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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Death, Dogma, and Discourse

Published Wednesday, March 1, 2017 By Pierce Taylor Hibbs

Death, dogma, and discourse might not go together at first glance. Death and dogma perhaps—as John Henry Newman wrote, “Many a man will live and die upon a dogma”—but that makes discourse the third wheel. How is discourse—personal exchange—related to death and dogma? My experience has shown me that discourse is actually the beating heart of our hope. Our longing for it carries us over death’s threshold and into eternity.

Death

It was just hair—black, faintly curled. It had gathered into clumps on the pillowcase and the bedsheets, which the nurses were folding up and tossing into a wheeled metal basket in the rhythm of routine. I said nothing—not because it didn’t bother me, but because I didn’t know why it bothered me. It was just hair. The man from whose body it had fallen had lost thousands of them, and we would have complained if the nurses left his bedding as it was. They did what they were supposed to do. But it still bothered me.

The hospital room across the hall was vacant. On the day we found out the cancer was terminal, I wandered into that room and stared out the window at the clouds. Steam from a pipe on the roof ten feet below spiraled into the air and disappeared like a trailing thought. He was going to die.

I know—everyone is going to die; we’re already dying. But part of being young is secretly believing that those you love will age but not atrophy, or atrophy but not perish. With age come sobriety and a frustrating realism, and the catalyst for all of this seems to be death itself.

Years after my father passed away from cancer, I found myself sitting in a seminary classroom listening to a professor survey the Martyrdom of Polycarp. He told us that martyrs in the early church were marked as Christians by paying the ultimate price: blood-bought authenticity. These believers did not just die; they died for something. They burned and bled for the sake of something that extended beyond the time and space of their own lives. Reading those accounts did not bring about sobriety as much as it did wonder. I did not know whether the martyrs’ accounts were embellished, nor did I care. What I cared about was how someone could willfully die this way. Having seen my father give up his final three breaths after moaning for two hours from a failing respiratory system, I felt embarrassingly certain I did not have what it took to be a martyr. Polycarp was more an enigma than an example.

After the lecture, I took comfort in thinking that martyrdom has only ever included a small set of Christians. I told myself that I was not bound to be a martyr, and that I didn’t have to be. All I had to do was keep my head down and deal with ideas, like a good little seminarian. The raw question of authentic belief—the sort of belief that rises above death itself—could be put off. The trouble is that while belief can be sidelined, death cannot. Leukemia, stroke, cancer of the spine—these things happen. And with them comes sobering and frustrating realism. Death goads us to the question of belief. In fact, it goads us to the question of martyrdom, too.

Over the years, I realized that my father was martyred, in a sense: he fought for his life, not in a coliseum but in a cancer ward. Just as he lived many of his days for Christ, he also went through death for Christ. When his moment came, he gave up his last three breaths and clung to something that extended beyond the time and space of his own existence. He died clinging to the hope of resurrection, and that is what martyrs do. In other words, no one simply dies—we all go white-knuckled, clutching whatever promises to carry us over death’s threshold. We all are forced to die for something, because we all will meet the infamous persecutor of faith in death itself. One day, all of us will be crushed by temporality and finitude—either in an instant or through a long process of deterioration. We will all come to the question of belief and martyrdom.

As my father reached the final three weeks of his life, the tumor next to his brain stem impeded his ability to speak. The nurses gave him a table of signs on a piece of white cardboard. When he needed something, he would point:  bathroom, water, pillow. The dynamic and complex medium of language was reduced to tiny pictures and an index finger. For the last few weeks, he was communicatively isolated in the cell of his own mind, largely cut off from those who loved him (not unlike the early church martyrs housed in actual prison cells). That is when, I think, life becomes very simple, for we have only the choice—the raw and real choice—to believe or not believe.

Dogma

Death, we might say, delivers our dogma to us—not as a stale set of theological propositions but as a living creed: a hope that stares unflinchingly into the harrowing face of death. Only that sort of hope, that sort of dogma, is worth dying for.

That is where my father’s death led me. It showed me what sort of dogma I needed to have—not some universal principle or pithy axiom, but one rooted in time, space, and matter. Dogma must deal with the sting of death, and death stings (1 Cor. 15:55) because it threatens to remove us from communion with God and others. It threatens us with a state of impersonal isolation and coldly whispers that the hereafter will mean more than having our faculty of speech stolen by a tumor—it will mean the utter absence of personal discourse.

