Life, death and faith: approaching the unanswerable

Joe Humphreys reviews books by five authors – a philosopher, a literary legend, a humanist, a former priest and a doctor – tackling that age-old question: is this it?

These books remind us that none of us faces the question of death alone. That in itself is some comfort. “To be oblivious of death is to be only half-awake,” writes Raymond Tallis, and it is impossible to come away from reading his work along with the other titles here without feeling a renewed gratitude for life. Moreover, they collectively show that you don’t have to thank Someone to be thankful

These books remind us that none of us faces the question of death alone. That in itself is some comfort. “To be oblivious of death is to be only half-awake,” writes Raymond Tallis, and it is impossible to come away from reading his work along with the other titles here without feeling a renewed gratitude for life. Moreover, they collectively show that you don’t have to thank Someone to be thankful


Ultimate Questions by Bryan Magee (Princeton University Press) 
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Peter Carson, introduced by Mary Beard (Liveright Publishing)
Life After Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism by Philip Kitcher (Yale University Press)
Faith, Doubt, Mystery: A Catholic Journey by James J Tracy (self-published/Amazon)
The Black Mirror: Fragments for an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis (Atlantic Books)

If you’ve ever had that feeling of being at a funeral and not knowing what to say Bryan Magee can empathise. “Feelings of real depth are bound to be non-linguistic, given the crude inadequacy of language, and given the more basic fact that it is only from experience that concepts used about language can be derived…” Though some of us have encountered bereavement, none of us has first-hand experience of being deceased. So what can we honestly say about it?

Magee, a philosopher and former politician best known for his books on Schopenhauer and Wagner, doesn’t offer advice on how best to handle funerals in his latest book, Ultimate Questions, but one suspects he would approve of plenty of music. The two poles in his life have been reason and art, and while the former deals in words, the latter cannot be adequately expressed. “It is why, if someone responds to a work of art predominantly with his intellect, he has already misunderstood it.”

Now in his 80s, Magee is out to demonstrate that unflinching rationality (including the knowledge of when to shut up) gives your life an authenticity which religion can’t provide.

Whether he had any choice but to do without God is debatable, for asking fundamental questions has been in his blood since he was in short pants. He recalls an aunt telling him about a trip to the seaside where he asked her what the stones “at the bottom of the sea” were for. “Then, after a long silence during which she was unable to think of anything to say, I added speculatively: ‘I suppose they’re to stop the water running out.’ When I started thinking in this way I must have realised that an explanation could be wrong. It cannot have been long before I realised that some of the explanations that were given to me by adults were wrong.”

A modest, or uncertain, faith is tolerable and deserves respect in Magee’s book but it should not be treated as though it constitutes serious reasoning. At the same time, Magee emphasises the need for know-it-all atheists to acknowledge the limits of science. The most important single truth of philosophy he says “is the truth that, however difficult it may be for us to grasp, most of reality is unknowable by us, and – because beyond all possibility of apprehension – unconceptualizable.”

In disarmingly direct prose, he pinpoints the problem with the God debate today. Protagonists speak as though they have all the answers but there’s an “unknowable” realm “with nothing ‘spiritual’ about it, nothing religious, nothing supernatural, but just simply there,” Magee writes. “Both religious and non-religious persons need to understand that a conception of reality as existing beyond the limits of apprehensibility is entirely rational.”

Part of the unknowable realm, of course, is death. Magee describes how he had a stroke some years previously and, believing he was dying, felt “grief at the loss of everything”. Yet, he continues, “I do find… that my fear of death decreases as the amount and quality of the life I would lose by it decreases.”

Dismissing the religious insurance policy that is Pascal’s Wager, Magee says: “If, in spite of my ignorance, I were compelled to gamble everything on what will happen to me when I die, I would come down on the side of oblivion, annihilation.” Nonetheless, he accepts as a reasonably held view Schopenhauer’s stance: “Behind our existence lies something else that perhaps become accessible to us only by our shaking off the world.”

In walking this tightrope, Magee writes: “What I find myself wanting to press home more than anything else is that the only honest way to live and think is in the fullest possible acknowledgement of our ignorance and its consequences, without ducking out into a faith, whether positive or negative, and without any other evasions or self-indulgences.”

Magee makes good on his promise, and this concise and fiercely honest book throws down a challenge to us all.

