How will we emerge from the new shadow of death hanging over our world? The threat was at first climate change and now is the coronavirus.
As a child of the Cold War, I was part of a generation that trembled at the prospect of nuclear annihilation. The sense of peril was intermittent, triggered by an occasional flashpoint like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Now we are beset by endless reports that conjure up scenarios of extinction.
The season of Easter begins by commemorating the ultimate extinction – the death of God. Only those believing that the sacrifice of their saviour would be followed by his resurrection and the assurance of eternal life could describe Good Friday as “Good”.
The day of a divine death was confronting to believers – and even to non-believers. The cry of Christ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”, echoed across the skull-shaped hill of Golgotha in Jerusalem. In G.K. Chesterton’s challenging words, it marked the moment when God himself seemed to be an atheist.
Our fear of the future is closely linked with our deepening fear of death.
We are now inclined to obscure or dispense with death, except at times of mass crisis when we suffer a shared sense of foreboding. We prefer individual cremation and the scattering of ashes to burial, so that we no longer see the sign of an underground body – or the promise of a physical resurrection. We sweeten death with euphemisms that disguise its full nature (a loved one has “passed” rather than “died”) and that soften the illusion we control our existence. We seek understandable solace in memories of a departed loved one, while yet sensing that those memories will in time be gone – and are hardly a substitute for the Christian promise, which our culture once cherished, of resurrected life. And now we hasten death with euthanasia.
The loss of transcendental meaning in our culture, which has endowed earthly existence with ultimate purpose, weakens our capacity to deal with death. On the one hand, coronavirus alarm or climate change dread suggests that we can only face the apparent finality of death by succumbing to fatalistic frenzy.
On the other hand, we are deeply torn in our attitude to suicide – unsure whether to resist it or facilitate it. This moral schizophrenia shows in our political priorities. The current federal budget contains a big injection of funds – $461 million – to combat suicide and support deterrence strategies, a measure strongly supported by Suicide Prevention Australia. At the same time, the States – Victoria at first, followed by Western Australia, and soon, no doubt, other States – pass laws that permit, if not encourage, the taking of one’s own life.
At San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge a steel net is being erected as a suicide barrier – at a cost of A$325 million (US$200 million) – while earlier the State of California enacted an End of Life Option Act which sanctions the self-administration of lethal drugs.
An artistic sign of our cultural contradictions is David Williamson’s latest play, Crunch Time, which favourably depicts the subject of euthanasia. It is well that a distinguished playwright has given dramatic attention to the dilemmas involved, but a haunting disappointment that he should wish to finish his stellar career with a supplication for suicide.
The disquiet we feel about the future is not only connected with the traumas of the present. It is reinforced by our disillusionment with the past.
For two centuries the dream of inevitable progress animated our culture. It was buoyed by phenomenal scientific and economic advances and a vision of human perfectibility. It survived even the savagery of two world wars and the black cloud of nuclear obliteration. Time, we felt, was on our side. History endorsed our desires and hopes.
Now we are tormented by the nightmare of mass extinction. Time is no longer in our favour. Our confidence as a people, not just a political and economic system, is agonisingly tested. We worry that the future will betray us, just as the past has done.
Our principal social institutions – government agencies, media organisations, universities, business companies – are reflexively hostile to our cultural history, which they believe has been darkened by the horrors of oppression and abuse, whether of race or class or gender or the environment. By discrediting the past, they have spawned a fear of the future.
One way in which our culture has learned to cope with death is to invoke the idea of preordained destiny. Religious belief may be evaporating in Australia but this does not mean an end to transcendent hopes – or mystical fears. Just as our historic faith in progress was a secularised version of the Judaeo-Christian tradition of divine care and promised salvation, so the picking of “right” or “wrong” sides of history suggests an ultimate trust or treachery.
Support for favoured causes like climate change and a globalised society with open borders – both now suffocated by COVID-19 – have long been morally and politically impelled. They are movements assumed to be on the “right side of history”. This is present-day code for predestination, implying the operation of some kind of transcendent power, entirely outside the sphere of science, which is directing success or failure.
Yet finally such earth-bound outcomes cannot bear the weight of a redemptive yearning that will only be satisfied beyond human history and death. All kinds of temporal hopes can be entertained, but they are defeated by the grimmest of conclusions. Despite every medical or economic advance, death continues to have a 100 per cent success rate.
Can our culture rise to a level of spiritual maturity where it will confront the brutal reality of death, without falling into apocalyptic panic at every new threat?
The resurrection of Christ injected transcendental meaning into the dying, if dominant, Roman imperial culture. Here was a singular instance of human life triumphing over death. It turned the first followers of Christ, shattered by their leader’s crucifixion, into resolute apostles of life, prepared to sacrifice their earthly survival for their faith and venture out against all human odds to transform the hearts and minds of a civilisation.
Might such a hope inspire our people again? It is hard to see any vision other than a resurrection justifying it.
Karl Schmude is a co-founder of Campion College Australia and a former university librarian.
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