Towards a theology of death - a personal view by Jonathan Pye
Revd Dr Jonathan H Pye MA, Chair, Bristol District of the Methodist Church
The day after the Bristol based novelist and poet Helen Dunmore died on 5 June 2017, her family released a poem written less than a fortnight before her death from cancer. The poem is titled ‘Hold out your Arms’ (published on the Guardian website - scroll down the page). In this tender, subtle and poignant poem, Dunmore addresses death directly, imagining herself as a child waiting to be lifted up and carried home.
Such an embracing of death is, however, not everyone’s experience. For others, it may be an occasion of terror; it may come suddenly and without warning or after a protracted illness; at, or even before, birth or at the end of a long life; violently or peacefully. Nonetheless, death will come to each one of us and each of us will have to make what sense we can of an experience that is, at one at the same time, both personal and universal. Such sense-making is, however, not simply individualistic. Death is not simply a biological but a social phenomenon and our responses to death, either the anticipation of our own or the experience of that of others, is shaped by a variety of cultural factors, sociological, psychological, philosophical and theological.
This meaning-making is as old as humanity and, throughout history, has been articulated in religious or secular ritual. Up until the twentieth century, in Western culture at least, shared values provided a framework in which death, grief and mourning were located and could be interpreted. These were often written down in books known as ars moriendi that prescribed, often in great detail, accepted behaviours: from food to dress, from the rituals surrounding death to the length of the period of mourning. In today’s more individualistic context, sometimes called post-modernity, in which no ‘truths’ are privileged over any others, where death is perceived to be ‘off the agenda’ even in religious institutions, many people are left to create their own meanings and ways of articulating their responses in the face of the experience of death.
For Christians, whose understanding of life, death and future life is set within the context of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the practice of the faith, such common understandings are predicated on scripture, tradition, reason and experience as the framework within which understandings of death, grief and mourning are articulated. Because neither understanding nor articulation are static but dynamic, both, whilst drawing on the past, evolve and find their expression in new and culturally relevant contexts. From the ars moriendi of the Middle Ages to the Death Cafes and online resources of the 21st centuries, how we deal with death in healthy and constructive ways remains an on-going process. What is important is that we do, in fact, engage with death rather than colluding with a culture of denial or ‘taboo’ that leaves people ill prepared to deal with the reality of death and of our mortality.
For Christians, our understanding of, and responses to, death will always be ‘future facing’ (eschatological) since we believe that our life, both now and in the future, is inextricably bound up with God’s purposes, made visible in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, for Christians, whilst death is unavoidably ‘an’ end it is not, and can no longer be, ‘the’ end; for the Christian story points us beyond this life to participation in a new, but not discontinuous, life in Christ. How this is to be experienced, however, lies beyond our articulation and must remain, at best, speculative. What is important is how we live now in the anticipation not only of our future life but the knowledge that we, and those around us, will one day die.
Our theology of death, therefore, cannot be de-coupled from our understanding of what it means to be human, of personhood and ‘identity’. In an age when received paradigms of these are shifting with scientific advances and health expectations, not least in the fields of genetics, human enhancement and ageing, the challenge to both Christian theology and Christian ethics remains unabated.
The poem, 'Hold out your arms', published in The Guardian on 6 June 2017, is included in the second edition of Helen Dunmore’s last volume of poetry, Inside the Wave (Bloodaxe Books, 2017).