Preparing for Death and the University


Have you ever thought about taking a class on death? I recently began running again, after nursing an injury for the better part of a year, and decided to check out iTunes U to occupy my mind while exhausting my body. Of course, I chose a course from Yale called, “The Philosophy of Death,” because what else am I going to listen to while trying to extend by life by putting my body through such agony? (I’ll be honest, from a distance it would be hard to distinguish between my jogging and the way extras move on The Walking Dead.) What I heard in the first ten minutes of the course has been haunting me for the past few days (no ghost puns intended). Let me explain. As the professor, Shelly Kagan (“The first thing I want to invite you to do is call me Shelly,” he said) was introducing the course, he made two comments that gave me pause. The first one terrified me (Please forgive the length of the quotations).

“What I’m going to try to convince you of is that there is no soul, immortality would not be a good thing, fear of death is not actually an appropriate response to death, suicide under certain circumstances might be rationally and morally, since of course I believe my views, I hope by the end of the semester, you’ll agree with me because I think they’re true and I hope you will end up believing the truth.”

Don’t let anyone tell you the academy denies the concept of truth...good gracious, I hope by the end of the semester they are still alive! To his credit, Shelly did follow this by saying, “The crucial point isn’t for you to agree with me. The crucial point is to get you to think for yourself...I’ll be content if you’ve thought through the arguments.”

The second comment has forced me to think how we in the church prepare our students for the university:

“This is a philosophy class. We’ll basically be sitting here thinking about what we can know...with regard to death using our reasoning capacities. We’ll be trying to think about death from a rational standpoint. One kind of argument or evidence we won’t be making use of here is an appeal to religious authority. So, some of you may believe in an existence of an afterlife...because that is what your church teaches you. That is fine, it is not my purpose here to argue you out of your religious beliefs or to argue against your religious beliefs. All I’m going to ask that we not appeal to...revelation or the authority of  the the course of this argument. If you want to, you can think of this class as one big hypothetical. What conclusions would we come to if we had to think about death from a secular perspective, making use of only our own reasoning as opposed to whatever answer we might be given from divine revealed authority...I’m not going to ask you to hide your religious views, you’ll be asked in the course of defending them to give reasons that make sense to all of us.”

It is not hard for us in the church to find problems with the opening statements of Shelly’s lecture. Books upon books are written about the numerous problems young Christians face in the university, and Shelly seemed to use those problems as a checklist of things to say in his opening ten minutes of class. There’s plenty to discuss here. But, let’s set aside for a moment the pomposity that comes from a professor telling his class that he is able to discuss the philosophy of death by setting aside all things religious. I mean, how would thousands of years of wisdom on the subject help guide the conversation? Let’s also set aside the problem of having an intro level philosophy professor arguing for the morality of suicide to a group of college freshmen who are at the most emotionally volatile point in their lives.

My main concern is with Shelly’s comment that students defending religious views must “give reasons that make sense to us all.” Why did he have to qualify this? My guess (which I am admittedly reading into that comment) is that most “religious” arguments Shelly gets in his class aren’t really arguments at all. Rather, they are assertions based on a blind fideism; a sort of advanced “I disagree with the professor because the Bible tells me about heaven and I know the Bible is right because it tells me so!” Certainly, this may prove a brave stance to take at an Ivy League school. But, it is not much of an argument. And it is certainly one easily ripped to shreds by any college professor worth his or her salt. What bothers me more is that I think Shelly might be right, this is the sort of thing students learned from their church back home!

Ecce Homo by Antonio Ciseri c. 1880

I wonder if anyone has ever presented Christianity to Shelly as something that could be verified, or for that matter, falsified. My assumption is that he already believes Christianity’s belief about the afterlife is falsifiable. But, I wonder if anyone has ever spoken to him about the fact that the New Testament itself teaches that Christianity and its views are falsifiable.

As St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 15: 14-15, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.” (Interestingly, Paul is making such a claim in a text arguing for, not just the resurrection of Christ, but the general post-death raising of all humanity!) I wonder how many of his students had a pastor teach extensively on this verse. I wonder how many pastors prepared their students for college by saying “You must believe this Bible is true no matter what!” instead of giving them St. Paul’s warning.

Here’s the thing with Christianity: as Paul says, if Jesus' bones are resting somewhere outside of Jerusalem, then this whole religion of ours is a big waste of time. If it can be shown that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John orchestrated a big hoax and this all just some sort of religious fable to get people through the night (John Lennon), then we are among all people to be most pitied.

What worries me is that many of us pastors have gotten lazy in preparing our students for the sort of false categories Shelly presented to the class. You know, the categories that separate philosophy grounded in reason and religion grounded in blind faith. The New Testament doesn’t know this distinction. Ours is a faith founded on fact (as Dr. Montgomery titled his book).

The fact of the resurrection and the claims of the New Testament authors can be tested and tried. They can be questioned by the hard sciences and put through the rigors of historical investigation. What one finds when they endeavor on such a project is that these claims not only hold up quite well, but they are some of the most trustworthy sayings that exist. Or, better said, they are in fact true!

What worries me about my ministry is that I have not adequately prepared my students for such arguments. I fear many churches don’t take the challenges our students will face seriously enough. Instead of doing the hard and valuable work of apologetic training, we send out some bizarre email that says a professor stopped questioning God when his chalk fell on the floor and didn’t break. I found Shelly’s opening remarks as a call to action for us pastors and church workers. It is time for us to be teaching our students to think and reason before we let their high school or college do it for them.

We are in need of apologetic training for the sake of our students!

Finally, a word on Shelly. One wonders if Shelly would be willing to take up his own (I think quite worthy) exercise and examine the claims I make in this blog in a hypothetical fashion. That is, what if he actually examined the New Testament claims of a resurrected Jesus? What conclusions would we come to if it could be shown from history that an obscure Jewish rabbi actually did walk out of a tomb three days after a brutal death and appeared to over 500 people? Would that change the way we think about death? About truth? About the relationship between reason and revelation?

Anyhow, time to get back to my jog.