“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.”
That’s from a touching piece of prose called ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, written by Yale college student Marina Keegan shortly before her tragic death in a car accident. You can (and should!) read the whole thing here.
“It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt.”
There’s a very simple beauty to Keegan’s reflection, the sort which only ever seems to accompany honest writing. There’s no pretension or showiness to her prose; she is simply relating her heartfelt admiration for the sense of community that universities and colleges foster. That’s a concept which Orthodox Christians in particular, find very familiar.
I couldn’t help but think a rather unkind thought as I read Keegan’s reflection though. When it formed in my head, it went something like this: “People who like to ascribe all events to the ‘irresistible will of God’ should think long and hard about tragedies like this.” The thought is unkind because many people (including myself) draw profound comfort from the sense that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. I don’t think that sense is necessarily misguided – there’s no denying that God’s plans for eternity, truth and love will ultimately be realised. He’s certainly ‘omnipotent’ in that sense; He cannot, ultimately, be defeated.
But surely, surely, Keegan’s tragic death, when she had just demonstrated such disarming and stunningly beautiful humanity, has to show that there is something profoundly wrong with this world. Marina Keegan was ripped suddenly and violently out of a world which she loved deeply, leaving her friends and family heartbroken. And of course, she is just one of billions of human beings who suffered similarly sudden and violent ends throughout history. The only honest response to that fact is to ask, “Why do things like this happen?”
I feel rather strongly that the answer cannot be, it simply cannot be, ‘because God wills it.’ That is not the God of Christ or the God of Scripture. If there is a sense in which God ‘wanted’ Keegan to die at this time and this place, then there has to be a deeper, truer sense in which He never wanted her to die. D.B. Hart puts this well:
Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. […] And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
For me at least, that is one of the supreme truths revealed by Christ. The Gospel of John is particularly illuminating on this subject; in it, Christ says that ruler of the world ‘has nothing in Him’ (John 14:30), and that He has come to cast him out (John 12:31). The ruler of this world, according to Christ, is not God. He/she/it is a force entirely alien to God – John’s first epistle makes this even more explicit: “We know that we are of God, but the whole world is under the sway of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19).
The ‘Wisdom of Solomon’ contains a passage quoted frequently by the Church Fathers, including St. Basil in his liturgy: “For God created man for immortality, and made him an image of His own eternity. But death entered the world by the envy of the devil …” (Wis. of Sol. 2:23-24) (Also, see Wis. of Sol. 1:13-16 … “For God hath not made death …”)
The patristic consensus is extremely clear. Death is not a punishment or divinely ordained ‘teaching tool’, it is an evil corruption of goodness:
“Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” St. Athanasius the Great
“So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God.” St. Basil the Great
“Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves out of an evil disposition. Nevertheless, He did not hinder the dissolution on account of the aforementioned causes, so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 345).
“But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness, … It is not, however, that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” ~ St. Irenaeus
So yes, I wonder sometimes, whether we sometimes fail to remember that as Christians, we needn’t make ‘peace’ with tragedy. We needn’t bend over backwards to explain why the Rwandan Genocide or the Boxing Day tsunami or the Queensland floods were all somehow part of God’s ‘perfect plan’. God was certainly present in those events, and being God, He can and does use them to bring about good things. But ‘God hath not made death’. And the Gospel of Christ, literally His ‘good news’ is that Christ the conqueror over death and evil; the Coptic Church refers liturgically to the risen Christ as ‘the King of Glory’ (ep-ouro ente ep-o-ou). In the Prayer of Reconciliation, we pray:
“O God the great and the eternal, who formed man in incorruption. And Death, which entered in to the world by the envy of the Devil, you have destroyed through the life-giving manifestation of Your Only-Begotten Son, our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.”
~ The Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil
My point is, I think we would do well to remember that while we are ultimately in God’s hands, for the moment, we are at war. There are human and inhuman forces at work in the world that hate life and love, and therefore hate Christ. We do not hate such forces in return, we simply pity them. They are perhaps the most confused of all of us. The only thing that can render this tortured world morally comprehensible is the Cross of Christ and His empty tomb. Without those, death would be the final word, and suffering would be an irredeemable evil. But thanks to Christ, the King of Glory, we know that no matter how many battles Death wins on Earth, it cannot win the war. We fight kingdom of death through charity, compassion and mercy, and when its evil soldiers come for us, we hold our heads high and go down without compromise. In the words of Minucius Felix, speaking of Christian martyrs:
“How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain; when he is drawn up against threats, and punishments, and tortures; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads under foot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone, whose he is; when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence against him! For he has conquered who has obtained that for which he contends.”
By Baptism into the Cross, we are all put in eternal enmity with Death. We will not justify it. We will not co-operate with it. We will only ever spit in its face, as all early Christians literally did at their baptism, and commit ourselves to Christ. In light of this radical Christian rebellion against death, perhaps we should be a little bit more comfortable calling events like Marina Keegan’s death what they truly are: hideous tragedies, which can only be redeemed by a total and complete reversal.
“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”
~ The Nicene Creed