On The Philosophy of Death

A young man my sister and I met at the coffee shop on Friday invited us to a philosophy meeting at a local coffee shop in Boulder. I decided to go for the experience mostly since philosophers intrigue me.  The topic was Death. I expected the one who invited us would be there and maybe six to eight others. Instead there were twelve philosophers around the crowded table with only a couple barely familiar faces. Of the twelve, aside from my sister and I, there were only two other young women at the meeting. Have I painted the picture of intimidation well enough?

I’ve never been to a philosophy meeting, much less taken a philosophy class; I’ve read a little by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Descartes and others and that is as far as my education in philosophy reaches. I was a little nervous to go, but calmed my fears by reminding myself I could remain silent and listen, just sitting there the whole evening to learn.

If I continue to attend these meetings I’ll go more for the anthropology aspect of it than the philosophy. I don’t have looming questions about life and the universe, but what I want to know is what other’s questions are. I want to understand people so I can communicate with them better.

Once I sat down someone nearby explained to my sister and me the group was taking turns around the table, introducing ourselves and telling of our first experience with death. We only heard a story or two before it was our turn, we told of our memories and then the introductions were wrapped up with a couple more before the group leader led us into some discussion by asking a few basic questions. I had a hard time hearing the discussion leader over Bob Marley playing through the store speakers so mostly I could only guess at what the question was once I heard a few responses.

Early on, all but one or two at the meeting, besides my sister and me, readily admitted their fear of death. It was strange hearing such intelligent and grown-up men and women acknowledge their fear in front of such a group.

The more I sat listening to everyone speak about death the irony of the situation struck me. How could a group come together and talk about death while no one’s definition of death agreed with another’s? And secondly, this was a philosophy meeting. Philosophy is all about approaching subjects rationally with logic and reason. How much logic and reason could be brought to a subject that had to be taken ultimately by faith? Did any of them realize or consider this? I wondered, and wanted to ask, but it wasn’t my place to do the questioning.

We all disagreed about what death might be like, yet not one person tried convincing another to join him/her in his/her belief and none of us argued with each other—it was a surprisingly calm time to share ideas. I should have expected it to be like this though; the whole mentality of this place is for everyone to find what works for them and to accept other people as they are. Well, at least this format was educational and I appreciated hearing from so many separate viewpoints. Hearing directly from people about their beliefs really cements the ideas into my head more than reading about the same ideas in books would have (or have already). The insight this meeting gave me helps me understand people more diversely and will help me in speaking to others about Christ in the future.

My sister and I let on we were Christians from the get-go and it quickly became apparent we were the only two in the entire group. Very few seemed to have any religion at all other than to be a pantheist or panantheist. The man at the opposite corner of the table from us repeatedly made fun of Christianity but the rest were rather respectful even though they had already chosen against the God we have chosen to believe in.

Neither my sister nor I spoke at the meeting until the very end. Countless times others would turn to us hoping we would share our thoughts, but we sat there quietly.

As I listened to mostly ludicrous ideas about what death will be like I at first felt like laughing, but those feelings quickly turned to sadness. These people were utterly lost and what made me even more deeply sad is they had chosen against the truth. These were intelligent, educated people who had all heard of Christ, but they chose to be apart from him. If they continued on the same road they were walking down they would end up in hell, because that’s what they want–they want separation from God. I was so grieved at this realization. They chose separation now and if they thought the same way when facing their deaths, they would want the same separation then as well.

I debated with myself to whether or not it was worth saying anything from a Christian perspective. I guessed most or all the philosophers around the table had already considered Christianity as much as they ever wanted to and that they were probably pretty closed to hearing anything more on the subject. My heart mourned for these people but would it do any good to say a word to them? I could plead with them to accept the truth, and in the truth life, but without belief in and love for God already existing in their hearts there would be no yearn for the splendors of life in heaven . . . my heart would be the only one aching.

I figured the group could be split into two sections—neither of which very receptive. The first would be those who were already so sure of their ideas that they wouldn’t consider anything else and for them I was reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s words:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”

The second section would be those who hardly knew what they believed and were all so aimless they had chosen that as their philosophy and would live out their days in wandering. For them I was reminded of what Yann Martel said:

“Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.”

Accepting these probabilities about my would-be audience I finally decided it would do no harm to say something if I were honest and loving in my approach. As a Christian philosopher I was certainly in the minority but why not use that to my advantage? I had a radically different view of the world and perspective on death than anyone else had expressed—I had something brand new to bring to the table. Besides, it is not my place to say or know who God has chosen to be saved and wouldn’t it be hateful instead of loving to remain silent? My instruction is to be a witness to everyone, regardless of how receptive they may or may not be. For all I know there were some there actually interested and eager to hear from a Christian.

