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We needn’t be worried to death


This is the first of a series of sermons by the Rev Peter Mullen, requested by the editor of The Conservative Woman, which we will be publishing through the Advent and Christmas-Epiphany season.

YOU must have noticed that these days we live our lives in advance. So Christmas began back in September. The trouble with this impatience is that we miss something important on the way. And that is the season of Advent – the four weeks’ preparation for the coming of the Christ Child which begins today. For hundreds of years on these Sundays it was usual to hear sermons on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. So to begin, we warm up with a bit of death. Don’t be squeamish and switch off: you’ll find that what I have to say is rather cheerful, especially given the hysteria over Covid.

Death has a curious history in Western civilisation. The Jews and the early Christians feared death only because they believed it to be the prelude to God’s judgement and possible damnation. Modernity does not believe in either judgement or punishment on the other side of the grave – or even on this side. Generations of educationists have told us to use only the concept of reward but not punishment, so revealing a fatal illogicality: where there is no blame for wrongdoing, the concept of praise for doing well is worthless. And nowadays the intelligent art of making judgements is outlawed as ‘judgemental’.

Something odd happened to death in the 16th century. It happened as a direct consequence of the modern view of reality. Jews and Christians had always believed that reality is to be found in God, and that human beings partake of reality only insofar as they belong to God. In the 16th century, this changed profoundly. The greatest play of our age, the play which set the intellectual and spiritual tone of modernity, is Hamlet. Particularly the soliloquy To be or not to be, that is the question. When Hamlet is agonising about being, it is not the being of God he is thinking about, but his own being: Hamlet’s being. And, exactly contemporary with Shakespeare, we have the Frenchman Rene Descartes who is very like Hamlet. Descartes makes human consciousness the centre of reality: Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.

No wonder that both Hamlet and Descartes feel queasy, indecisive and worried to death. For the centrality of human consciousness – which they invented – includes consciousness of death. And we have gone on feeling queasy ever since. Kierkegaard even defined the essence of human consciousness as anxiety. Angst is a word so familiar that it’s all over the colour supplements and the health and self-esteem pages. Freud declared that we are in thrall to thanatos – the death instinct. Samuel Beckett couldn’t shave without seeing the grinning skull in his mirror. We can joke about it with Tom Stoppard who wrote in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead that you wouldn’t like to wake up and find yourself alive in a box – then added, Mind you, it’s better than being dead in a box. But this is black humour, as when Woody Allen says twitchily, I don’t mind dying: I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

All this modern neurosis is entirely understandable. Because, if you make human consciousness the centre of everything, then what is left when this consciousness is extinguished? The humanistic philosophy of the Enlightenment puts too much of a psychological burden on us, and so we become scared. But the Christian faith says something more revealing. Death, says St Paul, is the wages of sin. Now don’t start thinking that sin is just particular acts of naughtiness. Sin is the primary – let us say original – form of false orientation. It is rebellion against God. And the modern form of this ancient rebellion is precisely that intellectual act by which we centre reality in ourselves rather than in where it truly is – in God. This is our original false consciousness.

In Choruses from the Rock T S Eliot describes some of the ways in which our false consciousness tries to avoid anxiety and he ends with a fearful warning. We are:

Engaged in working out a rational morality

Engaged in printing as many books as possible.

Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles

Turning away from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm

For nation or race or what you call humanity.

Though you forget the way to the Temple

There is one who remembers the way to your door;

Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.

You shall not deny the Stranger.

Sin is seeking your reality in anything except God. Sin is me making myself the centre of meaning and significance. But this is poor, mortal me. No wonder I feel anxious. Hamlet knew it. Boy, did Hamlet know it: the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to . . . What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! . . . In action how like an angel! . . . The paragon of animals . . . But the anxiety of Hamlet’s self-consciousness makes him see the whole world as A foul and pestilential congregation of vapours . . . the quintessence of dust. Just like us. We had been warned already by the Bible: Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Hamlet not only fears death, but he is suffering already a death-in-life. The anxious, queasy, indecisive life which comes through centring reality in his own being instead of in God. The Christian faith teaches us the opposite. Through our sin – through this intellectual, spiritual and moral misperception of reality – we are in death already. Jesus Christ is our exemplar. Christianity actually begins with Christ’s body in the tomb.

We must become aware that there is something worse than natural death. We can even perhaps stoically contemplate our natural death with equanimity, as did David Hume who said: I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could wish, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.

But the living death which is sinful is the attempt to be independent of God and to root reality in myself. This is the queasiness and emptiness which is the source of all our unease and dread. It is simply living on false pretences.

St Paul first diagnoses our sickness and then produces the cure. And the cure is faith. And faith is reorientation, to turn to Christ and have your being rooted in him. Then you will have eternal life with him. It is a life which death cannot touch. And it is not pie in the sky. It starts now – as soon as you decide to find your reality in Christ. Then the first thing that you are freed from is that self-centred, neurotic fear of death.

Can you bring yourself to give up false consciousness and have faith? Listen and be reassured by Christ’s words from – of all places – The Burial of the Dead:

‘Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the Kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world: grant this we beseech thee O Merciful Father through Jesus Christ our Mediator and Redeemer. Amen.’

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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