Death - a necessary and beautiful property of abundant living

Last week I attended the funeral of Peter Lee, my wife Susanna's father. He was a remarkable man in many, many ways and someone of whom I was very fond indeed. Naturally Susanna and her mother will miss him even more that I will and so I thank you all for the messages of support you have been sending her at this time.

Inevitably, whenever someone dies whom we loved or deeply respected, as we all know, a profound sense of loss appears. Sometimes, in that dark place, we can feel terribly cheated by this or even come to feel that it was some kind of justified or unjustified punishment.

This feeling runs deep through the human psyche sometimes regardless of our usual expressed beliefs. A friend of mine saw it happen to his mother who had no belief at all in the reality of God - however defined - and so certainly not a belief in a God who acts upon the world in supernatural ways. (In preparation for the latter part of this piece I have to say neither do I - I believe in God but in a way very different to that presented by traditional theism or that which is denied by traditional atheism - we'll come to that in a moment.) Anyway, when her husband of many years died she said to her son in a moment of intense grief and pain, "What have I done to deserve this?" After calming her down and getting her a cup of tea he pointed out to her that since she didn't believe in a supernatural God feeling and saying what she did didn't really make sense. And yet she, and I suspect most of us, we feel similar things that run counter to our intellectual beliefs.

The funeral of my father-in-law and this psychological observation naturally caused me to think a little more about these matters during the week and, since there is a chance my reflections might prove useful to someone reading this, I simply offer them up for your consideration. But this confluence of events and ideas also gives me the chance to reveal an important aspect of the underlying philosophical structure that holds up our own particular four-hundred year old liberal Christian tradition.

The religious tradition I and this local church represents is one which seeks only to teach and practise the religion of Jesus and not the religion about him. But, like all great teachers, precisely what Jesus meant by his teachings - whether words or deeds - is not clear in any absolute or definitive way. All we can legitimately say is that generation upon generation of our forebears have found them to be efficacious gateways to inspiring and practical insights into the matter of how to have life and have it more abundantly. That is why we return to them again and again. But, for that abundant life truly to be had, there must be a constant and endless rediscovery, unfolding, interpretation and then living out of those same teachings and examples by every new generation of individuals and communities which gather, as we do, in his name and Spirit. In consequence, some teachings which we understood one way under former a understanding suddenly seems to say something different or more nuanced to us under our present understanding. And this also means that tomorrow, believing that there is always more light and truth to break through from God's word, we acknowledge that our understanding is likely change again. That's the spiritual discipline on offer here - a way of life not a doctrine.

At this point I can return to the subject with which this address began, namely, the death of a loved one and one possible response to it. I'll hang my basic point around our biblical reading from John 18:1-11.

One of the striking things about Jesus was his ability to acknowledge, understand and live in the light of the idea that God's will is sovereign. As he notes here, "the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?" (John 18:1-11). We remind ourselves of this important insight each week, of course, in the prayer Jesus taught us: "Thy will done, on earth as it is in heaven."

But this kind of language - poetic and figurative as it is - can easily be given a status that it shouldn't. We need to recall that Jesus (like all great religious teachers) used language to help us to experience directly a deep spiritual insight rather than express some formal truth about the world. So, even as we continue to use in this church the language of "Father" and of the "Father's will", we are not thereby restricting our freedom to interpret this language in new ways as long as it accords with our present understanding of truth and what we believe to be the spirit of Jesus' basic religious insight that God is One and that all people and all creation, along with Jesus, are one in God. In the chapter preceding our reading remember Jesus' extraordinary words: "And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me" (17:22-23). The fundamental consequence of this insight into unity is that there is no God outside Nature; God is not, therefore, supernatural but instead the very epitome of the natural.

The "Father's will", in this understanding at least, is really better thought of, not as personal volition at all, but as simply the glorious, complex and wonderful laws of Nature. But, as we do this, we need not abandon the poetic and anthropomorphic language of God as long as we are careful not to be overly seduced by it. Remember, the language is there to help us to grasp the insight that we are one in God; the language itself is, in the end, not the point of the exercise.

(Excursus - The Rabbi's had a phrase which helped them make people aware that they were using poetic and anthropomorphic language - it was "as if it were possible." So I am simply saying that "if it were possible for God to be a person then the picture of him as a good and loving father would be a good one." Once the underlying point to be made by such an illustration is grasped then the picture must be let go.)

