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Memento Mori

The abolition of Limbo, and the importance of eternity.

11:00 PM, Dec 15, 2005 • By ROSS DOUTHAT
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In the quest for this-world enlightenment and loss-of-ego, Armstrong wrote a few years ago, ideas of an afterlife may be "beneficial" if kept safely in perspective--"but all too often, the quest for immortality becomes profoundly unreligious." In her preferred form of Christianity, Paul's "eye-hath-not-seen" exhortation is reinterpreted as a call to this-world-only religiosity, and the whole Christian idea is reshaped along more eastern lines, with less emphasis on the horror of death and the hope of resurrection, and more on "the discovery of a sacred realm of peace in the depths of one's own self."

Yet death remains--obdurate, inevitable, unmoved by "sacred realms of peace" or anywhere else we might hide from its remorseless advance. And to treat the Christian hope of eternity as a means to another end, whether enlightenment or inner peace or good works or the loss of the ego, is to muddle means and ends beyond recognition. Death isn't "beneficial" to our spiritual quest, it's a reason for our spiritual quest--the horror at the heart of being, and the end of all the ends there are.

Reflecting recently on the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, the journalist David Rieff noted that "there are those who can reconcile themselves to death and those who can't." His mother was one of the latter. She "feared extinction above all else, was in anguish over its imminence," Rieff writes; "I am not interested in quality of life!" she cried, when the doctors suggested that a life-prolonging treatment might not be in her best interests.

Orthodox Christianity, unlike its gnostic and Buddhist reincarnations, refuses to pretend that this desire for life is somehow spiritually immature, let alone "profoundly unreligious." Sontag's cry, like Job's before it, is the question to which Christ's resurrection is the answer, the hallmark of a fallen world that Christians believe their savior died to redeem. Death isn't a development to be reconciled with, but an enemy that God has overcome, so that we can say with Saint Paul "O death, where is they sting; o grave where is thy victory?"

If Limbo told us too much about death and the afterlife, presuming knowledge that no Christian should claim, then a religion that brackets the question of eternity tells us too little. Somewhere between the schematized afterlife of the scholastics and the too-sophisticated-by-half spirituality of today lies the truth--that what comes after death is a mystery that no eye hath seen, but that it's the most important mystery there is.

Ross Douthat is an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly.