Paul L. Caron

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Inazu: Reflections On Mortality — Does Christianity Matter?

John Inazu (Washington University; Google Scholar), Reflections on Mortality: Does Christianity Matter?:

Lost Art of Dying 4Last month, Interfaith America and The Carver Project cohosted the first cohort of the Newbigin Fellows for a three-day conference in St. Louis. Our gathering included a public dialogue titled, “Reflections on Morality: Does Christianity Matter?” I moderated discussion between three of the fellows serving as panelists:

Our discussion covered a wide range of topics, with each panelist bringing a unique perspective formed by her particular expertise. In today’s post, I’d like to share some highlights from the dialogue [audio].

I opened the discussion by recounting an article I wrote in 2013 about online communities [Virtual Assembly, 98 Cornell L. Rev. 1093 (2013)]. When I began researching that article, I was skeptical that online communities could offer their participants the same meaningful fulfillment as offline communities. Yet I discovered moving examples of online communities that were incredibly meaningful to their participants.

There was, however, one catch: every one of the participants in these online communities eventually died. And as they neared death, their online relationships necessarily transitioned offline. They flew to each other’s homes and neighborhoods, held hands with the dying person, and comforted family members in person. It was a powerful reminder that no matter how much we live our lives online, we die offline in bodily realities.

With this background, I asked Lydia to set the stage by discussing her 2020 book, The Lost Art of Dying: Reviving Forgotten Wisdom. Lydia noted:

I am a primary care doctor, which means that most of my patients are baby boomers and older. And I also do quite a bit of work in the hospital. In both of those roles, I have had the occasion to care for many patients who either themselves died in ways that they did not anticipate or whose family members experienced a kind of highly medicalized dying. When those family members came back to me to process these experiences after having sat in the ICU watching their loved ones die, they often say, “I would never want to go through that again. I never want that to happen to me.”

I have also found myself asking why it is that we have this incredible medical technology, but we are not just using it to save lives. We’re also using it to drag out and extend the dying process. And at some point this incredible technology is actually doing more harm.

Lydia described how dissatisfaction with this kind of thinking eventually led her to the ars moriendi, Latin for “the art of dying.” This was a genre of literature that arose in response to the mid-14th century bubonic plague in Western Europe, which took the lives of one-third to two-thirds of the population. Lydia noted:

In response to the plague, there was a social outcry among survivors: our finitude is inevitable, and therefore we need some sort of tool to help ourselves prepare for death. The central thread of this genre, the ars moriendi, is that if you want to die well, you have to live well. Those two are very interrelated. And therefore talking about mortality is really a conversation asking “How do we live well now in the context of our communities?” ...

I asked Jen to talk about the role of suffering, and how Christians have hope in the midst of real suffering. She replied:

Suffering is not merely a material phenomenon. We are animals who suffer and feel pain. But we’re also rational animals who need to have a story about our suffering, who need to be able to make sense of it. And we live in a culture that increasingly says that unless suffering is controlled or chosen, it is meaningless.

But our embodiment—our animality—comes with a lot of unchosen suffering that we don’t control. And I think increasingly within medicine, we don’t know what to do with that kind of suffering. We can medicate it, but that’s not enough. And I think this is why so many people now think that end of life suffering should just be taken off the table. The idea is that I address suffering by eliminating the sufferer. That’s the treatment.

This ultimately comes out of a distorted conception of freedom. I think this whole aversion to unchosen limits is increasingly a problem for a culture that understands freedom as just an expression of my will. Anything that is not an expression of my will, including any form of suffering, is either meaningless or bad. And in that context, maybe it is better to eliminate the sufferer rather than address the suffering. This is where Christianity really does matter because we do have a story about our suffering. We have a way of seeing in our suffering the suffering of Christ on the cross for us and for our salvation. ...

We ended our dialogue with a discussion of hope, and Lydia concluded our time by invoking Aquinas:

Hope for Aquinas is a theological virtue. Between faith and love lies hope for eternal happiness, which for Aquinas is being united with God in heaven. Aquinas says that we can be instruments of hope for others when they are not able to hope. As doctors, we exercise the virtue of hope on behalf of patients who aren’t able to hope, but there will also be times when we’re caring for loved ones where we find it hard to hope. But in those situations, the Church can hope for us. The object of our hope, however, is not cure; it’s not that all of the sadness would go away or there will be no suffering. Rather, the object of our hope is is to be united with God, and we can remind one another of that hope.

Editor's Note:  If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.

Other faith posts by John Inazu:

Faith, Legal Education | Permalink