So where might that leave us in our search for a more abundant life? Well, in the face of any sadness concerning the loss to us of any good we can be helped by reflecting that there was no way it could always have been kept. This idea is expressed wonderfully well in one of my favourite Zen stories and it is one which resonates with the image of the cup Jesus used. It involves the teacher who insisted on using a very fine and expensive glass to drink out of day after day. One day a student said to him, "Aren't you afraid of breaking such a valuable glass?" The teacher smiled and then held up the glass up to the light and letting it sparkle beautifully. Then he turned to his student and said, "I know this glass is already broken, that is why I spend time enjoying it." As with this glass so with us and our loved ones.

We may express this insight in rather more philosophical language by saying that ALL a thing's properties are necessary for what it to be what it is. The philosopher Paul Wienpahl adds this further insightful example:

Change one of a things' properties and you change the thing. A given woman is not merely a woman. She is THIS woman, differing in all these enormously varied ways from that woman. Every single thing about her, every property, no matter how seemingly insignificant, distinguishes her from the other. To know her, then, is to overlook nothing about her (Radical Spinoza, New York: SUNY 1979, p. 66).

So to know another and to know ourselves, is to overlook nothing about us including our death. Consequently death can be seen to be a key element in having a unique life and having it more abundantly.

At traditional funerals you will hear read some other words of Jesus' from the Gospel of John: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this? (John 11:25-26).

Well, because it seems to me that the basic insight Jesus had was of the ultimate unity of God and Nature, as I come to share that insight more deeply, I find myself answering "Yes, this I believe." For one slowly comes to see that all earthly death and dying is reborn - resurrected to use Jesus' word - in the deeper understanding that our own transient lives are always part of the eternal life or, better still, the very being of God. It seems to me that those who achieve this insight really do have life and have it more abundantly - even eternally. But, importantly, they have it in the present - the eternal now - this is not a future state but a present reality.

All of what I have said explains, I hope, why I tend to use at funerals, not these words of Jesus which, without some considerable unfolding such as I have given today are, it seems to me, liable to considerable and unhelpful misunderstanding, but instead words by the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in which he tries to express how Spinoza understood the matter. They sum up well what I have been trying to say today and give us, I believe, a deep spiritual and rational hope of a certain kind of eternal life in the face of all earthly death. It is an insight that helps me, at least, to have life and have it more abundantly. Naturally I acknowledge that this understanding is not a sufficiently comforting vision of eternal life for many people but it is the only one that I have and, therefore, the only one I can honestly offer you. I have to say that for me it seems beautiful and reasonable and so I commend to you for further reflection:

When a man’s life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him. And knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the moment of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is part forever in the infinite context of facts [existence].


In the context of a funeral I change the last "fact" to "existence" and change, when necessary, "man" to "woman." Here is a fuller quotation from George Santayana’s (1863-1952) preface to Spinoza's Ethics and De intellectus emendatione, published by J. M. Dent & Sons in 1910

NOTHING, ACCORDING TO Spinoza, is eternal in its duration. The tide of evolution carries everything before it, thoughts no less than bodies, and persons no less than nations. Yet all things are eternal in their status, as truth is. The place that an event fills in history is its inalienable place; the character that an act or a feeling possesses in passing is its inalienable character. Now, the human mind is not merely animal, not merely absorbed in the felt transition from one state of life to another. It is partly synthetic, intellectual, contemplative, able to look before and after and to see fleeting things at once in their mutual relations, or, as Spinoza expressed it, under the form of eternity.

To see things under the form of eternity is to see them in their historic and moral truth, not as they seemed when they passed, but as they remain when they are over. When a man's life is over, it remains true that he has lived; it remains true that he has been one sort of man, and not another. In the infinite mosaic of history that bit has its unfading colour and its perpetual function and effect. A man who understands himself under the form of eternity knows the quality that eternally belongs to him, and knows that he cannot wholly die, even if he would; for when the movement of his life is over, the truth of his life remains. The fact of him is a part forever of the infinite context of facts.

This sort of immortality belongs passively to everything; but to the intellectual part of man it belongs actively also, because, in so far as it knows the eternity of truth, and is absorbed in it, the mind lives in that eternity. In caring only for the eternal, it has ceased to care for that part of itself which can die.

But this sort of immortality is ideal only. He who, while he lives, lives in the eternal, does not live longer for that reason. Duration has merely dropped from his view; he is not aware of or anxious about it; and death, without losing its reality, has lost its sting. The sublimation of his interest rescues him, so far as it goes, from the mortality which he accepts and surveys.

The animals are mortal without knowing it, and doubtless presume, in their folly, that they will live for ever. Man alone knows that he must die; but that very knowledge raises him, in a sense, above mortality, by making him a sharer in the vision of eternal truth. He becomes the spectator of his own tragedy; he sympathises so much with the fury of the storm that he has not ears left for the shipwrecked sailor, though that sailor were his own soul. The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it.