Acton Institute Powerblog

Remembering Our Mortality in a Death-Averse Culture

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

We live in a culture that discussed ad nauseum the most mundane and trivial things—everything, that is, but death. A new book explains why this is impoverishing our daily lives.

Read More…

There was a time when the Latin axiom “Memento Mori,” or its English translation, “Remember that thou art mortal,” actually meant something to people. For most of history, death was omnipresent and everyone had to make peace with it.

As we entered the scientific age, in which a sense of mastery of nature took hold, we also started avoiding the issue of death. Far from being a weighty matter occupying the minds of scholars and mystics and becoming the responsibility of local communities, all aspects of death have been removed from the private sphere, leaving the mere logistics to hospitals and funeral homes. This has made the very idea of death invisible for us today; we now either ignore it or come up with half-baked theories of the afterlife based on wishful thinking.

As a professor of theology and philosophy, Dr. Randall Smith understands this problem all too well and seeks to rectify it with his new book, From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body. Here he attempts to clarify what people historically, Christian and non-Christian, have believed about death, and what they believe about it now

Although a faithful Catholic himself, he does not try to debunk rival claims on his topic, but to articulate them and consider what they can teach all people today. As he says in his introduction, “I am not formulating arguments against the materialist or the Hindu or Buddhist; rather, I am attempting to clarify what the Christian promise of eternal life entails or does not entail by comparing it with a series of logically possible alternative views in order to point out difficulties that Christians should be careful to avoid.” His book demonstrates that death is no simple matter, nor is it altogether ugly. Rather, it is complex and beautiful when properly understood and accepted.

Smith begins his book with the question of whether people should worry about death or dismiss it altogether and live life to its fullest. Either way, this opens up other questions that a person must consider: How does one prepare for death? What does living life to its fullest actually mean?

To attempt answers, Smith references the Stoics and Epicureans, who conclude that death is beyond one’s control and thus not a serious concern: “Better to seek wisdom by reflecting on how to live well now, in this life, because this is the only life we have.” Epicureans preached a life that minimized pain and strong attachments, whereas the Stoics promoted a life of virtue, viewing this as a means of freedom and fulfillment. And because neither school of thought believed in an afterlife, or at least a permanent one, both were fine with suicide.

While Stoicism and Epicureanism still exist in various forms today, Smith also considers the view of 20th-century philosopher Martin Heidegger, who similarly dismissed the possibility of life after death. However, instead of a life of pleasure or virtue, Heidegger posited an “authentic life” that involves a “daily recognition that my life is limited and that all my plans to achieve a kind of immortality by means of the accumulation of wealth or power or technical prowess will in the end amount to nothing[, which] should cause me to conclude that an authentic human life is one characterized by care for the world and others.”

Smith argues that all these theories fail to account for human beings’ universal yearning for meaning and transcendence. They also fail to account for the growing transhumanist movement, which believes in the possibility of overcoming biological limits through advanced technology.

Smith shows how this dream runs into a host of challenges, most of which are owing to a misunderstanding of the body (to say nothing of the transhumanist misunderstanding of the soul). If the body defines a person as much as the soul, what becomes of the person if they change out body parts or enhance them indefinitely? Rather than fill people with hope of perfection, the transhumanist project makes them perpetually dissatisfied with themselves and hopelessly divided (think Gattaca).

Even granting the assumption that technology will somehow enable immortality, Smith points out how this still doesn’t resolve the matter of meaning. Working through the implications of a life without end, he concludes that such “immortals” are doomed to a meaningless cycle of events in which nothing lasts.

In this way transhumanists run into the same challenge as the ancient pagans, whose version of the afterlife also fell short of transcendence—that is, a fuller life on a higher plane of existence, not simply living the same way indefinitely. Analyzing scenes from the Iliad and Odyssey, Smith notes that the best that ancient Greeks could come up with are immaterial spirits regretting not living longer (in the case of Achilles) and great heroes leaving a legacy that will quickly pass (in the case of Odysseus). Virgil at least gives the souls of heroes some kind of reward by being reincarnated as great Roman leaders. Cicero also speculates about a system of reincarnation that gives souls a chance to reach a kind of heaven. But these theories also end up with a pointless cycle devoid of any ultimate meaning.

