Saturday, January 18, 2014

Gift? Punishment? Blessing? Burden?

Which of those things is death?

Earlier this month I stumbled on to Mythgard Academy.  Both of the last two Tuesdays I have sat in on the free webinars (or at least the beginning of them before having to play chauffeur) exploring Tolkien's Unfinished Tales.  A comment made in the second one sparked the thoughts leading to this post.

But first I think we need some background....

In the mythology of Middle Earth as presented in the Silmarillion, there are two races who are referred to as the Children of Iluvatar.  These are Elves and Men.  Elves are immortal, unless they are slain they will live forever.  Men are mortal. Not only do they die of old age but they are far more likely to die from wounds and are susceptible to illness.  It is stated, repeatedly, that this death is teh gift of Iluvatar to men.  They are not bound to the world.  Elves, it is said, grow weary of the world but are bound to it, they do not have the release of death. (It is my belief that this world-weariness is far more a fate of those elves who have left the Undying Lands to live in Middle-Earth proper and/or those who are born in Middle-Earth.  Does one grow weary of living in Paradise?)

But the nature of life is that Men have difficulty seeing death as a gift.  It seems more like an unfair burden.  And they chafe at it.  The downfall of Numenor, the island of the Gift, was brought about largely because of this issue.  The last king of Numenor, in his vanity and arrogance (and egged on by Sauron) sailed with a mighty fleet to the Undying Lands to wrest immortality from the Valar.  To be fair the Elves also have trouble understanding death as a gift, but they may not taste the bitterness of the gift quite as directly (with the notable exceptions of Luthien in the Elder Days and Arwen in the early years of the Fourth Age).

In the webinar last Tuesday the presenter mentioned that Tolkien claimed nothing in his Middle-Earth mythology was in contradiction to standard Roman Catholic theology.  It was then mentioned that questions have been raise in this regard when it comes to the idea of death as a gift (remember Silmarillion, Unfiinshed Tales, and all the other books that have come afterwards -- there are a fair number--have been published after Tolkien's death by his son Christopher so Tolkien himself has  not necessarily been a part of these discussions).  It was also mentioned that there is a hint in one of the volumes of the History of Middle Earth series of a "Garden of Eden" type of story.  So is death the Gift of Iluvatar?  Or is it a punishment because the earliest fathers of men in Middle-Earth had their own Fall at the hands/instigation of Morgoth? 

But what is the "proper" theology of death in our world?  Is death solely a punishment accruing from the Fall as described in Genesis 3, a result of having been turfed out of Eden and no longer able to access the Tree of Life?  Or have we as humans done what the men of Middle-Earth have done when it comes to death?  Have we taken something that was part of ing, part of existence, possibly even a gift and turned it into something terrible and against God's plan?

The Men of Middle-Earth, for a variety of reasons, generally see death as a burden, not a release, not a gift.  They seek ways to avoid it.  They embalm the bodies of their dead in a statement against death's bitterness.  Does this sound familiar?

What if death, particularly a natural death after a life well-lived in old age, is not the enemy?  What if death was always a part of being alive?  Not a punishment for wrongdoing, but merely a part of reality.  What if the Fall was not the beginning of death but the beginning of humanity's struggle with death?

How many people in their later years have expressed a weariness, a wondering why they are still around?  How many families, at the end, have referred to the death of a loved one, particularly after a long or trying illness, as a release or relief too long in the coming?

What if death is, in a way a gift??  A double-bladed bitter gift too be sure.  But is there a way or a time when it is a gift from God? What is the "proper" theological approach to death?

I suspect it is somewhere between simple acceptance and Dylan Thomas' admonition "Do not go gentle into that good night".  It may be part gift, part burden, depending on a variety of circumstances.  In the Appendicies of Lord of the Rings we read of the death of Aragorn.  To Aragorn is given the opportunity to embrace his death peacefully before it is forced upon him in a period of dotage.  It is bitter for Arwen to watch happen, but it is embraced peacefully as a gift.  Maybe there are times when that would in fact be healthier for us too.  SO maybe Tolkien's theology is right after all...

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