Theological Education as Learning to Die

Michael Allen
John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando

“Don’t forget; you’re going to die,” but we moderns like to deny the inevitable.

My phone alerts me five times a day: “Don’t forget – you’re going to die.” The WeCroak App – which gained some notoriety when launched a few years ago – is meant to help one confront one’s mortality. Why? Because we live in an age of death-denial. How do we deny it? Consider some social examples. By 1980, only 17% of people died at home anymore. It’s surely lower now. When people die, we quickly call for the funeral home to gather the body. The funeral may be renamed in ghastly glee as a “celebration of life,” no longer an occasion for sorrow at death’s brutality. And that graveyard is now more likely to be way out in the suburbs, where you won’t have to see it with any regularity.

Personally, we internalize means of denying death. Ernest Becker considered ways in which we did so in his award-winning book, The Denial of Death. He spoke of “partialization,” where we narrow our gaze in tunnel-like capacity so as to avoid dealing with the traumatic. A later example might be found in Joan Didion’s memoir of the year in which her husband died. In that volume, The Year of Magical Thinking, she preserved and organized his shoes for when he was raised from the dead. Cleaning out the closet might be more prim and proper, of course, but it would force her to confront his death and her loss. So she rationally reflected on how her dead husband would need those shoes and would be angry if he found out she’d taken them to Goodwill. This year marked by death-denial was called “magical” by Didion because that’s what death-denial is, a misdirection that keeps you from paying attention to what’s going on.

But Ernest Becker was diagnosed with cancer later that year when he published The Denial of Death. And when his book was selected for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature, he’d been dead two months.

“Don’t forget; you’re going to die,” but we Christians can acknowledge the intractable and undeniable.

Deaths have dominated our year, from 170,000 dead (in the USA as of late August 2020) from a virus to the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. 2020 may just be a year for displaying the intractable nature of our challenges: epidemiological, economic, racial, political, rhetorical, etc. That’s the word that has emblazoned itself upon my mind and heart this year: intractable. So many things seem so far beyond our control, our comfort. In days like these, perhaps that intractability of sin and death reaches the point of undeniability.

The Hebrew language of Sheol helps us name death and death’s place even in our daily path. Jonah 2:2 names the belly of the whale as Sheol, while Psalm 107:20 speaks of God’s deliverance of those who are in Sheol. It mars not only the afterlife but aspects of this life. As Todd Billings puts it, “Sheol is the pit, the place of the living and the dead who are silenced and cut off” (End of the Christian Life, 21). Billings suggests an image for Sheol: a huge canopy that blocks the sun and leaves a whole area in the dark. The graveyard doesn’t receive the sun, but, then again, the canopy blocks areas of this life too.

Contrary to some suggestions, we do not face unprecedented challenges. Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome tells of the concoction of uncanny events that led to Rome’s decline in the West: volcanic eruption, ice age, and, you guessed it, plague. Well before those events, however, Augustine’s City of God has searched out the intractability of the City of Man’s problems. When Rome’s impermeable sense of eternality was punctured by a weekend-long siege in the early fifth century, Augustine argued that this was a parable of reality.

Cornel West speaks regularly of a distinction between having problems and suffering catastrophe. A problem is an inconvenience to be managed, but a catastrophe is an intractable tragedy bringing us into the pit of evil. And Christians can be truth-tellers here. The Rule of Saint Benedict long ago summoned one to “Keep death daily before one’s eyes.” It did so because the ars moriendi – the art of dying – was viewed as essential to Christian discipleship. “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls” (Isa. 40:7-8). “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field” (Ps. 103:15).

We mourn the irrational pain of death. We lament the way in which life here and now participated in that pit of Sheol. We learn, like Jesus, to cry out for ourselves but also for those around us. “O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Ps. 39:4)

“Don’t forget; you’re going to die,” and preparation for death frees us to live.

“To believe in Almighty God,” Kate Sonderegger says, “is to lift up one’s head, to see this world, and to see beyond it too. It is to trust that there is more. More riches in a text than meets the eye; more Grace and Life in bread and wine and oil than anyone glimpses there; more distinction in human reason than biology can teach us; more dignity to all creatures than economic striving can show us; more weight to our concepts and ideals and quotidian facts than our weary age can hope for: more is the name of Christian dignity” (Systematic Theology, vol. 1, 456). We might say, then, that in death, here too is more than we might otherwise imagine. Here too is the way of life.

“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54-57). That death was taken by this Christ, as John Calvin said: “A life of embracing mortality and suffering marked Christ himself: “it could be said that He not only had a cross continually placed upon him when he lived on earth, but even that his life was nothing other than a kind of perpetual cross” (Little Book, 58).

In knowing that he was sent to die, Christ was freed from grasping at straws or extending his every last thought to prolonging his life. Calvin says it marked his whole life, not merely the angst of Gethsemane but also the allure of his wilderness temptations. We know the evil draw of aiming at survival as a bare aim; here Tolkien’s Silmarillion depicts “the doom of the elves is to be immortal.” But Jesus put to the side the miraculous provision, the host of angels, the glitzy treasure, because his life was not his own, because his life was meant to end in sacrifice, and because his life was promised a joy set before him. In embracing his mortality, he was freed to give himself away. And so it is for all Christians in him, our embrace of our finitude and mortality puts to death our insatiable hunger to survive and fend of all threats. For us, there are things greater than breath and worse than expiration.

