(Second in series)
In the May 3, 2013 issue of Commonweal Alice McDermott had a very provocative essay entitled “Redeemed from Death? The Faith of a Catholic Novelist.” Though well acquainted with how some Catholics think about such issues as women priests, contraception, homosexuality, the death penalty, just and unjust wars, gun rights and immigration, and duly impressed by the way that a generation that follows hers has embraced social justice, Alice wonders why Catholics think the way they think and act the way they act. She asks “Why?” and wonders about what truth lies at the center of Catholic faith. Focusing on the Catholic belief that Christ has conquered death, Alice writes the following:
“The point is: God so loved the world, he gave his only son so we should not perish but live.
“The point is: Love redeems us. Even from death.
“That’s immortality we’re talking about. Heaven. Literally. We’re saying that we believe that the injustice of death, every single death in human history, is made just by a loving God. We believe that the observable fact that we all perish — literally –- is made null, overturned, by Christ’s sacrifice two thousand years ago. We believe in the triumph of love over death. We believe that God’s love for us -– God, The First Cause, the Creator, — lets us, unlike everything else in creation, live in eternity. That Christ’s literal, historical sacrifice on the Cross changed everything. That God’s love for every living, breathing one of us, which is reflected in our love for one another, redeems us, brings us to literal everlasting life. (p.15)
Alice notes that except at moments of personal and collective grief, for example a death of a loved one or Newtown or 9/11, we contemporary Catholics say very little about love conquering death and she wonders why. Could it be, she wonders, because we really don’t believe it. Or is it that it sounds so much like wishful thinking, the kind of illusion that just about every influential atheist in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries from Feuerbach and Nietzsche to Freud and Sartre and the so-called “new atheists” such as Harris and Dennet accused theists of creating?
I can testify that it is not easy to communicate to 21st century university students the profound truth that love conquers death and that this conquest sheds important light on the meaning and mystery of persons, even in their earthly existence prior to death. I can offer two examples involving students whom I teach at St. John’s University.
In one class I was commenting on influential philosophers who think that, because of death, human existence is absurd. One student asked why these philosophers were so upset by death. He did not think death was such an important event. I asked members of the class whether they thought death was such an important experience that it could influence a thinker’s entire philosophy. I was stunned that for a few moments members of the class seemed to have the same view of death as the young man who first commented that death should not be taken as an event that could color your whole outlook on life. Finally a seminarian spoke up and said, “Of course death is a big deal. Your view of it colors everything.”
The other example involves some students arguing that the belief that there is no life beyond the grave does not detract from the dignity of persons. I tried with difficulty to help the students see that if love conquers death, if a person is so important that God has created them for eternity, this adds enormously to their importance, value and dignity. I don’t know how many I persuaded.
Discussing that what makes her a Catholic writer is not that her characters belong to a certain church or neighborhood or time or place, Alice writes the following:
“What makes me a Catholic writer is that the faith I profess contends that out of love -– love — for such troubled, flawed, struggling human beings, the Creator, the First Cause, became flesh so that we, every one of us, would not perish. I am a Catholic writer because this very notion — whether it be made up or divinely revealed, fanciful thinking or breathtaking truth -– so astonishes me that I can’t help but bring it to every story I tell.
“‘A human being is an immense abyss’, St. Augustine wrote, ‘but you, Lord, keep count even of his hairs, and not one of them is lost on you; yet even his hairs are easier to number than the affections and movements of his heart.’” (p.16)
The truth that love conquers death astonishes Alice McDermott. It also astonishes me. I am grateful to Alice for her novels, all of which I have read, and to all Catholic novelists who write stories that in some way reveal the Christian mystery.