Friday, 24 August 2007

On facing death and disaster

I hope this blog doesn’t sound too intellectual, but after last week’s mean swipe at the Irish weather, perhaps a little bit of seriousness won’t hurt.

On the way back from college today I was listening to the famous American minimalist composer John Adams talking about his work commemorating 9/11, called On the Transmigration of Souls. It’s an interesting piece (it won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music), but it was evident in his comment on it that Adams was distancing himself from anything like a requiem. It was, he said, ‘a “memory space” where each listener can find a personal response to the events’. It struck me that by saying this he was actually admitting that he had very little to say. What he seemed to be expressing in the piece itself was something along the lines of: ‘This was awful but these things happen and we need to accept that fact.’

Further thought suggested that in Western civilisation a response to tragedy, whether natural or man-made, has gone through four phases.

Phase 1 was common during the Christian period. Here the response was simply, ‘Help me, O God, to understand and come to terms with this tragedy that you as an all-wise and all-loving heavenly Father have inflicted on me.’ This is firm faith.

Phase 2, which occurs later at the end of the Christian period has a very different note. ‘Why O God, are you doing this to me? What are the reasons for this action?’ (This response neglects the well known fact that God generally does not give justification for his actions.) Here faith has been replaced by questioning. This is faith mixed with doubt.

Phase 3, which I think dates from the start of the Enlightenment (around 1750), expresses a deeper question: ‘Is there anybody up there all or are these events simply random?’ This is scepticism.

Phase 4, which really comes in the latter part of the 20th century, takes the absence of God as much for granted as the first phase took his presence. The best we can hope for is a sad resignation to this tragedy that a blind and unthinking fate has inflicted on me. A non-musical illustration of this would be the epitaph on the poet W. B. Yeats’ gravestone at the church at Drumcliff, County Sligo, with its chilling lines ‘Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman ride by’. It is this sort of attitude (long the standard viewpoint in the East) that Adams and others seem to hold. This is a sort of post-Christian faith: we have returned to acceptance, but it is now without God.

For Christian writers this poses a challenge: we agree with our contemporaries that death and suffering should be accepted; but for very different reasons. Their faith and our faith are two very different things. I know which I prefer.

These are difficult matters, but they are worth thinking about. As someone wise or good probably said ‘nothing in life so concentrates our minds as death’.