Imagine a young couple returning home after a weekend trip. They have just been to visit the wife’s grandmother who is near death. In fact, they debated about coming home because it seemed the grandmother might not live more than a day or two. As the couple enters their house, the phone is ringing. They look at each other, unwilling to verbalize what they both feel the call is about.
The grandmother’s death was expected, but that didn’t soften the impact on the couple when the news arrived. As the news came through the telephone, the words had a stunning effect, momentarily suspending everything else, paralyzing all movement and reaction and even feeling for a while. The expected had become real. An eerie finality intruded into the flow of this couple’s life experience. The news of someone’s death usually has that effect.
In this case the impact was a little stronger because this had been a very special grandmother. Her husband died when he was forty-five, and she never remarried. Nor did she talk much about it. She just seemed to accept her widowhood as the condition of her life and went on from there. She didn’t seem lonely or unhappy, mostly because she was always busy making everyone else feel good.
Her home was always open and her kitchen always busy. The major holidays were celebrated in her home; prospective husbands and wives were always introduced to her early; and no one faced a crisis or important decision without getting her advice. She was truly the center of the family, but not in a controlling or domineering way. In fact, everyone in the family wanted her to be just the way she was. And that made her death even more difficult to accept.
Her good humor and generosity were qualities that inspired the younger members of the family and modeled good parenting for everyone. She had a kind of wisdom that came from mulling over her life experience. She never talked much about herself but always about life and values; and when she spoke, it was with authenticity and enlightenment, drawn from a source that others didn’t seem to have.
The only real gap that had developed between her and the younger members of the family was religion. Many of her grandchildren, now adults, questioned beliefs and devotions that she accepted and practiced consistently and without hesitation. They understood and even appreciated her piety and traditional way of expressing her beliefs, but that was certainly not where they were. When she would probe a little about what they actually believed, whether they attended church, how they felt about certain examples of moral permissiveness in society, they tried to be politely evasive. And she didn’t push them.
Earlier on this day, when the young couple was saying good-bye, the grandmother confided in them that she knew she would die soon. It was as if she felt she would never see them again, and she wanted them to know how she was at this final moment. She spoke openly and comfortably about dying soon. She kidded that she would not go straight to heaven because there were still a few things she had to make up for before she could “get in.” But she was confident that she would indeed see God and join the saints and angels.
Her real desire in sharing her feelings with the couple was to let them know that she would be interceding with God for them. She envisioned her role as a continuation of her efforts on earth to be helpful, to make others happy, to be present, to strengthen them in their own life journeys. That would not change now. In fact, she felt she could do more for them because she could act more effectively and directly in heaven. So her death was a benefit for herself and for them. Despite death’s obvious separation, she would still be with them and for them.
As the news of her death began to sink in, the couple recalled this last conversation with her. They marveled again at how sure she seemed to be that there was an afterlife, that it was an appealing, active life, and that she would share in it. They acknowledged their own serious doubts about immortality. And if there was an afterlife, they just couldn’t picture it in the familiar, almost folksy way the grandmother did, or as having the meaning for others that she anticipated. Her view seemed like a relic from the past, from a time when people didn’t know as much scientifically or philosophically and didn’t think critically.
And yet, they also acknowledged that her beliefs enabled her not just to face death but almost to welcome it. The apparent end of her good and happy life actually had positive meaning for her instead of being a negative experience. As they quietly thought about their own deaths, the couple wished they could have her outlook. Or better, an outlook that they could genuinely affirm and that could give them the same spirit, the same sense of meaning about death that the grandmother evidenced. They felt caught between an older belief they couldn’t really accept with integrity and a possible new belief they didn’t yet see clearly. And so they were left with the question: What does it mean to die?
The couple’s question arises from their experience of the grandmother’s death. Her sense of death’s meaning confronted them with their own feelings about what it means to die. They are caught between wanting death to have a genuine, positive meaning and not being able to see what that meaning is. Their grandmother’s way of expressing her belief in death’s meaning doesn’t communicate to them. In fact, it puts them off somewhat, but it doesn’t cancel out the question.
