Faith Matters

Easter a time to reflect on life and `life hereafter'

Easter is the season particularly connected with the resurrection of Jesus, writes Martin Henry

Fr Martin Henry

Resurrection has, in turn, been used in Christian thought as a kind of shorthand for the hope of immortality in the `next world'.

This almost inevitably future-directed thrust of Christian belief has sometimes been stressed at the expense of the significance of past and present.

And it's also true to say that especially in recent centuries, particularly under the influence of the writings of Karl Marx, this side of the Christian faith has aroused suspicion.

Christianity has often been charged with putting excessive emphasis on the future, especially on death and the afterlife, to the neglect of its own frequently embarrassing past and present.

And compounding the accusation, usually coming from radical critics of the status quo, is the insinuation that this ruse has been deliberately employed to distract people from the injustices of this life, and delude them with the promise of a reward in another world. This, it has further been argued, has helped those whose lives are quite comfortable in the here and now, to continue enjoying life at others' expense.

Now, it may indeed be true that faith in eternal life was sometimes exploited in an unworthy fashion in order to enable or even encourage people to turn a blind eye to their neighbours' distress. Yet it's important to distinguish here between a belief and the misuse or even the misunderstanding of that same belief.

Christianity does certainly stress the meaning and significance of life after death. But genuine Christian faith has only ever emphasised the importance of life after death or of eternal life because it believes that eternal life brings to fruition whatever it is that we find good and valuable in this life. And that would most definitely include human solidarity. Eternal life - or resurrection - in itself would scarcely be of much interest if it had nothing to do with this life.

But a possibly more interesting objection to traditional Christian belief in an eternal afterlife could well be that raised by those who find the very notion of living eternally an intolerable prospect. This appears to have been the attitude to the possibility of eternal life found in the American-Spanish thinker, George Santayana. In a letter written in 1950 to Corliss Lamont, the author of The Illusion of Immortality (first published in 1935), he raised the question: "Has the belief in heaven been more often a longing not to live, than to live forever? I almost think so."

In support of his contention, Santayana somewhat wistfully quotes a famous line that occurs in the poetry of both of the best-known Spanish mystics, St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila: "Muero porque no muero", (which could be roughly translated: "I die because I cannot die").

His suggested interpretation of this verse no doubt runs contrary to the conscious intention of the two poets, for whom `real life' climaxes beyond death, but can be longed for in the `here and now'.

Those, on the contrary, for whom life on earth is finally experienced as not worth living, will instinctively desire to get off the wheel of existence, rather than stay on it eternally. What, however, if there is no way out, even in death? Then you can invert the Spanish mystics' cry of distress at not yet being united with God beyond death, and see in it, not a longing for unity with God in death, but an anguished realisation of the eternal futility of existence, from which not even death can bring release.

Easter provides an opportunity to reflect on `this life' and `the life hereafter', and to try to gauge their possible interconnection. Atheism's attraction - greatness, dare I say? - is that it takes seriously, deadly seriously indeed, the reality of this world, because, for atheism, this world is all we have. There is no emergency exit, which, for atheism, is what religious belief often amounts to. And in this perspective, the rejection of immortality can be seen as an invitation to a life of complete honesty in the here and now.

What atheism and theism have in common is their awareness of death. Even more, their acceptance that death means the world of time is not for ever. But, for Christianity, resurrection is not the same as an eternally prolonged earthly life. Resurrection is not resuscitation. Jesus is not Lazarus. It is, admittedly, impossible to say within the world of time what eternity or immortality ultimately could be. It may, however, be reasonably surmised that it is only accessible in and through the experience of death with all its ruthless finality.

In this perspective, death can still retain a special place for Christian faith, and our willingness to face it can still function as the deepest expression of our desire for God. In this sense, traditional belief and popular idiom (`I'm dying to see you') happily coincide.

:: Martin Henry is a former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, and is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.

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Faith Matters