More Resurrection

When our family cow died in August, I wrote “Burying Clover,” describing what that was like, and reflecting on resurrection. Following here are further thoughts about resurrection, bodies, desire, and homecoming:

Most of the people in my small-town New England congregational church get off the Jesus Train long before Resurrection Junction. Christmas is a much bigger deal than Easter; Baby Jesus gets a lot more love than the Risen Christ. Is this because we all know what a baby looks like, whereas a spiritual body (understood in Paul’s terms) confounds the very ground, the very basis, of reason? That would be my guess, but I really don’t know.

I do know that my gnostic and other non-Christian friends have a Thomas Jefferson-like, post-Enlightenment distaste for resurrection. For my gnostic friends, John’s picture of the Cosmic Christ, existing as God’s Word from the very beginning, is the only acceptable gospel picture. No messy bodies here, no physical limitations, to get in the way of a clairvoyant knowledge of the higher worlds. The Synoptics never get a reading.

My re-incarnation-believing friends similarly bypass the body: souls persist from incarnation to incarnation, advancing towards or retreating from enlightenment according to merit. While I am a resurrection guy, I find reincarnation to be attractive. It makes a lot of sense; it’s an eminently reasonable philosophy, square and plumb and watertight enough to shelter a human life.

Then there is what my 87 year-old boatbuilding mentor says is his dad’s definition of immortality. “My dad’s definition of immortality,” he says in his salty voice, looking straight at me, “is the influence he has on your grandchildren.” There’s still no hint here of death as an ending that breaks continuity, but…. But unlike the various forms of gnosticism abroad in our land, and in contradistinction to individualistic pictures of salvation, Keith’s dad’s definition of immortality involves blood connections: his dad’s life, passed through him to me, and then on to my son and daughter, and then maybe even on to their children.

There’s blood here, but still no bodies. There’s connection, but no touch.

Perhaps resurrection is so hard for us to believe, not because it confounds reason, but because to believe it without being able to verify its truth, opens us to the most profound disappointment possible. Conceivably, Paul knew as much when he said, “If Christ has not been raised, then… your faith is in vain”. As soon as we begin to imagine how sweet it would be for the bodies we have loved and lost to come to life again, like Jesus did, at the very same time we begin to open ourselves to doubt. We stand there with Thomas: “Could it really be you? No way.”

But we do imagine– or at least I do. What if I could actually, once again and for all time, wrap my small child’s hand around my grandfather’s thumb, feeling the strength of his body in mine; what if I could once again rub my soft cheek on his scratchy whiskered chin and hear him say, “Chris, my boy.” As far as that image goes, it is merely particular and merely personal– the emotional power of the image is merely mine. That’s only to be expected: bodies are particular and personal, so resurrection will always have local color– a particular flavor, a particular smell, a particular resonance. However, because the ground of resurrection is love– and not just any love, but the very love of God that holds us not only to God but to one another, beloved and belonging one to all– resurrection transcends what is merely particular and personal. Resurrection brings you and me, and our neighbors, to where we want to go: home. All the way home: the place where we are known and understood, yes, but more importantly the place where we are warmed and held.

Clover the Cow’s body is disintegrating in the earth; sometimes I imagine a Georgia O’Keefe-like cow skull emerging, decades in the future, from the frost-heaved ground. Whoever is there to pick it up will be standing in grass fertilized by a body that is now but nameless bone. That’s how nature works.

Could it be that the resurrection we see in natural processes on earth is only a copy, a facsimile, of the great resurrection promised in Christian scripture?  When all that is and was love– all that held love, spoke love, drank love– will be renewed and restored in the bodies we knew? God, I hope so.


More Pope Yes


In case you missed it, last week Pope Francis once again addressed a sickness within Christianity with words of truth. The sickness? The idolatry of ideology. The words of truth? That to worship our ideation of God is a corruption of religious faith. The idolatry of ideology (worshiping my idea of God, rather than worshiping the living God) promises certainty, whereas religious faith promises only a relationship with the quick and vital Holy One, whose continually-unfolding purpose is always at least one turn-around-the-next-corner further than we can see.

All moralistic, literalistic fundamentalisms lead us back to the safety of our own confirmed opinions about God, and judgment of others. Faith leads us into an openness to life as it unfolds– its griefs and joys alike– and into relationships with others.

Faith is harder and scarier than fundamentalism, and therefore rarer.

Much of the popular press turned Francis’ words (excerpt below) into an indictment of so-called “right-wing” Christianity, but that’s not what he said. More interestingly, Francis is putting into words the Christian vision of what humans are (we are limited), and the propensity we have, as humans, to think we’re NOT limited.

All ideologies, whether secular (political or economic) or religious, carry the danger that we will become convinced of their absolute truth– thereby giving us the rationalization to harm the people who disagree with us “for their own good.” Religious people– of all people– ought to know better.

I’m eager for what Francis will say next.

Speaking at daily Mass last Thursday, Pope Francis warned Christians against turning their faith into a rigid ideology. “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology,” he said, according to Radio Vatican. “And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. “And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.” “The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens, ideology chases away the people, distances, distances the people and distances of the Church of the people,” Francis added. “But it is a serious illness, this of ideological Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh?”

via Pope Francis describes ‘ideological Christians’ as a ‘serious illness’ within the Church | The Raw Story.