Ultimate Questions is also an ideal companion for Leo Tolstoy’s duo of philosophical works The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, originally published in Russian in 1886 and 1884 respectively and now released as one entity in a new translation. Tolstoy was in his 50s, and in the process of disowning his popular works War and Peace and Anna Karenina, when he wrote the novella and related memoir.

Like Schopenhauer, Tolstoy was influenced by eastern philosophy – including Buddhist and Hindu traditions – providing a tentative link to Magee. But where the British philosopher found faith to be a millstone for disposal, Tolstoy grabbed onto it like a lifebelt.

“I searched in all the sciences and not only did I find nothing but I became convinced that all those who had searched in knowledge as I had likewise had found nothing. And not only had they found nothing but they plainly admitted that the very thing which brought me to despair, the meaningless of life, is the only unquestionable knowledge open to man,” wrote Tolstoy in a breathless tone sustained through his Confession.

It’s not clear how much Tolstoy was dramatising when he said faith was the only thing that stopped him from killing himself. But certainly that was how he rationalised it. Faith gave “the possibility of living”, he concluded. “Once I would have said that all religious teaching is false; but now it was impossible to say that. Without any doubt, all ordinary people had knowledge of the truth, otherwise they couldn’t have lived.”

A poignant aspect of the new version of Tolstoy’s work is that its translator Peter Carson discovered half way through the job that he had just months to live from an incurable illness. “The final manuscript was delivered to the publisher by his wife on the day before he died in January 2013,” writes Mary Beard in an introduction. “We can hardly begin to imagine what it must have been like to translate the grim tale of Ivan Ilyich as one’s own life slipped away, but almost certainly the unsettling energy of Carson’s version has something to do with the circumstances in which it was written.”

What solace that could have been taken from Tolstoy’s prose perhaps lay in his cyclical thought, his endlessly circling and re-circling of the puzzle of life (a nod again to his eastern philosophical tastes). A passage to remember contains his humbling admission that the questions that were surfacing for the first time in his mind had in truth been asked “since man has existed”. It continues: “‘What am I?’ ‘Part of the infinite.’ Now in those few words lies the whole problem. Can mankind have asked this question of itself only yesterday? And really did no one ask himself this question before me – such a simple question coming to the tip of the tongue of any clever child?”

It would be easy to dismiss Tolstoy’s turn towards Christianity as a desperate response to the fear of death. But his discovery of wisdom in the simple lives of the Russian peasantry was partly a reaction to the cultural arrogance of his peers. “We were all convinced,” he recalled, “that we had to talk and talk, write, and publish – as quickly as possible, as much as possible, that all this was necessary for the good of mankind.” His pricking of the inflated egos of the literati carries force today against the backdrop of a noisy and self-congratulatory Twitterati. Well-educated secularists tend to think of ordinary folk who say prayers at night as intellectual sheep but Tolstoy believed the reverse was closer to the truth. And today Philip Kitcher, author of Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism, sounds a further cautionary note against any atheistic pack mentality.

“Authors of contemporary manifestos calling for freedom from religious delusions typically belong to professional communities,” he points out. “Focused on adding to the stock of factual truths, and finding an entirely reasonable satisfaction in sharing that goal with their closest colleagues, they want the delight of apprehending factual truths to be shared by all – just as some devout people hope that all will enjoy the bliss of eternal life...”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with delighting in science but Kitcher, who is professor of philosophy at Columbia University, highlights the value-laden enterprise that’s implicitly involved. In this manner, Life after Faith takes up where Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion left off. Accepting scant evidence for the existence of God, Kitcher pinpoints a false choice between religion and nihilism, highlighting how core ethical standards predate organised faiths such as Christianity and Islam. If anyone believes that a humanist can’t be as ethical as a churchgoer this book will destroy their prejudice with delicate reasoning.

In a few short chapters, Kitcher does the groundwork for a new metaphysics, suggesting a means of finding meaning without God. Literature acts as an inspiration here, with Kitcher celebrating the sort of everyday epiphany experienced by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. After a period of agonising over his sexual transgressions, Dedalus returns to the family kitchen and observes: “White pudding and eggs and sausages and cups of tea. How simple and beautiful was life after all.”

Life after Faith is worth reading alone for its response to the question of death. Kitcher describes his sadness at imagining the world immediately following his demise, with the loose ends that would be left behind and the inability to remain with loved ones. But then he turns the clock forwards and imagines a world inhabited by people with whom he has no personal relationship, and within which he has no identifiable stake at this point in time.

