Pondering death, and hoping to find ‘something’

Pondering death, and hoping to find ‘something’

Miles Davis, the endlessly creative jazz musician, was dismissive of organized religion, as he could be of much else. Still, in a 1985 interview, when the subject of life after death came up, he said simply — without feeling any apparent need to elaborate — “There’s something.”

Theologically, it may be among the most profound statements an individual can make with only two words.

Others, of course, have speculated — philosophically and artistically, in other ways, and endlessly — about their belief or non-belief in an afterlife.

The novelist Julian Barnes begins his book, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of,” a reflection on his own eventual death, with the evocative sentence, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”  He then notes that he asked his older brother, a professional philosopher, what he thought of that statement. “He replied with a single word: ‘Soppy.’”

Pigeons fly over a cross on an Orthodox church in Cairo in this 2017 file photo
(CNS photo/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)

Barnes includes in his book the description of another exchange between a novelist and a philosopher — Somerset Maugham and A.J. Ayers — about death and what, if anything, follows. Toward the end of his life, in ill health and bad tempered, the writer summoned Ayers, the renowned philosopher, “to reassure him that death was indeed final, and that nothing, and nothingness, followed it.”

Barnes speculates that Maugham made this morbid and depressing request because he had long ago intellectually dismissed the idea of God, but he was never able to free himself from a fear of eternal damnation.

John Updike writes about a young man searching for the opposite kind of reassurance in his short story “Pigeon Feathers.” Suffering a crisis of faith after reading of the atheism of H.G. Wells, the story’s young protagonist desperately looks to the adults in his life for confirmation about the eternal nature of his soul.

A prolific fiction writer and critic, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, Updike was strongly influenced by Karl Barth, a Protestant theologian who is highly respected by many Catholic thinkers. (Upon hearing that Pius XII had paid tribute to his work, “Barth smiled and said, ‘This proves the infallibility of the Pope,’” Time Magazine reported in 1962.)

In “Pigeon Feathers,” the protagonist, David, 14, seeks spiritual comfort from a young, Lutheran minister. The reader can feel the teenager’s utter exasperation and despair when Rev. Dobson tells the boy to think of heaven as “the way the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him.”

David complains about this conversation with his mother — who had assumed her son had years before abandoned a traditional belief in heaven — and their dialogue would be comical if it wasn’t so sad. When she asks David what he wants heaven to be like, he answers as bluntly and honestly as he can: “Well, I don’t know. I want it to be something,” he says, using Davis’ word in desperation rather than certitude. “I thought he’d tell me what it was. I thought that was his job.”

When he hears his mother’s own response — that when he’s older he won’t be afraid of death, to see the natural world is a “miracle,” to read Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” — he wearily dismisses her: “Don’t worry about it, Mother.”

Then the story takes an odd turn. Months later, David’s grandmother asks him to shoot the pigeons that have been roosting in the family barn. Armed with a Remington .22, the boy picks them off one by one and then digs a hole to bury them. It is then, against the backdrop of killing and burial, that the boy finds the reassurance he has been seeking.

As he places the dead birds in the ground, he looks closely at their wings, how they are perfectly designed for flight and providing warmth. He examines their feathers — their colors, their patterns, their individuality. And, as he prepares to cover the dead birds with dirt, the youngster is seized by a certainty: “that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

With that stroke, Updike concludes an emotional narrative with both a nod to a classic philosophical argument for God’s existence (the intricate design of nature implies an intelligence who designed it) and an allusion to the Gospel: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” (Mt 6:26).

Such creativity and skill on the part of a fiction writer, even in the service of religious truth, is no proof of life after death, or anything else.

Yet, as Miles Davis might have said, it’s something.

Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.

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