A local author protested in last week’s Busselton Dunsborough Times: an atheist Prime Minister in a Christian country, he complained. My letter was one of several published this week which disagreed with that sentiment.
PSALM 12 PARAPHRASE
Help, Lord, there is nobody left with integrity.
Loyal and consistent people have vanished from Australia.
Everyone tells lies to their neighbours.
Their flattery is patently insincere. All they want is to get ahead for themselves.
If only the Lord would stop the lies and flattery,
and turn the spin into honest human talk.
They say, “We can talk our way out of everything.
No-one can stay in our way!”
Because of the abuse to Indigenous communities;
because the refugees are treated with disdain,
“I will arise,” says God, “and create safe places for Aboriginal children,
and warm refuges for those who seek asylum here.”
What God says is like tapping the bark of a healthy karri,
like the sympathetic vibration of a tuning fork.
You are sure to provide appropriate protection for us, O Lord.
You will keep us safe in this shifty world.
Though the ruthless strut on every side,
though the vilest call the shots in every State.
This paraphrase was written as an exercise in the Companions in Christ program. It also happened to be the week when Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister, and the backroom operators of the Australian Labor Party were briefly visible.
One toxic idea that has seeped into Christianity is the belief that individuals survive death. This cane-toad of an idea has been introduced into the Christian faith either in its Greek form of the immortality of the soul, or in its post-Enlightenment guise of individual personalities somehow living on after death.
These ideas poison by setting our hopes too low. They arise from a careless reading of scripture and impoverished imagining of God’s cosmos. I am certain that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead has a great deal more life than pallid ideas of “me going to heaven”.
To reduce life after death to individual survival fails to do justice to the concept. Atheists like Richard Dawkins mock Christians for believing that I should survive death in some way and their objections have traction. Given our present time-bound experience of life, we have to ask:
• What would we do after death?
• How would we endure the boredom?
• What would it mean, if anything, to meet our loved ones after death?
There must be more to it than simple survival.
Paul tells us that we are “in Christ”. According to St John being in Christ is having “life more abundant.” (John 10:10) Life in Christ is attaining “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:13)
As individuals, we are cherished in Christ, and because Christ is eternal, then we too are eternal. But these New Testament ideas of more abundant life measuring up to the life of Christ show that we are the best that we can be not as atomised individuals but when we reach out to others and transcend our ego, our selfish nature.
Maturity in Christ means being more than just oneself. The next step in the development of human beings towards maturity is to stop being an inward-looking “I” and start becoming a functioning “we”. After death we lose our precious “self” and are caught up in the greater reality of humanity.
In Christ and Time, 20th-century Lutheran scholar Oscar Cullmann traces St Paul’s thinking on what impact Christ’s death and resurrection has on our own. He sees Paul begin with “primitive” ideas in I Thessalonians of being “caught up in the air… to meet the Lord” (v. 22) and developing into the more sophisticated “resurrection body” in I Corinthians 15.
Note what Paul actually writes: “we will be caught up”. The plural is used. “All will be made alive in Christ” (I Cor.15:22). We usually read these passages with post-Enlightenment eyes and so fail to see the significance of the plural.
To me, it indicates that our real life in Christ now is corporate: as his Body, We have glimpses of the love and unity that Jesus experiences with the Father (John 16, especially v.20). This oneness with each other and with God is the principal promise of the New Testament.
We can imagine different scenarios in which this promise will be fulfilled, all of them with far greater potential than individuals living for ever one way or another. Whatever we imagine resurrection to mean, however, it will be better than our imagination. Paul, paraphrasing Isaiah 64:4, assures us that “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived … God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)
Like King David in the Old Testament, I grew up among sheep. The biggest difference was that where David’s sheep numbered in the dozens, our flocks were in the thousands. One of my earliest lessons about sheep was not to be concerned about individuals.
