One aspect of life that has undergone many directional shifts is our consciousness of death. Over the past two or three centuries, the West has experienced the most pronounced directional change in how humans think about and understand death. The origins of this unmistakable veering can be found entirely in the changes of spiritual orientation the West experienced as it entered modernity.
Following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire until the approximately the early stages of the Enlightenment, the spiritual orientation of the West was indivisible from Christianity. The Christian consciousness of death was a radical expansion of the pagan consciousness of death that preceded it. Though pagan religions also adhered to belief in souls and the afterlife, these beliefs were qualitatively much different from the Christian belief and faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ as exemplified by St. Paul's declaration in Philippians 1:21 that, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain."
This declaration emerges from the deep, inner, spiritual understanding in the non-existence of death - in the comprehension of death as the way leading to life, in which the life of sin is crucified, and the path to eternity is opened. It stems from the comprehension that we must die in order to reborn; that the essence of life is the transition from lesser being to higher being in which death serves a necessary conduit. As such, death is not simply and purely an evil, it is also a good.
The orientation driving this consciousness recognizes the primacy of the spiritual over the primacy of the worldly and commits to the comprehension that the end of the worldly does not mark the end of the spiritual. With the advent of modernity, this consciousness was slowly superseded by a purely external, material, and temporal comprehension of death that perceived no gain at all at the end of life. Within this consciousness, St. Paul's declaration faded and was replaced by something akin to, "For to me, to live is World and to die is loss."
By the late nineteenth-century, Nietzsche's pronouncement of the death of God accurately reflected the observable changes that had occurred and were occurring in the spiritual orientation of the West, which had taken a hard turn into materialism and was immersing consciousness into the objectified, temporal world.
The perceived death of God had a profound effect on Western man's consciousness. A world devoid of God was a world devoid of the spiritual, which entailed that there was no soul, no afterlife, no eternity. All awareness of the inherent good in death dissipated. Mortality became an ultimate evil - the line of demarcation separating material being from material non-being. Far from being considered as non-existent, death became concrete. At the same time, mortality abstracted into an unreal and indefinite phenomenon that people saw happen around them but could never imagine actually happening to them.
When Westerners did contemplate the all-too-sudden final reality of their own mortality, they were consumed with anxiety and an increased irrational fear of death, which Freud eventually termed "thanatophobia."
In the meantime, secular materialists continued to insist upon a sober, rational understanding of human mortality that would lead to an enrichment in life. Rather than squander precious time and energy preparing for an imaginary, non-existent afterlife, people were free to dedicate all of their energy to creating meaning and enrichment in this worldly life. This led to an explosion in material wealth and comfort, but as the centuries passed it also lay bare the existential crisis of alienation and meaninglessness. Paradoxically enough, the thicker the alienation and meaningless became, the more Westerns continued to burrow into their world of pure materialism.
Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl captures the epitome of this consciousness in his 1898 painting, Souls on the Banks of the Acheron, which I briefly explored on this blog last year. Adhering to Nietzsche's proclamation of God's death made fourteen years earlier, Hirémy-Hirschl presents the catastrophe of the post-Christian "for to me, to live is world to die is loss" material consciousness of mortality inspired by the spiritual or, more accurately, anti-spiritual orientation of the age.
Fittingly enough, Hirémy-Hirschl addresses the theme of material thanatophobia via non-Christian, classical pagan symbolism. In the painting, the messenger god Hermes (or Mercury) stands amidst a grasping mob of recently dead souls he has guided to the underworld and stoically ignores all desperate pleas to return to the sunlit world above. The souls' deranged hysteria has been triggered by the appearance of Charon, on the skiff in the background to the left, approaching to ferry them off for judgement where their fate of spending eternity in Tartarus or Elysium will be decided.
Unfortunately, such a reconsideration has not occurred. Rather than re-orient ourselves spiritually, the character of our contemporary twenty-first century consciousness has dug ever deeper into materialism. The underworld Hirémy depicts above has become the reality of the "material world" of the West. Within the framework of this loose interpretation, the hysterical dead souls represent the thanatophobic living people among us. Charon symbolizes the abstract reality of approaching meaningless death while Hermes exists as a representation of the "faux-divine" Establishment who postures to protect and "save everyone" and return them to the "normal material world" but is stoically intent on having all of them board the skiff to damnation. Comprehending no other alternative and perceiving nothing good in death, the dead living souls live a deranged, splintered existence in which they willingly embrace the Establishment and its materialism as their only, but fundamentally hopeless, chance at earthly salvation. This consciousness could be summarized by the following: "For to me, to live is anti-Christ and to die is annihilation."
A change in this hopeless direction of consciousness requires a re-orientation of the spirit. To begin with, it requires the re-establishment of the primacy of the spiritual coupled with a deeper understanding that this primacy is not merely a reflection of reality or a symbol of reality, but that it is Reality itself. This orientation of the spirit will, in turn, orient us back toward a true understanding of death. Part of this process will inevitably involve a return to a comprehension of death as not only an evil, but also a good encapsulated in St. Paul's "to live is Christ and to die is gain". But the bulk of the spiritual task before us does not rest solely on returning to this earlier, albeit utterly essential and eternal, frame of consciousness through which salvation may be attained.
Our task will be gather the courage and the daring to go beyond an understanding of death is gain and one day have the orientation of spirit to declare, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is Christ."