Friday, December 22, 2017

"May it Be Unto Your According To Your Faith"

Well, if seminary doesn't make you lose your childhood faith, ministry will.  If it doesn't, then you are a True Believer.

Anne Grant is not an exception to the rule:

Phil and I were ordained ministers. I had accepted Jesus as my Savior when I was four at the altar of a revival tent in New York’s Catskill Mountains. Growing up in those woods, I talked to Jesus—not an audible conversation so much as my heart’s constant refrain of love and gratitude. When we married in 1965, I called Phil my “second best friend.”

Even after I became a feminist, I seldom questioned familiar creeds. The idea of domination no longer fit my worldview. So, I asked Jesus, “Is there a name I can call you instead of Lord?”

“Sure,” came the lighthearted reply: “Call me Cramps.” I laughed at this divine nod to women’s bleeding and birth pangs. That was the sort of conversation God and I had: a relaxed, confident projection of my own evolving beliefs.

I could not account for other people’s beliefs about God. In 2003, when President George W. Bush grew impatient with the search for weapons of mass destruction and launched his tragic invasion of Iraq, I suspected he thought he was hearing from God, like Joshua at Jericho. He seemed to think Iraqis would eagerly lay down their arms before our triumphant Lord.

And so on and so on....

In the year after Phil’s cancer diagnosis in 2005, we had begun to take comfort in the BBC documentaries of Sir David Attenborough, who thrilled us with the wonders of nature and never mentioned God. We snuggled in bed and watched the lumbering scholar describe the marvels of planet Earth. His diction remained precise whether he knelt in mud or dangled from a giant redwood. His self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact summaries of evolution soothed us. Breathtaking photography of animals and plants on far-flung continents filled us with awe.

Phil and I felt no crisis of faith when we told each other we no longer believed in a supernatural being. The bad midwife had freed us from magical thinking of religious ideologues. The good midwife had welcomed us into a vibrant world of natural wonder that had been here all along.
I have no problem with this narrative.  I figured out shortly after seminary that I couldn't account for other people's beliefs about God.  It's probably why I failed in pastoral ministry.  I mean, I always knew intellectually that I couldn't account for other peoples beliefs in anything; but to learn it existentially (and to use the word correctly in context!), is another matter.  It's a Kierkegaardian moment, and knowing the Knight of Faith was a construct of S.K.'s ethical narrators (not a theological precept, IOW) and also knowing even if I was a K of F (I'm not) no one would know it, I moved on for the sake of my family and myself.

My only problem here is the sin of pride displayed before this narrative is over:

Later we understood how evolution had changed us in imperceptible increments over a long stretch of time. We were like fish that crawled onto land and, over eons, evolved into air-breathing, live-bearing, warm-blooded beings without knowing how that happened.

No, not that bit; but what it leads to

During millions more years, some returned to the sea, where legs morphed into flippers instead of fins. They became dolphins, whales, and manatees. But they remained warm-blooded and still breathed air. Their tails lay horizontally and moved up and down, the way legs had propelled their ancestors on land. They would never again be fish. Never again hold their tail fins vertically and swish them side-to-side. The change was irreversible.

We had become secular Christians. Though deeply rooted in Christianity, Phil and I discovered that our growing edge was secular, not bound by old familiar creeds. We still value our kinship with many Christians, but we no longer believe that a self-aware supernatural being sent his only begotten son to die for us. We no longer believe a blood sacrifice will bring us everlasting life.

Well, neither do I; but I don't consider myself a "secular Christian."  Still, that's a theological matter, and theologically grounded these two don't really appear to be.  No matter; that's my burden, not theirs.  The discussion goes on in terms of neuroscience (which I dare say she understands no better than theology), and then this:

Atheists can sound as smug and superior as fundamentalists. Creeds—or their adamant absence—can turn to concrete, crush our humanity, and sink this lifeboat we all share.

As much as Phil and I wish we could be together forever, we accept the scientific evidence. We belong to a species that dies. When our brain cells disintegrate, our unique identities will disappear.