Since I was at a philosophy meeting I avoided a strictly spiritual perspective with my points and entered it on a level of reason, but I can hardly separate philosophy from my spiritual beliefs in my mind. Even if I could I wouldn’t want to because that would eliminate all impact of my being a Christian in the group could have. I am aware I took an unusual path to lead people toward Christ, but with the audience I had I figured this slight nudge was all they would listen to. It’s more difficult leading skeptics to Christ than those honestly seeking the truth.

I kept my thoughts to the very end for four reasons. The first was to have the most time as possible to form my thoughts into the words I wanted to use to express them. The second was to hear as much from everyone else as possible to understand them and take their thoughts into consideration when sharing mine. The third was to let them see Christians can, and actually do listen even when they don’t agree. Fourth, I wanted to give my thoughts the most power they could and since last things, whether it’s a song at a music recital, a speech at a competition, or thoughts at a philosophy meeting, are fairly easy to recall later on I waited until the last moment.

On top of all that, as a Christian in such a setting I thought it was important to show confidence and strength in my beliefs. I didn’t want fear to keep me silent. They might think me naïve, but we are all free to hold and share thoughts based on whatever our pre-philosophical opinions are of whether there is a god or not and who he is.

I remember the points I made, but not the exact words I used. What I said came out less eloquently than I had hoped; and I’m sure my cheeks flushed and my ears burned red as I saw all the faces around the table silently and solemnly hang on every word I spoke. I will lay my thoughts out here as they were in my head—not how they came out in speech:

Through the meeting it occurred to me how the topic of death ties directly with the topic of life. If it is true our lives are purposeless and insignificant on earth (as some around the table had expressed was their belief) logic and reasoning would lead me to materialism. No significance to me means having no god since if there was a god it would only make sense for us to be here on the earth to bring glory to and/or give service to this god—and that’s a major calling. Believing as a materialistic would, I would live for my personal pleasure and success by my own terms and I would face death unafraid, but with grudge and regret since it would simply be leading to oblivion and the loss of all I had attained in life.

Life is complex as well as powerful and what is complex and powerful without reason? If the most of a “purpose” we have in life is to please ourselves and do as we wish without any set values or absolute truth how can it just end with death? Even the people who find the most success in the world die. We all die. How can such wild success that a person’s spent their entire life to gain just vanish away? There’s got to be more of a point to it all.

Reason leads me past materialism and atheism because I can’t accept, with full conviction and contentment, the idea that life could be so grossly unimportant. Materialism would leave me bitter since the truth–if it is such–is a bitter truth. If we’re alive for a purpose, it’s completely reasonable that death has a purpose as well and so we won’t just be floating around in a subconscious state within a network of energy or completely puffed out of existence. I believe, as a Christian, that there’s a higher power than we who is our creator, that our lives and deaths have meaning through his design and that life continues after our bodies die.

None of us around the table know beyond a shadow of a doubt what death will be like. Who can even say we aren’t dead already? (I meant it quite tongue-in-cheek.) No one can reach a conclusion about death simply by logic, since death is an unknown until it’s experienced, so we all have to exercise some amount of faith in forming conclusions. (Maybe this was a problem for a group of philosophers, but I doubt any of them could have denied they had faith in their own ideas.)

Since we inevitably believe something and we all get to choose what that something is going to be, why not choose an idea which pleases rather than frightens? This wouldn’t even have to be Christianity, but with the faith I have in my God, I don’t fear death. Isn’t some form of theism vastly better than a purposeless life as an atheist? (From what I’ve known of Boulder so far, most here agree on this point. I find very few to be atheists.)

In your search for comfort don’t choose any religion for the sake of comfort because you won’t find it. You could find any god but unless you find the truth you’ll never know comfort. In choosing a religion you must search for more than comfort, you must seek the truth. You might have in mind how many people say all religions are a path to God but Christianity is different. Christianity is the only religion where God has made a path to us. The path is Jesus. If he really did claim to be the son of God, he was either a crazy person, a liar with a death wish (in which case we have no reason to believe anything he said) or he really is the Lord. If he’s wrong he’s of no importance to us, but if he was telling the truth he’s of the utmost importance.

You can’t reach a conclusion about death by reason alone so with as much faith as you choose to give it; doesn’t it make the most sense to choose something beautiful rather than terrible? (I saw several nods as I took a last look around the table.)

“Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” –C. S. Lewis

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