Bad Endings

As time passes, I find that my sense of discomfort concerning claims of divine authority from our lecterns and pulpits declines, where it would seem that we affirm as the words of God the mere texts of men. Coming to such a realization at first throbbed a deep dissonance, and to some extent an abhorrence, at the idea that in good faith we were affirming words written contra. The emotion of this sense has ebbed a great deal. As I hear these echoing assertions in the pews with my family, it all seems relatively lighter. The stabs of fear and anger regarding our uttered blasphemies subside; for if our texts were not authored by God, we blaspheme in so saying. But blasphemy is, I suppose, a somewhat imaginary crime. Where it comes to no harm, I suppose our unfounded wish-thinking is harmless.

The sermon today was from a guest pastor – an older gentleman of good intentions and heartfelt demeanor. I listened with interest to the message on pearls and swine, reflecting on the beautiful resonance of Christianity with the human soul. All that we believe matches peg-for-hole with our composition as people, meeting our desires, answering our questions, and allaying our fears. Christianity is a compelling view of ourselves and our world, one perfectly constructed and thoroughly evolved, just as should be expected from a millennia old philosophy of life. That scrutiny has demonstrated its metaphysics and ontology to be false should not diminish the credit due – it is persuasive, even enchanting.

And yet. My reflections and fascination were toppled by an anecdote given later in the sermon. The pastor’s wife had an unbelieving father, resistant to Christianity throughout his life despite multiple approaches. On his deathbed and in a quasi-conscious state, she sat bedside and read aloud to him from the Bible. She came at last to a passage in John where the question was posed – do you believe? “Yes,” the dying man suddenly said from his stupor. He never fully woke during this, and he uttered no further words before, if I have recalled it correctly, his expiration. Such accounts make honey for the believer’s ears, oft told and oft repeated and ever admired. Her faith, to the very end, was vindicated by his final embrace of the faith. And eternity holds the promise now of seeing him again on the far side of heaven’s gate.

Here is the dilemma – per the story, the readings were exactly the sort of thing the dying man would object to, had he been lucid. He apparently wouldn’t hear of it throughout his life. But now, at his end, and captive audience that he was… I propose that we ought not to see this as a moral good. It suggest, rather, that it was a sort of predatory engagement, and sadly not the first I have encountered in life, speech, or print.

I am reminded of Hitchens:

Almost all of the American founders died without any priest by their bedside, as also did (Thomas) Paine, who was much pestered in his last hours by religious hooligans who demanded that he accept Christ as his savior. Like David Hume, he declined all such consolation and his memory has outlasted the calumnious rumor that he begged to be reconciled with the church at the end. (The mere fact that such deathbed “repentances” were sought by the godly, let alone subsequently fabricated, speaks volumes about the bad faith of the faith-based.)

Hitchens, Christopher (2007-05-01). God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (p. 467). Twelve Books. Kindle Edition.

I do not doubt that the deathbed readings recounted this morning were from the most fervent of beliefs and with the very best of intentions. But the good intentions do not erase the predatory component. The recipient of these attentions was incapable of escape. His physical state was such that he could not very well defend himself. Insofar as he was conscious, he was apparently subjected at his end to that which he had always flatly objected, which would apparently be recited until his expiration. To the dying, I think we ought not to introduce such stressors in the final hours. One must question why prayer was insufficient for the grieving.

To illustrate my point, let us engage two reversals of the same scenario that can highly the ignobility of this kind of behavior. First, let us consider an otherwise identical situation where the preacher was instead Islamic, or some other faith. Let us assume that the dying had always objected with equal fervor to the faith in question. Would we consider the reader’s conduct noble in such case? No. Would we say that it was for the ultimate good of the dying, and that he needed it whether he knew it or not? Again, no. I suspect most of those I know would not hesitate to call it an unfortunate badgering, and one that should not have been allowed to transpire. Had their been a supposed affirmation from the unwaking, we would no doubt say that any dying man offered some sort of an out might very well grasp at whatever line was tossed to him. And we would point out that the stupor surrounding the affirmation cast serious doubt on its sincerity. We would likely question the emotional needs and the agenda-pressed spin of the raconteur.

Second, consider a case where the dying person was a life-long believer who, in the end, appeared by a single word to have denied the faith. What then would we think? I suspect that such cases, whenever they happen, are seldom repeated. I also suspect that we would rationalize that the dying was delusional, or not in their right mind, or speaking with another subject in mind. I suspect, in short, that we would convince ourselves that their lifetime affirmations, and not their final moment, determined their eternal destiny. Yet, in the converse, we will grasp at a single-word reversal, uttered by a semi-conscious and ebbing soul, repeating the anecdote to crowds that equally need the affirmation.

I do not want the Koran read to me in my final hour. I can’t think of any friends that would either.

Hitchens is – sadly – affirmed in his assessments far too often. We endorse behavior which would be condemnable if transacted by those of other faiths. We pester the defenseless in their last moments, too often for our own comfort (it remains of no comfort to the semi-conscious one way or another). We selectively repeat those accounts which feed our own needs. We dishonor and discard the wishes of the dying and the dead because we know better.

So it was that my fascination and interest in the sermon fell stymied by the anecdote of familiar cornering and disregard. The pastor was a good man, a sweet-spirited fellow by all appearances. But we are moved by our self-righteous certainty to sometimes do things we ought not. Things we would condemn in others. Things we ourselves would wish, in our final hours, to be shielded from.

We are terrified by death, and so we deny it. The theological framework of our denial is riveted together with nuance, conditionals, and the trusty catch-all of mystery. So it is that the intelligent and educated are led to bizarre behavior regarding the end – deathbed pleadings, post-mortem baptisms, prayers for the purgatoried, fabricated or wish-thought repentings, etc.

For myself, I hope not to live in denial of any true thing, even death. For the dying, I hope my endeavors will ever be to comfort them in their hour, rather than myself. And let my honor at funerals be for the dead, and not my own knowings-better.

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Michael Seidel, writer

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