Grief - Death - Hope: The Cross and Its Lack of Consolation

[Forgive me, my Lent has been very busy so far! So I will share with you an old post, if you do not mind, that seems to me to have everything to do with Lent. Blessings!  -Bo]

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly.
Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively.
But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion
or I shall suspect that you don’t understand."
-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

As I like to point out as much as possible: religion as "the opiate of the people" makes no sense of a people who worship God murdered on a Cross. The Cross destroys all sentimentalist optimism in Faith. That is why I think Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, and not the Consolation of Theology. Philosophy can "console" us in an abstract manner about why the world seems as unjust as it does. But it cannot save you from such a world. The Cross saves us not by saying "things will work out OK in the end," but by taking us through the death of the Cross, and finding ourselves reborn and transfigured on the other side of death.

This is not consoling! I think about the movie "Alive" I just saw again, about the Andes plane crash survivors (here I am talking about how the events are portrayed in the movie, which do not match up completely with the real events as they occurred). The leader of the group at first tried to keep them optimistic about their rescue. Everything to him was a "good sign" that indicated they would soon be rescued. A plane actually flies over them, and seems to dip its wing, and although no planes were ever able to see the wreckage because the white plane blended into the snow, the leader of the group consoled everyone with his optimism, that the wing dipping was a sign that they would be rescued the next day.

The group proceeded to eat all the rest of their provisions because "everything was going to turn out OK." The leader found this out and blew his gasket. All the sudden, all the optimism in the world couldn't make him realize what a death sentence their actions laid at their feet. A few days later, they heard on a transistor radio that the search had been called off. With the basis of his optimism shattered, the leader fell into despair, and eventually died (again, this is the film's version of events, they do not map with how everything actually played out--I don't want to make the actual human being this character is based on sound terrible, which is why I don't think its important to include his name, as the character is a fictional composite).
Famously, another person goes and tells the rest of the survivors the "good news" that they weren't going to be rescued, which meant they were going to have to save themselves. Now I am skipping over all sorts of other events (most notably, the infamous resorting to cannibalism in order to stay alive), but eventually they decide to climb over a considerable portion of the Andes mountain range in order to get help.

This image of a destination, only reached by travelling a path of complete danger is to my mind something much closer to the reality of the Cross than a sentimental optimism. (Temperatures at night on the mountain would fall to -30F. They wove a sort of sleeping bag together that they would burrow into the ground, huddle together, and close the bag, entombing themselves for the night, just to survive. Yes, I think the "survival-through-burial" symbol is very poignant).

Of course, this is not a theological argument, but an analogy being used as a means of correction, as a means of filling out what C.S. Lewis says above. Christianity is not an opiate for the people, a "Shut up, pray, and accept your lot because you will earn the MTV beach house vacation in the sky" myth told to make people feel better. The only people who can read the bible and "feel better" are people who do not know how to read. God Himself became man, and our natural response was to kill Him. How does that give you an optimistic view of the world?

But that same God-man rose from the dead, and from that we derive all Hope, but it is a difficult Hope, a Cruciform Hope, a Hope that admits the bitter, fractured nature of life and does not blink at that reality. To me, you either have to paper over all the pain in the world and act like it is not there (to which our modern world's hyper-hedonism is just as much a pie-in-the-sky view of things as sentimentalist, optimistic "Christianity" is), or you have to accept that it is there in a pervasive way. If you accept the later, there are only a few options of what you do with the world. You either give up in some sense, because pain and death render even the parts of the world you like fleeting and absurd. Perhaps you say you fight against the dying of the light, that you are somehow brave for trying to enjoy things even though they inevitably blink out, but then it seems to me you are either attempting to trick yourself into the first camp, or you will find this goal ultimately frustrated. Or we take the pain and death of the world up into ourselves, and transform it into life. The contention of the Cross is that we cannot do this on our own, but God can do it through us.

I have been thinking of this quite a bit because supposedly there is a standard atheist argument that Christianity cannot be true because Christians cry at funerals. At first I thought this to be simply a sophomoric attempt at pathos, but I will cede them this point: if you believe in the religion-as-opiate, in the "everything-will-be-OK" version of the Gospel, they have a point: why cry?

But of course, with what I have said above, that is not what the Cross teaches us. First of all, Orthodox Christians have reason to cry because--what if they don't make it to heaven? Second of all, we all hope to see each other again, but the bigger kickers--what if I don't make it to heaven!? So already, there is not the sheer "blessed assurance" in this matter that the atheist impute to us, at least not for all Christians.

But this all misses the point of crying at funerals (and Lewis in his book makes this point forcefully): we know we will miss them. The atheist argument is that you do not cry when your wife goes to work, or your friend goes to the grocery store, etc., because you know they are coming back. And they might be right as far as it goes (although my 10 month old cries the minute his mom leaves his eye sight, so...), but people DO cry when they leave each other, even when they are relatively sure they will see each other again. Why else would airports be so full of tears? And sure, some people cry because they are worry warts who worry if we will ever see each other again, but most people just realize they miss being with people, and why would we be any different in the event of death?

But even this misses the point, because death in the Christian understanding is wretched. It is punishment. It is not what we are intended to do. It is a deformity. It is sickening. It is an assault on our ultimate end. Deep in our hearts, we know and yearn for it to be overcome. The Easter joy only makes sense if we face that reality: death is the absolute most wrong thing to occur in the life of humanity. That is what is so awe-inspiring about the power of God: Our Lord Jesus took the most wretched thing imaginable, and made it the crux of His victory over all which opposes His will. But we cannot understand the Felix Culpa of Easter until we come face to face with the horror of death. This is not consolation, this is hope.

Indeed, as Lewis implies a few pages after the quote above, the real question would be why do the Atheists cry? For if we are simply what we are from birth to death and then nothing, either we are something not worth crying about at all, or if we are "worth crying over," we are dolts to attach ourselves to such things that, while causing much joy in the moment, cause endless amounts of pain and strife after they are taken away from us, or we are taken away from them. So either there is no reason to cry at funerals, or you are an idiot for doing so. Why attach ourselves to anyone above and beyond utilitarian reasons? Why do we feel the injustice of death if there truly is just the coming together and falling apart of random matter? How is it not stupid to cry over mere amalgams of material, unless there is something more to us than that? I think the Christian cries (just like anyone really does, whether they admit it or not) because they know there is more to it all than that...

To end with, I think the Polish poet Milosz had it correct--the real opiate is the believe in no after life. This is the opiate of tyrants, who believe they can do all these horrible injustices, and die knowing they will forever go unpunished for the wickedness they inflicted on their fellow man. This to me is horrifying. Hell? Hell is a doctrine full of hope--all things will be set right at the end of time. But even this is not consoling, because it means I will have to face such a reckoning, that the whole world will have to reckon with the injustice rife within it. But through the Cross, even the punishments we deserve can be transformed into life, into a Crown of Glory. But that Crown lays over a mountain much more staggering and harrowing than the Andes itself, it is longer, and much more dangerous, and that is the pain of life and death itself. This is not consolation--it is hope.

P.S. One last quote from Lewis, just in case Lent is getting you down:

"The more we believe that God hurts only to
heal, the less we can believe that there is any use in
begging for tenderness. A cruel man might be
bribed—might grow tired of his vile sport—might
have a temporary fit of mercy, as alcoholics have fits
of sobriety. But suppose that what you are up against
is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The
kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably
he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your
entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was
complete, all the pain up to that point would have
been useless."