"Is it good to be only human?"

Bill Schweiker asked the question last week in the Advanced Seminar, and I can't help but hear Barth in it.  "Is it good to be only human?"  And it dovetails with questions that have been foremost on my mind several times in the last few weeks -- about death.

We've been talking about death as "senescence," as an evil of the human design that can be fixed.  S. Jay Olshansky showed us very interesting approaches to the problem on the demographic understanding of the mortality curves, and actuarial science.  And as far as it goes we have certainly pushed out death as far as possible, and we look to push it out further still.  But we've reached the end of the low-hanging fruit!  Children in developmentally advantaged areas have profoundly limited mortality, and it drops to the floor as we move through the ages of fertility and reproductive impact, and rises after.  And so we push out the rise in mortality as late as possible, and hit the point where we're in linear rise in mortality over age bins, and we see things like dementias that we'd never see before, because death always came before.  So we're playing with the nature of the ends of our lives all the time, even as part of "civilization".

But we still die.  It is still part of human nature, the essence of our being.  We are born and we die.  And this is where Schweiker hits me: is it good?  Is death a good part of created existence?  Or is this something we ought to write out of the code if possible?

The answer depends greatly on what human nature is.  And Lea finds this to be immensely malleable, that our nature is Protean in many ways [not that we are, though we certainly are, but that our "nature" or "essence" is a malleable concept].  But death is and remains part of what it is to be human.  What it is, in fact, to be a living organism.

Besides the late-breaking killing of bin Laden, the genuine impetus arrived on Good Friday, and again on Holy Saturday, and again on Easter, and again on the Octave.  Because in church I kept hearing the death of Christ -- and therefore our death -- short-circuited by resurrection.  Death made unreal.  As though by faith we realize that nobody actually dies.  As though mourning of death as a reality were unfaith.  To the point of speaking of the seed analogy as the dominant form, that death is only the pause before growth, and we can safely jump to body-as-seed producing a weird sort of temporal new life, a pseudo-reincarnation of life going onward in time.

It is obviously not a good part of what it is to be human, if we cannot countenance it except as utterly defeated and therefore no longer real.  But is this the nature of Christ's triumph over death?  What we mean when we say that "death has lost its sting"?  Paul disagrees!  There can be no juridical application of Christ's death in Romans if he did not die; no theology of our new life if we do not.  No one is raised from death if no one dies.  Death remains real.  Paul does not condemn the Thessalonians for their unglaubliche question about those who had died before the parousia.  They died.  People die.  But in pastoral concern Paul informs their faith concerning the dead.  They shall rise, they shall live again.  And to the Corinthians he speaks to the resurrection of the dead also.  But the questions addressed these ways, are questions asked by faith out of the very honest face of the reality of death.  And we must take these questions seriously!

We must take death seriously.  It remains real, even if the ultimate power of death has been replaced by the power of God in Christ.  And in the absence of the lordship of death, we are freed to see the end of life for what it is!  It is the end of a time bounded on all sides by God, as Barth says in III.4.  The edges of our finitude are touched by God in such a way as we cannot escape, and this is our comfort in both life and death.  We are born and we die, and this locates us in time.  This is a basic good of our existence: its dimensionality, a major component of its shape.  Our place, and for the Lutheran, a key part of our Stand.  Our individual Stände.  If we do not die, if we "fix the problem of human senescence," we will still be born, but we will have lost some of our ethical imperative for action.  Not, perhaps, the key part of it, but for Barth the urgency of human action: the limited amount of time available to us, the chance that not acting in any case may be terminal.

He may or may not be right.  But in any case, until it ceases in fact to be a reality that we die, we have no theological or pastoral business denying that finite dimensionality of our human existence.  Is it good not to die?  It depends -- it may well be good not to die young, not to die of preventable illnesses, not to die from violence.  It is surely good to work so that others who haven't got the developmentally advantaged "civilized" environment we take for granted may not die of that from which they need not die.  But I cannot see that it is actually, actively bad to die.  In the eventual, one-per-customer way in which every creature does.  I cannot see that dying prevents us from being, as Schweiker pushes toward, truly human.  I cannot see that death is inhuman, even if some deaths are inhumane.

Further, I cannot see that in Christ we have any reason to fear death.  And without fear of death, I cannot see that we have any reason to deny its reality.  If we affirm the power of God over all the edges and ends of our being, we affirm the power of God even in that moment when we die.  We have the freedom to speak honestly about death, and this blog entry is an example of it.  Death is not evil, not a privation of life, but the simple arrival of the end of our given place here.  And even when it should be a human privation of life, an artificial imposition of human power upon human life, we must still affirm that we have not reached a place where God is not.  It is bad to kill; even when morally debated and carefully determined, the taking of life is regrettable.  It is bad to lose someone, to lose the relationships and life and love that belonged in that span of time, in that God-given place.  I'll even admit I'm not interested in dying myself!  Not soon, anyhow.  But it is not therefore bad to die.  It is not bad that the organism naturally be limited in its span of life.  Christ doesn't take it away, as though death only came in the fall -- not what Genesis will tell you, but I'm obliged to disagree with that story on other points, too.  Death is assumed, and redeemed, in Christ.  It is a profound sign of faith to face its reality and not blink, not shudder, not paper over it with a big enough Jesus poster, as though there were one.

Death is a good of created life, and valuable -- as long as we live!  I would rather choose enabling life over disabling death, because not living is devoutly to be feared -- not living is a privation of life.


  1. Hi, I am from Australia.

    What is "only human" and therefore by inevitable extension, the meaning & significance of death?

    Please check out:



    Plus The Secrets of the Kingdom of God


  2. As little as I like allowing comments that amount to link lists, and as fun as it might be to take a swipe at Bubba Free John, who grew up Lutheran, before all of that you ask an interesting question.

    And I think I actually answered it, if you'll re-read the post, but here's a piece adapted from Barth for something simpler: human life is a gift from God in its finitude, bounded on all sides by God. We are given finite space, in finite time. At the beginning of that time we come from the creating hand of God, and at the end of that time we return to the waiting arms of the Father. The significance and meaning of death is the limitation of our possibilities, the other half of our birth, which ties us in to a specific scope of action and knowledge where and when we are. It is the urgency of our ethical action -- not for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation around us.

  3. A correction: Genesis does not say that death was introduced at the Fall. It emphatically says that eternal life as an option was taken off the table, but for that we had to already be mortal. Originally mortal, and so mortal as a good of our being.


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