Death stories: four stories the world tells about death, and one hellishly simple rationalization
I recently watched this 15 minute TED talk by Stephen Cave, and was at turns fascinated, intrigued, depressed and appalled. I share it with you now (along with my thoughts) because I think it’s important: it helps us to engage with different thoughts people have about death, which in turn drive the way they live their lives.
Cave starts with a story about how he first became aware that he would die. He reflects on the fear he felt. When he asked adults about this fear, I was immediately saddened by his comment (2:24): “the grown-ups around me at the time answered with a typical English mix of awkwardness and half-hearted Christianity.” What has been the impact of half-heartedness?
At 1:27 he notes “at some point in the evolution of our species [science speak, not endorsed, mind you –J.] some early human’s sense of self and time became sophisticated enough for them to become the first human to realize, ‘I’m going to die.’” Compare this with Genesis and realize this event did in fact happen: mankind’s eyes opened to death.
Cave’s discussion of our “bias” (beginning at 3:40) is put in deeply scientific terms from an evolutionary perspective but is fascinating nonetheless. He’s suggesting a fear of death is built into our brains. He talks about studies which prove humanity it is much more open to religious thoughts when it is reminded of its mortality. We tell ourselves stories about death as “terror management theory.”
He focuses most of his talk on four categories for the “stories we tell” : the “elixir of life” story, the “resurrection” story, the “live on as a soul” story, and the “immortality through legacy” story. These stories are diversely told and found throughout the cultures of earth, as if they are genetic as well, embedded in the spirit. That means you can see them in the approaches to life of everyone around us.
There are people doing everything they can and spending everything they’ve got to cheat death. No advanced medical technique or quack theory is beyond them. This happens in Western and Eastern cultures (and, I imagine, in African cultures as well). The best way to avoid the ‘hereafter’ is not to go to the ‘hereafter.’
He gives two stories common to most religious thinking—resurrection (which he notes is orthodox dogma for Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and the ‘soul.’ Notable is how he separated ‘resurrection’ and ‘soul’ approaches. The resurrection means the body is restored; the ‘soul’ is more of an ‘upload to Heaven’ idea. A lot of Christians believe the ‘upload’ but miss out on how this is fundamentally different from resurrection. It is very Greek. The difference is discussed in detail by N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.
Resurrection is less common outside of monotheistic religious circles. The idea of a ‘soul upload’ in some variation is at work in pantheism and polytheistic religions. It’s also at work in some of the current scientific thinking: the idea we can ‘upload’ ourselves into a computer and live on after our body dies.
Finally, Cave discusses how some find immortality through the memory they leave on the planet, and through the children they leave behind. This is immortality-as-legacy, and for those most satisfied with theirs this is palatable, but for many it does not ameliorate the fear.
Depressingly for me, Cave spends the last 4 minutes discussing his response to the fear of death and these four stories: in essence, instead of trying to resolve death, we should simply ignore it. He quotes Epicurus: ‘the fear of death is natural, but not rational.’ Then he goes on to argue since we won’t “be here” for death (e.g. death is essentially the cessation of life), we shouldn’t “worry about it.” The most “rational thing” is to ignore the beginning and the end and live fully in the middle, “in all the moments that take our breath away” (to use sugary pop proverbs).
He argues against any need for legacy, against any need for thinking about or planning for what comes ‘after we are gone,’ and simply live for the full sensuality of the now.
The reasoning is simple and profound. These ‘last four minutes’ are a concise image of a life lived when we hold the view that when you’re gone, nothing matters. “Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, and your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
Christianity says this view is efficient in its rationality and hellish in its results.
It is an ultimate version of Screwtape’s “Materialist Magician”, and demons should be jumping up and down in glee at the thought: “If once we can produce our perfect work–the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls ‘Forces’ while denying the existence of ‘spirits’–then the end of the war will be in sight.” How more if we could create a thoughtful, rational creature who mindfully, intentionally, willfully denies the existence of life-after-death, and so justifies quite rationally living any way it wishes ‘so long as it makes for a good story’—something Tweetable or Made Into A Lifetime Movie (it matters not which, so long as it’s good entertainment)? And if nothing matters, is any story worth dying for?
Fortunately, it appears to me the fear of death is a little too dark, monstrous, and a little too strongly embedded in our souls for this to really work for most. Let’s not dismiss Cave’s talk outright, however. Here is what it tells us:
First, we must not be half-hearted in our answers. We must have a full “answer for the hope that is in us” (1 Peter 3:15).
Second, we need to understand the ‘story’ about death the person in front of us is buying into and living out; responding to the wrong story could lead to being dismissed. For people for whom ‘hell’ is an important component of their evangelistic offer, this is even more critical. (Differing death stories can also be a point of cross-cultural differences: consider the difference between Buddhist, Muslim, Christian and agnostic death stories, for example. If you’re appealing to a Buddhist as you would an agnostic, you might be confronting the wrong death story.)
Third, we must be careful ourselves of living as though nothing happens after death. We can theorize about eternity while functionally living as those death is the end. One day, death will die—but we will live on. We must make choices today with an eye toward their eternal ramifications.