Death has a funny way of relativizing everything. Not long ago I caught a snippet on the Golf Channel of a yearly father/son golf tournament. Someone was interviewing the legendary Jack Nicklaus, and asked how his son was doing. Jack replied that he doesn’t get to play much, then he added something to the effect that, he has all kinds of pains, just like we all do. He and the interviewer chuckled, sort of. It struck me because Jack is now 76, and he looks it. In his prime he was arguably the best golfer of all time, big and strong and seemingly invincible. Time says otherwise. Entropy takes down all champions, and mere mortals alike.
I thought about that interview when I read a heart-breaking New York Times piece by a young woman who has cancer. She is only thirty-five, and married with a child. To this she saw supreme irony:
[O]ne of my first thoughts was also Oh, God, this is ironic. I recently wrote a book called “Blessed.”
Kate Bowler is a history professor at Duke Divinity School who has spent 10 years researching and writing about the so called Prosperity Gospel. This quintessentially American heresy says that if you just have enough faith, do the right things, give enough money to prosperity gospel preachers, you will be healthy, wealthy and wise! The likes of Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and Ophra Winfrey fit the prosperity gospel description, among too many others. Bowler, who grew up a Mennonite, writes that this has also infected that normally plain Christian sect.
The response to her situation from prosperity gospel adherents is predictable, but the non-religious too have the illusion that somehow if we just do the right things we can beat death:
One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?
I can also hear it in all my hippie friends’ attempts to find the most healing kale salad for me. I can eat my way out of cancer. Or, if I were to follow my prosperity gospel friends’ advice, I can positively declare that it has no power over me and set myself free.
This delusion we suffer from is that if we just do or think the right things, be they religious or not, we’ll overcome this horrible blight that afflicts the human race. I often think this as I watch people jogging on the path in back of my house. At some level those people think they might just beat it, that death will pass them by if they just put in another mile, or say no to the Häagen-Dazs or prime rib. Our culture doesn’t help because death for most of us is remote. People die in hospitals, and not many witness the death of their friends or loved ones. Cemeteries look like golf courses, and marketers pitch every kind of cure for the affects of aging. I remember the days and weeks after 9/11, when death became an existential reality for the entire country. People where I live just seemed more nice, and considerate and patient. It was fascinating. Unfortunately, the illusion of immortality took over again, and we all got back to being our normal selfish selves.
I think death, in addition to being the great equalizer, is also the great question mark. You would think that given the reality of death, that all of the human race, except the psychologically and emotionally unstable, are petrified of it, would elicit some kind of curiosity. It seems so wrong. We may not feel that at the funeral of a great grandmother, but go to the funeral of a five year old and you will feel wrong, viscerally, deeply, painfully. It seems so much more than the “circle of life,” just the natural scheme of things. Some insist death requires no explanation; it just is. For the vast majority of the world’s population, that is simply not enough. I suspect that there is a reason something that seems so wrong is part of a life that can seem so right. I have my suspicions, indeed deeply held convictions, but the least we can do is ask why, and see how the great religions and philosophys of the world have attempted to answer it.
Update: Here is an in an interview with Kate by Christianity Today.