I am leading a class on the Christian attitude to dying using material from
SPEAKING OF DYING: RECOVERING THE CHURCH’S VOICE IN THE FACE OF DEATH, Fred Craddock, Dale Goldsmith, and Joy V. Goldsmith
I expected a half dozen or so participants and forty three turned up. The material we covered introduces the problems we face from our American cultural context of success, individualism and scientific reductionism. Since it was received so well I thought I would share my summary of Chapter Two. My hope is that it will prove helpful in describing the situation we face in the church. The solutions lie in our understanding of our Christian faith which I will be presenting from the following chapters in the next few weeks.
CHAPTER TWO: VICTIMS OF THE WRONG STORY
- The problem of outsourcing the process of dying. Instead of seeking the understanding, support, resources, guidance, and strength of the faith of the participant, the public face is denial of death, and trust in science is the private commitment. Just what story is at work here?
- Dying is a story. Each story is unique. Telling the story is trying to make sense of things. The Christian story is different from the secular story. What is the Christian story?
- Speaking of dying is something we seem unable to do. Why? The narrative of modern peoples is about success in this life. All reality is physical reality: what you see is what you get. The existence of another, heavenly world is improbable. The story offered in American culture is one that has little room for dying. Dying is failure; death is the final enemy. Therefore we don’t talk about it. We outsource it.
- Our identity is framed by the secular narrative. We think we are owners rather than stewards of our lives. We think we are our own, when in fact life is a gift. We don’t think we will die, so we make no plans for it. We focus on the now. We are self-sufficient individuals, independent rather than dependent. The cult of youth dominates. We think we can beat terminal illness. We deny our dependency on others. We feel entitled to an eternal life promised by science and health care. We are self-obsessed. We do not like to be told what to do. Our religion is there to meet our needs. We make life up as we go along. We invent ourselves. This is not the Christian understanding of who we are.
- Self-help religion or spirituality is anything that gives meaning to an individual’s life. It seems based on the assumption that we have within ourselves reservoirs of strength, wisdom, insight, and hope. This is embraced by the hospice movement which, though originally a Christian movement has now broadened to allow the patient to develop spiritual resources from any source found useful. For the Christian spirituality is more defined and more open-ended than secular spirituality. In the Gospel story the Holy Spirit has a clear identity. So the Holy Spirit is not my spirit, it is God’s Spirit, not what we might want or feel. We are God’s creatures not self-made. We are not our own. We are responsible to God who made us and redeemed us (Romans 14:7,8).
- The individualism that has the arrogance to believe it controls its own destiny and that it can change the facts of nature in perpetuating its own life entertains a story that is ultimately false and must disappoint. And yet it is a story that is told with the energy and conviction to hide the shame we feel when confronted with the ultimate failure: dying. Many Christians accept and believe that such a story can be integrated into their Christian narrative. It cannot.
- The first question asked when confronted with a terminal diagnosis is, what shall we do? Science offers us a vast array of options. We are encouraged to try all kinds of treatments. The good news is that there are cures and relief not earlier available. The bad news is that while it takes longer to die, the dying is done painfully because of the rigor of the treatment. We trust ourselves to a doctor, clinic or medical procedure. We religiously attend scheduled appointments. We hope that God will enable the medical establishment to fix our problem. We trust the clinician, the data, and anecdotal information from the media or internet. Faith in the biomedical gospel ultimately and absolutely results in death. However we seek survival as our highest good. But there are matters that fall outside of the competence of science. Putting all the eggs of faith into the medical basket radically narrows the vision and scope of the life to which God calls us. This is not a condemnation of medical science, but of our total reliance on it to save us from dying. Glorious medicine assumes that it will be possible to cure all diseases and eliminate all suffering. The story line is: “Yesterday I was healthy, today I’m sick, but tomorrow I’ll be healthy again.” We assume the norm to be health. The secular faith is that we can overcome any threat. Therefore when you are given a terminal diagnosis, refuse to accept it as final; do not give in or give up. This persistence sounds commendable. “I’m going to fight this.” But the reality is that all creatures must die. To hope for something different is the temptation to imply that God has made a mistake and will make an exception for you. Life is not a gift that lasts forever. A terminal diagnosis may call for thanksgiving for what has been given rather than complaint about what cannot be. The hope here is that one’s suffering is redemptive, the suffering of Christ being the main example.
- Stages of Dying: Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. 1. Denial, 2. Anger, 3. Bargaining, 4. Depression, 5. Acceptance.
- The clear, cultural model for the terminally ill is: be strong, don’t mention it, don’t give in, fight it. This the default position to which the church has outsourced the facing of impending death.
- Think of a member of your church who is seriously ill and whose chances for recovery do not seem to you to be good. How is that person thought of and treated by others in the congregation?
- How often do you hear a sermon that helps you think about dying and what dying might mean?
- Why is it difficult to know that is the right thing to say to someone who has just suffered the loss of a loved one?
- What would your response be to a person in your church who said, “My doctor says I have inoperable cancer and don’t have long to live?
- Tell your personal story. How does dying fit into that narrative? What changes, if any, are you being challenged to make as you share this story?