This truth makes our fleeting lives on planet Earth more precious than ever. 
Probably they will disappear.  No one ever really promised otherwise.  Jesus is notoriously vague about the hereafter.  He speaks of a house with "many mansions" in John, but in the synoptics he speaks of God being the God of the living and the dead; all are alive to God, which isn't exactly the Platonic ideal of an immortal and eternal soul.  That's all post-Pauline stuff, and its the same metaphysic that supports the idea of the blood atonement and the acceptance of Jesus "into your heart" (between ventricles?) that I was told about in my childhood, and never understood.

What I don't get is this atheist idea that Christianity is about a fear of death.  Oh, no, I do get it; I just don't like it, especially because it leads to the hubris that atheists are "better" than Christians because they don't fear death.  Say atheists who have yet to lie on their deathbed, I always note.

I've seen people die; lots of them.  I have yet to see one smile in bliss like a Hollywood death and pronounce their sure comfort that God will take them.  That's what the family says, the friends, the survivors.  Death for the person dying is an individual affair, the most existential (again!) experience you can have.  As the atheist Jacques Derrida put it:  "My death; is it possible?"  To imagine your death is to imagine that you die, as the ex-pastor says here, when your brain cells disintegrate.  Oh, you die much, much earlier than that, and nothing of you is left behind except an exquisite corpse, if you're lucky. Usually you don't leave that much.

Let's be honest, if we're going to be honest.

Tolstoy, I've always thought, got it about right (but who knows, right?).  The last words of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich":

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. "How good and how simple!" he thought. "And the pain?" he asked himself. "What has become of it? Where are you, pain?"

He turned his attention to it.

"Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be."

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

However, at the beginning of the story, when Ilyich is already dead, the widow tells a friend how her husband screamed unceasingly for three days, until death stopped his throat.  Ilyich experiences joy; the world sees a screaming, dying person.

Which is correct?  And is Ilyich right?  Well, at the moment of death, death is no more.  Is there an afterlife?  Who knows?  "One short sleep past, we wake eternally," John Donne memorably put it, sure, as St. Paul said, of the resurrection.  Later we decided it was a short step from this life to the next, nary a break, hardly even a passage.  Is it fear of death that drives this belief from sleep to mere transfer station?  Ilyich is only nominally a Christian, yet death terrifies him, and the priest offers him no comfort at all.  Isn't Christianity about avoiding death, being spared from death, leaping over death into Paradise?


Maybe you think it is.  May it be unto you according to your faith.  Me, I don't think about it.  All that focus on death is morbid, to begin with; it's also escapist, if all you care about is accusing brownie points redeemable at the Pearly Gates.  Life is for living, not for thinking about what happens when you die.  You die, that's all we know.  That doesn't mean that's all I know about God, because while Grant thinks she's describing the merely material world in which she finds such wonder, I hear a description of the Creation, of which God has made humankind stewards.  No mention in her narrative of what we're doing to those wonders she so admires; and clearly her Christianity never taught her about Adam's stewardship of Creation in Genesis 1 (I'm sure the emphasis was on Eve's sin in Genesis 2).  Whatever it was, just don't tell me know how superior you are (especially by denouncing such arrogance before engaging in it) because you are bravely unafraid to die.  I have no death wish, but that's not the same as not being afraid to die.  I dare say I will fear it at the time; the unknown is always scary.  I was scared to get married; I was scared to stand up in court on my hind legs and address the judge; I was scared to give my first sermons.

Let's make this seasonal:  the coming if the Magi will be celebrated in 2 weeks, on January 6.  The gifts they bring:  frankincense and myrrh, oils and scents for burying the dead so the smell of decaying flesh is not too repulsive.  These are the gifts they bring the 2 year old child, and right after their visit the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape the Massacre of the Innocents.  Mark's gospel doesn't even end with the resurrection, just the death (the original; the disciples find only an empty tomb).  Even in John's gospel, when Jesus learns of the death of Lazarus, does he snap his fingers and say "No big!"  No:  "Jesus wept."

Christianity isn't about escaping death.  It's about accepting it.

If you aren't afraid of death, you aren't there yet.  You may well be there long before you die; I've seen that, too.  Where is the person in the body of the Alzheimer's patient convulsively performing physical actions while tied in a bed for their own safety, unable to speak or even eat or recognize anyone, even themselves?  Sometimes we seem to be gone long before our brain cells disintegrate, so expecting your death to be in your control is no advance on the rest of us.  Indeed, it makes you one of us.

