Paul O. Ingram Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
Sometimes when I think about death and dying, usually when I’m alone late at night, thoughts revolve inside my head like wheels within wheels. It’s a bizarre feeling because the problem with thinking about death is that we don’t know what we’re talking about, an experience similar to what mystics tell us about God-talk: when we talk about God, we don’t know what we’re talking about. Of course we certainly know that death is, that it will happen to every living thing. But we do not know what death is because before we can know anything, we must first experience what we know. But by the time we experience death, it may be too late to know the experience.
On a sullen November day more years ago than I like to remember I took hike in the foothills of the High Sierras than ended at a forgotten cemetery. The weather was threatening, but I was driven by an unusual restlessness. Snow covered the land like a white shroud and clung to the pine trees like cotton by the time I reached the cemetery bathed in gray twilight. The community that placed it there had long vanished. Season by season, frost, snow and summer’s heat had cracked the flat headstone until none remained upright.
As I stood freezing among the frozen dead I saw the only other living thing in this bleak place—a mule deer showing ribs beneath its hide. Only the storm contained us. That shrinking, long-eared animal cowering helplessly beside a slab in an abandoned graveyard expected the momentary flash of death. But it did not run. And I, with a rifle I used to carry in that day and time, also stood while snow—a real blizzard by then—raged over and between us. But I did not fire, and have not fired since.
We had the power to be fruitful and multiply, I remember thinking. Why was it so, and what was the message that somehow seemed wordlessly spoken from a long way off, carried by the cold and the wind, out of explicit human hearing. The wind swirled snow around us as the temperature fell. The mule dear needed that bit of shelter. In its trembling body, in the million of years of evolution between us, there was no storyteller’s aid. It had survived alone, thin and emaciated. But it was alive and that was triumph enough.
I slowly backed away from the mule deer and the dead human beings and their fallen gravestones. I knew that if I could follow the fence lines, there would be a fire and company for me. But then I suddenly knew: it was out of such desolation that all life forms had arisen, and to such desolation that all things caught in the field of space-time will return. We are, in essence, belated ghosts of an angry winter searching for springtime; we carry in our hearts winter’s death intertwined with a yearning for springtime.
The mule deer was another of my many “hidden teachers,” as Loren Eiseley phrased it, and it taught me four lessons. First, the rules of evolution require death; life grows out of death; death generates life. Life forms must eat other life forms to survive. Life demands killing, and all life forms live on the death of other life forms. So death seems to be necessary condition energizing the evolutionary processes that create and sustain the life of all living beings
Second, there seems to be one commandment shared by all species: survive. Species are armed for survival, fanged for it, timid for it, hungry for it, fierce for it, clever for it, intelligent for it. This commandment decrees the suffering and death of myriads of individuals for the survival of the whole. Life has one final end: to be alive. All the tricks and mechanisms, all the evolutionary successes and failures, are aimed to this end. It seems to be the natural order of things that the pluralistic processes of death sustain and support the plurality life.
Third, the interdependency of life and death is a “natural fact of existence.” It is neither cruel nor merciful. True, death can often seem to come as a welcomed friend bringing release from suffering. Yet death is a reality that directly challenges any religious Ways teachings and practices.
Finally, as if this were not enough, human beings, nature’s top predator, add to the pluralism of suffering and death required by evolutionary processes. We are one of the few species that kills other species for reasons other than food. We also kill each other, in extreme instances motivated by rationalizations we invent to justify war, racial hatred, religious imperialism, gender oppression, and oppression of the poor by the wealthy and politically powerful.
So here lies the hard truth. The only species that is a blot on nature, with the ability and will to push the forces of death beyond death’s natural capacity to support life, to the point of extinguishing all life on this planet, is also the one species that most intimately knows the terror of death, that experience most acutely the rip that death creates in the human community and humanity’s community with non-human life. So even as human being have killed or been killed or have died “naturally, sometimes in suffering, sometimes not, our species is haunted by a question: “Is this all there is?” The religious Ways of humanity, in a pluralism of ways, all assert that there is more than this, that there is much more than death. I cannot think of a stronger justification for the practice of interreligious dialogue centering on this “more” than this.