The American theologian Richard John Neuhaus once famously declared, “We are born to die.” Naturally, he did not mean that a human being comes into this world for the sake of leaving it. Rather, each of us is born along a path that will one day end. Every year as I celebrate the anniversary of my own birth, I also prepare for the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, which falls on Thanksgiving this year. Symbolically, it’s the inverse of the Easter story: My rising to life is followed upon by her going down to the netherworld in this annual cycle. She was the world to me and I have lived in a state of mourning for the past 25 years.
As I wrote somewhere, it seems likely that when we encounter intelligent, technological, biological beings from elsewhere in the Universe, we will discover two important facts. Even if they are far more ancient, evolved, and technologically advanced, they will have had, in the course of their collective existence, something of an experience of what we call religion, though it may well be that they relate to it not as religion, strictly speaking, but as a cultural memory or an evolutionary passage. Just as importantly, such beings will understand something of what we call family, since only beings that form closely knit, cooperative, interdependent, mutually supporting units would be able to build civilizations capable of advanced technology and long-term survival across adverse circumstances. Perhaps, as with us, they will find in family a reason to survive, a reason to endure difficulties, a reason for self-sacrifice, a reason to make sure that the life they receive continues on.
There’s no reason to regard my birthday, November 20, as a day of importance, though surely it changed the lives of my parents. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that November 23, the anniversary of Grandma Carol’s death, has any special meaning, though she was the most beautiful person in the world to me.
While we may be inclined to regard as insignificant something like a birthday or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, maybe they have a cosmic significance that’s hard to perceive from where we stand in the Universe. Maybe the life we honor and the life we mourn are not nearly as unimportant as we’re tempted to think.
Perhaps elsewhere in the Universe there are beings on a rocky planet orbiting a star who give thanks for the life they have been given — unlikely though it is that any of us should exist at all. Surely those beings also rejoice in the ancestors who no longer dwell among the living, yet whose life continues in the Universe by means of their descendants.
If the purpose of life is the continuation of life, then Family is the means by which that most important of tasks is accomplished. Somewhere I wrote that for our kind life comes into being, is nurtured, is protected, grows, and spreads by means of a community — and that community is the Family.
We might even go so far as to say that the Family is a sort of Universal manifestation of the mystery of life.
November 19, 2017