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Sickness unto death?

Sickness unto death?

by George Clifford


The word crisis appears only once in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (1 Corinthians 7:26). That is one more time than I had guessed. Paul justifies advising the unmarried and widowed to remain celibate and unmarried in view of the impending crisis that will occur when Christ makes his anticipated eschatological appearance.


Etymologically, the English word crisis comes from the Greek noun krisis, which means decision, and from the Greek verb krinein, to decide. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a crisis as a “time of intense difficulty or danger” or “the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.”


Organized religion in general and the Christian Church in particular face an existential crisis that threatens their continued existence. Symptoms of the present crisis include continuing numerical decline, growing numbers of people who find any religious faith or spirituality incompatible with a scientific worldview, and an increasingly widespread, unthinking individual dismissal of religion as mere superstition.


The Church’s current existential crisis is clearly not identical with what Paul perceived to be the impending crisis. However, there are at least three important commonalities. First, new wine still requires new wineskins. Verbalizing religious experience and meaning requires constant repackaging, preserving a healthy tension with secularism, yet affirming God’s continuing love and action in the midst of a broken, hurting world. Second, new wine distributed in new wineskins must offer a credible hope for creation’s renewal and completion. Third, offering new wine today as in Paul’s day calls for personal decisions to accept or reject it.


This existential crisis plays out on three levels, each progressively smaller and more personal than the previous but each an essential element of the whole. Most broadly, the crisis is evident in the global competition of institutions and ideas. On this level, the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Francis’ leadership strives to keep the old wineskins, trying to soften their rigidity and enhance their appeal by using gentler, less judgmental language. At the other extreme, progressive Christians, sometimes accused of being atheists, struggle to identify new wineskins to hold new wine palatable to this new age while preserving the vital, transformative essence of religion and spirituality.


Unsurprisingly, the Church (including The Episcopal Church (TEC)) has experienced the most difficulty in playing on this broadest of levels. Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, with his emphases on taking the gospel to people rather than waiting for people to come to church and on making Jesus intelligible in the twenty-first century represents an effort to play on this level. However, the work of repackaging God’s gift of new wine in new wineskins has proven problematic. The writings of progressive Christians such as Bishop Spong and David Ray Griffin (especially in his book, Panentheism and Scientific Naturalism) have often evoked more angry misunderstanding than appreciation.


The middle level consists of the Church through its institutional structures (dioceses, congregations, and other structures) addressing contemporary crises. TEC has made tremendous institutional progress in becoming more inclusive. For example, gender and race are no longer formal barriers to becoming a leader and we celebrate marriage as the union of two people regardless of their gender or gender orientation. Moreover, TEC has responded promptly and decisively to some crises in remarkably positive, caring, and effective ways. Illustratively, I recall the post 9/11 100 days of mission coordinated by Bishop George Packard to the firefighters, police, mortuary staffs, construction crews, and other emergency personnel working at the pile that had been the World Trade Center.


At other times, the Church has responded ineffectually, if at all. At one extreme, some congregations create the hopefully unintended impression that TEC is a denomination of causes championed by disparate groups loosely linked only by their common commitment to Sunday’s Eucharist. At the other extreme, visitors to some congregations live a version of Christianity more akin to escapism than to incarnation, gathering to celebrate a disembodied gospel, detached from current events. Institutional maintenance too frequently becomes the goal, rather than the institution representing a means for good decisions and cooperative action focused on bringing life out of death.


The last and most intimate level on which the Christian drama plays is that of an individual’s life and spiritual journey. Again, TEC’s scorecard is decidedly mixed. We Episcopalians have a well-deserved reputation for pastoral sensitivity, care, and being nonjudgmental. On the other hand, we touch too few lives because we concentrate on the needs of members of our congregations, rely too heavily upon our clergy for crisis response ministry, and sometimes find living and ministering through the duration of someone’s extended crisis difficult.


James L. Griffith and Melissa Elliott Griffith in Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy (New York: Guilford Press, 2002, p. 268) helpfully charted existential crisis states that render a person vulnerable or resilient to illness:

States of Vulnerability States of Resilience
Despair Hope
Helplessness Agency
Meaninglessness Purpose
Isolation Communion
Resentment Gratitude
Sorrow Joy

The Sickness Unto Death is Soren Kierkegaard’s 1849 existential analysis of why death for Christians is not the end but simply another waypoint on the journey to eternal life. We may disagree with Kierkegaard that this sickness always shows itself as despair. As the Griffiths suggest, the sickness may have many forms and names. However, I find the title of his book an apt description of a crisis’ potential catalytic power changing death unto life. With God’s assistance, quality pastoral care intentionally aims to facilitate that transformation.


David Brooks, the popular New York Times’ columnist, believes that there is “a pervasive cosmic unease, the anxiety that [people] don’t quite understand the meaning of life, or have not surrendered to some all encompassing commitment that would bring coherence and peace.” (“The Epidemic of Worry,” October 25, 2016, accessed at


Crises are opportunities for Christians, our institutional structures, and the global Church to address the cosmic unease that Brooks recognized. I see encouraging signs of hope, but am far from sanguine about the journey ahead. Instead of investing our collective and institutional energy and resources in preserving the status quo and our individual energy and resources in attempting to overcome the fears and anxiety that the sickness unto death causes, we might do better to re-imagine the sickness unto death as the sickness that leads to life abundant.




George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of Hawai’i, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, has taught ethics and the philosophy of religion, and now blogs at Ethical Musings. His most recent article is “Making the Ethereal Earthly: A New Definition of the Human Spirit,” in the Journal for the Study of Spirituality, Vol. 5, No. 2, (October 2015), pp. 113-127.


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