People are more prone to think about death’s meaning when a good person who has lived a full life dies. In such a case there are no unusual circumstances to claim attention, no overpowering emotions to cope with as there are when a person in good health dies suddenly or a physical disaster kills many people unexpectedly. Death seems more natural when a person has lived a long life. There is, of course, a feeling of loss and the accompanying sadness. But when death occurs in what we take to be typical or ordinary circumstances, it is more likely that reflective questions arise. They may come when the news of a death is first received (as with the couple above), or during the wake and funeral, or on an anniversary, or through some other reminder.
Even in its most natural and familiar setting, however, death is questionable to us — death itself, not just this or that peculiar circumstance of death. Why is this so? We know death is inevitable, and yet we are disturbed when it actually occurs. In fact, to accept death honestly is a hard-won accomplishment in our society. Our impulse is to resist it, to deny its imminence, to question it. We know death comes, but we don’t understand it; we don’t grasp its meaning, and that bothers us.
From a theological perspective the question what does it mean to die, is really a threefold question of meaning. One level pertains to the person who dies, in this case the grandmother. What does death mean for her? As described above, it means that she passes from this life and goes to heaven, where she expects to see God, be with the saints, and intercede for her loved ones. She also suggested that the transition from this life to the next may include some type of “making up,” probably for her failures and sins during life. This cluster of expectations expresses the meaning of death for the grandmother.
A second level concerns those who survive. What meaning does the grandmother’s death have, for example, for her granddaughter and her husband? From the grandmother’s perspective, again, her death means that she will continue to care for them, help them, support and relate to them, but in a new way. Death means she can be even more for them. The couple is not so sure. Death seems to mean the end of a continuing relationship. They have her memory and her influence in their actual experience of her. In that sense she is still with them. But that presence cannot be renewed, developed, added to. It is finished. They may keep her alive in their memory, but they cannot keep her alive. Nonetheless, death poses the question: Is this meaningful for those who live on? If so, in what sense?
A third level of meaning is not usually raised, at least not explicitly. It is the meaning of a person’s death for God. That may sound strange, because we don’t usually think of events as being meaningful for God. Meaning is usually associated with human experience, an experience in which meaning is sought because it is not already possessed. But we believe that God is perfect and doesn’t need to seek anything. God already possesses everything that is.
And yet, it sounds equally strange to say that an event as important to us as our death has no meaning for God, because meaning also implies value, worth, significance. Since we are made in God’s image and possess an irremovable dignity from God, our whole life (including our death) shares in that dignity and is some reflection of God’s image. That has to mean something to God. But what?
These three levels of meaning are all contained in the question that arises when a person, like the grandmother, dies. A theological reflection on death’s meaning could begin with any one of the three. In a specific instance, like talking with the couple, the starting point would be determined by which level is dominant for them. Apart from such a context, the most appropriate place to begin is with death’s meaning for God, because a theological response to the other two levels is derived from that perspective. In addition, beginning with God helps to insure that we follow the correct priority.
It is especially difficult to maintain this priority in questions of death because death so directly affects, threatens, confronts us with our own ultimate meaningfulness or lack of it. The real, personal, psychological needs we have in facing death are not to be swept aside, but the theological response to those needs is indeed theological, i.e., it is derived from our experience and understanding of God. That is the source of our response.
This does not mean, however, that in actual conversation or perhaps in counseling, a person begins immediately with reference to the meaning of the grandmother’s death for God. In the practical order initial attention is undoubtedly given to the grieving or pained survivors and the meaning of death for them. But from a theological perspective, what is offered is grounded primarily in the meaning of death for God.
This is not always the case. In fact, much pastoral guidance tends to focus on interpersonal sharing and helping skills, giving scant attention to the potential contribution of theology in the pastoral care of the grieving and bereaved. Part of the reason for this is that the typical theological explanation of death’s meaning seems unsatisfactory, inadequate to the actual experience of death, artificial or forced in attempting to articulate a faith response to the question: What does it mean to die?
One of the reasons why a typical theology of death gives this impression is that it does not explore extensively enough the meaning of death for God. As a result, theology does not cultivate sufficiently its own distinctive contribution to the question of death. What It does offer can usually be formulated and communicated more effectively by the helping disciplines of counseling, caring, supporting, etc.
The task for a theology of death, then, is to explain the meaning of death so that God’s primacy is both the source and goal of the explanation from which the theological meaning of death for the person and for the survivors is derived.