Just try not to be smug about it next time, okay?


  1. As an Anglican priest nicely put it in a sermon I heard, "My faith is not about hope in the end, my faith is about endless hope now." A dozen years on I still return to that as a pretty good summary of my faith in my life. I had a sever onset of an unexplained illness, I lost 12 hours of my life that I wasn't sleeping but don't remember. In the middle I had a short period of lucidity and I remember thinking, this is what is like to die. It was frightening, and also very confusing. What comes next doesn't much matter, it's about my faith in the hear and now. How to live together, and more. Thank you for all of your Advent postings, they have made this year particularly meaningful.

  2. Ah, you (and others who have expressed the same sentiments) make it all worthwhile.

    Thank you. Thank you all.

  3. That said, a fear of death is a lot easier to dismiss in a society with an average life expectancy of more than three score and ten, where most parents don't bury children before they are adults. I doubt even Ann Grant would not fear that kind of death.

    I found the thing that has made me fear death less was when a nephew I'd taken care of as a child died of a heart attack in his 30s and having a niece whose drug addiction and prostitution made me regularly fear she was going to die.

    Dying isn't easy but my experience of seeing people die led me to believe more strongly in an afterlife, but as Rabbi Heschel said in the last interview he gave, he believed in an afterlife but he lacked sufficient knowledge to talk about it, that he was supposed to focus on life on Earth.

    I think Ms. Grant and her husband believed in a god who was easy to stop believing in, probably the one who people started believing in after Descartes and co. demoted animals into machines made of meat. You start believing that - which led Descartes into nailing his wife's poor dog down and dissecting it conscious and alive - and eventually you start thinking of people in the same way. Any faith that could get kicked down by watching David Attenborough in a BBC series must have been the kind of faith that wasn't much to start with. Her belief that Jesus talked to her and was her BBF doesn't sound like it would have much of a chance of surviving childhood.

    I'm sorry, but she sounds kind of full of herself in a way I've found in a lot of "liberal Christians." It's a distinctly different kind of fullness of self than that commonly found among conservative Christians. Often it has to do with having college credentials. It's what turned me off to Unitarians, though not so much Universalists.

    1. I re-read the post and her added comments. She just replaced one fundamentalism with another, which makes the story even more conventional and less interesting.

  4. "Christianity isn't about escaping death. It's about accepting it."

    Is it? I'll think more about it, but that doesn't make sense to me. When I was diagnosed with cancer 32 years ago, I looked death in the face and faced the reality that, if not soon, one day I will die. Cancer concentrates the mind, not necessarily wonderfully. Obviously, I didn't die then, but death is a fact of life, and I doubt accepting the reality of death has much to do with Christianity. I think about death, and I don't believe I'm morbid for doing so, but then again, maybe I am.

  5. No, I don't think you're morbid, either. But I accept death, and certainly don't think (or believe) I'll escape it. Is my death possible? To you, to anyone not me, it certainly is. To me? I'm not so sure I can imagine my own non-existence; not really. So I don't think about escaping death, I think about living my life(such as it is). For me, that's what Christianity is about. So it isn't about escaping death, but accepting it. Surely that is the way of wisdom. Having accepted it, how should I then live?

  6. "I think about living my life(such as it is)."

    I do, too. I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on death throughout the day. It's more the odd, lingering thought from time to time. I'm older than you are, and, as the ravages of age increasingly take their toll, non-existence sometimes seems a not entirely bad thing. If there is more of the conscious me in a better time in the afterlife, then I'll be surprised...or not. Maybe it will seem like the most natural thing in the world if it happens. As of now, in no way can I imagine an afterlife that will be anything more than molecules from my ashes continuing to exist as part of the universe.

  7. I've lost my comment three times now. Somebody is trying to tell me something. Perhaps I should stick with the wisdom of the E&R:"May it be unto you according to your faith."

    Yeah, I really can't improve on that.

  8. Oh, and in the hearts and minds of those who love me, and perhaps there is more to that than I can begin to imagine.

  9. I tried 'religion'...I like being a a good human and leave the place better than when you got here..