On one occasion, Jesus spoke to his disciples in a way that led them to ask “Who then can be saved?” (Mk. 10:27). That warning about the rich had clearly prompted them to grow frantic about their own fate. Peter pipes up: “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mk. 10:28). The response does not negate the challenge of sacrifice, but it reminds us never to think it futile or worthy of pity. “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first’” (10:29-31). Those who learn the art of dying will be those fit to really live abundantly.

“Don’t forget; you’re going to die,” and Christ calls us to live for God and put to death our old self.

By God’s grace, selves can be saved from Sheol. By God’s grace, death can become the sphere for resurrection. By God’s grace, we can actually speak of that mysterious gift: the death of death, the mortification of mortality. We not only come to terms with the fact that a death shall come, but we actively begin to pursue the mortification of death’s imprint upon us now.

We confess this gift with the words of our catechism. Mortification plays a crucial role in answering the question: “What is Sanctification? Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more die to sin and live to righteousness” (WSC 35; see also WLC 75). Mortification marks a rhythm of the Christian life. Baptism signifies death as we are plunged beneath waters of judgment, but that does not mean that death to sin or the death of death only occurs at the inception of our Christian life. No, sanctification is a renewal by God and thus an enablement of us as Christians, such that we “more and more die to sin.” We put to death the false, evil, and ugly ways of sin and death by God’s own grace.

We turn now to our scripture text in Romans 12. Our own ways must be confronted and challenged by this grace. This is what it means that our “spiritual act of worship” that befits those who have been shown “the mercies of God” will be to present yourselves “as a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Consider the witness of my friend Todd Billings, cancer patient and Christian, who says: “You are mortal. You are not indispensable to the world. Your life will come to an end. And yet, in light of genuine Christian hope, a daily embrace of those realities can refresh our parched souls, freeing us to generously love rather than cling to methods of self-preservation” (The End of the Christian Life, 239). We can be given for God and for others – for the kingdom of heaven – when we’re no longer hell-bent on surviving and getting mine.

“Don’t forget; you’re going to die,” and the pursuit of theological education involves a committed journey of learning how to die that we might learn how to truly live.

The novelist Toni Morrison wrote that “anything dead coming back to life hurts” (Beloved, 92). Mortification does not come naturally. It demands sacrifice and work. It may be beside the point to say that seminary will hurt or prove challenging, but I hope also to assure you that it’s meant to do so only as it is part of that process of something dead coming back to life.

  1. Figures from Seneca to Montaigne to Cornel West have spoken of the study of philosophy and the liberal arts as learning to die. John Calvin summed up the Christian life in speaking of this call to learn self-denial.  He said: “We are not our own; therefore, neither our reason nor our will should dominate our plans and actions. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make the gratification of our flesh our end. We are not our own; therefore, as much as possible, let us forget ourselves and our own interests. Rather, we are God’s. Therefore, let us live and die to Him. We are God’s. Therefore, let his wisdom and his will govern all our actions. We are God’s. Therefore, let us—in every way in all our lives—run to him as our only proper end” (Calvin, Little Book, 22).

The words of Paul call us as brothers and sisters who have received mercy to this journey. We die to the ways of the world; “do not be conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). Not only her treasures and ideals, but also her anger and frustrations that call for our conformity must be confronted and surrendered to God as a living sacrifice. We die also to our inborn and instilled rhythms; “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). Not only my answers and prejudices, but also the very questions and fascinations that I bring to this study must be challenged and surrendered to God as a living sacrifice. Therefore, our curriculum focuses upon the Word of God, not merely as an answer book to the questions you or your world ask but ultimately as a tutor that draws your attention to those matters of greatest concern. Still further, our studies seek to draw you into conversation with the communion of saints, that your engagement of God’s Holy Word will be enhanced by hearing their lessons and feeling their tensions. And all your work is meant to form and focus your attention, that your gaze and your love may be drawn away from the things of this world to that which truly matters and then and only then are fit to take in all things as they relate to his glorious kingdom. Training one’s attention, though, is a pattern of death: not touching that phone again, not itching for the next and greatest thing, not wanting to move on to someone with fewer frustrations, not always believing that some later iteration will finally solve the problem, strangle the sin, square the circle, and manage the intractable.

The mortification of Sin is the context and not merely the content of our theological study (see John Webster, Holiness, 12 for discussion of theology’s content and context). We don’t simply analyze the death of self and sin or even Satan that needs to happen out there or be identified in them. And we aren’t even going to call it a day when we note and assent to our inevitable doom. We will learn to die. We will receive the Word of God as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). As we learn to die to our self and our sin and that experience of Sheol’s isolation, then “by testing you discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). It may be a painful pill to swallow, no doubt, but it just might be the way of life.

Closing Prayer

Let us turn then to God in prayer:

“Almighty God, in your limitless goodness you have deemed us worthy of such an honour that you descended to earth in the person of your only-begotten Son, and each day appear to us intimately in your gospel where we contemplate your living image. Therefore grant that we may not abuse such a benefit through senseless curiosity but be truly transformed into your glory, and thus more and more advance in the renewal of our minds and entire life, so that at last we may be gathered into that blessed and eternal glory which has been obtained through your only-begotten Son, our Lord. Amen” (John Calvin, Ezekiel, vol. 1, 57).