How does theology typically explain death’s meaning? If it is true to its own origins, theology begins with the death of Jesus, for Christianity itself arose as an interpretation of and response to the death of Jesus. That interpretation was (and is) that Jesus, who truly died, was raised from death by God. In this event God manifests the ultimate divine power as the power of life and simultaneously gives us a glimpse into the extent of life itself. The death of Jesus is the occasion for revealing the final mystery of God.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the meaning of Jesus’ death is wrapped in that same divine mystery. No human attempt, however inspired, to grasp that mystery can ever be more than partial. Consequently, no single interpretation is adequate or desirable. The more attempts that are made, the more diverse the interpretations that are available, the more enriched is our capacity to enter the divine mystery of life. This is why, beginning with the first, inspired interpretations of Jesus’ death, Christians have continually pondered and probed and projected the meaning of death.
In the course of Christian history, theology has tended to shift its focus from Jesus’ death as the manifestation of God’s glory and life to Jesus’ death as a guarantee of our eventual glory and life. This shift has been subtle, even unconscious, and never at the expense of actually omitting God’s glory from the explanation. But the effect has been in a sense to subordinate God to our need for assurance about the ultimate meaning of our lives.
A typical theology of death affirms that death marks the definitive end of this earthly life. At the same time, in light of Jesus’ death, death also marks a transition into a new state of life. Thus, in the classic, liturgical expression, life is not taken away but changed, transformed. What appears to be a termination of life with no further meaning is seen to be the culmination of life with the fullness of meaning when placed in the context of God’s plan for creation. It is God who makes the transition happen, but it is we who benefit. Since God is already fulfilled, indeed the perfection of life, the fulfilling of human persons through the paradoxical transition of death is the new, dramatic, striking event that captures our attention.
We never tire of contemplating this gracious action of a perfect God on our behalf. But it is our very affirmation of God’s perfection that conditions us to shift attention from God to us, Because we believe God is perfect, we conclude that God does not really need us to enhance the divine life. It seem an affront to suggest that our death can add anything to God’s glory or perfection, whereas God can add everything to our death and give it final meaning.
When theology shifts its focus in this way, certain assumptions are carried along. We may begin to assume that God, who is perfect and loving, should prevent death from being too painful for us or that God should make clear to us why death sometimes occurs as it does (unexpectedly, prematurely, accidentally). When these and similar assumptions are not met, we may even begin to call God into question. Sometimes those who do become bitter or despondent or closed to any explanations of God’s ways.
This is the classic problem of theodicy — how to reconcile a good and loving God with the experience of human suffering. The problem is ultimately beyond our capacity to understand completely or explain satisfactorily. But the problem is made unduly complicated when we assume that God exists for our welfare and fulfillment rather than the other way around. And yet, our understanding of God’s perfection inclines us in precisely this direction.
It would seem then that for theology to express the meaning of death for God, it must address our understanding of God’s perfection. If God’s perfection can be understood in a way that doesn’t lead to the subordination of God to our need for fulfillment, then the meaning of death for God and the primacy of God can be simultaneously affirmed. From this vantage point the meaning of death for oneself and for others may be appropriately drawn.
What do we mean when we say that God is perfect? This is an important and tricky question to answer. Inevitably our understanding of God’s perfection moves out from our own experience and understanding of our imperfection. Because we are imperfect, our understanding of God’s perfection is a projection of what we are not. To this extent, our understanding of God’s perfection is how we think we would be if we were perfect, But projecting from human imperfection is not necessarily the best way to understand divine perfection. In fact, it may even lead us astray.
What if God’s perfection were understood not on the basis of our imperfection but on the basis of our actual, although limited, perfection? We know some things; God knows those things fully. We can do some things; God can do those things fully. We have feelings; God has those feelings fully. In other words, what we are partially, God is fully.
In this approach God’s perfection is described in relation to actual human perfections. Perfection has to do with what is rather than what is not. And when we think of God’s perfection, it is a perfection in relation to what we are. What else God is or how else divine perfection may be understood would depend on other relationships (e.g., the relationships among the three persons of the Trinity or the relationship of God to some other possible form of life).
