Does death require an imagination of us?

Wes at work in the Congo

Years ago I had an elderly friend – a retired dancer, a photographer, a lover of music and roses. He and I worked together as contractors with God-fearing institutions whose political hearts were center left, and whose coffers helped us make a living independent of 9 to 5, and at the same time in relative good conscience. We were surrounded in our work by Christians, some of them people of great faith and others of questionable ethics, including one who I swear was actually evil.

At any rate, Wes died, and one day I was talking with a mutual friend, Gil, who was among the aforesaid Christians of deep faith, when he said of Wes: “He didn’t believe, did he? I always thought he didn’t have enough imagination to be a Christian.”

I, of course, would have said quite the opposite. Wes and I had both grown up in Lutheran churches, we had both left homes and communities that seemed stultifying for lives that we felt were all about the imagination. I’ve never been quite sure what to think about Gil’s remark, although I agree whole-heartedly that Christianity is absurd enough to require great imagination of its believers.

Perhaps Wes didn’t have much imagination – I don’t know – I remember being astonished when he told me he had, for the first time in his life, started thinking about death. About time, I thought: he was in his mid-70s! Still to myself, I added, I’ve thought about it almost every day of my life. That was true, but perhaps not the way I do now, and the way he did then, both of us in our 70s, when it’s so much closer, and looming larger every day. Perhaps that’s what he meant, I’ll never know. Or, as Gil said, maybe he really didn’t have much imagination.
Many artists think about death a lot. In fact, I suspect there’s not a serious writer, painter, composer, et. al. who doesn’t. Author Julian Barnes, suddenly finding himself age 60, recently spent a whole book on it. Interestingly enough, most of the text was taken up with his inability to believe in God. In most of the world’s thousands of years-long meditation on death, the relationship of God and death is clearly an intimate one.

Despite my comments about Updike in my last post, the more I read of John Updike the more I think I’ll probably have to read him. I don’t think he had much to say about growing old and how it effected his work. His interest in death and faith suffused his writing from the very beginning. Of all 60 books.

I’m going to end this post with an absurdly long quote because I can’t imagine putting it any better. It’s from a March, 2009 conversation on ABC Radio’s “The Spirit of Things” with Rachel Kohn, broadcast shortly after Updike’s death. The quotation is from Avis Hewitt an Associate Professor of English at Grand Valley State University:

To me this is a statement of faith. I think that the notion of our disappearance from this mortal coil is pretty hard to dispute. That we each in turn do disappear, but I think that Updike had a great attachment to the mortal coil, and in his last essay on self -consciousness, the one that he calls On Being a Self Forever, he sees his self as a kind of window on the world, and he sees the shutting of that window as pretty much unbearable because it means that the cosmic party is going on without him, without us. I love the way in which that essay is such a tribute to living forever. He quotes in that essay remember, Unamuno, and says that we crave the continuation of this present life, we don’t want any sort of glorified life, just to know that every moment of our consciousness will be followed by another one, that’s what we like. We like resolution of old adventures, we like the possibility of beginning new ones, and that’s all we need of dying, is the dying of old selves. He said that we leave behind a litter of these dead, unrecoverable selves, and the fact that that’s true is both unbearable, and it’s the most common thing in the world. He said that we can stand it in the daytime to think of this litter of selves, but in the darkness, we can’t contemplate it at all without turning in panic to God. That’s his phrase, without turning in panic to God.

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