A Fanatical Devotion to Death

DB.001Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about what he termed: a fanatical devotion to death. He wrote, “When death is the end, then earthly life is everything or nothing.”

I’ve been pondering those words this morning, and wondering: how many of us live with a fanatical devotion to death?

What he means is that when we believe death is the end, then dealing with the reality of death becomes the prime motivator for life. If death is the end, then we can take one of two approaches to life: Life is meaningless and then you die. Life is nothing. Or life is so precious that you should live with a quasi-hedonistic fervor. Life is everything.

“To grab everything or throw everything away,” Bonhoeffer says, “that is the attitude of those who believe fanatically in death.”

Resurrection radically changes our options.

If the miracle of resurrection, and the hope of New Creation becomes the dominant frame, then the future seems to open up a little bit. If we are no longer required to see death as ultimate, then life takes on a new freedom. “One demands no eternities from life and takes from life what there is—not everything or nothing, but the good and the bad, the important and the unimportant, joy and pain.”

The two strangling options—life is everything, nothing—give way to a life in which we neither hold desperately to life, nor throw it away. Bonhoeffer says that the impact of this is that we no longer “ascribe eternity to earthly things.” That phrase describes so much of life around me. How often do we ascribe eternity to earthly things? How much human suffering ensues from the mistake of ascribing ultimate meaning to non-ultimate things?

However, if death is only allowed the limited rights it actually has, then humanity viewed from the place of New Creation occupies a new reality; a new place in which life overcomes the fear of death and death no longer tells us the meaning of life. Death no longer locks us into bad options. We cease to live with a fanatical devotion to death, and start to receive life as a gift.

I would make one addendum to Bonhoeffer’s observation about the fanatical devotion to death, because it seems that in our day we have more means at our disposal with which to mitigate the fear of death. We can amuse ourselves so effectively that we push the fear underground. We can numb ourselves through medication or other addictions and inure the sting of death. This third option is no less problematic, but it seems as though it might be holding sway more than ever.

We are in the season of Eastertide, these Great 50 Days in which we try to foment a new imagination for a world in which death is not the end. We attempt to drown our old fanatical devotion to death, and live with a fanatical devotion to New Creation. Only then can we experience what Bonhoeffer describes; that the “resurrected Christ bears the new humanity within himself, the last marvelous yes of God to the new humanity.”

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  • jekylldoc

    Tillich explored some of this territory in “The Courage to Be.” It is not the most readable, but it helps to understand the situation. Yes, belief in life after death takes us out of the traps of “grabbing everything” or “throwing everything away,” in response to the power of death over meaning in life. But I would argue that the belief serves as a symbolic representation of the possibility of meaningful life entirely within the framework of this life.

    We can, and for the sake of our soul we must, find the eternal within this life. To be precise, we must let the eternal find us. And we embrace this discovery for its own sake. To have faith despite death and its awesome power is our calling.

    It would be a mistake, however, to think that belief in an afterlife is the only way this faith can find a home with us. Faith is caught, not taught – the faith to embrace meaning is conveyed by example, not by a doctrine. In the extreme case, the urge to secure a path to faith through doctrine becomes the death-obsessed enforcement process of, for example, burning heretics.