Tuesday, August 23, 2011

SPIRITUAL QUESTIONS, ABOUT DEATH? ...july 6, 2010..(edited Oct 4, 2012)note to Edward Fudge

Your son is safe now and you will certainly see him again when Jesus comes again.

Edward. Is it not easy to say more than we know  regarding this issue of  after life?  A trouble right  off the bat with any such discussion  is that most 'Christians'  associate 'heaven', 'eternal life'  and 'salvation'  with being futuristic qualities or states  of another world rather than  present  spiritual but very real realities. Thus the anxiety that our culture, including church people, often have with death in the first place. Because what the Bible text speaks of as a presently experienced spiritual  reality we have made  only a part of the misty 'unknown world.'

Death of George Washington

When I am with the corpse and the family  I'm never more aware of how I am in an ' I do not know. ' zone. I  think of it as 'holy ground' and experience it as great mystery. If I am honest that is the state of mind I should try to assist  the bereaved to be more aware of. But in our anxiety about death we often resort to short circuiting such a spiritual direction with bland statements of certainty which do not honor the difference between the physical and the spiritual.  This is what many people expect from a pastor or friend  and it is probably only  'best judgment' that can guide us in 'what to say.' I can accept that your statement to the grieving above fits that explanation. I think I am desiring to push toward what can be a more spiritual  and honest foundation from which to experience the loss and  death of a loved one.

A young man I encountered  recently who lost his mother sat there looking across her lifeless body  at me. He asked for my credentials. He then asked, 'Where is she now'? He then asked 'Is she aware of us now?'   Our culture is so demanding not only of answers but of simple, easy answers. ( Did you hear the religious crowd in the presidential debate recently enthusiastically approve when McCain  said that fully human life begins 'at conception' compared to their disappointment  to Obama's more thoughtful and acknowledging  of uncertainty about the question? We tend to like simple unthoughtful answers, not mystery, for spiritual questions.) This young man was not kidding with me. These were his questions and he was all ears to what I would say as a chaplain.

We have not been taught well there is a part of the human disposition that is very able, and I think actually longs, to fully participate in' mystery', the mystery of our own life including its losses in the death of loved ones. This young man was at one of those moments where he could  possibly be guided to that part of himself, or he can be handed a short circuited  statement  from  well meaning religious convention  or a blunt statement from the standpoint of science.  It is the first of these  three that  the religious/spiritual  teacher would hope to give.  If we would give a faithful answer we would say something to acknowledge the mystery for such a seeking person.  This is likely to 'feel' like a weak answer but  it is in ' our weakness(uncertainty) that the power of  God rests. ' 

I copied your last statement(in blue above)  made to comfort the grieving parent for this response  for it takes what is obviously one of the most 'spiritual' moments we likely ever face as we live our very 'material' lives and seems to turn that spiritual moment into something that is a  physical and certain outcome.   To say he is 'safe' I think is a healthy metaphorical  belief to  have and share with the griever,  but to say   you will 'see  him again' goes I think way too far unless you are just reminding the person of something that you think h/she already believes as a matter of convention. I suppose then it does little harm but I fear  it may fail  to lead to spiritual growth. I think such an answer, to an ordinary human, seeks to  materialize the spiritual realty rather than helping the griever to enter that spiritual dimension and mystery more fully. 

For example in the family above that lost their mother, the father spoke up and said with all confidence, ' I know she has been welcomed into the Lord and that angels are all around her right now'.( He seemed to be a little irritated at my statement to his son acknowledging  some uncertainty)  Again, that is fine for a person to say,  ' I believe such and such........'.  But it  was to nearly materialize the spiritual arena that the questioning son was trying to find a way to enter.  It was at that point that the son  invited me to go to privacy with him. What others were saying, probably out of their own anxiety,  was not satisfying or helping him to find his way. He was yearning to  spiritually  'see'  and 'touch' the loss he was experiencing. The biblical stories and certainly words of Jesus can help us to do that but I think it requires us to use them  as not literal but metaphorical , not physical but spiritual resources.

 Modern typical Christianity does not often  try to offer people a  'spiritual discipline' to train  followers to experience, to enter, the spiritual as being  just as real, even though as mystery, as our material and time bound world. The authors of the gospels are presenting a larger part of their story(John far more than that) of Jesus in the language of liturgy, which Jewish people were very accustomed to, metaphor and the spiritual. We need to better learn to do the same if Christianity is to be a viable 'spiritual' tool and force in the coming decades. Right now , for the most part , it is not being used well or consistently in that way.  It strives in fact to compete with the materialistic view and experience of reality rather than to offer another perspective, another prism through which to 'see'.

May I take an unexpected turn at this point in my thought? The mistake of equating the spiritual with the physical  also results in such things as insisting that  the 'creation' story be presented along side of the scientific theory of evolution in public education. Only a materialistically, literalized  religion could  feel the need for such a  strange but inappropriate comparison. We should not expect spiritual texts to be describing beginnings and changes of life in a material and biological way. This is not what we need from our spiritual texts and it is not what they seek to offer us.

This may seem like I am mixing a lot of apples with oranges but how we invite another to experience the death of a loved one and how we look at the  scientific theory of Evolution have much in common, I think. I don't think of the 'spiritual' and 'material' as being mutually exclusive, not  a dualism or in conflict, but they both must have their rightful share of a  view of reality that is whole and balanced.  Of course our culture and its dominant religious interpretations are nearly  wholly on the materialistic side of the see-saw.  Secular materialist  persons, which is what we have increasingly become since the 'Age of Enlightenment' 300 years ago, sometimes are inclined to worship the material as if it were all there is. And  religious persons tend to view the physical and spiritual as unconnected but ironically at the same time  attempt to change his/her own spiritual text stories  into fully material/historical realities; thus robbing them of their strongest  spiritual power and influence.

My  primary point is it is more healthy and healing  to allow ourselves to experience the highly spiritual process(One often feels s/he literally enters 'another world' at such times.) of a loved one dying as a palatable and strong mystery. And  to not feel obligated to force that experience into some kind of materialistic  sounding certainty where actual  mystery is denied and escaped. And my warning is that  a lot of modern Christian thought and perception leans toward making that very mistake.


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