Sunday, 7 September 2014

Death: The Illusion of Immortality

It's hardly surprising that the Bible introduces death right at the beginning of the story.  I think you'll be familiar with it.  Adam and Eve are placed in the garden, and told they can eat the fruit of any tree except for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the eating of which will bring about their death.  However, the serpent convinces Eve to doubt the truth of this prohibition.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”’ But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

The serpent's claim is obviously absurd.  We are specks of dust, crawling around on the surface of the third planet in a solar system located in one of the spirals of the Milky Way, a galaxy consisting of somewhere between 200 and 400 billion stars.  Most astronomers estimate that there are over 100 billion such galaxies in the universe.  Yet the serpent convinces Eve, and via her Adam, that she can be like the God who created all this!  The serpent says Adam and Eve can be "like God, knowing good and evil".  The word translated "knowing" here is the Hebrew yada and it means a lot more than simply intellectual knowledge.  It implies an intimate acquaintance - "Adam knew is wife Eve, and she conceived...."  It also implies the ability to judge and decide - Adam and Eve will be able to decide for themselves what is good and evil.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The truth is that Adam and Eve are so far from having the capacity to judge and decide right from wrong that they can let a talking snake convince them that they are gods.  Their attempts, and those of their descendants including us, to act like gods has been a long saga of misrule.  Human history is a story of war, oppression, violence and environmental destruction.  Even when we try to do good - when we dream that the industrial revolution will lift us out of poverty, that the green revolution will end hunger, that the technological revolution will deliver us a life of ease, the results turn out the opposite to our intentions.

Death is God's way of limiting the damage.

Then the Lord God said, ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

Imagine how much damage we could do if we were immortal?  What would there ever be to remind us of our own limitations?  Yet our illusion that we are immortal, that we are gods, persists.  Henri Nouwen puts it this way in his book Reaching Out:

The greatest obstacle to our entering into that profound dimension where our prayer takes place is our all-pervasive illusion of immortality.  At first it seems unlikely or even untrue that we would have such an illusion.... Who thinks that he is immortal?.... Although we keep telling each other and ourselves that we are going to die soon, our daily actions, thoughts and concerns keep revealing to us how hard it is to fully accept the reality of our own statements.

Although we have learned from parents, teachers, friends and many books, sacred and profane, that we are worth more than what the world makes us, we keep giving an eternal value to the things we own, the people we know, the plans we have, and the successes we "collect".  Indeed, it takes only a small disruption to lay our illusion of immortality bare and to reveal how much we have become victimised by our surrounding world suggesting to us that we are "in control".

In other words, we continue to act as if we were gods, as if we could live forever and have absolute control over our environment.  At a personal level this leads us to value the wrong things - to put our income above our relationships, to value things before people, to live for tomorrow not today.  At a social level we treat our planet as if it was inexhaustible, our nation and culture as if it is immutable, other people as if they were instruments to do our will and provide us with comfort.  Our belief in our own divinity is disastrous.

Whenever we think like this, the bible reminds us to think again.  James says:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ 

Or Jesus himself says:

And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

We are often told that living like this is irresponsible, but the truth is that it is the first step on the journey to understanding that we are mortals and to humbling ourselves in the face of the true God.  We cannot worship God unless we accept, not just with our heads but in our hearts, that we are mortal.

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