Sunday, October 14, 2007

"O death, where is thy sting?"

"much possessed by death"
(Image from Wikipedia)

In taking leave of Professor Warren Reich last Thursday, we spoke briefly about the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who has recently had a book published on our modern secularity titled A Secular Age.

I hadn't heard of the book, but Reich informed me that my old Berkeley advisor Robert Bellah had praised it highly as "possibly the best book that he'd ever read." Those were Reich's words in recalling the blurb from Bellah on Secular Age's cover. On the basis of that recommendation, Reich told me that he intended to read the book.

I think that I'll also have to read it ... as soon as I finish Rosenstock-Heussy's Out of Revolution.

I've looked at the Amazon site and found Bellah's exact quote:

"This is Charles Taylor's breakthrough book, a book of really major importance, because he succeeds in recasting the whole debate about secularism. This is one of the most important books written in my lifetime. I am tempted to say the most important book, but that may just express the spell the book has cast over me at the moment."
At about 80 years of age, Bellah is speaking of a rather long lifetime, so the book is therefore edging out a lot of fine competitors, including his own Habits of the Heart.

Taylor and his new book were therefore on my mind when I received my periodic email from Commonweal Magazine and discovered that he has published an article relevant to the Death, Dying, and Spirituality Conference that I recently attended. The article is titled "The Sting of Death: Why We Yearn for Eternity."

The title is borrowed from I Corinthians 15:55 and occurs within a longer passage by Paul on Christ's victory over death:

50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? 56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15:50-57, KJV)
The passage is not exactly a simple one, though it's perhaps clear enough. Here's my take:
Christ has overcome death, presumably through his own resurrection from the dead (though this particular passage does not specify), and through his victory, believers will be transformed at the end times' final resurrection from their corrupted bodies to incorruptible bodies that live immortally, thereby drawing out death's sting, the very sin that had corrupted humankind and rendered humanity subject to the judgement of death according to the law, a judgement that Christ himself had undergone for humanity's sake in order to bring corrupted humankind uncorrupted back to God.
As I said, perhaps that's clear enough. Most commentators agree that verse 54's words "Death is swallowed up in victory" are borrowed by Paul from Isaiah 25:8: "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces." As for verse 55's sting of death, Paul seems to be thinking of Hosea 13:14, although that verse does not easily lend itself to Paul's use:

I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction: repentance shall be hid from mine eyes. (Hosea 13:14, KJV)
I'm tempted to ask, "O death, where is thy sting?" It's not exactly there in the King James Version. The New American Standard Bible slips it into the verse:

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight. (Hosea 13:14, NASB)
But this version is perhaps being harmonized to I Corinthians 15:55 -- though I'd need to do a lot more leafing through commentaries to be sure.

John Milton, I'll note in passing, perhaps locates this sting, somewhat mythologically, in the personified image of Death as a fearsome if amorphous entity bearing a "dreadful dart": it stood as Night,
Fierce as ten Furies, terrible as Hell,
And shook a dreadful Dart; (Paradise Lost 2.670-2)
Also in the same passage, the personified figure of Sin appears and refers to this as a "mortal Dart" (2.729). I take it that Milton is thinking -- among other things -- of I Corinthians 15:55.

Be that as it may, Paul himself says that the sting of death is sin, by which, he means that the sting of death is the very corruption that sin brings to bring on death. More briefly put, the sting of death is death itself.

And that is how we usually understand the phrase, but what does Charles Taylor mean? This:

What is hardest of all ... is the death of loved ones. For death is one of the things that makes it very difficult to sustain a sense of the higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular our love relationships. It's not just that these relationships matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It's also that, because these relationships are so significant, they seem to demand eternity. A deep love already exists against the vicissitudes of life, tying together past and present in spite of the disruptions and dispersals of quarrels, distractions, misunderstandings, resentments. By its very nature it participates in gathered time. And so death can seem a defeat, the ultimate dispersal that remains ungathered.
In Professor Christopher M. Moreman's presentation on Friday, he located the all-too-human belief in God within the fearfulness with which we encounter the certainty of our own death, a mysterium tremendum in the sense meant by Rudolf Otto in his seminal work, The Idea of the Holy. According to Moreman, this terrible sense of our own death leads us to project onto the nonbeing of death a great Being in our own image who will rescue us from death.

Taylor would say no, that's not the dialectic. The experience that really leads us to long for eternity is not some trembling before the ineluctable certainty of our own death but the loss of those whom we love so dearly.

Though I don't entirely dismiss Moreman's argument, I think that Taylor comes closer to what most people feel about death. We can often come to some acceptance of our own death. But the death of one's mother, father ... of grandparents? Of a beloved spouse? Of a loved child?

These are the sting of death.

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At 8:31 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

My father had had many strokes before his death. That last time I had seen him there was nothing of his personality. He was not bed ridden and was functioning on some level. His days filled with hallucinations and hardly any communications. I felt the lost, as if his death had occurred, but not a gut wrenching pull of how or why this was happening. There was no sting when he actually died. That was surprising.

