of ourselves and our faith as beleaguered. Here in the United States, we have the swelling phenomenon of militant / aggressive atheism, which seeks to drive us completely out of the public square, if not entirely underground, like the Christians in the Catacombs of Rome. Add that to the mountains of derision various elements of the entertainment media regularly heap on Christians and Christianity, plus recent political developments that have made it legally hazardous to stand by our convictions in the practice of our trades, and the picture can look pretty bleak.

     Not quite as bleak as that faced by Christians abroad, of course. Nearly everywhere outside the Western Hemisphere, Christians are being persecuted, if not outrightly slaughtered, for their faith. The trend is so powerful that only the very worst aspects of it – e.g., ISIS’s routine beheadings of Christians in its region of control – make the news.

     Yet we seldom hear about apostates from Christianity. People renounce all sorts of allegiances every day: to a country, to a political party, to a spouse, to a favorite hockey team. But open renunciations of the Christian faith? There are some, no doubt, but if there’s a significant current in that direction, I have yet to read about it.

     Given that the disincentives to Christian affiliation and the hazards involved in openly leading a Christian life have mounted so steadily for so long, why aren’t we seeing more apostasy? It would appear to run counter to what we’d expect from the nature of Man.

     The answer lies in the gulf between what is seen and what is not.

     Life is a terminal illness. No, not in the sense in which medical men use the term, but in a more inclusive one that applies to everyone ever born: we shall all die. It’s guaranteed to us at the moment of birth.

     I allowed an immortal character to make that point to a very mortal one in On Broken Wings:

     "What can I do?"
     Louis Redmond gaped.
     "That wasn't the question you wanted to ask, was it?" An observer that could ignore the weariness of Malcolm Loughlin's face and the hardness of his eyes might set his age no higher than that of his protégé. But Loughlin's countenance showed eons of fatigue, and his eyes were chips of agate. "You want to ask if I can do anything. But the answer is the same."
     The cold fear that surged through Louis had the vitality of a tiger. It was all he could do to keep it caged.
     "Did you think your training would allow you to undo cancer, Louis? Or did you think it was just a trick I hadn't taught you yet?"
     Louis stiffened. "Don't mock me. You haven't earned the right."
     The older man's lips curved in the ghost of a smile. "That's better."
     "Defiance at all times, Malcolm?"
     "What would serve you better, now?"
     Louis scowled, irritation washing over his fear. "Malcolm, you are too damned smart, and one of these days it's going to land you in trouble." He rose, walked the length of the trailer, and stared out the tiny end window at the dozens of acres of Onteora County, New York, mostly left to scrub oak and pine, that Loughlin owned. After a moment, he returned to the table and waved an arm jerkily. "Why don't you get yourself a decent place? A man can't pace properly in here."
     Loughlin ignored it. "When does treatment start?"
     "It's already started."
     "Any nausea?"
     Louis nodded.
     "I was hoping you might be spared that."
     Louis caricatured a show of surprise. "I didn't know you cared."
     "Now who's mocking whom?"
     An awkward silence descended. Louis was reluctant to break it. Presently, Loughlin spoke.
     "What will you do?"
     Louis shrugged. "I don't know. It doesn't really seem to matter."
     "Why? Because you're dying?" Loughlin's voice turned harsh again. "You were handed your death warrant the day you were born. Do you really mean to say there's nothing worth your time or energy, just because you've been told you won't make your threescore and ten?"

     The ultimate lesson of life is that it will end. No effort, no advance in the medical arts, and no amount of wishful thinking can change that. Life can be prolonged somewhat; at this time, we have no idea for how long. But it will end. It’s part of the design.

     More, not only will we die, we will be forgotten. No achievement, however high is sufficient to guarantee that we will be forever remembered. Our prospect for temporal remembrance is that those who’ve loved us, and those who’ve benefited by our labors, will remember and then, and for a little while. Except for the Socrateses, the Thomas Jeffersons, and the Albert Einsteins, that’s the best we can hope for.

     But while we live, we have tasks. We take them seriously. Ultimately, we do so for our own sakes. They give structure and meaning to our days. They allow us a measure of self-regard: something we need as badly as food or rest.

     Now ponder the man who absolutely rejects hope of an afterlife. Wouldn’t he logically look upon his labors, and upon the finitude of human life in comparison to the endless reach of Time, and ask “Why bother?” Yet few such men renounce their trades to pursue only temporal pleasures, which would be the sole logical course following from such a conclusion. Why not?

     Partly it’s that self-regard business. But partly, it’s because we’re hard-wired to hope.

     We’re hard-wired to hope, but what do we hope for? We can’t reasonably hope to live forever. Few of us can hope to achieve so mightily that our names will be remembered a thousand years from now. Of all the billions that have ever lived, we remember only a few hundred from the time of Christ or before Him...and let’s not flatter ourselves that we remember them in truth, with high accuracy. It will be the same for us two thousand years hence, assuming Mankind should last that long.

