And, Thou, Lord, in the beginning hast laid the foundation of the earth; and the heavens are the works of thine hands: they shall perish, but thou remainest; and they all shall wax old as doth a garment; and as a vesture shalt thou fold them up, and they shall be changed; but thou art the same, and thy years shall not fail. Hebrews 1.10-12.
For many years, Paul Daniels was a face to which I could never accurately put a name or even guess what he did. But I have found out to-day that he has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. His decision, at about age 77, to just let the disease run its course strikes me as utterly decent, humble and even heroic. I agree entirely with Mr Hitchens when he says that he grows weary of seeing in obituaries stories of men engaged in "battles" against diseases, confronting daunting machines that make disturbing noises, going bald, sterile and incontinent as a result of chemical therapies, &c. And why? To extend life? It reminds me of the objection an atheist friend of mine brought against the Raising of Lazarus. "Why," he said: "did Christ raise Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to (presumably) die at some later date?" That cynical question, worldly-wise as atheist objections so often are, naturally missed the point. But I say that one could rephrase that question with regards to most people engaged in hopeless battles, inasmuch as they are not themselves the battlefield, against ravaging diseases like cancer. Why bother undergoing painful, humiliating treatments when death will come in some other guise later on? Perhaps they feel that they will miss out on some sin or pleasure (no distinction there)? Perhaps they never took the holiday of a lifetime in Las Vegas? Or maybe they just can't bear to part with their money? Who knows. I can't imagine it comes of an underlying desire to attend church more regularly, go on pilgrimage or do penance in a hair shirt!
And this is, of course, the heart of the matter. People who wish to extend life, like the Númenóreans, have lost faith in the life eternal. People who wish to perfect life on earth, like the Gnomes of Eregion under the tutelage of Sauron, have despaired of the life eternal and chosen the bonds of death. These are the people who chant the mantras of death; "we will beat cancer!" and "make poverty history!" The very same who, come funeral time, turn up in football shirts of the deceased's favourite team and balk at the idea that they themselves will one day pass from this life to the next. To them, the sound decision to let a disease run its course is madness, incomprehensible defeatism. Life is the greatest of all possessions, indeed the greatest of all "rights." Everybody knows that. A man's soul? Well, some old-fashioned and sentimental people still believe in those and attempt to preserve them with as much care as this generation does its appearance, but we're too sophisticated, what with our iPads and all-inclusive foreign holidays, for that taboo idea. Live every day as though it is your last; you only live once, and blah, blah, blah.
The more I think upon these matters the more I think of Tolkien. In Tolkien's legendarium, Death is the universal pervading principle. In one of the most apposite passages of Akallabêth, Tolkien describes how, as a result of their fall, the Númenóreans believed and did as we so often do to-day:
"But the fear of death grew ever darker upon them, and they delayed it by all means that they could; and they began to build great houses for their dead, while their wise men laboured unceasingly to discover if they might the secret of recalling life, or at the least of the prolonging of Men's days. Yet they achieved only the art of preserving incorrupt the dead flesh of Men, and they filled all the land with silent tombs in which the thought of death was enshrined in the darkness. But those that lived turned the more eagerly to pleasure and revelry, desiring ever more goods and more riches; and after the days of Tar-Ancalimon the offering of the first fruits to Eru was neglected, and men went seldom any more to the Hallow upon the heights of Meneltarma in the midst of the land." The Silmarillion, Akallabêth, p.318.I will not belabour the obvious parallel between the Númenóreans, the decline of their religion and our own time but to come back to Paul Daniels and his decision to let nature appoint his lot rather than fight tooth and nail against it, I wonder whether this decision was based on his religious principles? It seems far more Christian to me than so many others.