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Acceptance of Death Isn't Freakish

The Heaven's Gate cult was misguided, but so is secular America's avoidance of the inevitable.

March 30, 1997|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington

Lurking just beneath the surface of a lot of reporting and commentary on the Heaven's Gate suicides in Rancho Santa Fe--as it does in virtually every story about "cults"--is the not-so-subtle intimation, "See? This is what religion gets you." Religion gets you death: self-inflicted, unnecessary, pathological, unnatural, unreal. Religion is death-dealing. Watch out.

Flannery O'Connor was frequently asked why Southern authors had a penchant for "writing about freaks." To which she always replied, "We are still able to recognize one." You can't recognize a freak, Miss O'Connor insisted, unless you have "some conception of the whole man." And any such idea about "the whole man" must reckon, sooner or later, with death.

What is truly freakish in our culture is its flight from the reality of death. As Pope John Paul II noted at the United Nations in 1995, every culture is, at bottom, an attempt to ponder the mystery of human life. And that mystery most certainly includes the unavoidable, brute fact that we are all destined to die. What does it tell us about American culture, that we both trivialize death (through the violence of our movies) and flee from its advance (through the wonders of cosmetic surgery)? The men and women of Heaven's Gate were, in some sense, "freaks." Were they any more freakish than the characters Evelyn Waugh sketched in "The Loved One," that great modern novel about the denial of death, set, appropriately enough, in Southern California?

There are many reasons to expect that Christianity will continue to flourish in the 21st century. But one of the most compelling is its resolute realism in the face of death, which is the horizon against which and toward which we all live. Christianity begins with the bloody business of the cross. On this Easter Sunday, it must be remembered that Jesus really died. The Christian claim is not that Jesus was somehow spared death; the Christian claim is that the love of God proved more powerful than death. And the witness to that love--its validation, its confirming sign--is the resurrection.

The resurrection is not about death denied. The resurrection is about death defeated. What almost 2 billion Christians in virtually every culture on the planet celebrate at Easter is that death, which is very real, does not have the final word in reality. "This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified. . . . But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2: 23-24).

For Christian orthodoxy, "love stronger than death" is neither a pious cliche nor a romantic sentiment but the basic story line of the world and its history. But we cannot engage the Christian claim seriously unless we are willing to face, squarely, the reality of death. A culture built on the denial of death is going to find it very difficult to hear what the Christian Gospel proclaims on Easter. It can only regard the Christian claim as freakish: respectable, up-market Heaven's Gate, if you will, but two points on a continuum.

The ideology of Heaven's Gate was, according to one major newspaper, composed of "end-of-the-world Christian eschatology [mixed] with a space-alien obsession several steps beyond that on television's 'The X-Files.' " I am not sure what "end-of-the-world eschatology" is, as distinguished from other forms of eschatology; "eschatology" means "thinking about the end times." The point, however, is not the theological illiteracy of journalists and their editors. The point is the tacit assumption that any grappling with the fact of death--individually, culturally, or in planetary terms--is by definition freakish.

Heaven's Gate had no more to do with Christian orthodoxy than does "Star Wars." But our national obsession with the de-Christianized warrior-monks of the "Star Wars" trilogy, like the media's ham-handed fumbling with the ideas of the Heaven's Gate "cultists," suggests that Flannery O'Connor's judgment on the South may now be true of the entire culture: We are "hardly Christ-centered," but we are "most certainly Christ-haunted." Redemption is on our minds. As the millennial fevers begin to burn higher, might we consider whether the orthodox telling of that tale hasn't more of the ring of truth to it than the ersatz-religious or secular counterfeits now on offer?

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