“Almost everyone becomes religious when they are dying.” Perhaps this is an overstatement–at least in a New England university town. But the fact remains: many people do become interested in larger existential questions as they confront death.Page 136
The dying people I talk to as a priest are more likely to be religious (and Catholic) than the dying people Dr. Dugdale talks to as a physician. So I am less qualified than she to characterize the tendencies of dying people in general. From my limited and particular experience, I can say that dying people frequently become more religious. But that happens in different ways. I think most people, when they are dying, think about God more than they did before. But those thoughts are often negative as well as positive, and are usually a more or less confused mixture of both. People get angry with God and protest the injustice of their sad underserved conditions. I try to be compassionate and affirming of their natural feelings and understandable thoughts. But some part of me often wants do ask, “Did it just occur to you that bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them?”
Of course, dying people and their loved ones often pray with greater frequency and focus than ever. In general, that is a good thing. But people often pray only for bodily health and survival and, when what they want doesn’t happen, become angry and disappointed and suffer crises of faith. Alternatively, many people also pray with a faith, trust, and peace that are truly edifying.
“For the first time I realized that I am closer to death than not. And I have no idea what I believe. I mean, I was brought up Methodist, but I left the church years ago. Do I believe in life after death? I don’t know!”Page 137 (quoting Edith Blatchley)
Some people, like Ms. Blatchley, who have been away from the practice of faith and may not have thought much about their inevitable deaths, do indeed ask this question. But many don’t. Dying people and their loved ones do tend to become more religious. But their thoughts about God and prayers to God frequently concern the present life only. I hear “why did God let this happen?” and “we are praying for a miracle” much more than I hear “do I believe in life after death?” That is the case with loved one’s especially. People who are dying might be thinking about what happens next. Their loved one’s, too often, are fixated on this life only. Those people certainly deserve compassion and their grief, loss, and fear make their thoughts and prayers understandable and sympathetic. Nevertheless, I think they are also symptoms of malnourished faith and lack of serious reflection.
Contrary to popular thinking, faith is not defined as blind obedience. Rather, it is a commitment or relationship to a divine person or set of principles. Religion is a practice that makes sense of our particular slice of the world.Page 138
I like Dr. Dugdale’s pro faith-and-reason statement here. I don’t mean to quibble with her, but I would omit the “particular slice” qualifier. I think religions attempt to make sense of the world comprehensively. Religious beliefs aren’t just convictions about a set of doctrines. They add up to worldviews, lenses by which the whole world can be understood.
One of the problems I often wrestle with as a doctor who interacts with patients in secular health-care settings is whether a nonspecific spirituality suffices to address the existential qualms of patients like Mrs. Blatchley.”Page 141
I commend Dr. Dugdale for wrestling with this problem. I wonder how many physicians think as seriously as she about their patients’ religious/spiritual/existential concerns.
You will not be surprised to find me firmly on the religious side of the religious vs. spiritual-but-not-religious (SBNR) divide. I suppose SBNR answers to Mrs. Blatchley’s question about life after death would be something more than agnosticism. I think they would affirm that there is something death. I don’t think they could affirm that there is someone. Nor can SBNR answers fit into an understanding of reality that makes rational sense of life after death as part of an intelligently ordered meaningful world. Furthermore, it seems to me that many SBNR responses to death aim to comfort surviving loved ones while giving no guidance or insight to people facing the inevitable prospect of their own deaths. Some people may have found comfort in the posthumous words attributes to Princess Diana, “I am still with you. I am in the sun and in the wind . . ..” I have a hard time imagining how a dying person would be comforted by anticipating this kind post-mortem future.