What does it mean for God to be perfect in relation to our human world of experience? It means first of all that God’s perfection is in relation to our human world of experience. It is that perfection of God that we are talking about. And that perfection is not an exception to our world, a free-standing existence outside the structure of our existence. God’s perfection in any other sense is not what is being discussed because it is God’s perfection in relation to us that is at stake. At the same time God’s perfection in relation to us does not mean that God is simply part of our world, more or less like any other part of it. God’s perfection is always perfect, complete, full. This fullness may be seen in two ways.
When anything happens, God relates to that event fully. God is aware of everything and everyone that makes up the event. God’s knowledge is complete, while we are aware of only some of the factors that make up that event. In the case of the grandmother’s death, the couple certainly was aware of many of the factors involved in that event. But neither they nor anyone else nor everybody else together could know everything which comprised that event. God’s knowledge, however, does include everything in that actual event. God’s knowledge is perfect because it includes everything that is actually knowable.
The last phrase is important. God knows everything there is to know in an actual event. And apart from actual events, there isn’t anything to know. So to speak of God’s perfect knowledge is to say that God knows everything that actual events or experience allows one to know. We know some of it; God knows all of it. Viewed in this way, one could say that God’s knowledge (and perfection) is limited, is relative to what is really there in reality to know. This is a limitation but not an imperfection. If perfection means the fullness of what actually is, then that describes how God relates to us and who God is in our experience. If God could be more in relation to our experience but were not more, then God would be not only limited but imperfect, and no longer God.
What has just been described concerning God’s knowledge is true for the other attributes we associate with God. God is all-powerful. This means that in relation to any event, God can do everything which that event allows. God’s power is perfect or full, but limited. Only God knows what the limits of a given situation are because only God knows every situation fully. With our partial knowledge and incomplete power, we may expect God to do something that in a given situation, God simply can’t do because God’s power is In relation to us and our situations. God is not outside of or unconditioned by those real situations — at least, not the God we refer to when we talk of the God of our experience.
The same explanation applies to the feelings associated with any event, like the grandmother’s death. The couple is in touch with certain of the feelings that are actually generated by the experience, but they are not in touch with all of them. Nor do they feel completely the feelings they do have. God, however, does feel all the feelings in a situation and feels them fully because God is perfect. It may seem strange to say this. Feelings have long been disassociated from God because feelings are changing and perfection is taken to be changeless; feelings are temporary and perfection is taken to be permanent; feelings are uncontrollable and disruptive whereas perfection is taken to be controlling and ordered.
The classic notion of perfection is one way to understand perfection. It is based on a projection of what is deficient in human experience. An alternative understanding is that perfection is everything that is given in human experience, an “everything” that only God relates to but also an “everything” that is limited to each event. This is the first way in which God’s perfection may be understood. The second way is closely related to it.
God relates fully to each event that happens and, throughout time, to all the events that happen. God’s complete knowledge, power, feeling is complete for everything that makes up the actual world, for reality as a whole. Thus, God’s perfection is both intensive (each event) and extensive (all events together). It is both singular and all-inclusive. Only God is capable of such perfection, and in the actual world, the world relative to us, that is as perfect as can be.
Seen in this way, God’s perfection in relation to us is always growing, expanding, new. As events occur, God relates to each of them fully and relates them to one another in God’s own perfect way. Because God’s perfection is always relative to what is actually happening and because things are always happening, God’s perfection is a very dynamic, changing (without loss), expanding, and including reality. At no moment is anything left out or omitted or beyond God’s capacity. But at the same time, what will happen tomorrow is not yet actual and so is not at this moment included in God’s perfection. Thus, God relates perfectly to the grandmother’s death because it has already occurred. God cannot relate in the same perfect way to the couple’s death because it has not yet occurred. God does not have an imperfect relation to that event; God has no relation to it at all because it is not yet actual. When it occurs, God will relate to it perfectly. This may seem to put God in a passive, merely receptive position regarding the events of human experience. God’s active role in these events will be discussed in subsequent chapters.
This view quite clearly takes God’s relationship to us very seriously and tries to understand God’s perfection within that context. The result is that each actual occurrence becomes the standard for determining what a perfect, full relationship to that occurrence is. Whatever such a perfect relationship in each case consists of, that is what God’s perfection is in that event. Thus, perfection is grounded in both concrete and limited experiences. Concreteness refers to the definiteness, the actuality of an event (like the grandmother’s death); limitedness refers to everything that this concrete event can mean — which is not absolutely everything, but everything this event means.
