“I spend most of my time not dying. / That’s what living is for,” writes Frederick Seidel, the enfant terrible of the New York literary scene, in his poem “Fog”. We have wrestled with the fear of death for as long as mankind has existed. The recent discovery in Spain of an archaic human’s skull, believed to be 430,000 years old, with lesions apparently caused by a weapon, suggests that the story of Cain and Abel, like so many others in the Hebrew Bible, expresses a profound truth about human nature. Our ancestors bear the mark of Cain. We fear death, but most of all we fear murder; and the worst kind of murders are those committed in the name of God.
Three important new books open up different standpoints from which to examine this unpalatable fact of life. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (Allen Lane, £20) summarises the remarkable life’s work of three American psychologists — Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski — who have created a whole new field of research: Terror Management Theory. This is a practical as well as theoretical approach to death anxiety which, by the empirical study of its power over us, seeks to understand how so much of what we do — our creativity and our compassion, our love for others and for ourselves — is a refusal to give in to the negative thoughts, emotions and violence that grip human beings in the face of death.
Another man of medicine, Raymond Tallis, has written a more personal book: a Religio Medici for our times. The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic, £17.99) takes literally Montaigne’s injunction to “always keep the image of death . . . in full view”. Tallis imagines himself as his own future corpse (easier, perhaps, for a professor of geriatric medicine than for most of us), in an “endeavour to look at life — my life, your life, anyone’s life — from a virtual viewpoint outside it”. If this sounds morbid, Tallis is a surprisingly entertaining companion on his imaginary journey into the underworld. As a thoroughgoing atheist, “RT” (as he refers to himself) permits himself none of the consolations of faith that sustained Sir Thomas Browne, his great predecessor as a physician who tried to know himself. Instead, he faces his own finitude with the fortitude of a man who, having explored his own mortality, invites us to “come back from the dead to change the world or our lives”.
The third book to address death, however, does so from a completely different point of view — one that takes seriously the threat of religious fanatics who are (pace Keats) half in love with a death that is anything but easeful, whether it is others’ or their own. In Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), Jonathan Sacks draws on an even wider frame of reference than his scientific counterparts to make the argument that we can only defeat those who kill in God’s name with their own weapons — that is, by reinterpreting scriptures that seem to exclude or demonise, by demonstrating the futility of fundamentalism in its own terms, by deconstructing the dualisms that divide and the sibling rivalries that sow hatred.
The former Chief Rabbi deploys all his exegetical subtlety on the foundational texts of Abrahamic monotheism in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Genesis, to show us how figures such as Ishmael and Esau, ancient archetypes of divine rejection, are in fact the opposite. All faiths have “hard texts” that are too dangerous to read literally, Sacks suggests, but Judaism, Christianity and Islam at least share a Biblical basis for mutual toleration.
The thrust of Sacks’s book is all the more powerful because he eschews the wishful thinking that bedevils both sides of the secular/religious conflict. He makes no attempt to play down the pathology of terrorism and war inspired by the anger of those, especially Muslims, who “are determined to defeat the world by means of the word”. Now freed from the obligations of office, he can speak frankly about the betrayal by the secular West of its Judaeo-Christian values, the moral relativism that fails to defend freedom, and the “altruistic evil” of radical, politicised religion. The failure of the secular West to provide identity and meaning combines with the brute facts of demography to produce hydra-headed movements that defy even the smartest weapons and the most intelligent intelligence. After centuries of secularisation, we are witnessing the return of religion with a vengeance. The answer to the Islamists who love death more than life cannot be solely military; it has to be theological too.
This is not an argument for failing to confront the terrorists, as well as the demagogues who inspire and the states that sponsor them. The weakest chapter of Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski comes when they try to explain the response to 9/11 as the Bush administration’s “terror management” of “death fears” that “intensified Americans’ zeal to derogate, dehumanise, demonise, assimilate, and destroy.” Such views are commonplace in the academic world: Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson recently outraged Americans by contrasting British resilience with American hysteria: “The scale of the over-reaction to the 9/11 atrocity was a reflection of the fact that it was such a new experience for the US.” Both the terror management theorists and the Vice-Chancellor are mistaken. As Alexander Woolfson shows elsewhere this issue (“Rescue Iraq From Obama’s Folly”), the Islamists are indeed a mortal threat to the West that cannot be appeased, but must be defeated. Victory, however, will only be final when the West wins the battle of ideas. Jonathan Sacks gives us the intellectual tools to finish the job.