Learning to Live With One Foot in the Grave


by Don Cupitt, Face to Faith December 1993

Forsaking our British secretiveness, many well-loved figures nowadays choose to let the world know when they are terminally ill. A journalist calls to write a story. What's it like to be facing early and certain death? Is there any consolation? What about religious belief - God, life after death? In almost every case the sufferer answers, No. End of subject.

This exchange - repeated many times lately - shows how ineffectual Western religion has now become. All that seems to be left of it is the notion that religion consists in crediting great big Religious Facts out there. But of course, there are no such Facts, as thinking people are aware. So they take it that religion can be of no help to them, forgetting that when death comes near Religious Facts never were any help. We shouldn't rely on them.

The medieval English play Everyman teaches that clearly enough, for as Everyman descends into the grave he has to leave Knowledge behind. When death arrives, "beliefs" are no use. What matters is not whether we believe Religious Facts but whether we actually are religious. Have we learnt the relevant skill? Do we know how to die?

Sadly, it seems that a false understanding of the nature of religious faith is destroying religion. People take it that faith is a kind of epistemological miracle that enables one to credit the incredible, becoming convinced of the existence of great reassuring Facts-out-there.

This habit of mind I call "realism", a technical term in philosophy. Religion once called it idolatry. Marxists call it fetishism, the Buddhists talk about "craving". Realism is the habit of mind that has us surrounding ourselves with, and coming to rely upon, fictioned absolutes and illusory certainties. Structures of spiritual power and mechanisms of psychological repression are then used to keep the system in place, but in the process religion is lost.

It is strange that this should have happened, because the religion of Jews, Christians and Muslims began with a polemic against idolatry, and Buddhism in particular has a subtle critique of objectifying thinking. Early Christian converts were very conscious that in baptism a whole lot of illusions were being washed out of their heads. They felt emptied out, liberated, cleansed. We've lost that. For us, religion has come to mean having your head stuffed with fixed ideas.

That is why we seem to have forgotten how to die. We have come to equate religion with holding on, when we ought to have been learning to see religion as teaching us how to let go. Religious belief should be producing a self-emptying way of life: we live by dying, unattached, pouring ourselves out into the flux of life in such a way that death when it comes is not a threat but a consummation.

We should live as the sun does. Its existence, the process by which it lives, and the process by which it dies, all exactly coincide. It believes nothing, it hasn't a care, it just pours itself out. Its heedless lifegiving generosity is its glory.

Glory is exact coincidence with the flux of one's own life, a state of being completely immersed in and given to life. The sun does it without a thought, but it's not easy for human beings. Fear and anxiety hold us back. We start looking for fixed points outside life: anchors, guiderails, landmarks.

Of these fixed points, the idea of the Self is one of the most important. We want to imagine that there is a Real Me, a substance, something enduring and self-identical in us that transcends the flux of life. However, for so long as we believe in any fixed points outside the flux of life, we will be incapable of Glory and afraid of death. Life is outsideless. Glory means giving up all ideas of substance, all absolutes and things outside time, and losing our Selves in the flux of life. Jesus seems to compare "eternal life" with the way birds and flowers live, meaning that if we who are spirit can achieve the same exact coincidence with our own pure contingency that comes so naturally to the lily and the bird, then, we shall have eternal life. Death's sting is drawn.

It may not be easy for a modern person to relearn these old skills, but here are one or two examples. You probably know of something - perhaps visual experience, perhaps music, perhaps meditation or productive work - in which you can become utterly absorbed and lost. You cease to be a separate, self-conscious individual slightly drawn back from the world, and find instead that you are "taken right out of yourself" and drowned or dispersed in the flux of things. We should cultivate that sort of experience of the sublime, and see it as teaching us how to die. More than that: the experience of the sublime, when we are taken out of ourselves and absorbed in nature or art, is blissful. And if so, then death, by reabsorbing us into the flux of things out of which we sprang, may also be blissful.

That death is simple extinction, everyone nowadays knows or suspects. That religion can help us to prepare for death, that death may be experienced as a supreme though nameless bliss, and that we can find ourselves passionately yearning for it, is a big surprise.

But this non-realist, who on several occasions in 1992 sailed very close to death, can report that it is all true.