Value of Life and the Value of Death
a Christian / Buddhist / Rationalist Dialogue
The Christian Perspective,
Rev. Dr. John Dupuche
for Buddhist perspective: Dr. Di Cousens
for the atheist position: Lyn Allison
Death and Dying: An Interfaith Symposium
7-9 April 2010
Hosted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission
Sponsored by the Victorian Multicultural Commission and Australian Catholic University
In the past the question facing humanity was ‘how to survive?’ The issue facing us here is ‘how best to die?’ Our answer to these questions will determine the character of our laws and their application. What sort of world do we want? The great religions of the world have thought long and hard about these matters.
The word ‘life’ encompasses a wide range of meanings. Indeed, it exceeds definition. A person can be alive physically, but emotionally moribund, and socially dead, a member of the walking wounded. A person can be intellectually brilliant but with an uninformed conscience, a moral zombie. All dimensions, physical, emotional, intellectual and moral, are necessary in a well balanced life. But another dimension is foundational to our discussion here. It is the domain of the spirit, which is not reduced to the other faculties. The vitality of the spirit is expressed in the love of friend and foe alike, in returning good for evil, a blessing for a curse. This love is not unreasonable; it is more than just reasonable; it is splendidly ‘foolish’. This spiritual vitality is expressed in universal forgiveness also, a pity which may seem mere folly but is the highest wisdom.
In this love and forgiveness there is an experience of Divine Presence which is axiomatic; it is a grace. That experience, like any other experience, can only be witnessed to; it cannot be proven; it can hardly even be described. Words fail.
The more we enter into earthly joy, the more we perceive the promise of endless joy. The more we live in the present the more we perceive we live in an eternal now. Emmanuel Lévinas, the 20th century Lithuanian philosopher, the student of Husserl and Heidegger, asks the question: is the human being oriented towards “infinity” – endless openness – or towards totality – “metaphysical closure”? Religions reject every form of totalitarianism and propose that endless openness.
In the religious traditions, there is a perception that the very foundation and substance of the universe is love and mercy. The question therefore arises, with what eye we see? Do we have the ears to hear?
These considerations have immense implications for the value of our human acts. Some may win fame and fortune but for most of us, our acts are pretty insignificant. Their value comes from the spiritual dimension which places them on a transcendent and eternal plane, in the context of an ‘endless openness’. They thus acquire infinite value and become the seedbed of eternity.
Is death an end or a transition, a disaster or an opportunity? Is death an unmitigated evil or does it have its place in the conduct of life? I would suggest that death is of immense value. We need to cherish our dying as we cherish our living, for the knowledge of our mortality makes leads us to question the conduct of our life. What is really important? We are lead closer to wisdom by the question.
Furthermore, our mortality leads to our reviewing the tenour of our life, reaffirming what is good in it and turning away from the wasted opportunities. This is the great value of the aging process. Our life is transformed into a gift to others. Each person can then say: Such is my life. It is my gift to you, just as the life you have reaffirmed is a gift to me. Even the manner of our dying is our gift to each other. These are not passing gifts, for I am of eternal value to you, as you are to me. Let us live in communion.
This process of attaining wisdom and transforming our life into a gift is of such significance that we could wish that the young, who think they are immortal, should reflect on their mortality. Governments should assist in this process of aging and acquiring wisdom.
The question arises about the value of suffering. Our fear of suffering is right and necessary. Yet our world essentially involves the paradox of pleasure and pain. It seems to form the very fabric our universe. After all, the whole process of evolution, in which I firmly believe, involves the process of natural selection which in turn is based on the survival of the fittest and therefore on struggle and competition, the interplay of pleasure and pain, life and death. What is true for the evolution of the species is also true for human invention. As they say ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. When faced with the issues of life and death, we find new solutions which we would most probably not have sought till we ‘had our back to the wall’. Even in sport, they say ‘no pain no gain’. This general principle is found also in the religious domain as when, in Christianity for example, we speak of redemptive sacrifice. I shall return to this. Indeed, love is shown in sacrifice. Thus pain has a surprisingly paradoxical purpose, a lesson we naturally shy away from.
Is it possible to die with dignity? Dignity means more than ‘looking good’ or not being a burden or dying without pain, important though these are. It also means knowing the significance of our living and dying. It means being surrounded by those who recognise the value of our dying, who love us in our weakness and who have a sense of our eternal future, recognising that our passing is a momentous occasion, not just the end of things, like the end of a summer’s day. Henri Stendhal the 19th century French novelist said famously that “Beauty is the promise of happiness.” Despite the disfigurement that may accompany the dying process, the person who dies in the promise of happiness has a remarkable beauty about them. It is indeed a strange beauty.
We can see the fading of our faculties as simply a disaster or rather as a stripping down to our essential being. Saint John of the Cross, the great mystic of 16th century Spain, describes ‘the dark night of the senses’ and ‘the dark night of the soul’ as the moment when understanding ceases and only faith remains; when memory is irrelevant and only hope prevails, when the person says simply: “Your will be done”. It is the moment of truth. It is the ‘happy death’.
Palliative care, seen in this light, takes on immense significance and will be an outstanding aspect of modern life and play an increasingly important part in our human future.
If despair predominates every joy has a ‘worm in the apple’. This in turn leads to a stoical ‘grin and bear it’ or to the frantic reaction: ‘Let’s eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ By contrast, the attitude of hope means that every joy is a foretaste, an anticipation of joy upon joy.
This interplay of life and death is found in a remarkable degree, may I suggest, in the Christian tradition. According to that tradition Jesus experiences life and death, good and evil, the highest heaven and the depths of desolation. He experiences every paradox. Therefore he has the fullness of knowledge and can draw close to everyone, whether alive or dead, and teach them hope. He is the ultimate sacrifice which brings the highest blessing.
I would like finish with a brief quote from the diary of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died at Auschwitz. Her statement sums up much of what I have been saying. She writes:
“Since I no longer wish to possess anything and have become free,
everything belongs to me, and my interior wealth is now immense …”
Question to Lyn:
The life of a day-labourer in India can be short and brutish. What would you say that could give fundamental value to his life?
Question to Di
It is a Buddhist custom to dedicate the merit of one’s practice to the benefit of all sentient beings. In what way can one person’s dying become a value to another person’s living?