Monday, May 08, 2017

Should we say good-bye?

Some things count for more because they endure, just as some things count for less because they don't endure. Paper plates destined for the trash have little value…As often as not, we pay less heed to things that quickly come and go and more heed to things that last.

Isn't it the same people people?…Time has always augmented the value and significance of friendship…Given this, isn't it altogether natural for me to want that relationship to extend into the indefinite future? And wouldn't it be truly peculiar if instead, in deference to the supposed principle that we prize things more when they're impermanent, I didn't lament the eventual termination of my lifelong friendship?

It's worth candidly asking what happens to us when our loved ones leave. We mourn them for a while, and then we get on with our business. Memories fade and emotions recover. The ripples of their influence dissipate. As our companions are buried, they sink not just below the sod but also below our daily awareness. We visit their grave less often. When the phone rings, our minds cease to hope, as they once did, if only for an instant, that Mom or Dad is calling. Year after year, thoughts turn to our departed loved ones with reduced frequency. Absence makes the heart grow harder.

I've wondered about another possible factor. It has to do with modern mobility. There was a time when most people died and were buried near their place of birth, so they lived out their lives not far from the graves of their beloved. In such a setting, attachment to physical remains was possible. One could, and people often did, reminisce and weep above the bones. What's happened, however, as more and more of us have failed to stay put for long? Today we often bury our dead, move away, then mourn and remember them from afar. In such a context, continuing ties must be unrelated to burial plots and tombstones. If we recall the dead, it's because we carry them around in our hearts and minds, not because we visit their remains. Graves and bones are irrelevant. Might this not be another circumstance that has nudged us away from finding religious meaning in corpses?

This much unsettles me. I'm distress that I now go days without thinking of my late parents or weeks without thinking of my departed friends. They're receding into the past and disappearing from the present. The common wisdom may be that we need to let go; yet it seems wrong that these people are becoming less real, less distinct, and that they matter less and less to all of us who once knew them. Soon they will be altogether forgotten. 

In the face of such deterioration, I'm not comforted by the proposition that finitude begets value. My only solace is that things aren't as they seem to be, that our loved ones aren't machines with built-in obsolescence. 

If death is the end, then we're all snow: we arrive, we melt, we are no more. Eschatology is a way of saying that we're more. It's a way of resisting the diminishing value of the dead. D. Allision, Night Comes (Eerdmans, 2016), 32,86-88. 


  1. A lot of atheists argue that things are more meaningful when life and things are finite. For example, I've heard Dan Barker say that plenty of times in debates.

    I'm reminded of (atheist) Kile Jones' version of that claim here:

    Also of Kile Jones' claim that contrary to David Wood's statement, he would not want to spend an eternity with the person who is his wife, here:

    But what Kile Jones doesn't factor into the equation is that in heaven people will be morally purified. So the offensiveness of other people will be removed. Also, our own sinfulness, selfishness and lack of sufficient love, will be removed as well. Often it's our own sinfulness that makes us easily wearied or offended by other people.

    1. Kile said we'd be weary of reading an unending book. But that's because in this world we've got a limited amount of time to read books. We also need time to actually live life. During the Eternal State there will be "Time Enough for Love" (to use the title of a Robert Heinlein book). Also, in this world we often read fiction in order to simulate extraordinary experiences (say of adventure etc.). But in kingdom of God, there will be plenty of extraordinary experiences. I suspect we'll enjoy fiction in the eternal state as well, but not in order to fulfill unmet longings and desires we had here on earth (in this Age) which themselves pointed to the future Kingdom of God (see C.S. Lewis' sermon The Weight of Glory on that).

      The God of providence is Himself the Great Storyteller. History is literally HIS-story. If finite human beings can create interesting fictional stories, how much more can the infinite and omnipotent God make life meaningful and exciting in the Kingdom of God.