Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity: Masterfully Flawed Apologetics

CS Lewis‘ Mere Christianity is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece of Christian apologetics; it is entertaining, witty, well-written, clearly composed by a man of immense learning and erudition (who, as befitting the author of the masterful Studies in Words, cannot restrain his delightful habit of providing impromptu lessons in etymology.) Lewis is said to have induced conversions in “Francis Collins, Jonathan Aitken, Josh Caterer and the philosopher C. E. M. Joad” as a result of their reading Mere Christianity, and it is not hard to see why. The encounter of a certain kind of of receptive mind with the explication of Christian doctrine that Lewis provides–laden with provocative analogies and metaphors–is quite likely to lead to the kind of experience conversion provides: an appeal to an emotional core harboring deeply experienced and felt needs and desires, which engenders a radical shift in perspective and self-conception. Christianity offers a means for conceptualizing one’s existential and pyschological crises–seeing them as manifestation of a kind of possession, by sin, by the Devil–and holds out the promise of radical self-improvement: the movement toward man–all men–becoming Christ, assuming a moral and spiritual perfection as they do so.  All the sludge will fall away; man will rise and be welcomed into the bosom of God; if only he takes on faith in Christ and his teachings. This is powerful, heady stuff and its intoxicating powers are underestimated only by those overly arrogant about the power and capacities of reason and ratiocination to address emotional longings and wants.

It is clear too, from reading Lewis, why Christianity provoked the ire of a philosopher like Nietzsche. For they are all here: the infantilization of man in the face of an all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, all-good God; the terrible Godly wrath visible in notions such as damnation; the disdain for this life, this earth, this abode, its affairs and matters, in favor of another one; the notion of a ‘fallen man’ and a ‘fall from grace’ implying this world is corrupt, indeed, under ‘occupation’ by an ‘enemy force.’ There is considerable self-abnegation here; considerable opportunity for self-flagellation and diminishment. No wonder the Existential Stylist was driven to apoplectic fury.

Lewis takes Biblical doctrine seriously and literally; but like any good evangelical he is not above relying on metaphorical interpretation when it suits him. (This is evident throughout Mere Christianity but becomes especially prominent in the closing, more avowedly theological chapters.) Unsurprisingly for a man of his times (who supports the death penalty and thinks homosexuals are perverts), the seemingly retrograde demand that wives unquestioningly obey their husbands, which might have sparked alarms in a more suspicious mind about the sociological origins of such a hierarchy-preserving notion, is stubbornly, if ever so slightly apologetically, defended.

Lewis’ arguments are, despite the apparent effort he takes to refute views contrary to Christian doctrine, just a little too quick. His infamous trilemma arguing for the Divinity of Jesus and his dismissal of the notion that his supposed Natural or Universal Law of Morality cannot be traced to a social instinct are notoriously weak (the former’s weaknesses are amply referenced in the link above while the latter simply pays no attention to history, class, and culture.)

But Mere Christianity, even if deeply flawed, is still worth a read: you witness an agile mind at work; you encounter a masterful writer; you find yourself challenged to provide refutations and counter-arguments; you even feel an emotional tug or two, letting you empathize with those who do not think like you do. That’s a pretty good catch for one book.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.