Sunday, August 09, 2009

Inventing Death

Prepping for the seminar has gotten really interesting. I'm learning lots, and have backed up to reading Philippe Aries (backwards accent thing on the e, for those who know how to do such things?).

I guess I hadn't really thought about it when I had my teen fall from grace and began to really question Christianity, not only the sect I was being raised in, but in a basic and fundamental way, but death isn't as natural in Christianity as it is in the world of natural science.

In natural science, one can't necessarily explain why death (through aging, especially) happens in all sorts of plants and critters (but not in all, go bacteria!), but most of us think about it happening for the people and other critters we care most about, ourselves, our friends and family, the animals we care for in our lives.

I'm dogsitting my sibling's family's 17 year old dog these days, and we know she'll probably not make it through the next winter (though she stuns me by romping up the hill and around the house every day). She's old, and though she's doing really well for an old dog, she also shows her age. Anyway, most of us see death as inevitable, and natural, though a 17 year old dog is anything but natural, since she's been fed and cared for and doesn't have to starve by not being able to catch her own food or get eaten by a bigger, badder predator.

Nor, of course, are our practices about death and dying "natural," and that's where I was planning to go with this seminar.

But Aries (and others) have really got me thinking because in Christianity, death is invented.

Isn't that an amazing idea. Death is invented.

In Genesis, Book 3, God invents death to punish Adam and Eve, along with kicking them out of Eden and messing with the snake and all. So in Christianity, death is the very opposite of natural (though, of course, in Christianity it's all invented by God anyway).

That inventedness and the use of death as punishment make the stakes in getting it right, dying the right way, or in the right frame of mind, or with the proper rituals, all the more important.

I'm thinking we'll begin the seminar with Genesis, and talk about the invention of death. I've got more and more stuff to read, and now I'm thinking that the stuff about Death being Satan's spawn in PL would be great, too, because it revises the invention into something very different.


  1. Anonymous7:34 PM

    I think in this case it's only invented by God is the loosest sense. Death, sickness, corruption, and all other sorts of evil (including moral evils) are characteristic of the current state of the created order, but that isn't what was intended. Death is not natural in Christianity. I stress this when I teach my death class because it is not only at odds with natural science but with other many religious traditions, not to mention being at odds with what a lot of contemporary christians actually think.

    fun stuff.

  2. This post really got me thinking. Death as a punishment. Not as natural, not as a blessing, but as a punishment. If this is societies overwhelming position then it has all sorts of implications. For example, where does this figure in the questions raised here in the UK at the moment about assisted suicide for those with terminal illness? Thank you. I'm going to be playing with this idea all day now.

  3. Anastasia would know this, but is the Jewish reading of Genesis similar to the Christian one? I know there's a different interpretation of some aspects of Genesis. Because boy, is it a teachable moment when you say here is this text, and here is how it's understood in the Jewish tradition, and here is how its understood in the Christian tradition.

    Also, this makes it more ironic that from my (limited) observation it is Christian religious who have managed to hold on to a "natural" approach to death in contemporary society.

  4. Anonymous7:37 AM

    A bit outside your time frame, but there's a historian, Gary Laderman, who's written two books on death in modern America that in some ways brings Aries' theories up to date. Pretty interesting stuff -- esp. if you want to have your students talk about modern attitudes towards death & how they differ from earlier periods.

  5. è -> è

    (see here for lots more)

  6. You are an amazing teacher. I never thought about the Christian "death" this way, but it is just as you say. Can't wait to hear more.