Balancing Power

You will be regarded as insane, if you suggest that the federal government has a constructive role to play in remedying the corrosive societal effects of excessive income inequality. It has become accepted wisdom that government is almost always the problem, and is almost never the solution.

One enticing argument for this view, is the argument from nostalgia: once upon a time, Americans were self-reliant, hard-working, and thrifty. Government programs, by fostering dependence, make (a certain segment of) Americans irresponsible, lazy, and profligate. Therefore, to restore America, we should pursue policies of “tough love” that continue  to dismantle social programs, and force people to become self-reliant and hard-working again.

The problem with this argument from nostalgia is that today is not yesterday. Opportunity inequality in American society is now entrenched, and constructing ramparts. It’s only human nature for winners to make rules to protect their status as winners. Social stratification is hardening; the possibilities for economic mobility are  evaporating like thin puddles in the desert.

Governmental power is the only power strong enough to address opportunity inequality in American society today. The pendulum will be swinging back from its currently extreme anti-government position; our unquestioned acceptance of the notion that “government is the problem” will be exposed for the shibboleth that it is.

Looking at the current state of our politics does not induce optimism. Still, we don’t live in 1840 anymore. The deleterious effects of modern global capitalism need buffered by effective government power.

Income Inequality; Opportunity Inequality

In the preface to the 1996 version of this best-seller, the authors (including the recently deceased Robert Bellah) write this:

“We believe the degree of class difference today is wrong in the same sense that Lincoln believed slavery was wrong: it deprives millions of people the ability to participate fully in society and to realize themselves as individuals. This is the festering secret that Americans would rather not face. Many nations have persisted while divided into a small elite that lives in luxury and a large mass in various stages of insecurity and misery, but this nation, with the ideals and hopes of the last 220 years, cannot permanently so endure.”

 The classical justification for income inequality is that wealth in a society can support that society’s development of the arts, its pursuit of intellectual inquiry, and its investment in the future– as well as affording the holders of wealth the freedom to serve others. From that perspective, a person’s wealth is not just his alone, to be used for and at his pleasure, but rather is subject to a wider moral claim: his wealth has a social dimension and a social purpose. The classical understanding is that wealth has a special obligation to be used for the making of a humane and habitable society.

 Today in America, wealth is pursued as though it were a good in and of itself, and even more: as though the possession of it will ward off any ills, any vulnerabilities, any insecurities. Wealth is seen as the gateway to security. Do you want to be immune from the vicissitudes of life? The false promise is that wealth will protect us. Today in America, wealth is a false god.

 The cost of this idolatry is being paid two ways. The first payment is in the currency of anxiety. Because we have bought into the myth of the saving power of wealth so deeply, we are chronically worried about not having enough money, or about losing what we have. This is as true of multi-millionaires as it is of  those living from week to week. Further compounding this anxiety is that our social ethos– a social ethos that informally but powerfully assigns shame and honor– is calibrated (especially for men, I daresay) to dollar earnings. Honor goes to the seven-figure salary; shame to the unemployed.

 The second payment is in the currency of human fulfillment, as Bellah and his colleagues write in the preface, quoted above. Today in America, income inequality has become opportunity inequality– to a large extent because the moral claim that wealth should serve a wider, societal purpose has been all but extinguished. Today’s economic and political order is a carnival game: it looks enticing and simple enough to toss the ball into the milk can, but the game is subtly, almost imperceptibly, designed to be impossible to win. A vast amount of human energy is lost to the grind of making ends meet.



Pope, Yes

When we were in college, a friend of mine did not call the fast-food chicken franchise “Popeye’s,” but called it rather “Pope Yes.” As in, “Let’s go get some fried chicken at Pope Yes.” In the mid-1980s, this was his intentional affirmation of John Paul II.

To affirm Francis in the same way now, is strikingly appropriate: Pope, Yes. To the dismay of some Catholics who seem to be motivated by the nostalgia for an imagined glorious past, this pope is hitting the right notes, as followers of Jesus– Catholic and Protestant alike– try to bring Christianity back from irrelevance. (Nostalgic Protestants have the same kind of dismay as nostalgic Catholics regarding church renewal, even if the details are different). The larger narrative of Christianity in Western civilization over the last half-century follows the Catholic storyline in North America and Europe: decline.

This pope does not seem interested in trying to force new wine into old wineskins. Indeed, Pope Francis invokes the metaphor that guides this blog– balance– as he calls for more humility and grace in the church’s dealings with both its own flock, and with the wider world. Confidence in the truth of the gospel and trust in the Lord Jesus should not add up to a hectoring, holier-than-thou moralism. In fact, such a confidence and such a trust should add up to something altogether different.

That “something different,” Francis indicates, should have “the freshness and fragrance of the gospel… simple, profound, radiant.”

This is good news for anyone interested in the Jesus Movement for our time. Pope, Yes.

Below is an excerpt from a Commonweal editorial on the Pope’s interview with the world’s Jesuit publications:

Even more refreshing was the pope’s insistence that “thinking with the church” does not mean thinking only with the hierarchy. “The church [is]…the people of God, pastors and people together. The church is the totality of God’s people.” It has been a long time since that bit of orthodox wisdom has been heard from Rome. In a similar fashion, Francis warned of the dangers of certainty in the life of faith. “If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him.”

via A New Balance | Commonweal Magazine.