While premature death is “fearsome, even terrifying”, Kitcher says “as I look forward sufficiently far, regret declines into indifference… We cannot, I think, fully imagine what it would be like to be the kind of being for which immortality was a condition of eternal joy.” Those who are eagerly awaiting the afterlife, in other words, clearly haven’t thought deep enough about what it would actually be like.

In Faith, Doubt, Mystery: A Catholic Journey, James J Tracy grapples with this question from a church perspective. More precisely, Tracy is an insider turned outsider: he spent 10 years as a Jesuit before taking up a new vocation as a psychologist. His book, the blurb on its cover tells us, “shares his current stance regarding God, ethics and the end of life” (note the “current”: Who is to say we will all have the resolve of Dedalus in the end?)

Tracy joined the Jesuits pretty much straight from school, feeling a sense of duty to God after family prayers led to his recovery from a severe illness. He too was unimpressed by the answers given by both his parents and the church, yet that spurred him on to a deeper spiritual reflection rather than an abandonment of faith. The casual sexual groping of a priest in school known as “Father Fingers” and the advances of another priest who tried to kiss him when he was an altar boy in his sacristy made no dint on his progress towards religious life.

Tracy’s book offers a revealing insight into how the novitiate commands obedience and administers, for want of a better term, thought-control. He is no church-basher but plainly explains how superiors attempt to break down secular resistances, starting with “self-loathing” (he was given a whip with which to practise) and progressing to a dogmatic elevation of priestly life above all others. A formative exchange was his challenging of the Jesuits’ stance against Galileo. The supervisor for his doctorate in divinity refused to accept any historical source other than that approved by the Vatican so Tracy presented him with a copper-fastened argument on how the church had wronged Galileo based entirely on entries in the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

What rankled with him most was the idea that people outside the church could not live as ethical a life as those within. The more non-Catholics he met, the more he felt the position was untenable. Today a self-proclaimed agnostic, he views Pascal’s Wager as a cynical manoeuvre. “I am more interested in being honest about my belief. I’m betting that if God exists, He or She will judge me on the basis of how well or poorly I have lived my life.”

Like Magee, Tracy celebrates the condition of ignorance. When asked by his wife what love was, he replied: “I don’t know”. In uttering those three little words he may have stumbled across the secret of living authentically.

Another recent release covering this territory (or at least the terminal end of it) is Raymond Tallis’ The Black Mirror: The Fragments of an Obituary for Life. It may not sound like the cheeriest of titles but first impressions can deceive. Tallis approaches the ultimate question by looking back on his world from the standpoint of his future corpse. The result is a hugely life-affirming work, showcasing Tallis’ wit and cross-disciplinary learning.

There are too many “takeaway” thoughts to enumerate here but one deserves mention for building on Kitcher’s concept of the afterlife. What sort of “existence” would you have, Tallis asks, if your life was “directed to no conceivable ends or purposes”? Were it imaginable, would it be desirable to have “a sense of a self which, notwithstanding disembodiment, is somehow replete, not hollowed by anticipations or memories, hopes or regrets”?

Tallis has a terrific line in aphorisms – “To be human is to be a becoming rather than a being”; “Childhood and adulthood are equidistant from completed sense”; “We die because we are improbable” – and there are sections of this book which would grace any humanistic funeral. As a practitioner of geriatric medicine, as well as a philosopher and author, he is also well versed in anatomy and isn’t afraid to describe just how the human body decays in all its gory detail. For the average person, an appreciation of the inner workings of body, and of just what happens to you when you’re laid out on the slab, is as an alien language best not thought about. Such squeamishness, however, closes a door of perception, and keeps one at a sanitised distance from the bloody reality of humanity in all its carnal magnificence and comic fragility.

Reading the five books covered here, a thought creeps up: where are the women writers on these existential questions? A lot of what philosophers articulate can be reduced to a type of everyday wisdom introducible with the words “as my grandmother would say”. Is it possible women talk through these matters in informal social networks while men must work it out on paper?

Whatever the truth of that, these books remind us that none of us faces the question of death alone. That in itself is some comfort. “To be oblivious of death is to be only half-awake,” writes Tallis, and it is impossible to come away from reading his work along with the other titles here without feeling a renewed gratitude for life. Moreover, they collectively show that you don’t have to thank Someone to be thankful.

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