Summer Reading Group: Body and Death

This is the eighth post in a ten-part series for Spectrum’s 2015 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Unclean by Richard Beck. You can view the tentative reading/posting schedule here.

I don’t want to die. I’m not sure that’s the same as being afraid of death. But I definitely find myself avoiding things I think might kill me. And hoping that I get to have a long, healthy life: specifically, a healthy life with few of the elements of aging in it; healthy till the last minute. And that latter sentiment is what Beck addresses in this chapter.

Beck builds on his earlier claim that disgust is related to an existential reminder—that humans are in the in-between of the divine-animal divide. We feel pulled “downward” to the animal world through our bodily functions, while at the same time that we want to be more like God. We want the “upward” spiritual elements that we associate with the divine. Beck reminds us of the earlier arguments in the book—we feel purity which is required by God and makes us more like Him is achieved by pulling away from all the things that we associate with the bodily. We mourn death even as we experience disgust toward the aging and sick and dying.

Beck’s research for this association of disgust with the animal/lower elements of life came earlier in the book, and wasn’t wide or deep enough to be convincing to all his readers. All some of us need to do is think of the nurses and other care-givers in our lives to think that this disgust isn’t as widespread as Beck’s evidence claims. However, when I look into my own heart, the truth of his assessment is clear to me.

My desire to not die may be related to my wish to avoid things that remind me of death, and specifically the death that comes with aging. In this way, I am similar to many other modern people in this mechanized, sanitized and medical age. As someone who is not a professional medical worker, I am alienated in many ways from the sick and the dying/dead. I work hard to avoid the bodily signs of aging, and not only the signs, but all the effects. I get frustrated as my middle-aged self (an embodied self) requires more time, adaptation, and attentiveness. I want to plan my schedule, my adventures, my future, as if there will be no end and I will always be able to do what I do now.

What this translates into, for me, is often a disregard for the sick and elderly. I am in a hurry and they seem slow. I want informal worship services without microphones and they are hard of hearing. I want active community service and churches that focus on the kids, and they aren’t able to participate at that physical level. I privilege the physicality that comes with what we perceive as “youth,” which also means I end up being something like an “able-ist.” I am impatient and don’t want to accommodate those whose bodies are working less well than they have in the past or which work differently than I am used to mine functioning.

My childhood theological education included the reminder that the first temptation was the first lie: “Thou shalt not surely die.” I always understood that this was the way that humans started down the road of idolatry, to rejecting the path of love that God had planned for them. Beck’s argument in this chapter reminded me of this, and that when I resist aging, or neglect to make space for the sick or elderly, I am participating in this lie. Not that I will engage in unhealthy behavior or lack of concern for my body, but I will check myself when I make assumptions about the value of certain abilities or become negligent of people (myself included) who are not at the prime of physical functioning.

I wish Beck had completed his argument with the strongest theological truth of all, the one that should undermine all our desires to become divine: God became a human. And He died. The Resurrection, that truth that completes the value of the Incarnation for us, is part of our great hope and the Good News. If we desire to avoid the human element, the bodily functions, because they remind us of animals and death, then the knowledge that Jesus, God Himself, became human and gave value to our bodies and physical functions should change everything. We should not avoid our bodies and their weaknesses in our attempt to get close to the divine. God came near to us, embraced our weakness and gives us hope in the New Heaven and New Earth.

Do you find yourself worried about dying or aging? How do you respond to the aging process? How do you make space for the elderly or those whose bodies don’t work like yours? Do you find yourself thinking more about God on His throne in the New Heaven and New Earth than of God as a human who got hungry and had bodily malfunctions and died? What difference does it make to think of our God as embodied in human flesh?

Lisa Clark Diller is a Professor of History at Southern Adventist University.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7110
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“Do you find yourself worried about dying or aging? How do you respond to the aging process? How do you make space for the elderly or those whose bodies don’t work like yours?” Lisa Clark Diller asked in this thought provoking piece. Many of her comments and questions are answered for me in the great poem “Thanatopsis” By: William Cullen Bryant. The last few lines of this wonderful piece of poetry are the most insightful. (the lines in bold type are by Bryant in “Thanatopsis”)

The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Once more: everyone dies. Young people, in the “green spring” of life, will eventually die.
People in the prime (“full strength”) of life will die too.
The old woman (“matron”) will die, but so will the young woman (“maid”).
The same goes for babies who are too young to talk and old men with grey hair.
Death is the great equalizer. Doesn’t matter who or when or what you are – you will die
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
All the people listed in the lines above are going to come and lie down next to you in the earth. They will be laid in the grave by people who will then eventually die themselves. It’s an endless chain, all of us following each other into the grave, whether we like it or not.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
If that was the end of the poem, it would be pretty depressing. Now, though, all of a sudden, Bryant switches the mood up a little. The speaker says: “So live.” Enjoy the time you have. Sooner or later you will hear the call (“the summons”) of death. You will join the endless train of people leaving this life. We’re still talking about death, but there’s some hope, a reminder of the importance of life.
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
We’re all headed for what our speaker calls “that mysterious realm,” what Shakespeare called “that undiscovered country.” We’re all going to get a room (“chamber”) in the quiet "halls of death."
Still, we shouldn’t go as if we were being forced, like slaves in darkness. This is where the “truth” from the Bible about death being compared to sleep is so comforting.
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Instead of acting like we are being whipped (“scourged”) into some underground prison, we should trust that what is happening to us is good. We should be comforted and soothed by our belief in the comfort and rightness of death. Notice that he doesn’t say exactly what we should be trusting in. This is important. There’s no clear religious message here, just some general comfort. As Adventist we want to insert “the state of the dead” doctrine here, rather than just accepting the comfort the poem brings.
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.
Bryant ends the poem with an image that I think is actually really beautiful. After all that grim contemplation of death, the speaker closes things on a soothing, comforting note. He says that we should get ready to die like someone wrapping a blanket (“drapery”) around him and getting ready for a happy, dream-filled sleep. Kind of nice, huh?

