Thursday, May 4, 2006

The Indignity of Death

good evening. won't you join me for a glass of wine? or perhaps a non-alcoholic orange Krush? it is a gorgeous spring evening--everything is either white, pink, or kelly green. something somewhere is chirping and someone is smelling intoxicatingly like perfume. undergrads in short pleated skirts chirp away on their cell phones and boys with backwards hats and swishy shorts play pick-up baseball outside of tollentine hall. i have just finished my last day of class. let me tell you about it!

Personal Ethics 8340. for the duration of the semester we have explored action theory, debates between proportionalists and physicalism, and contemporary topics such as personhood and right-to-life issues. if someone auditing the course could gleen anything, i would wager it would be that there are no black and whites in life...only shifty shades of gray.

and then there is my professor. you know the way kevin spacey responds on meeting jane's friend angela? that was close to my reaction upon meeting my professor, sans the sexual fantasy part. but her attractiveness was enthralling, i think in part because she embodied a synthesis of elegance, intelligence, good sense, taste, ease, maternal sensitivity, family devotion, professionalism, godliness, and attractiveness that was, well, attractive. she spoke about her family, her husband, and even brought her 1 year old son to our first class because she couldn't get a sitter (he threw his bottle at me, easy target in the front row). she was probably mid-thirties, grey hair and irish skin, and wore sleeveless dresses that accentuated the shape of her body, a woman's fact, as far as i was concerned in this classroom, the very epitome of a woman's body, or at least everything i love about a woman's body. during lectures she would walk from one end of the whiteboard to the other, then come around and gently hop up on the desk, and cross her legs. it was not seductive or anything like that, just casual. the fact that she wore pretty much the same black pumps every class made her seem that much more sensible and, in effect, attractive.

i really was mesmorized by her lectures, hanging on to her words. when you respect someone, you tend to respect more what they speak. and so unlike my biblical archaeology course last semester, where my huge insane cat-crazy cane-carrying spinster of a professor spun her insane theories on Torah about the Fall and licked shards of biblical artifacts from palestine, i paid attention. i didn't skip class, or go out for discontented cigarette breaks. i was literally captivated by the material and her presentations--and her. i did experience a similar captivation by an austrian professor i had in an exegesis course two years ago...he was the nicest guy and extremely competent in his field (Romans--could you imagine devoting your entire professional career to one book in the Bible?). he was attractive too, i guess, but i don't think that had much to do with it (or did it--do attractive people hold our attention better?). anyway, i don't play that field, so i guess its a moot point.

tonight was our last class. in fitting finality, we discussed Death, and the work of paul ramsey and karl rahner. my professor made reference to nicholas wolterstorff's 'lament to a son,' which wolterstorff wrote after his son was killed in a mountain climbing accident. he wrote of how hollow it felt receiving religious condolences like 'your son is in a better place' and 'it's for a reason.' he responded with indignation at the attempts to fill this hole in the universe which his son had inhabited with trite religious phrases. wolterstorff wrote of deliberately refusing to be consoled, nor to even take refuge in faith in order to find meaning in his son's death. i have not read the book, but my professor said something to the extent that the one thing he really wished was simply for someone to sit with him on 'the mourning bench.' because even if it was for a reason, darlene (my prof.) explained, even if it does fit into the grand scheme of things, "that totally unique composition of a person, which occupied a particular space in the universe...there is a hole now. and i can't touch him. so in that light, the fact that his death is 'for a reason' is somewhat irrelevant to me right now--when all i want to do is touch him." she described how her son has this thing he does with his left eyebrow, where it flutters up sometimes more than the other one. "that is the stuff that is gone forever when someone dies."

darlene expounded on ramsey's critiques of contemporary ways of dealing with death (primarily in his critique of the 'death with dignity' campaign). the first is explaining death as 'a natural part of life,' which ramsey regards as a trite 'generic mortality' (and in contradiction to Christian anthropology). the second explains that death is not a natural part of life, and can only be experienced experientially (which is metaphysically impossible, e.g. Plato's Law of Contradiction), inducing dread at our demise.
ramsey's third response to the problem of death is the Christian humanist response; that is, Death is an enemy, an indignity to the human person, because it severs the coherence of body and soul, the unity which makes us human.

when we brought Rahner into the discussion, the theological gaps began to fill in. ramsey's view that death begets sin denotes that it is Christ's resurrection that saves us; rahner asserts that it is Christ's death that saves us, because death is God's 'no' to sin--Christ's death on the cross changes the possiblity for our own death and ultimate salvation (our Fundamental Option, in Rahnerian terminology).

by the end of this discourse, these two theologians--one protestant, one catholic--had inadvertently complemented each other in a way that gave me a real, true ecumenical theology of death that made Life seem that much more rich. for catholics, in falling into the trap of trying to earn salvation through works, in frees one of the self-loathing that comes from never being 'good enough,' the trap of self-improvement, the neurosis of perfectionism and guilt, and the pitfalls of pride. to shift and devote one's energy more into a devotion of abandonment--knowing full well you'll never get it right no matter how hard you try so rather than trying to huff and puff your way into good graces, let yourself by loved by One who wants to love you more than anything. it's so easy it's difficult, it seems. protestants for their part...well, i'm not quite sure about the 'knowing' with certainty that you are Saved. it is something i would like to pray about. but i do know one be loved, with no strings...that is a very freeing feeling, something i hope everyone has the chance to experience.

so now i'm nursing a beer at my desk. i wish you were here to sit on the porch with me. we could talk about love, life, death, and God, watching the moon wax and wane, like our theories, and plans for the future.

Currently listening:
American Beauty: Original Motion Picture Score
By Original Score

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