Life-ism and 'The Culture of Life'


When the late Pope John Paul II came out in praise of ‘the sacred and fundamental gift of life’, his doctrine of ‘the culture of life’ was placed in opposition to what was described as ‘the culture of death’. This doctrine is now the chief characteristic of Christian fundamentalists from the extreme Catholic to extreme Protestant alike (link here). It is the justification for protesters harassing women at abortion clinics and the manic protesters at the death of the comatose Terry Schiavo.

There is something really odd about this. All the great religions, Christianity included, are predicated on the assumption that some ideas are bigger than people. The commonalities between the religions include generosity, morality, and truth. Defending different concepts of God are seen as worth dying for. Even the crude jingoism of George W. Bush is based on the assumption that the USA has interests that might cost the lives of many of its citizens. Yet the value of these sacrificed lives was not taken into account when he attempted to change the law to defend the rights of the comatose.

The fundamentalists have adopted such a Pythonesque approach to questions of life that their theme song could almost be ‘Every sperm is sacred’.

One of the problems with the absolutists is that they have missed much of the message of their source book, the Bible. They have also ignored the great intellectual traditions of the different strands of the Judeo-Christian faiths, as well as the lessons of Buddhism and other Asian traditions.

The opposite of the extreme culture of life, the belief that any remnant of human life is better than the alternative, is not as claimed by the fundamentalists, a ‘culture of death’ but rather a ‘culture of seasons’. This is hardly a radical world view. It is most concisely expounded in the Bible in Ecclesiastes: ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’. This includes a time to die; a recognition that even extreme medical intervention will not improve health, but will simply increase pain.

The last months of the life of Pope John Paul II and the final years of the non-life of Terry Schiavo, have given new focus to the way some fundamentalists have effectively ditched orthodox Christianity for a new religion, which for lack of a better name, could be called ‘Life-ism’.

Probably one of the reasons Life-ism is such a fast growing faith comes from the medical changes of the last two generations. Ever since antibiotics were first widely used during World War II, diseases that were once fatal have been defeated with a simple course of medication. Surgery now gives new hearts for old almost as a matter of course. It is easy to see death as something to be defeated rather than as a part of the pattern of life.

One of the consequences of the Terry Schiavo affair has been the sudden growth of living wills as the general populace shows a greater wisdom than the Life-ist ideologues who are their elected leaders (link here). The one organ that cannot be renewed is the brain. One of the side effects of massive medical intervention is that many of our generation are more likely to spend our last years imitating Jonathon Swift’s Struldbrugs (link here) instead of dying with any form of dignity. A living will gives some protection.

There is of course an inherent contradiction in the acts of the Life-ists which goes beyond mere theology. The fundamental reason Catholic orthodoxy is opposed to contraception, including life-saving condoms, is that it is unnatural to impede the swimming sperm (link here). I can understand the poetry of the theological notion that humanity should all live by the natural rhythms of life, and accept birth as the end result of sex. But if that holds true for birth, so then does the inevitability of death. This is especially so as the peaceful end of life, especially a long life, has its own rhythm and beauty. I don’t know of anyone who has cared for someone who is slowly dying who is not touched with the grace of those last days. I’m not arguing here for no medical treatment for the elderly or terminally ill, but the extremes of Life-ism are simply obscene.

The worst crime of Life-ism is that it robs the dying of a good death. It shoves feeding tubes into noses, breathing tubes into newly incised throats. In the best of these cases the patients experience what doctors kindly call ‘discomfort’. At worst the intervention hastens infections which speed both death and increase the pain. It is almost a relief when these patients suffer from Urinary Tract Infections as these are commonly linked to dementia so the patient enters an alternate reality, which might be pain free. Curiously enough, even though he suffered from both heart failure and a UTI, and had Parkinsons (which is not famous for increasing cognitive ability) there was a polite fiction that the Pope kept all his faculties to the end. The way the dying Pope’s body was wheeled around in those last months was more like ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ than any reality.

The narrative woven about his death, combined with a funeral that was an even bigger emotion fest than Princess Diana’s, is being used to give the new religion some form of credence. If John Paul II is canonised he will be the first saint of the new faith of Life.

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