No Dominion

Two approaches to mortality: Julian Barnes and Richard John Neuhaus

Counterpoints Faith Literature Modern Life Philosophy The Catholic Church

From Socrates and Cicero to Michel de Montaigne, it was axiomatic that to philosophise is to learn how to die. The novelist Julian Barnes situates his book about death, Nothing to be Frightened of, squarely in this tradition, except that the main thing he has learnt is that death is indeed something to be frightened of.

Where Montaigne’s tone is sanguine, Barnes is relentlessly melancholy. One contributor to these pages, Joseph Epstein, waspishly suggested in the Weekly Standard that this “dolorous” book “would make a fine gift for someone one doesn’t really like”.

Our view of mortality depends in part on our view of immortality. Last October, Barnes suddenly lost his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, to whom he had dedicated the book. A few months earlier, I encountered Julian and Pat emerging from a Norfolk church. They were not, however, there to worship, but to see the place where Horatio Nelson had spent his boyhood.

For Barnes, there is no comfort from the thought of being reunited in the next life. Advertisements on London buses now proclaim: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” That gets it exactly the wrong way round. Barnes begins his book: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Which is the greater burden: faith or its absence?

How very different from another book about death: As I lay Dying, by Richard John Neuhaus. This slim volume came out in 2002 after the author, one of the greatest American Christians of our time, unexpectedly recovered from a cancer that had been expected to kill him back in 1993.

Like Barnes, Neuhaus is formidably intelligent and learned. Unlike Barnes, though, Neuhaus is grateful for this life and sanguine about the next. He describes his illness, his operations and his near-death experience in sometimes excruciating detail, yet the reader emerges uplifted. Neuhaus disagrees with Montaigne – and Barnes: “I believe,” he writes, “that one learns how to die, not by philosophising, but by dying.” It is only when death is imminent that we confront our helplessness and turn to God. “Nothing we can do can help now. That is the point.”

Though he was friend and adviser to popes and presidents, Father Neuhaus was unimpressed by power and saw his vocation in helping the helpless. As a radical Lutheran pastor, born in Canada but deeply influenced by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, he devoted himself to working with the poor, especially poor blacks. Unlike Obama, Neuhaus knew King.

But after Roe v. Wade he came to see the cause of protecting the unborn child as the natural successor of the civil rights movement. His 1984 bestseller The Naked Public Square transformed the American debate on church-state relations, arguing that excluding religion from public life went against the spirit of the US Constitution. Ostracised by Left and Right, he thrived.

Having done more than any other American to bring together Catholics, Evangelicals and Jews, Neuhaus became increasingly persuaded that the disputes that lay behind the Reformation were no longer relevant. In 1990, he finally took the plunge and converted to Catholicism. He became the American Chesterton.

Ordained a priest in his mid-fifties, he found new energy, launching the monthly First Things, which quickly established itself as a leading voice in religious dialogue. The best thing in it was his compendious, pungent and invariably urbane column “The Public Square”, in which he propounded his “law”: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

Last summer, he adapted his address to a pro-life gathering at Arlington for Standpoint. Reaction was strong on both sides, among contributors as well as readers. One felt it exuded a “whiff of the Vatican”, others that it was uncharitable or even misogynist – perhaps a testimony to the tepidity, or even absence, of the abortion debate in Britain.

Uncompromising on articles of faith, Neuhaus was always gracious in person. In what must have been his last column, for the January issue of First Things, he remarks: “Some call it faithfulness and some call it fanaticism. People get hold of a truth and will not let it go, or a truth gets hold of them and will not let them go.”

The truth that would not let Neuhaus go was the hope that God loved not only him but every one of his fellow human beings. While he lay hovering between life and death, he saw a vision of two “presences” beside his bed, and heard a voice that said, quite clearly: “Everything is ready now.” Whether these presences were angels, he did not presume to know, but he certainly took their message as a signal that death, whenever it came, could hold no more terrors for him.

Richard John Neuhaus died, aged 72, on 8 January 2009. RIP.