Dad forbade us to keep sheep as pets, knowing the heart-ache that came when a pet was killed for meat. I noticed too the seeming indifference to a sick sheep. If a sheep was suffering, it may have been simply killed, but in general, sick sheep were left to get better on their own – or not. The only exception to this was revealing: if a ewe was having trouble lambing, Dad would sit beside it, all night if necessary, and be midwife in every possible way.
Dad wasn’t a callous man. He was gentle and generous in character. His was the most humane way of keeping the flock healthy. The sheep’s purpose was to feed people, not to be our friends. But Dad’s emphasis on the flock was instructive.
I looked to nature. I loved watching ants go about their busy lives. I noticed that ants had wonderful powers of restoring their apparently dead companions. They would push them gently with one of their six legs, and the motionless ant would pick up its load and continue walking. But they simply walked around ants that were dead or too sick to recover.
I confess as a boy I sometimes stirred up their nests. They would rise up in anger, climbing my legs and stinging all the way. Ants from other nests would come to join their attack on the intruder. They did not care how many I slapped to death on my legs: their task was to defend the queen and her nest, and even their neighbours’ nest.
My studies at school and since have confirmed that in nature survival of a species is paramount over that of individuals. The health, comfort and life of an individual simply do not stand up against the powerful drive for the species to survive.
Nature is species-centred. Most animals seem to accept this reality. It is only humans, fired on by two important events in our history, who think differently and therefore unnaturally.
The first event was when human beings became self-conscious. Because we know we are alive as individuals, we can choose to protect our own life at the expense of others. It is notable, however, that in dangerous situations, people don’t always choose their own life over that of others. We hear often of people who choose to sacrifice their own safety to protect others, particularly women and children, who are the future of the species. They act naturally.
The second event was the European Enlightenment which encouraged us to think very highly of individuals. The Enlightenment accorded to individuals human rights. The Enlightenment encouraged individuals to greater self-expression.
Could it not be that the Enlightenment project is against nature?
It is natural to think not of the individual but of the species. It is natural for people to be stirred up about the damaging effects of climate change: our species is at risk. The plight of low-lying island nations like Kirabiti and the Maldives stirs deep emotions. We don’t want human habitat to be wiped out.
To think that God’s imagination can provide nothing better than the survival of individuals after death is to think poorly of God. God’s mind is on the main game, which is played by species not their individual members.
This is why I find the usual ideas about life after death lame in comparison with the glorious visions of future humanity put forward by say, Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio. As individuals we are secure in Christ. But as a species, how much more secure is our life.
Teilhard’s vision was that homo sapiens continues to evolve. We have come to self-consciousness and are moving towards a complete humanity in Christ. Jesus, the true human is coming to his Omega Point, where humanity converges with God. We will be raised up into the One who has made us.
Ilia’s focus, it seems to me, is on a slightly closer time. What is the next step of this evolutionary journey? How close will humanity come to its machines? Will brains be uploaded into computers? Will human beings extend their thinking power through new digital media? Is our destiny – short-term – to be cyborgs?
In the broader vision, I suspect the speculations of Ilia and others will be swept aside by an even grander picture of what homo sapiens will become, and will have more to do with what happens as the individual is transcended and we each become part of a greater whole. Again, the technological revolution gives us the clue, as the Web becomes more and more an extension of individual minds into the minds of others.
It is true that there are dangers. Monsters may be born. But the teaching of evolution is that that which is best suited to its environment will flourish, and homo sapiens will become more a creature of the cosmos rather than less.
These are extraordinary and beautiful visions of our future life. Bring it on!
The comment was only half in jest, and it caught me by surprise. “You sound disappointed that you weren’t diagnosed with bone cancer or blood cancer.” My answer was the sanctioned one: “I am disappointed that they haven’t found something that they can treat. I don’t really care what its name is.”
The truth is, there is a little part of me that felt disappointed when the scans and blood tests returned negative. Of course, that’s partly explained not as a death wish, but as frustration with my symptoms, which have been powerful enough on some days for me to think that death would be easier to bear than the pain.
