Friday, September 3, 2010

The Scewtape Insights II

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Here is the concluding paragraph from The Screwtape Letters that I shared yesterday as part of a longer meditation. It is an interesting "commentary" by the devil Screwtape concerning longevity of life and its meaning. It may help to recall that C. S. Lewis wrote this book during the height of WWII when young men, especially, were dying by the thousands on a daily basis. He was attempting to put all of this into a much greater perspective - that of eternity.

How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a 'normal life' is the exception. Apparently He wants some - but only a very few - of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can,

Your affectionate uncle

Once again, an interesting twist, where "long life" has its own dangers and cannot be viewed as an automatically good thing in the light of the drama of sin and redemption. These insights, together with those in the body of the letter from yesterday, regardless of their "source," are a challenge to what I would call our contemporary sense of "entitlement" to a long, full, and relatively healthy life. If we don't make it to the current life expectancy, we will feel "cheated" or complain of how "unfair" it all is. (Just how, why, or by whom we are privileged with this sense of entitlement remains unanswered). And many, if not most, people today view that entitlement to an autonomous life that only includes "this world" as the arena for its duration. The Christian form of this position is to cling to the same expectation, but to then expect God to let us into heaven - however reluctantly we leave this world behind - because we have been "good persons." C.S. Lewis is telling us that perhaps it is all a bit more complicated than that.

Somewhat related to that:

As the expression has it, we were "channel-surfing," I believe, last Sunday evening. We paused at the Emmy awards and all of the "beautiful people" that filled the auditorium celebrating themselves and their wonderful accomplishments. We paused at the giving of the Emmy to something like "best drama/movie" of the year (HBO, I believe). The film was a dramatization of the life of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, aka, "Doctor Death." Considering the source of this awards ceremony, I thought to myself, "Of course, how could this film not be chosen!" Be that as it may, what I then saw had something of a surreal quality to it. There was Dr. Kevorkian himself in the front row and arising to receive a standing ovation from his blissful admirers! It was not as if the audience were applauding a great humanitarian who saves lives. They were "celebrating" a notorious figure who takes lives as the champion of "physician-assisted suicides" for many years now. As a "martyr" to his "cause," he was soaking in this recognition with evident delight. In my mind, this rather "in house," brazen display of support for a "pioneer" in the field was actually a display of the moral vacuity of the participants. Apparently, I am living in totally different universe.

My final reflection was something like this: Was I peering into an auditorium full of secularists and atheists whose motto in life is essentially "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" (and if we get rich and famous in the process, all the better); for we can then turn to "Doctor Death" and his like when the limitations of old age, a serious sickness and the prospect of the least bit of "suffering" makes life not only unendurable but absolutely meaningless? Such a "physician" can help such people "check out" and return to the oblivion and nothingness from which they emerged. The "sympathy" and "compassion" evoked by supporters of physician-assisted suicide cannot cover up the thorough-going nihilism operative at the deepest levels.

The careful reader of the above may think that I have just contradicted myself, or perhaps that I am guilty of creating a "double standard" of sorts. In the passage and brief commentary on The Screwtape Letters I appear to be following C.S. Lewis in challenging the common notion that a long life is always the best, and that we must be realistic about the presence of death and how it sweeps away countless people in their infancy and youth, often to their eternal advantage. In the short piece on Dr. Kevorkian, I seem to be saying that we must cling to life at all costs regardless of its "quality," and not make a decision to end it by turning to the more blatant forms of euthanasia. I am not sure that this is a clear contradiction.

In the first instance, C.S. Lewis is writing as a Christian believer and I, of course, share his faith. His comments, and mine to follow, must be placed in the context of accepting God as our Creator, and that God alone is the Lord of the living and the dead. And, of course, that Christ is our Savior. Lewis may be reminding us that we must not despair in the face of early and painful deaths, however much these may be in tension with our more conventional views concerning life. This may work for the salvation of many. For all of life and death is in the hands of God. The brevity of life does not reduce that life's meaningfulness, for God created us for an eternal existence in His presence. Underneath the cynicism of Screwtape, Lewis is offering the Christian vision of hope.

Dr. Kevorkian lives, thinks and practices in what can only be termed an atheistic or nihilist universe. This is at its core a dark view of life. For him, our "biology" is everything. When that fails us, the only "dignified" thing to do is to accept that fact and then end our lives which have outworn their usefulness or short-lived purpose. "Active euthanasia" makes sense within such a worldview. As Orthodox Christians we need not cling to "biological existence" at all costs. For we are more than our biology. We need not arrest the dying process with a desperate use of every available technological and medical means. In that light, we can truly die with dignity. But we will not practice active euthanasia which is saying that suffering is meaningless and devoid of any redemptive value. We do not hasten a process that may still have an uncertain outcome. Ultimately, we do not "play God" in what only can amount to a horrible and wretched caricature of the role of God as the Creator, Sustainer, and Judge of life - and death.

Based upon the context and the worldview that informs the above texts and events, I hope to have avoided a seeming contradiction.

A final fragment:

My XU students' responses to the opening day class question: "What is the Orthodox Church?" seem to suffer from an ever-increasing blandness. However, here was an interesting response that I cannot quite figure out:

"A branch of the reformed Church originally influence by Greece. Many different types."

Fr. Steven

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