Living Through Dying
By Robert Bishop
The first lie told in the book of Genesis is, “You will not surely die.”
It’s also the lie we tell ourselves most often.
Living is easiest when we can push our mortality aside.
What sets human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our ability to contemplate our own demise. That’s not the only thing that makes us human, of course. Humans have opposable thumbs. We can make and use tools. I can formulate a thought, type it out on a computer made by really smart humans, and send it across the country using communication networks that were also developed by really smart humans, so another really smart human can edit my words. My dog can’t figure out how doors work.
But mostly it’s the death thing, which is remarkable because 98% of consumer culture is built upon either trying to live forever or trying to forget that we can’t.
Of course, we will all die someday, Parousia excepted, and here we’re called to emulate the Christ by dying to self. In certain circles, this is an exhortation to material self-denial. In others, it’s about ascribing to and proclaiming unpopular truths*. Sometimes, the idea of dying to self is used as a weapon, just as the Unity Prayer can be. In all cases, it’s a reminder that faithfulness to the Christ-life ends in death.
To be committed to death is to disregard one’s own safety and security, which is the only way we’ll stand up to injustice when we see it. It is extremely hard to care for others when we’re trying to live forever. One might say that it is as hard as passing through the eye of a needle.
*Definition of truth dependent on beholder, naturally
Our human discomfort with our own mortality finds a home in Christendom as well. Why should we be immune to it? Our impulse is to turn the primary symbol of our faith, a Roman instrument of torture and execution, used against our founder, into a kitschy wall decoration. I’m going to make an assumption here: most people that hang a cross on the wall of their living room don’t do it because they want guests to be reminded that their time on earth is limited.
I think that’s okay, by the way.
I’m not here to tell you not to wear cross earrings or to stop displaying the symbol on your car bumpers, but we should acknowledge that the prevalence of cross iconography has weakened its impact. The cross in Paul’s Christ Hymn is not a shingle to put on your business logo to designate trustworthiness (Do people do that outside of Texas?). It’s a reminder of our willingness to die to self.
It’s a reminder of our commitment to death.