At 1:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

While my own father's oncoming death was announced by a call in the night, I reflect hathor's observation and apparent conclusion.

I saw then no sting. Any sting was felt by those remaining.

The sting - as I have observed is not in the inevitable, but rather in the audience attending. If the audience does not anticipate the obvious, as in the case of the vibrant, one with whom one has recently spoken, there is that sting.The turtle dropped by the eagle onto the bald head - these may occasion the sting.

Thomas Hart Benton (in April 1858- Hathor) said to his black nurse Kitty, "I shall not trouble you much longer" - (she came to his bedside) - "Do you hear that, that is the death rattle."

This man was what some black folk today might deem an evil man. But he was a veteran representative in DC, a guy who went with Jackson in 1828, raised "Holy Hell" with the Kansas Nebraska Act.

Hathor, I place this here simply because I know the man's perogative whose blog this is: to delete me should he see fit. I believe we are all friends and subject to disageement. But it is the final subject. The Sting which renders us all equal in the end. I've read your blog, I know you have had military experience, you may disagree whether I have the experiential knowledge to feel as you do, but I post nonetheless.


At 4:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, thanks for that. I think that there are many ways to die, some worse than others, and death comes as a release in many of them.

In the case of my father, with whom I was not close, there were few personal feelings on my part. I was sorry that he had died before his time, but I can't say that I loved him much ... if at all.

With my grandparents, the feelings were different.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, I only delete the occasional personal attack, advertisement, or off-topic post. Maybe a few others comments, too, if I deem necessary.

I see no reason to delete yours.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 1:37 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I am puzzeled by this statement.

I've read your blog, I know you have had military experience, you may disagree whether I have the experiential knowledge to feel as you do, but I post nonetheless.

I may be simplifying the discussion of the last two post, but from my own point of view, even when that fear has been extreme, there has been no consolation. Life after death would never be as I was.

At 4:26 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hathor, I think that one problem with Moreman's thesis is that most of us haven't had the sort of fear reaction that would result in a sort of Freudian "reaction formation" from which follows belief in a God guaranteeing our immortality.

I think that religion plays a great many roles, and the promise of immortality is just one of them.

Taylor's views are different, for he focuses upon our love rather than our fear as a ground for belief in immortality, but as you have noted, this doesn't always follow either.

Besides, there are a lot of people we might not want to see in an afterlife, aren't there?

I think that individuals are simply going to differ on this issue of immortality, but Taylor comes closer to my own experience ... with some nuanced differences.

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

At 7:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


"That last time I had seen him there was nothing of his personality....I felt the lost, as if his death had occurred... There was no sting when he actually died."

Hathor, when - in the dark of night I received the call that my father had need of me to come quickly, that he had words to give me: I recalled our last meeting.

I am uncertain as to whether you are familiar with the Ozarkian expression, "he/she was full of piss and vinegar." But when the phone rang me from deep slumber I recalled my daddy thusly. I took time to shower. As I was locking the door to return to Arkansas the phone called me back and the latest message was, "too late."

Hathor; from the visits I've made to your blog I think you may have the advantage of some years on me. I know your soul is wiser.

Your profile "seems" to indicate you were in the military. I have some idea, based perhaps in error, when that experience occurred. If I have made an assumption that is not the case, I have regrets. I admire the way you express and do not wish to alter in any manner your Voice.

I recall your saying at one time something like you did not realize, "how much I ramble." Hathor, I share your feeling. Indeed my self doubt is likely more profound. At least I pray so.

Hathor you've also posted here that the "Ozarkian" experience (I'm paraphrasing) kept us from certain defective conclusions. Kapok with reluctance admits this is untrue. Only years give value to life.

It seems to me that "the sting" must've been more profound and really felt by you given the circumstances of your fathers' passing. If I am understanding your military experience correctly, then I pray I have added just enough. I do want you and I to understand the other.


At 8:50 AM, Blogger Hathor said...

I was in the Army as a WAC from 66-68. It was not like it is now for women. A lot of military discipline and a watchful eye on your morals, while you are doing a civilian type job. The only experience I bring from being there is that I had some contact with returning Vietnam veterans and the attitudes of those waiting for orders to Vietnam.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My limited experience tends me to think we have some things in common. My time on active was just as yours although it occurred I admit: sometime after.
Where and when I did mine, women were not permitted on "combat" status or premise. I do know that Lance Corporal Darrien Judd died on 30 April 75. I do know that SSgt. John Valdez cried when he described "shaking his leg to allow the helo to lift." The helo landed aboard an aircraft carrier on "Yankee Station." That helo lies below the surface of that azure sea. It had to be pushed off the deck to make room for makeshift shelters.
Hathor, we have no disagreement, no cause for lack of communication. I had many friends who served during your time and yes it was not like it is now. but those friends are fewer and strange to say the "sting" of losing them is somewhat more intensely felt than in the case of my very father.
"There was no sting when he actually died. That was surprising."


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