So if you are like me and occasionally wonder about the universe, about God, about life and about death then I bet you have more unanswered questions than a trillion inquisitive children… Those of you who used follow my blog with much enthusiasm were probably wondering where I had disappeared to or were silently delighting and hoping that I had vanished from the blogosphere altogether. Well the subject of this little treatise will amongst other things offer some sort of explanation for my absence.
I have been literally drowning in death. In the last year I have seen enough death to last me a lifetime if that is not more than a tad ironic. Death populated my existence in all shapes and sizes and guises. I met unexpected sudden death in the demise of one of my longest and closest friends Adrian; I was rocked to my very core. I met death at the age of ninety-nine in the shape of Aunt Anna who was an ass’s roar away from a telegram from the non-Guinness drinking Queen of England. Come to think of it-if she or the healthy ninety year old that is her husband Phillip hit the ton then who sends and signs their telegrams?! It cannot be much fun getting a telegram from oneself. Anyway I digress…
So death dressed up as a malignant brain tumour and took away my friend Stephen at the tender age of 49. Death took a good neighbour, again fairly young in the guise of emphysema and robbed my family of our good friend Jim in the malicious costume of kidney cancer and pneumonia and more worryingly, did so hard on the heels of taking Jim’s wife Eileen in a nasty variation of the same costume. Death pervaded the workplace as well. My good friend and colleague Colette lost her sister Sinéad at 39 after a courageous battle with the fancy dress of melanoma…and it didn’t end there because like many of you I was numbed at the horror that robbed Tyrone football manager Mickey Harte of his beautiful daughter Michaela while on honeymoon. Our colleague Harry lost his brother to the veiled spectre of sudden death as well and our colleague Mairéad her sister, also to melanoma, and my children’s good friend Dianamh lost her mother to another one of cancer’s many sartorial manifestations…and it continues.
Death and grief do strange things to people and to those who have lost their family and friends. They say that every person has their own grief experience and that it is a very personal journey. I have always believed that death is as natural as life itself and indeed is the fulfillment of the same. It is the randomness of death that scares us most however I believe and the struggle to come to terms with the death of a loved one comes in such terrifying waves. There is no pattern. There is no script. There is no clear and charted path through the unpredictable sea of grief. All we do know is that life goes on and surely this is a good thing. There is no way back and we must edge forward inch by inch, stopping as frequently as necessary to drink in the pain and enormity of the loss and on again. It is ok to talk about those who have died. It is ok to pretend to be happy. It is really ok to feel guilty for moments of genuine happiness. That is life just rolling on. And I repeat-that is good….really good.
I remember some years ago my father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer and told that he had cancer in four spots in his brain. It was a wet miserable night in December and his 80th birthday. The night of his diagnosis I remember that in a conversation with his wife of 55 years he said I cannot believe that I am going to die but I was just thinking that I will at last get to meet your mother and father. The cynic in me was amused at that thought and really envious of a faith so strong that such a possibility could be countenanced. Did he expect to see them standing at the pearly gates to greet him? Was he expecting to see his brothers, armed with fistfuls of pints to greet him after his journey to the other side? A remarkable testimony to faith and belief in God.
So that’s death all cleared up: so what about God? It is after all well nigh impossible to talk of death without consideration of the afterlife and of god. All variations on a theme I would suggest.
I read the God Delusion recently and while Richard Dawkins makes some good arguments the style of writing is a bit tedious and contrived in terms of humour. He does make difficult subjects amenable though and he builds solid arguments to support his own hypotheses. The book got me thinking about religion though and about churches and faiths and the impact that such things have on all of us either through how we live our lives or are impacted on by terrorism, by war, by sexual discrimination, by charity, by prayerful living etc.
Some would argue about where god sits in all of this and with good reason too. Most of us could easily identify with the concept of an Abrahamic God, with monotheism and with a manly figure with a long flowing white beard, sat in the clouds. Christianity, Islam and Judaism all purvey this manly image and those who analyse such things would proffer such a view as the reason for 2,000 years of the oppression of women for example. Dawkins cites Gore Vidal who states that:
The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved-Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally patriarchal- God is the Omnipotent Father -hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.
Many of us would want to believe as fervently as my late father-in-law. Many of us and of those we know draw immense succour from god and from religion and all of its trappings. religion and god are ingrained into our psyche and deeply imbued in our very existence, in our language and in how many of us live our lives. I won’t attempt to make a judgment or to offer up a deep philosophical argument. I just want to muse and to put the question of god out there.
From my own perspective I am inclining towards the burden of proof. Give me the evidence for something and I will likely believe. Prove or disprove something and you have my ears. Like so many who have posed the trillion unanswered questions I constantly pose questions about my own existence and about the world that I inhabit. I look at the sky on a starry night in stunning awe of the beguiling canvas above me, or I see a flower in bloom, or I marvel at the sheen of the sea as I walk along the shore on a warm sunny day. I am in awe of a snowflake or consumed by the sight of a frozen cobweb in a snow-clad garden…the universe and all its interrelationships and dependencies fascinates me daily. I love life and I treasure the world in which I live. I am constantly amazed by the miracle that is life. You note I use the word miracle- I too must be imbued. These are all things that I can witness and see and feel and experience and enjoy. Yes I can fashion such daily wonders on to a tapestry of a greater and more powerful being but that to me is to ignore the fundamental burden of proof.
I guess like many I am also a bit of a coward and since I cannot disprove the existence of God no more than I can prove his or her or its existence I will sit on the fence of what Dawkin’s describes as De Facto Atheism. He notes ‘I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.’
So this brings me full circle in a sense. Do we link death and god? Certainly religions do that for a living. Yeah, I have the odd god delusion and a few times in the throes of grief I have drawn on 1 Corinthians 15:56 ‘Where, O death is your victory? Where O death is your sting?’ but I am for now firmly in the corner which fights the notion of death as the work of God and which seeks to beat it into a corner which regards death as an experience as natural as birth. Life is a journey and we know not when that journey will end but somethings we do know and prime amongst these is the firm belief and recognition that life goes on and that all journeys through the sea of grief will end. What is at the end of the journey will be different but will be warm and nice and safe. Each day a little bit of grief ebbs away and a little bit of the onward march of life replaces it. The world at journey’s end might be an altered place to be but it’s the only show in town and we can prove that.
As for all of us robbed and cheated by the Grim Reaper in all his myriad guises I would exhort you to find comfort and contentment where you can, whether that be in the company of loved ones, or of the bereaved or just with friends. If you find comfort in God then go there too because we do know and can evidence that grief is real and who am I to tell you what to do. No doubt I will have the odd delusion about god and death going forward but sure who won’t? Maybe If I make the journey I will be met by my good friend Adrian. He will for sure await me with a Count of Monte Christo cigar and a glass of Chivas Regal on the rocks; and if those circumstances were to unfold a certain other man would have the last laugh as he greeted me in the company of all the relations that I have never gotten to know. It’s a nice warm thought and on that note let’s say the creed…