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Et in Arcadia Ego

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, April 7, 2004

In the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, Oxford, lies buried a professor of Medieval and Renaissance English. As befits a scholar of literature, the epitaph on his tombstone – carved by his brother, who was later buried beside him – is taken from Shakespeare; “Men must endure their going hence.” Spoken by Edgar in the final act of King Lear, these words strike a tone of stoic resignation in the face of death, and some might be surprised to find them engraved on the tombstone of this professor, who is best known as a defender of full-blooded Christian orthodoxy. What, it may be asked, of his Christian hope?

C.S. Lewis did not abandon his faith, but he was not interested in any cheap consolation. Lewis lost his mother – before his 10th birthday – his father and his wife, all to cancer. Like St. Paul, he believed in the resurrection of the dead, but he did not deny death its sting.

Tomorrow is Good Friday, when Christians remember the death of Christ, who was wounded and put to death – we believe – for our transgressions. Crucifixion was the most barbarous form of execution that the human mind had been capable of imagining, and many others suffered similarly horrendous deaths. (Nor is crucifixion a thing of the past; even today it is practiced in the Sudan, where Christians are put to death for their beliefs. In the past decade, the United Nations Human Rights Commission has documented the crucifixion of children as young as seven.)

It is quite common to make comparisons between the death of Christ and the death of Socrates. Both were innocent men put to death because they were seen as a threat to the social order. There are certainly interesting similarities, but when the accounts of their deaths are compared it is the differences which strike us most forcibly. Socrates is composed, he reassures his friends that death is nothing to fear. Practiced rightly, Socrates taught, philosophy is the preparation for death, and when the time came he was ready to drink the hemlock and pass on.

But when we turn to the accounts of Christ’s death in the Gospels, we see a man terrified of the fate before him. He prays that the cup may pass from him, and on the cross he cries out in despair. Mark reports Jesus’ others sayings already translated into Greek, but he leaves the cry from the cross in the Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? It is here, I think, that we see most clearly that Christ not only suffers, but truly dies.

Theologians have wrestled with the meaning of Christ’s cry of desolation. I am no theologian, but speaking autobiographically, I doubt I am alone in seeing it as the ultimate expression of Christ’s solidarity with mankind’s abjection, or in thinking that any attempt to understand the good news of Easter must begin with an attempt to reckon with Calvary.

The Apostle Paul believed that the resurrection of Christ was the basis for Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead. I have known many people who have insisted that in our age of science we cannot hold either belief. When pressed as to which particular scientific discovery renders belief in resurrection unsustainable, they usually become vague and speak of “the scientific worldview.” But what their arguments typically demonstrate is not that Christ could not have been raised, but only that if he was then his resurrection would have been a miracle, a conclusion which has the merit of being what every sane person has always believed.

Voltaire said that the human species is the only one which knows that it will die, which puts us between the oblivious beasts and the immortal angels in whom Voltaire did not believe. In previous generations we were taught to prepare ourselves from a young age. In 17th century New England, children were given schoolbooks containing a poem instructing them “Go through the cemetery, and you will see graves shorter than you.”

But many forces in our culture conspire to encourage us to push the knowledge of our mortality to the back of our consciousness; death, we half-imagine, is something reserved for those who smoke and eat red meat. But our denial is dangerous because, as Saul Bellow once put it, death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.

We are all going to die. How then shall we live?

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. His column usually appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.