The question of death's meaning, says Peter Kreeft, is by extension the question of life's meaning. If death is a door with no hallway, if it is simply The End, then life has no true purpose. But if death is a mystery and holds secrets we must cross a threshold to encounter, then it is not the final word, and there is therefore a relation between our existence now and the exsistence to be once our bodies fail. According to Kreeft, much of this purpose is spent reconciling ourselves to the terminal illness each of us must bear—our own mortality.
Death comes to us in five forms, Kreeft says—first as enemy, then as stranger, then friend, mother and lover. Much of what he says is deliberately provocative, such as his assertion that only by first presenting itself as enemy can death ever become a friend, or his uncomfortably graphic language comparing the act of death to the act of labor and birth. For those Christians taught to view death as the supreme evil, the end of life due to the advent of sin, much of this book will appear dubious at best, and at worst heretical. But Kreeft's arguments are intended to raise doubt, challenge, thought, not merely to facilitate stagnation and resolve.
It is the final chapter, "Death as a Lover,"that is the most problematic. Borrowing heavily (or so it seems) from Medieval mystics, Kreeft conflates God and death in some sense and uses highly sexual terms to describe our relationship to each. He even talks about God impregnating us with eternal life, as though between us and Him there is a type of spritual coitus enacted at death. This may not pass for good theology, and it may not even pass for good philosophy, but it is certainly a far different way of thinking about the termination of life than what we're typically used to.
And here's the question—is Kreeft's role as provocateur helpful in bringing us to a better understanding of death, or is it simply speculation run amok?While there are doubtless those who could ably argue either case, it's certain that he explores elements of death most Christians like to avoid or ignore. He looks at human culpability, for instance, as the construction of self through the free exercise of will, that it is our choices made as free moral agents that make us who we are and which we present to God at the end of our lives.
Of course he is bound existentially to explore death from a spiritual and metaphorical standpoint—never having died, he can't tell us what it's like or whether his suppositions are absolutely correct. His insistence that death is a person and not merely a personification is interesting, though perhaps not as completely defended logically or biblically as he assumes. Still, this isn't a book of assertions. Kreeft is a philosopher, and as such involved in interpreting truth and understanding wisdom. You may not agree with, like or care for what he says, but as beings who will one day die this is a profound treatment that speaks directly to our certain end.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?