But my friend made me wonder. During those days of waiting for results I did rehearse my reactions to the possible diagnosis of a fatal illness. The prospect that I would not have more years with Rae filled me with pain. The thought that, though I might live to see Clare’s wedding, I might not see the children she will have with James and watch them as babies, toddlers, children, adolescents and growing to adulthood, seared my heart. The idea that I would not be around long enough to see Brendan settled and happy troubled me deeply.
No, I am not disappointed. I want the chance of more life. But I hope I am also strong enough to face my mortality, and to wonder what that now means to me as a Christian. These last weeks have reaffirmed for me the stark fact that I will die, if not soon, then in the coming decade or two. And whatever I believe, I cannot escape the reality of nature: death is the end. We live, we die. Anything that might be beyond our life span would be a sheer miraculous gift of the Most High. Resurrection is by definition surprise.
It is many years since I believed (if ever I really did) in my continuing existence after death as an individual. I hope I have not given false comfort to people over the years that they will somehow be reunited beyond the ashes or the grave with their loved ones in some happy valley. This false but widespread belief is both arrogant and petty: Arrogant to believe that human beings are so important in the scheme of the Cosmos, and petty to think so poorly of God’s imagination.
By definition, “eternal” cannot be after anything. The word itself tells us that the grace of God operates not after our death, but beyond our life – out of time. As far as we can know now, eternal life is about the intensity with which we live in this too short space between birth and death. Eternal life is about our gratitude now. Eternal life is about intentionally taking time to be simply in the Presence of all that is.
Looking forward to some second-rate paradise after death will in fact take away from the joy and brilliance of living in the now.
Instead, we should be journeying within to discover the broad and marvel-filled country of our souls. Instead of yearning for a union with those whom we love in the past, we could be yearning for a greater quality of loving those we are given to love now.
I am not afraid of the darkness to come. The problem is that sometimes I am afraid of the brightness of the light here and now.
Buy NOTHING this Chrismas
Give no gifts this Christmas.
Explain to your family that you are using your economic power to help the poorest by giving no gifts. Often, the gifts we give are useless or unwanted.
Instead, make gifts or cards which are much more personal.
Join the Advent conspiracy
Give Christmas gifts directly to the poor by buying presents through Oxfam Unwrapped, Christian Blind Mission Gifts of Life or the Tear Fund.
GIVE to the needy
More reflective reading of Scripture
Different symbols (candles, ikons, etc.)
FRANCISCANS DISCOVER HOPKINS
5. THE WRECK OF THE DEUTSCHLAND
The Deutshland foundered in a severe storm in the North Sea. All on board were drowned. Far away in Wales, Hopkins was deeply moved by this ship-wreck, and began to compose a long poem about it.
Hopkins was particularly saddened by the loss of five Franciscan nuns on their way to mission. In the poem, Hopkins explores the issues of ‘theodicy‘, the problem of a loving God in a world where things goes wrong.
Hopkins asks why God lets bad things happen to people in general, and in particular, he asks why God would call the Franciscan sisters to a mission and then cut their lives off. He describes their death as an instance of the stigmata like their father Francis’.
In this poem, Hopkins has no answers to the questions raised in theodicy, but he affirms God’s huge power and the tragedy of the ship-wreck.
The whole poem is 280 lines long. I have chosen the three stanzas about the Franciscan sisters.
Five! the finding & sake
And cipher of suffering Christ.
Mark, the mark is of man’s make
And the word of it Sacrificed.
But he scores it in scarlet himself on his own bespoken,
Before-time-taken, dearest prizèd & priced —
Stigma, signal, cinquefoil token
For lettering of the lamb’s fleece, ruddying of the rose-flake.
Joy fall to thee, father Francis,
Drawn to the life that died;
With the gnarls of the nails in thee, niche of the lance, his
And seal of his seraph-arrival! & these thy daughters
And five-livèd & leavèd favour & pride,
Are sisterly sealed in wild waters,
To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.
Away in the loveable west,
On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
And they the prey of the gales;
She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails
Was calling “O Christ, Christ, come quickly”:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wildworst Best.