One shorthand way of saying this is to speak of God as interdependent. The word dependent feels strange, even erroneous, in reference to God because of the customary understanding of God as outside of or above any needs/dependencies. But in another sense, God is dependent on actual experience in order to know not what things could be but what they actually are. God could know all the possible ways the grandmother might die and experience her death, but God could not know the actual experience of that death until the grandmother died. Then God’s knowledge can be complete, full, perfect.
Interdependence is another way of saying that God is in relation to us as we are. And the way we are is developing, changing, be-coming through our concrete actions. God’s perfection in relation to us is perfection in relation to our actual experiences, and these are actual only as they occur. Thus, to be in relationship to us is for God to depend on us and our actual experience, which God then relates to perfectly.
With this view of God’s perfection in mind, we can return to the initial theological question: What does death mean for God? Like any other event, death is an actual experience that allows God to relate to us anew. God has never related to anyone in quite the way that the grandmother’s death allows God to relate, because there is only one grandmother like this who dies her death only once. God never has and never will again know this death experience with all that it contains. God’s perfection is thus uniquely called forth, exercised, and enlarged by one more experience.
All this is true of any event in God’s relation to us. Is there anything special about death? There is. Death is the event that finally determines what each person’s life project actually is. In terms of a typical theology of death, it is the end of a person’s life journey. But the emphasis is not on end so much as on life journey. Out of all the possibilities that confronted the grandmother, right up to her last moments, which ones would become actual? What would her unique experience be? What all would be gathered in by her and become finally her life? The answers to those questions are not knowable until they are made actual, and they don’t become actual until she has finally determined who she is, i.e., with no possibility of changing anything further. This is death.
Seen in this way, death gives a person’s ongoing life, with its openness to many possibilities for new experience, a final actuality. Only then can one’s life experience be fully, perfectly known and related to. This is the unique character of death; it closes the becoming process that characterizes our life. Until this happens, God cannot know a person fully because there is more to come that God awaits. But when the becoming ceases, when there is no more to come, then God can relate to the person perfectly. And if we add that it is God’s nature to relate perfectly, that that is what God desires in relating to us in the first place, then we might also say that death allows God to be fully God for us.
Put another way, death contributes to God’s perfection because it offers God another actual life experience to know fully, to relate to fully, to feel fully. Obviously, God relates fully to each event that makes up a person’s life, but God can’t relate fully to the person as a whole, complete, actual person until the person is whole, complete, actual — and this occurs at death. Then the person is all the person is going to be and God can relate perfectly to this new, actual reality.
This does not mean that dying is more valuable or desirable than living. To live is to be open to new possibilities and so to be able to create a richer, fuller, more complete life experience than has occurred up to this point. The dynamism and potential of bringing new creations into actuality is always a high value. But that process reaches its highest value when it is finally actualized. For a human person who is a continuous series of many events, the final actualization is death. Until then, the meaning of a given person’s life cannot be known; but when that final moment comes, it is more valuable to have lived as fully and as much of one’s potential as possible. Death is valuable as the final actualization of life, not as something in and of itself,
There is another dimension to death’s meaning for God. Through death God relates perfectly to the actual, final life of the grandmother. This experience of the grandmother is added to the sum total of God’s relationships to everything else. This is not a mere quantitative addition. Rather God’s knowledge, God’s power, God’s feeling is enriched by the unique experience that is the grandmother and that becomes part of God through God’s perfect knowledge, feeling, relation to this event. Thus, an apparently isolated event that ends a human life actually is connected to everything else through God and begins a new, qualitative addition to God’s relationship with everything thereafter.
This larger vision of interdependence helps us see how death is meaningful for the one who dies as well as for those who survive. For the one who dies, death means that the person makes a definite contribution to God. The grandmother, for example, shaped to some degree God’s actual relation to the world through the unique and perfect relation God established with her. That relation could be finally and uniquely perfect only when she died. God never has and never will again have with anyone else the relationship God has with the grandmother.
