Richard John Neuhaus was a Catholic priest and a man who spent every day of his life thinking about theological issues. He should have been copiously outfitted for an encounter with death that would make Julian Barnes envious.
Neuhaus got his chance to test his mettle in January of 1993 when he was overtaken by pains that felt like his stomach was about to explode. He had a tumor in his colon that three recent colonoscopies by respected Park Avenue doctors had missed. The tumor was removed in emergency surgery during which his spleen was nicked, causing him to nearly bleed to death. He did not in fact die from any of this at the time. But at the time he did not know he was not going to die. Instead he had time to meditate on the possibility of his imminent death. He recorded those meditations in his book As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning.
So does a fully armed Christian face death any better than a death-haunted atheist? Neuhaus asks that question of himself,
I had often claimed with friends over brandy and a postprandial cigar, that if I died tonight, I would say, “Thank you, Jesus.” Now it seemed the time had come and would I say that now? Not so insouciantly as before, yet deliberately and with a tug of regret about what was not to be that I had expected to be, the answer is yes.
He also declared that throughout the whole ordeal he was never once afraid. Julian Barnes, in his book Nothing to Be Frightened Of, chronicles his many mental machinations to escape the constant fear of death that dogs his days. So score one for the Christian.
Extinction or Extinguishment
Nevertheless, that is not to say that Neuhaus did not have times of unease or puzzlement. Interestingly, both Neuhaus and Barnes seem to contemplate the same questions and conundrums of death. Barnes contemplates them with the view that the end of life is the end of existence. Neuhaus finds that the end of life, even with the possibility of continued existence, generates much of the same melancholy Barnes experiences. Neuhaus declares that death “is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn one day closer.”
For Neuhaus the question that he contemplates is not becoming extinct but rather being extinguished. There are many Christians who say that there is no distinction between body and soul. (See for instance Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Current Issues in Theology).) When the body dies, the “I” that is also part of the body dies. At the Great Resurrection, the body and thus the “I” will be brought back to life and at that point given immortality. But there is no intrinsic immortality bestowed on the soul. These theologians argue that the body-soul dualism that says a soul is conscious after death awaiting the reunion with the body is borrowed from the Greeks and has no place in New Testament belief.
This thought does not sit well with Neuhaus as he is facing this possibility of the end of his “I” or at least its discontinuity. He, like Barnes, decries the loss of the self. He cites Job who “in the protest of prayer… contemplates his ‘I’ having never been, but the ‘I’ that prays, having come into being, cannot conceive of not being.”
The Self as a Delusion
Neuhaus also addresses the whole neuro-science explanation of the self:
The human animal, it is said, is nothing but the body, nothing but physical stuff. There is no soul, and even consciousness is a delusion temporarily sustained by the brain, ‘a piece of thinking meat’ that is wired by neural synapses to process phisico-chemical sensations with the result that we speak inevitably but self-deceptively of the existence of I.
Despite these scientific pronouncements that he really doesn’t exist, Neuhaus persists that there is an “I” that wants to continue.
Neuhaus as priest has seen many people die and he writes that some ask “Why me?” when of course the question should be “Why not me?” But he sympathizes with the sentiment,
This happens to everyone, so why not to me? But what, the dying and the mourning persist, does the fact that it happens to everyone have to do with its happening to me?
It may be a logical fallacy to think that everyone should not include us, but Neuhaus insists, “the question does not go away. And perhaps there is wisdom in its persistence.”
Our Helpless Estate
As Neuhaus lies helpless in the hospital, he comes to understand that it is not what we bring with us to face death that is the Christian’s hope. It is who we know. And we know the One in charge of both this side and that side of death. Neuhaus clings to Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
I had personally apprehended Jesus who is the truth. More important, I had been personally apprehended by him. I knew him. He knew me.
Neuhaus has what Barnes says he longs for: “that we shall be finally, truly seen, judged and approved. ”
The question of what is to happen to me now is not a question about me, but a question about Christ. And that question has been answered. ‘Christ is raised from the dead never to die again, death has no more dominion him.’ Therefore death has no more dominion over me.
Neuhaus finds what Barnes cannot: Peace in the face of death based on his sure belief in Jesus Christ. And he says that through his experience he “came to believe more surely than I had ever believed before.”
But not every believer claims such sure belief in the face of death or even in the face of life. My next post is on Christian Wiman, also a man facing death, and his slow and unsteady steps toward faith in his book My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.