Tuesday 2 March 2021

Recovering the lost belief that - potentially - "To die is gain"

An excellent post from Francis Berger about the cultural changes in attitudes to death and what happens afterwards. It really is valuable to 'read the whole thing' but here is a snippet:

Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until the approximately the early stages of the Enlightenment, the spiritual orientation of the West was indivisible from Christianity. The Christian consciousness of death was a radical expansion of the pagan consciousness of death that preceded it. Though pagan religions also adhered to belief in souls and the afterlife, these beliefs were qualitatively much different from the Christian belief and faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ as exemplified by St. Paul's declaration in Philippians 1:21 that, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain." 

This declaration emerges from the deep, inner, spiritual understanding in the non-existence of death - in the comprehension of death as the way leading to life, in which the life of sin is crucified, and the path to eternity is opened. It stems from the comprehension that we must die in order to reborn; that the essence of life is the transition from lesser being to higher being in which death serves a necessary conduit. As such, death is not simply and purely an evil, it is also a good. The orientation driving this consciousness recognizes the primacy of the spiritual over the primacy of the worldly and commits to the comprehension that the end of the worldly does not mark the end of the spiritual. 

With the advent of modernity, this consciousness was slowly superseded by a purely external, material, and temporal comprehension of death that perceived no gain at all at the end of life. Within this consciousness, St. Paul's declaration faded and was replaced by something akin to, "For to me, to live is World and to die is loss."


I would add that my understanding is that this historical change in social belief systems was paralleled by - and indeed ultimately driven by - a decline in (especially) Western Man's spontaneous perception of the continuing presence of the dead in this worldly life. People perceived the dead among the living - it needed no 'proof'. 

Part of returning to a belief that (as FB puts it) death is not simply and solely an evil, it is also a good is to develop an awareness (but Not a 'perception') of the continued presence of the dead, active in our living lives  - but this time by our conscious choice rather than spontaneously. 


No Longer Reading said...

With respect to the presence of the dead, I find this quote by Thomas Browne from Christian Morality to be insightful:

"Though Good Men are often taken away from the Evil to come, though some in evil days have been glad that they were old, nor long to behold the iniquities of a wicked World, or Judgments threatened by them; yet is it no small satisfaction unto honest minds to leave the World in virtuous well temper’d times, under a prospect of good to come, and continuation of worthy ways acceptable unto God and Man. Men who dye in deplorable days, which they regretfully behold, have not their Eyes closed with the like content; while they cannot avoid the thoughts of proceeding or growing enormities, displeasing unto that Spirit unto whom they are then going, whose honour they desire in all times and throughout all generations. If Lucifer could be freed from his dismal place, he would little care though the rest were left behind. Too many there may be of Nero’s mind, who, if their own turn were served, would not regard what became of others, and, when they dye themselves, care not if all perish. But good Mens wishes extend beyond their lives, for the happiness of times to come, and never to be known unto them. And therefore while so many question prayers for the dead, they charitably pray for those who are not yet alive; they are not so enviously ambitious to go to Heaven by themselves: they cannot but humbly wish, that the little Flock might be greater, the narrow Gate wider, and that, as many are called, so not a few might be chosen."

It makes sense that just as people living now would want things to go well for posterity while they are alive, surely the faithful departed wish the same thing for their descendants.

Francis Berger said...

Thanks, Bruce. I appreciate your added thoughts concerning the decline of Western Man's perception (let alone, awareness) of the continuing presence of the dead in this worldly life.

My personal experience with this is fairly typical. Though the community of saints forms an integral part of the Catholic tradition in which I grew up, I did not really begin to take the reality of the presence of the dead seriously until quite recently - over the past five years to be exact.

Steiner's ideas regarding the purpose of earthly life - to form relationships with other beings through love - have been helpful and clarifying (and have also allowed me to see the Catholic belief of the mystical bond uniting the living and dead through hope and love in entirely new light).