Catholic conservatives frequently say they defend a “culture of life” against a “culture of death” soaked in abortion and euthanasia. (It’s not only Catholics who use these terms, but they’re most popular in Catholic circles, not surprisingly since they originate with former Pope John Paul II.)
The intended rhetorical significance of this phrasing is pretty clear: life good, death bad. But I find myself taking it somewhat differently. The problem with contemporary worldviews, in my books, isn’t that we have a culture of death. The problem is that we don’t have a culture of death, and we should.
All life ends in death. This isn’t news. How, then, could we imagine a culture of life that isn’t a culture of death? We need a culture that enables us to face the inevitable reality of our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones, and that’s exactly what we don’t have. In our everyday lives we allow ourselves to think that death won’t really happen to us. I think of the generally forgettable movie Practical Magic, which rests on the premise that its leading women suffer from a curse: a man who falls in love with them “will die.” Not die young, not die prematurely; just “he will die,” and this is seen as something horrible. But we all suffer from this curse. We just don’t want to admit it – because we don’t have a culture of death.
Plato said the love of wisdom – philosophy – is the practice of death. We should listen.