Certainly, no program of propositional beliefs will withstand that. My father had been a minister for most of his life—he knew what he thought of death at a theoretical distance. But when death enters our living room, propositions turn to paper: they tear easily when the mind begins to doubt. We need something stronger, something that has a life of its own, something that refuses to be extinguished even as the wick of our life diminishes. What dogma could do that?

Years later, I realized I was asking the wrong question. It was not a question of what but a question of who. If death threatens to cut us off from all communication—to isolate us from other persons—then communion with persons is our dogma: our living hope for unending discourse. This is the dogma my father gripped as death entered our living room. Though it sounds simplistic and naive, my father’s dogma was a person, the person of Christ.

But I am a stubborn sinner. I was not content with this realization, because I had no clue what it meant practically. How do we cling to a person in death? I could never die upon a dogma that did not tangibly deliver truth. So once more, I set aside the question of belief. I turned to the study of ideas so that I could distract myself from the dogma I could not grasp.

Discourse

God has a way of bringing the stubborn to submission and teaching the perverse with creative patience. Death had led me to dogma, but I walked away from it. I turned instead to propositions (ideas)—the very thing I knew would not save my soul. The ideas and propositions that fascinated me were rooted in a theological reflection on the nature of language. I found in language the depth and mystery of the Trinity profoundly reflected in human behavior. The Father speaking the Son in the hearing of the Spirit for all eternity—the divine persons expressing love and glory to one another in personal fellowship was entrancing. As it turns out, the study of language would set me on a path that would lead right back to the question of dogma.

Christ, the Word of the Father (John 1:1), spoken in eternity and uttered into flesh, is the eternal foundation for human language. During his time on earth, he was a divine and personal speaker. He wielded words as no person ever had—stilling storms (Matt. 8:26), cutting through false character (Matt. 9:11–13), mending bodies (Matt. 8:13; Mark 1:41), restoring minds (Mark 5:15), offering hope (John 16:33). The person of Christ spoke powerfully and personally throughout his ministry. Here was the linchpin for me: death could not silence or tear him away from communion. That bleak possibility of entering isolation and never again having discourse with persons was shattered by Christ’s resurrection. He showed us that we will live beyond death to speak again. Personal communion with others and ultimately with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is not a propositional possibility; it is a resurrected reality in a person.

God’s patience brought me back to the dilemma of dogma. I found great power in the resurrection when I considered the nature of language as rooted in the Trinity. The Word of the Father himself walked back over death’s threshold. The incarnate speech of God returned from the grave with an active body and a speaking voice. Death is defeated by divine discourse, and so we cling to Christ by the power of the Spirit in our hope to speak again. To cling to the risen person of the Son—the Word of the Father—means to hold within us the immortal and eternal hope of communion. Unyielding hope for communion as promised by God himself—that, I believe, is what every martyr clings to. Unending discourse is what makes dogma worth dying for.

Putting all of this together helped me understand why it bothered me that my father’s hair was being shaken into a laundry basket so many years ago. Death leads us to the dogma, the hope, of unending discourse with God and with one another—in a resurrected body. Because of this, no part of a person is dispensable; nothing is laid to rest that will not be taken up again for the sake of communion. Nothing is ever thrown away for those who cling to the dogma of eternal discourse with God. This points to a sanctity of human life on earth, for all who die here with that faith will hold discourse again.

It is no surprise, then, that during my father’s death, everything about him seemed sacred—his exhausted, yellowed eyes, the rough feel of his skin, the murmuring of his breath, his hair. It was all sacred, because it belonged to a man who, as Newman put it, “lived upon a dogma, and was soon to die upon it.” But he would be resurrected to speak—with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and, one day, with me. Tossing his hair follicles into the trash suggested a definitive end rather than an unparalleled beginning. That is why it bothered me.

Let us remember that death has the power only to lead us to true dogma, and that dogma is the hope of unending fellowship with the personal God. Discourse is the dogma that defeats death.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs serves as associate director for Theological Curriculum and Instruction in the Theological English Department of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has written several articles on the nature of language and the linguistic theory of Kenneth L. Pike. He, his wife, and their two children reside in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.

  • Pierce Taylor Hibbs


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