For those concerned with a vigorous intellectual engagement of the religious idea with the secular culture, these past 12 months have been a difficult period.
On February 28, 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. the intellectual godfather of the conservative movement in America, died. Only last month, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, passed away at 90 years old. Cardinal Dulles was one of the Catholic Church’s most prominent theologians, a thinker of great subtlety, and a descendent from a veritable American Brahmin dynasty.
The third in this towering intellectual triumvirate is Father Richard John Neuhaus, who died in New York after an on and off again battle with cancer, about which he had written in his now mini-classic, As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.
This book is unlike any written in our time in that it is a profoundly serious reflection on questions everyone has, issues everyone thinks about in private, but hardly anyone is willing to speak about or perhaps capable of writing about. Fr. Neuhaus confronts it to the point in which we feel discomfort – and he did this on nearly every issue he wrote about in his long writing career.
How will we be held accountable at death for what we did in life? What does mortality mean? What does it mean to face judgment? How should we live with the questions we have about eternity, and what is the impact on culture and responsibility?
In times past we had a greater clarity about these questions than we do today. Today, if we think about death at all, it is only to keep it as far away as possible, to forestall it, to deny it, and pretend that it doesn’t happen to others and will not happen to us.
Fr. Neuhaus wrote the following:
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word ‘good’ should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good. Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
Fascinating, provocative, fearless, counter-cultural, and absolutely impossible to ignore. It puts matters of faith at the center, making them impossible to deny. That is the power of Fr. Neuhaus’s mind at work, and it worked for many decades producing an incredible literary legacy. (more…)