Being Mortal

Today, I am here to help you with your Christmas shopping!  If you would like a book suggestion that would work for almost anyone, may I commend to your attention Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande.  I’ve mentioned him before [most recently in a post on Oct. 10th of this year]:  he’s a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health, AND the author of three other amazing books and a regular contributor to The New Yorker, which is where I first discovered his writing. [Does he sleep?  I doubt it.]

Anyway, what I love about his writing is that even if you aren’t so interested in medicine in and of itself and the human body [isn’t everyone, to some degree?], the issues that he raises ABOUT the human body are relevant to absolutely everyone, and certainly those in religious communities.  In the Christian community in particular, those of us who are public ministers, teachers and scholars constantly are working to make sense of the goodness of human bodies, even when they are ravaged by disease; the ethical issues around various medical technologies; and of course, death and dying.  And it’s the latter issue that Gawande takes up in particular in this book:  the subtitle is, “Medicine and What Matters in the End.”

This is what he says in the Forward:

“Modern Scientific Capability has profoundly altered the course of human life.  People live longer and better than at any other time in history.  But scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences, matters to be managed by health care professionals. And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it.”

Therefore, this book is “about the modern experience of mortality–about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die…”  This is a fact we continue to avoid:  seeking youth at all costs, and avoiding death with every tool at our disposal.  Theologically, too, we have a hard time talking about death.  Christians talk about death as “the wages of sin,” but at the same time, many theologians note the fact that finitude is built into every living creature, and it’s not death itself that is sinful, but our experience of it and our relationship to it that makes it so.  

If this is true [and I am one of those theologians who believes that it is], then Gawande’s work is especially important.  He writes:

 “Mortality can be a treacherous subject.  Some will be alarmed by the prospect of a doctor’s writing about the inevitability of decline and death.  For many, such talk, however carefully framed, raises the specter of a society readying itself to sacrifice its sick and aged.  But what if the sick and aged are already being sacrificed–victims of our refusal to accept the inexorability of our life cycle?  And what if there are better approaches, right in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognized?”

I think this is a place where theologians can learn from doctors–and, frankly, where they can learn from us.  All semester,I’ve been teaching a course on “salvation,” and we have seen how typically death is thought of as an interruption in that experience of new life, a challenge to that experience that must be overcome.  But what if we thought about death as included in the process of salvation, somehow–a necessary and not necessarily evil aspect of the whole scope of salvation gifted to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ?  I know we don’t usually think about it that way, but I’m with Gawande:  “What if there are better [theological] approaches, right in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognized?”  I think there are, and the church needs to explore them, for the sake of all of us, who will, at one time or another, in peace or in agony, pass into the arms of “sister death.”

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