     Christian faith offers hope of two kinds. The first is the hope of an afterlife of bliss, which can be ours conditional upon having lived a satisfactory life and having repented of our moral sins before death. All by itself, that’s a powerful inducement to hope. Yet the second thing strikes me as even more attractive: the hope that when we face judgment, God will allow that we have done some good: some service to His Will for our temporal world. As the Supreme Judge, His assessment of our lives is the only one that ultimately matters...and He doesn’t give annual performance reviews.

     There you have my reasons for pitying the resolute atheist. He has deliberately rejected the only possible reasons to hope that his life will be more meaningful than that of a mayfly. His rejoinder, of course, will be that to need such hope, I must be “weak.” The meaning he ascribes to “weak” in that context has never struck me as sound – and note that when pressed to define it, he invariably makes it circular.

     Faith, like life, is a gift. It’s not given to all men. Some must stumble forward entirely on temporal ground. Yet if such a man lives a decent life, abusing no other man and abstaining from deriding others for their faith, he too will know eternal bliss, for God is just. That’s my hope for him. It’s why I pray for the atheists I’ve known: their paths have been made harder and more treacherous than mine.

     I know their trials from the inside, for I was once one of them.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Oldfart said...

You are a very good writer and probably a pretty good engineer. Having said that, I believe you just might have missed your calling. Today's offering would have made a superb homily for any Christian Church service, Catholic or Protestant.

Anonymous said...

You are 100% correct, Francis, and you have touched on reality as I know it. Life is relatively dreary with no hope. I have actually used the phrase "life is a terminal illness" before. I sometimes wonder how or why I continue. But I live by the Golden Rule, I live for those who love me, and I respect human life for these two reasons. (e.g. by extension) Life is difficult for everyone, and being an agnostic/atheist with strong morals is no different. But there is a unique emptiness, a lack of meaning, which is inescapable, and made all the more difficult when one's urge is to generally reject hedonism. I'd argue that believers have it easier. But we all have our struggles, and life goes on until it doesn't. Whatever happens next is a mystery. I'll end by saying, of all the agnostics out there, if you choose to pray for someone like me, that's fine, and appreciated in a certain way. But your prayers are better spent on the militant atheists, to counter the damage they choose to inflict on our society, or better yet, for the at-risk unborn. THEY are the ones with no voice.

CGHill said...

You might like this, from the editorial page of the Oklahoman today:

Kate Fulghum, president of Oklahoma Atheists, sees this as a good thing. "When I was 17 and 18, the Internet was in its infancy. I remember growing up and being told that all of the answers to my problems could be found in the Bible," she told The Oklahoman's Carla Hinton. "Today, they don't have to rely on an ancient book to solve their modern problems."

Yet the problems people grapple with today are the same problems people have grappled with throughout history. Society's major challenges are still the product of individual acts prompted by anger, lust, greed, pride, and so on. There are no "modern" problems, only ancient problems in modern garb.


Dr.D said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
FrozenPatriot said...

Just before undertaking what some consider unnecessary risk, I'm prone to remind the worriers in my life (wife, mother, etc.) that "the greatest cause of death is livin'." If nobody ever dreamed big, worked hard, risked much, or challenged themselves, the world would be exceedingly dull...

Anonymous said...

If there is a God, I don't think his concern is with us continuing on in this life or going to the hereafter. It's sort of like sports teams that say prayers to win. Do teams win, do people go on living, because God heard the petition and decided to grant it? Or, again if there is a God, does it just fit with his plan? Now on the difference between good and evil, yeah, I can see that. Hopefully he would smile on the "good guys" and punish the bad ones. But if you're involved in an accident, or a dangerous situation, I fail to grasp how intercession would have anything to do with the outcome. Just saying.

neal said...

Some things stay dead, some do not. Not my department.
I will say that being born again can take awhile, and that it is harder to be immortal than temporary.
When one has time, that is really no place to hide.

Dystopic said...

Marcus Aurelius suggesting something similar in The Meditations. Your name might be known, even some of the things you supposedly did, even your writings may survive for a time. But they will never know you. It will be nothing more than a shadow. The name won't be attached to a soul, an experience or anything like that. The spirit has already moved on.

And the day will come when even those things are forgotten. There is no lasting value in fame. If the penultimate Roman Emperor thought this was true, how much more does it apply to us?

Anonymous said...

Whenever I meet and atheist I say to them, "Oh, so that is your faith." When the retort they are atheists there fore have no faith I ask them to positively disprove the existence of God. The responses are usually interesting! I don't go so far as to tell them that I'll pray they are graced with my 'weakness'.. no need to be confrontational.

pdwalker said...

As usual, your sermons are very clear and powerfully said.