Against this backdrop, Smith finally makes it to what Christians believe about death and the afterlife. Almost against his will, Smith has to correct a number of false understandings that have arisen. First, he addresses the idea of death as a kind of “liberation or release.” It is instead the enemy, and “the good news of the Gospels is … that this enemy has been defeated at long last by Christ.” The resurrection of the body and soul into heaven is the repudiation of death, which is itself unnatural and evil. 

This is followed up by what is meant by heaven, which even in the imaginations of educated adults tends to resemble “pictures of people with halos standing on fluffy clouds.” Citing Scripture and the catechism, Smith asserts that heaven “is a name Christians give to our union with God after death, when we will enjoy the beatific vision.” In other words, heaven is less a place one tries to enter and more a relationship one cultivates over time.

Finally, Smith corrects the heretical belief that only souls live on after death. For Christians this is heresy. The early church fathers, like St. Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, argue repeatedly against this idea. Like Christ, His disciples will be resurrected with bodies that will live on forever. 

Naturally, a bodily resurrection has major implications for how one lives and prepares for death. It means viewing the world in a sacramental fashion, recognizing that all physical reality is a means toward reaching God. It also means that people preserve their individuality when they die; their soul doesn’t simply dissolve into some great divine cloud. 

But, if the Gospel and living sacramentally are central to Christianity, why have so many Christian communities ceded the rituals of death to hospitals? In Smith’s opinion, this is modern materialism creeping into the popular imagination: “Death … is not a fatal flaw due to the failure in our technology. It is rather the result of that fatal flaw called sin.” Failing to grasp this leaves both the dying and the bereaved spiritually impoverished.

This materialistic attitude toward death has led to seeing death as an individual matter. People “own” their bodies and thus their deaths. Smith corrects this misunderstanding by articulating the Christian position that people are stewards, not owners, of their bodies—and so have a responsibility to think of their death “as something we undergo in relation to others and to God.” In this sense, those at risk of dying need their loved ones as much as their loved ones need them; both parties experience the necessary trials of love and faith, and become stronger and happier as a result. The alternative is a loved one’s dying alone and forgotten in a hospital or nursing home.

Smith concedes that it’s completely natural to fear death and grieve over loss. This is why religious faith becomes necessary for overcoming that fear. Taking the idea of being born again quite literally, Smith describes how a baby might feel in the womb before it is born. In the same way that the baby lacks any frame of reference to understand the fullness of a life outside the womb, people in the world are similarly in the dark when understanding life after death.

Finally, Smith concludes his book with some thoughts about Christ’s Second Coming. Much of this chapter consists of block quotes from the Old and New Testaments juxtaposed with Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven. (To be honest, this chapter felt a little tedious with analysis of each and every Bible passage.) Smith’s primary purpose here is to explain that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived with Jesus Christ but will come again in fullness when He returns, much like a seed being planted that will come to fruition later on. Even if there is no way of knowing when the world will end or how, this End of Days merits attention for the same reason death does: It focuses the mind on what’s of eternal significance for each one of us. It also means that what we do here and now has eternal significance for the coming kingdom.

Despite being a relatively brief book (under 300 pages), From Here to Eternity is quite rich and profound throughout. Fortunately, Smith is mindful of his reader, being concise, clear, and straightforward in his prose. Unfortunately, even the smoothest writing can’t make an argument such as this one an easy read. Some of this is due to the subject matter, and some the consequence of living in a shallow culture that lacks the vocabulary even to discuss such topics.

Nevertheless, the book is immensely rewarding even if a bit challenging. Death and the afterlife are mysteries that all people should contemplate in some depth. Smith shows how death is neither the end nor the beginning: It is the whole context in which people live their lives and find their purpose. Now it’s time for individuals and communities to live and act accordingly.

Auguste Meyrat

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in North Texas, the senior editor of The Everyman, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and a frequent contributor to The American Conservative, Crisis, and American Mind.