catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 7 :: 2010.04.02 — 2010.04.15


Life within death

I’ve yet to meet a Christian who is down on the resurrection.  What normally ends up happening is that I meet folks who have drastically divergent visions about what it is, after all, that we’re supposed to be doing about this weird coming-back-to-life thing. 

We all know that nothing comes back to life after it dies.  Everything we love is embarrassingly fragile, and permanently so.  At least that’s true on this end of the universe.  And because we don’t really know what it feels like, actually, to die and then to come back to life, we don’t really ever know how to mirror the Christian triumph over death in our daily lives.  Actually, I don’t even think we know how to mirror that in our monthly, yearly or bi-yearly lives.  We’re supposed to die?  Does that mean God has set up some sort of physical requirement?  There is a heaping of evidence for thinking about things like that.  And it ought to be taken very seriously.  Consider Romans 6:7, for instance: “For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin.”  Or Romans 8:10: “And Christ lives within you, so even though your body will die because of sin, the Spirit gives you life because you have been made right with God.”  Being set free from the powers of sin must be nice.  But if we actually die, how can we experience our cool, new, sin-free lives?  The call to die with Christ must be allegorical, then, right?

This allegorical bit is an interesting thought.  It’s so interesting that it has animated a lot of Christian thought for a very, very long time. Czesław Miłosz, though maybe not a Christian “thinker” and more of a poet, always has something interesting to say about death, the afterlife and God.  His is consistently a loud and embodied protest against the dying of the light.  We see it at the end of “Winter,” for sure,

And now I am ready to keep running.
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits.
You, music of my late years, I am called
By a sound and a color which are more and more perfect.
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.

Then there’s Algernon Swinburne, a thinker who may not really be a Christian at all but who has an uncanny honesty about how much it genuinely sucks to die,

We are not sure of sorrow,
     And joy was never sure;
To-day will die to-morrow
     Time stoops to no man’s lure;
And love, grown faint and fretful
With lips but half regretful
Sighs, and with eyes forgetful
     Weeps that no loves endure.

One of the funny things about the Christian tradition is how equally pessimistic and optimistic it can be, often at the same time.  We can view Miłosz and Swinburne as symbols of both dispositions.  For most Christians, though, this dissonance, even if it is poetic, isn’t really helpful because we have to start living our lives pretty quickly and on a daily basis.  And it would make the path ahead a little less daunting if we knew how to die, or when to, and when not to, at least.  It would help even more to know if we should feel good about how things are going or if we should press ahead, in the chaos, with greater fear and trembling.   

As a result, we generally make do with what our best estimations about the nature of the world and our place in it as confessing Christians tell us.  And there emerges all manner of infighting about what our best estimations ought to look like, of course.  Does Kingdom work look like soul-saving, after all?  Or, without any real clarity about the nature of the soul, are those Christians who adopt a more physical approach closer to the answer?  Does the Kingdom look upon them with more favor?  What is the Kingdom supposed to look upon with favor, anyway?     

It’s probably no accident that Christians are consistently split down the middle like this.  We have to make a choice at some point.  No one has any real knowledge of the soul, but we feel like something is there.  And so it makes sense that some Christians couch most of their lives in attempts to understand how better to grasp this thing that we feel but cannot see and how to get others in on how beautiful that can be.  And there are those who don’t have an eye for that kind of pursuit and would rather hash out a Christian life according to the strictures and limits of our fascinating physicality.  At least we can see that, they might say.  But it’s never enough to rest in either camp.  Some part of the house always feels like it’s missing, probably because it is.  And so the best Christian ethic tends towards a crosspollination of both perspectives.  In this way, neither disposition is given too much truck and dualists can start dying with monists, if you will, not because it’s just something else to do, but because it’s precisely what we must do.

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