Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England, founder of Inclusive Church, and an outspoken advocate for inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church. He submitted the following article to BBC’s “Thought for the Day” on March 9, 2011.
One of the great privileges of being a priest is that I often get the opportunity to be with people when they die. It frequently astonishes me that, despite the ubiquity of death, this is something a great many people have never actually seen. Little wonder we’re so frightened of death. It used to be something public, but now it’s pushed out of life. Whereas we used to die at home surrounded by friends and family, we now die in hospitals, often alone and hidden behind expensive technology.
It’s commonly assumed that Christians don’t really believe in death at all, that we subscribe to the view that when we die we go on living in some other realm, or in some disembodied form. Just to be clear: I believe nothing of the sort. I don’t like the euphemistic language of “passing on” or “having gone to sleep”. Nor do I subscribe to Platonic ideas about the immortality of the soul. When you die, you die. As the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy puts it: “God alone is immortal.”
Today is Ash Wednesday. Like millions of Christians around the world, I will be marked with ash and told that I am dust and to dust I shall return. There is nothing depressing or morbid about any of this – in fact, quite the reverse. Personally speaking, it leaves me with a more intense sense of the preciousness of human life, something that’s intimately bound up with its intrinsic limit and fragility.
Indeed, the problem with the modern lack of experience of death is precisely that it robs us of this very intensification. Life without death is “just one damned thing after another.” For death gives life its urgency: now is the opportunity to love and respond to love, to be different, to make a difference, to change the world. There is no time to waste.
This is why I have little enthusiasm for the idea that science might be able to keep us alive indefinitely, that through cryogenic suspension or uploading our DNA onto computers we might be able to achieve immortality. I’m not saying these extraordinary things will never be possible “who can say?” but rather, that the best these technologies can ever offer is a life that goes on and on and on. And if I can put it like this: more and more of me, extended over time, doesn’t really solve the problem of being me.
When theologians like Boethius and Augustine speak of entering eternity they mean something altogether different from this: for eternity is outside of time, unrelated to temporal sequence. Which is why eternity can be as much as quality of our present experience, more an expansion of our imagination, a call to reach beyond claustrophobic self-absorption and to see the world anew. As William Blake so memorably suggested:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.