It is indeed staggering to realize that our lifetime of experiences, assembled in our own definite, novel way, constitute a unique moment for God in God’s relationship to the world. Moreover, it is a contribution that God desires and, in the sense explained above, depends upon. Viewed in this way, the meaning of death for ourselves is derived from, or is the other side of, the meaning of death for God. We have what God wants — an actual existence that God can relate to perfectly. But this will be seen as meaningful for us only if we want, in the first place, what God wants. If our faith is genuinely theocentric, then for us to contribute to God is indeed the preeminent meaning of our lives. But if our belief in God is to enlist God in helping us get or do what we are incapable of by ourselves, then this view probably won’t seem meaningful. Death confronts us with that decision.
In a similar way, the meaning of death for those who survive is derived from the meaning of death for God. Every actual event enriches God’s relationship to the world and therefore to everyone and everything that makes up the world. On a human level this faintly resembles maturity. The quality of a mature person’s relationship with others is certainly of higher value than the quality of an immature person’s relationship. But how does a person become mature? What are all the events, experiences, people that have entered into the maturing process to enable a person to become mature in a way that leads to qualitatively richer relationships?
This analogy is not meant to suggest that God matures as we do, but it may point out how every actual experience that God relates to perfectly (because it is actual) enables God to bring that experience along with everything else to future relationships. The following chapters will spell out a bit more what this contribution (through God’s relationship) to the world is. For now it is sufficient to note that the meaning of a person’s death for others is derived from the meaning of a person’s death for God. Thus, God remains primary, and the meaning of death for God is that what was once only potential has become actual — final, definite, concrete, real. When this happens, it enables God to relate perfectly to that event (the person’s life as a whole). This simultaneously contributes a new experience to God that reenters the world through God’s now enriched and enlarged experience of relationship.
In the scenario of the grandmother’s death, the young couple was left with the question: What does death mean? In light of the theological reflection just presented, how could that question be answered and communicated to the couple?
First of all, it would be appropriate to begin with the obvious fact that the grandmother’s death is the end of her life. But there is a not so obvious meaning couched in that fact. The meaning is the value that anything definite, concrete, actual has in comparison to that which is potential, unsettled, unfinished. This difference may be grasped more clearly through comparisons with other experiences. For example, any work of art that is unfinished remains a possibility with uncertain value, whereas a completed work is actual with definite value. A good intention that isn’t carried through in practice is not as valuable as a good intention enacted.
Parallels like these might help the couple see that there is an inherent meaning in the completion of something once it is begun. This is true for human life as well, and death is that act of completion. But is there any meaning beyond this inherent sense? There is, and it is primarily the meaning death has for God. The grandmother expressed this level of meaning in her own way. The couple seemed willing to consider some type of connection between God and death. Another way of expressing this connection is that everything we experience, and especially the culmination of our lifetime of experiences, is a contribution to God in the sense that it provides new occasions through which God relates to us.
Each occasion enriches God’s perfection and expands God’s range of relations to us. This view presupposes that God is really related to us and in some way depends on our actual development as the basis for relating. The God who is in relation to us is always in relation to us, not external to or outside of such relations, only occasionally entering in with us. Moreover, this relational God deals with what is real, actual, given. God, however, sees and does and feels more with every actual situation than we do. In fact, God relates fully, perfectly to our actual condition. What the couple is feeling about the grandmother’s death, God is feeling and more. What they see its meaning to be, God sees too, and more. What they can do in response to her death, God can do, and more. God is always relating more fully than we can but never more than reality itself permits. That’s what it means for God to relate perfectly to us.
That understanding has the potential of helping the couple sense God’s presence in and with this experience. God affirms and shares what they feel and more. If they believe that, then their experience, which coincides with God’s, might also open up the possibility for them of experiencing even more in this situation than they do now. By attending sensitively and openly and perhaps in their own way prayerfully to all that this situation holds, they can begin to enter the realm of God’s experience and find there a fuller meaning than they had found on their own. If so, the process begins with their experience (which is also God’s) that they are willing to trust might mean more and lead to more than they initially perceive. If it does, it will be because their own limited perfection moved toward God’s limited perfection, and in the transition they came closer to the ultimate level of meaning in death or any other event — its meaning for God, who is primary and from whom all else flows.
Robert L. Kinast teaches pastoral theology at the Catholic University of America. Ordained a roman Catholic priest in 1968, he served for nine years in pastoral ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, while earning a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Emory University. Published by the Crossroad Publishing Company, 370 Lexington Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.