Death as End Irrelevant Eternity and Dead Time

The study in chapter 1 showed that the significance of eternity decreased over the course of the centuries until eternity finally became part of time. It was also observed that the notion of dying as an exit or escape from time occurs only in modern hymns.383 These findings agree with the description of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in his analysis of the deconstruction of mortality in the modern age: Death has been reduced to an absolute withdrawal, to a moment of cessation, an end of all goals and all plans. Death has become a completely private end of the completely private affair that is called life.384 What led to this reduction may for the moment remain undefined—whether it was modernity's concentration on the humanly possible and humanly feasible, coupled with its simultaneous distancing of itself from everything supra-human; whether it was the huge expansion of the time horizon from thousands to billions of years brought about by discoveries in geology, biology, and cosmology that caused the contours of time and eternity to disappear into infinite distance; or whether it was the materialism that arose in the nineteenth century.

If death is no longer a transition to something new and different, but is merely the last episode of life, then this shift of course has consequences for the conception of time, death, and eternity. Because it proves to be impossible to abolish death, the modern age chooses the path of deconstructing mortality. Death becomes the result of human action. Human beings no longer die because they are mortal; rather, they die from various causes.385 This presupposes that, in principle, it is possible to eradicate these causes. Death is then basically considered a failure of medicine.386 It is no longer looked upon as a natural and necessary phenomenon; it is a defeat, a "business lost."387 All kinds of measures are taken in order to avoid this defeat and to secure the individual life span. Eschatology is successfully absorbed by technology.388 The unanswerable question of the great exit is split into minor questions that appear to be technologically answerable by using hygiene and medicine.389

In its enthusiasm for deconstruction, modernity does not stop with the deconstruction of death, however. Eternal salvation is also subjected to a process of deconstruction and thus split up into smaller and constantly attainable moments of bliss, so that, in light of the many ecstatic pleasures, the grand consummation is completely lost from sight.390 The modern world becomes a filled world, a closed system that allows no openings or holes in time and space and that permits no deviation from the unstoppable and continuous course of time, since there is no such thing as the extra-temporal.391

A system that permits no extra-temporality accordingly has no interest in a perspective of eternity. Consequently, eternity then becomes completely irrelevant. Gronemeyer has shown how the experience of time that has no perspective of eternity leads to a shortage of time and an acceleration of life's tempo, to the point of completely leveling all differences and being unable to tolerate the strange and the different.392

If time occurs as exclusive inner-temporality within the structure of a closed system and remains void of any relation to something eternal and supra-temporal, this then has at least two consequences. First, individual intervals or moments of time are related to each other only immanently; and, second, time as continuum thus disintegrates into fragments. Metaphorically expressed, in a closed system, time suffocates itself; given the loss of eternity, time dies the death of non-relationality. The loss of a relation to eternity could therefore ultimately lead to a disintegration of time. Only death would remain.

A look at Bauman's reflections on the deconstruction of immortality in the postmodern age confirms these thoughts. Bauman says that Protestant pilgrims on the journey through life have become postmodern nomads on the path between places that have no connection. The identity of the nomads is documented in the disconnectedness of time and space, whereas that of the pilgrim was embedded in the connectedness of time and space.393 Simultaneity replaces history as the location of meaning; the power to define and shape is no longer vested in the past; it resides only in the here and now.394 Even the future is dissolved into the now.395 Life therefore consists of moments of equal value. It becomes senseless to speak of directions, long-term projects, and implementation. Immortality—the goal of the modern age—basically becomes boring: "[N]ow, ... it is immortality that has been 'tamed'—no more an object of desire, distant and alluring; no more the remote and high-handed God, commanding ascesis, self-immolation and self-sacrifice."396 Concepts such as mortality and immortality lose relevance. "With eternity decomposed into a Brownian movement of passing moments, nothing seems to be immortal any more. But nothing seems mortal either. Not in the old—supra-human, sinister, awesome—sense of 'once-for-allness,' of irrevocability, of irreversibility."397 The only constancy is transitoriness; the mortality that is repeated daily becomes immortality;398 and recycling becomes the ideal. Identities no longer exist; there are only transformations.399 The belief in the Western variant of reincarnation that seems to grow in attraction can clearly be understood as an attempt to tame the constancy of transitoriness by changing it into a transformation that has a certain degree of continuity, but no actual obligation.400

Life does not resemble a carefully constructed novel with a plot of numerous layers of relationships in time and space; rather, it disintegrates into disconnected episodes.401 Sacrifices for the sake of the future are not worthwhile. Equality is attained when everyone enjoys the present to the maximum, since the now is the only place of happiness.402 The collapse of time as a totality and the splintering of the constant into an infinite series of transitory moments make both self-identity and authority a problem. Nothing lasts "for an entire lifetime" anymore, neither skills and the place of residence, nor work and one's partner.403 What remains is death: "The paradoxical outcome of modernity's project is that the work of modernity is being undone. Death is back—un-deconstructed, unreconstructed. Even immortality has now come under its spell and rule. The price of exorcising the spectre of mortality proved to be a collective incapacity to construct life as reality, to take life seriously."404

If the description of death as transition could result in the eternalization of time and the eroding of eternity by its loss of character as time's Other, then the conception of death as exit and end would lead to a complete loss of eternity, causing time to disintegrate within itself and, ultimately, permitting only death to remain. The end appears to be a dead end. Both understandings of death highlight the questions that a theology of time must confront if it wishes to formulate and establish a dynamic relation between time and eternity. Both of them suffer from the fact that they, in different ways, absolutize time and therefore remain incapable of conceiving eternity as the Other of time.

Before I attempt to deepen our understanding of eternity as the Other of time in the last section of this chapter, I would like to conclude this analysis of death by providing a sketch of some criteria for a Christian understanding of death.

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