28 Feb

Allen Verhey and the art of dying well

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ben Garner
Published: 02/28/14

Dr. Allen Verhey, Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School, passed away on February 27th, 2014, at the age of 68. Listeners who recall his interview on Volume 116 of the Journal will not be surprised to hear that the brief announcement made by Duke Divinity School said that “he died peacefully at home.”

That interview was occasioned by the publication of what would be Dr. Verhey’s last book, The Christian Art of Dying: Lessons from Jesus. In that work, Verhey discusses the 15th-century Ars Morienda, an illustrated text on the “art of dying.” This text, Verhey points out, is helpful in some ways but at points too Stoic, not allowing room for what Verhey takes to be the very proper and Christian response of lamentation. From the interview:

One of the great contributions of the ars moriendi tradition was that it told the dying that they should think on the passion of Christ. But to think on the passion of Christ is to remember that Christ made lament. The word from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” is from Psalm 22, which is of course a psalm of lament in the Old Testament. “Into your hands I commend my spirit” is taken from a psalm of lament [Psalm 31]; it’s not the lament itself but it’s a prayer for deliverance, involving the certainty of a hearing, from a prayer of lament.

Lament has a place because physical life is a good. The Christian tradition, the story of Jesus does not make either death or suffering goods; they don’t make masochists of us. They permit us to endure dying and to endure suffering with the confidence that God has been and will be victorious over death and suffering; but there has to be a place for lament. The psalmist in Psalm 31 is threatened by death, and suffering, threatened by enemies and in that context, calls upon God for life, for deliverance, and is confident about God’s care.

The ars moriendi tradition can still be seen today in those who would (quite understandably wanting to lessen the psychological blows dealt by death and suffering) have us view a person’s death not as a tragedy, but as their release from physical suffering into the blissful existence of heaven in perfect unity with God. But to make a most profoundly unnatural event like death into a cause for rejoicing is not necessarily the most Christian approach. As Nicholas Wolterstorff put it in an interview with Ken Myers (included in the MARS HILL AUDIO Report: Best-Selling Spirituality):

The earth and our bodily relationships to each other, our personal relationships to each other, are important. We’re made as bodily creatures and that’s something good about us, and so, when a person you love dies, that person is gone. And one can hear some words from other people which are meant as consolation to say that the person in question is better off, and in fundamental ways things aren’t really different and so forth, but still there’s this biting reality: the person is gone, I can’t talk to him anymore, I can’t embrace him anymore, I can’t be with him anymore. For me a person isn’t just a spirit; a person is a bodily thing. To be human is to be a sort of personal animal, and when the person dies, as I say, I can’t express my love anymore, so death is the breaking of the bonds of love.

. . . .

Deep in the Christian vision, I think, has to be the vision of God’s wounded love, and our wounded love; that if love is appropriate, then when the object of that love is destroyed or altered, grief is appropriate. And the Christian hope is that that’s not the end of things, but that hope is not to be achieved by overlooking the propriety of grief.

Verhey’s death rightly prompts mourning for the “breaking of the bonds of love,” but also kindles our desire to see the goodness of the created order restored in the new heavens and new earth. And it is this desire for restoration, this hope we have by means of the resurrection, that is the final word. Verhey reminds us in his book:

Christians hope because they know the faithfulness of the One who made all things, because they know the story of one who was raised from the dead, and because they know a life-giving Spirit. The Christian church owns a story in canon and in creed that begins with the power and love of the Creator, centers in the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, and ends with talk of God’s good future—and our own. They cannot but hope.

If these are the grounds for Christian hope, then the virtue of hope must somehow be fitting to this story. And if it is to be fitting to this story, hope may not shrink to the egocentric hope that a solitary individual may experience the bliss of heaven. The scope of Christian hope is nothing less than cosmic. The story begins with the creation of all things, and it reaches finally to “all things” made new.

Verhey’s life and work are appreciated and will be remembered by many. It is with great lament that we mark his passing, and great hope that we look to the day when all things are made new.