Two pieces on Christianity Today’s website this week are worthy of comment. The first, “Despair Not,” reminds us that “there is something worse than misery and death.” The author Stephen L. Carter interacts with C.S. Lewis’ famous book, The Screwtape Letters, to show that “the terrible tragedies that befall the world work to Satan’s benefit only if we despair. Suffering, as Screwtape reminds his nephew, often strengthens faith. Better to keep people alive, he says, long enough for faith to be worn away. The death of a believer is the last thing the Devil wants.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticized the impetus to deny the value of suffering in this life. In his Ethics he wrote of modern nihilism and Western godlessness:
The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking. Every inner development, every process of slow maturing in personal and vocational life, is abruptly broken off. There is no personal destiny and therefore no personal dignity. Serious tensions, inwardly necessary times of waiting, are not endured. This is evident in the domain of work as well as in erotic life. Lasting pain is more feared than death. The value of suffering as the forming of life through the threat of death is disregarded, even ridiculed. The alternatives are health or death. What is quiet, lasting, and essential is discarded as worthless.
The other CT piece is a book review by David Fisher of Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine. The book’s authors argue that “modern medicine… emphasizes the autonomy of the individual and holds up the supreme end of bodily perfection. These goals are not only unattainable, but more importantly, are inconsistent with the Christian faith. The book points out the dangers of society’s worship of and allegiance to medicine for its perceived ability to defeat or forestall death. While our Christian beliefs should protect us from this deification of medicine, the authors remind us that we often fall into the same trap.”
Indeed, the authority and influence of medicine on our lives and behavior can be seen as a kind of scientism, in which science, in this case in the form of medicine, takes on “a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.” Authors Joel Shuman and Brian Volck issue “a call to transformed Christian living, one that emphasizes the importance of viewing medicine through the lens of the larger community of the body of Christ.”
With respect to the worship of health and life in and of itself, or “vitalism,” Bonhoeffer says,
Vitalism ends inevitably in nihilism, in the destruction of all that is natural. In the strict sense, life as such is a nothing, an abyss, a ruin. It is movement without end, without goal, movement into nothingness. It does not rest until it has everything into this annihilating movement. This vitalism is found in both individual and communal life. It arises from the false absolutizing of an insight that is essentially correct, that life, both individual and communal, is not only a means to an end but also and end in itself.
One important and indeed hopeful way to talk about death as an end, in addition to death as a means to an end, or “our entrance into eternal life,” is in this way: as “an end to our sinning.”