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Since academy days, so many years ago when I treasured that poem and memorized that last part as quoted above, I have had no fear of death. As someone once said, “I have no fear of death, but of dying” which often is a terrible place for many before death brings relief.

If hopes are fulfilled, I hope to live nine more years to become a centenarian. California has just passed a bill for assisted death which will become effective in 2016, and there will be those who take advantage of this; as it should be the individual who makes this decision.

Disability? Yes, inevitable if one lives a long life, regardless of how healthful living has been practiced, death is inevitable, eventually.
Gradually the body becomes worn and functioning is more difficult. But family, friends and life can be enjoyed. Most people are kind and helpful, offering assistance which is always appreciated. If we are fortunate, all of us have elderly parents, even grandparents who are suffering problems of aging; an opportunity to see first hand the effects of aging. We will all be there some day, unless our lives are shortened. We are living much longer today than our ancestors 100 years ago, and the years are more enjoyable thanks to modern medical advances.

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“And when Jacob had made an end of commanding his sons, he gathered up his feet into the bed, and yielded up the ghost, and was gathered unto his people.” Genesis 49

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Attitudes about aging and death are formed by culture. There are cultures that respect, even venerate, the aging. Ours is not one of them. Most of them are not Christian, interestingly. Our culture is based on youth, everything from the retail industry, to the health “industry”. Few doctors look forward to aging patients - I suppose because they’re boring - heart disease and diabetes - stuff of their own making, usually.

Now that the “baby boomers” are aging, all these departments that run our lives are focusing on the process of aging; but with the message that aging can be delayed, at least the appearance of aging, not that aging can be celebrated. Of course, that’s because the next stage is “dying” and nobody wants to go there. In fact, it could be said that our entire way of life in the “developed” countries is about avoiding aging and the inevitability of dying.

There are distinct benefits to being past the middle mark of life. Our experience can more accurately inform us about what is happening in our world today; and we no longer care about the frivolities of life, giving us better priorities out of experience - the youth could benefit from both.

The Christian community is also impacted by cultural attitudes, of course. There appears to be a delineation between the old folks who sit toward the front of the church, and the young crowd in the last few rows. That dividing mark goes beyond where they sit, physically. It permeates the very atmosphere of the church, creating a dividing line that need not be there, given better interaction, with compromises on both sides.

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The week before last Xhristmas, I thought I fainted in an emergency room At University hospital. they tell me I died for three minutes. if so, it was painless nothingness. I now have two stents and a pace maker… I am one year younger than Elaine. The problem of death is that I still feel important to an extended family… But I do have assurance. reading is my greatest pleasure. blogging comes close. tom Z

p.S. I just picked up Dr Heppenstall’s book. salvation Unlimited… It was a gift form a former G.C. Officer. stamped on the fly leaf were the words Withdrawn from the G. C. library. I then recalled that Pacific press had discontinued the book while the H. Douglass book Why Jesus Waits remains in press.

I think this is notable as to the theological detour of Adventism. With a decided shift to LGT. What is next The Rapture?

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I can remember not too many years ago, Lisa, when I shared your feelings. But now I am in the midst of the aging process and spend too much time supporting the medical profession. There are a few days when death seems a pleasant prospect, but most of the time I don’t feel ready to die - I have too many things I still want to accomplish! I think it’s normal to “love life.” While we do have a culture of youth in America, as baby-boomers age there is more respect for those who reach a ripe old age and are still doing things they enjoy. So give yourself the privilege of doing things a little slower and having more trouble remembering names - it’s all part of growing up!

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Sam
As Bryant so eloquently has stated, Death does not consider age. Does not consider the person. Does not consider what unfinished activities might need to be completed.
The recent reported deaths of a Church School Principal, with school just begun, and 2 young students from 2 other families.
When we think of those in Children Hospitals, many with illnesses marking off the days of their eventual demise and separation from family, and unable to provide the world with their gifts.
As the message shouts, LIVE!! What short time we have, we have to share ourselves, we have to be willing to go out into the world with all of our gifts, and take the time to develop new and wondrous gifts. And we find it most pleasant that it is from others that we are taught wondrous gifts, and it is to others that we are allowed to practice these new gifts and bring Joy To The World.
And at the End, the First prayer we learned becomes the Last prayer we say…
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…

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Thanks very much for this, very timely for my family. Our mom died two months ago, 85 years young, after a very short hospital stay, and in her sleep. We have so much to be grateful for and we really wouldn’t wish it otherwise, for her; it’s just sorrowful for ‘we who remain’. In the time zone of earthly existence, we have a gap to endure but perhaps in the time zone of heaven God has all of us always with him. Are we different in that way from our creator, in that sin has caused this time zone of separation? Yes, bad things happen here because of sin, but is eternal separation from each other and possibly from God the absolute ‘worstest’ effect of sin? And thanks for the poem; I never got around to memorizing it but I will start today. To Steve: I do know the ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ and that’s a start!

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