When we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter's day… In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall; outside, the storms of winter rain or snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing. Bede: The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II:13
Back in the eighth century, the Venerable Bede likened a human life to the flight of a sparrow across a banqueting hall, in through one door and out through another; the sparrow had an existence outside the hall even though we could see it only within. It’s a powerful metaphor because it neatly expresses the existential mystery of being human. Even though we understand the physiology both of reproduction and birth, and of death, the appearance and disappearance of a human life retains its existential mysteriousness. It feels too marvellous to be true that an act of copulation should really create a human life with its unique identity and vast potential; surely – we feel – it must have a less animal origin than that? And similarly it feels too monstrous to be true that such a life should absolutely cease to exist on death; where has all that love, all that understanding, all that potential gone? These are not questions of a kind that can be answered by ever-more-detailed descriptions of physiological or evolutionary processes; they are existential questions – indeed, perhaps they are not really questions at all, but ways of expressing a proper sense of awe at our own existence and nature. We would not be better off if we could simply accept ‘No’ and ‘Nowhere’ as adequate answers to these questions, true as they are, because that would suggest that our human existence had ceased to amaze and mystify us – and then perhaps we would be well on the way to regarding it as insignificant and wasteable.
That is partly why the Christian tradition makes so much of the birth and death of Jesus, and why the seasons of the church’s year that mark them have such appeal well beyond the circle of Christian believers. This has nothing to do with the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth or even with the Pauline account of the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, though of course the tradition has woven them all together. The story of Jesus’s mysteriously un-physiological conception and the theological accounts of his hidden pre-existence with God before birth offer us the opportunity to reflect on the mysteriousness of the coming into being of every human life. Hence not only the popularity of Christmas observance but also our habit of sacralising the arrival of a baby, in baptism. The story of Jesus’s messily human death and the theological account of how it was not really the end of his life offer us the opportunity to reflect on the mysteriousness of the meaning of every human life as it comes to its end. Hence not only the place of Good Friday and Easter in our culture, but also our habit of sacralising the disposal of a dead body, by holding a funeral service.
Other cultures than ours also find ways of giving people the opportunity to meditate on these matters, even if they sometimes lay the emphasis in slightly different places. Always, though, these myths and rituals are associated with religion, as they are with us. There’s a risk here. Religion suffers these days from literalism and antiquarianism, which makes it vulnerable on the one hand to fananticism and on the other to indifference. The risk is that the significance and richness of human life will find nowhere where it can be celebrated, and what is not celebrated can be forgotten. I don’t know for how much longer than 100,000 years humanity has been fascinated and mystified by the existential questions, but the evidence suggests that it hasn’t been for long enough for it to become hard wired in our brains. Being richly human may be natural to us, but it’s second nature, an overlay on the nature we share with other animals. We could forget it. Indeed as a society we may well forget it if we don’t keep talking about it and celebrating it and encouraging succeeding generations to discover just how enriching it is. So long as inherited myths and rituals can be used in this way and have not been wholly superseded by new and better techniques they are worth nurturing and passing on. But it must always be the meaning and the richness that really matter, not the myth or the ritual.
The power of Bede’s metaphor may help to explain part of the horror, as distinct from the disapproval, that religious people often feel about contraception and abortion on one hand and suicide on the other. If there are disembodied souls out there in the cold waiting to fly into the mead hall through a door, there is a particular awfulness about suddenly slamming that door shut, so to speak, so that a soul on its way in is left outside with a broken neck. Similarly, if souls will continue to live out there in the cold when they have left the banqueting hall, there seems little to be gained in deliberately hurrying out of the nearest door; better to stay as long as possible in the warm, because it has to be better than the alternative. This is an example of how religious images that were intended to express some important idea about the human condition can take on a life of their own. Neither abortion nor suicide is to be taken lightly, weighed down as they both are with implications. But to approach them with a horror that is powerfully informed by a myth that is taken literally, and consequently to come to think that they are never, ever, conscionable is to make a serious mistake. It’s a kind of mistake that is all too common in the world’s religions, the kind that an lead believers to feel justified in subjecting to mean, offensive or vicious treatment other people whose existential wonderfulness somehow gets forgotten along the way.